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Stalemate Redux in Sri Lanka?

M. Mayilvaganam is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • May 16, 2008

    A fierce battle in the North and the reported high casualties among Sri Lankan troops at Forward Defence in Muhamalai in the third week of April have placed a question mark on the conjecture that the endgame is up for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). There is no doubt that beginning with the Mavil Aru incident in mid-2006, the LTTE has been facing a major crisis. Its numerical strength has fallen. It is not doing too well in drafting recruits and procuring arms. Territory under its control has been shrinking visibly, first with the loss of the East and now with the forward movement of Sri Lankan Security Forces (SLSF) inside the North. Even in their own den, the Tigers seem to be unsafe from SLSF air raids. Nevertheless, their latest defensive at Muhamalai has demonstrated their military competence, notwithstanding earlier setbacks and the Sri Lankan government’s projected picture.

    Over the last year, the SLSF has been gaining control over some areas in the Wanni region. At dawn on April 23, however, it suffered a major setback at Muhamalai – an LTTE strongpoint, marked by harsh sandy terrain filled with mangroves and cactus plants, and considered the pathway to Wanni. According to government sources, 50 Sri Lankan soldiers died in the battle and another 150 were wounded. This was the third successive occasion in the space of two years that the Sri Lankan military has unsuccessfully sought to break through the LTTE’s forward defence lines at Muhamalai. On the two previous occasions as well—October-November 2007 and October 11, 2006—the Sri Lankan government had lost large numbers of soldiers to LTTE mines and artillery fire.

    The SLSF’s setback at Muhamalai seems to be the result of its under-estimation of the Tigers’ military capability and over confidence about replicating its eastern successes in the north within a stated timeline. The Rajapaksa government also pushed for an early military success in the North, hoping that it would galvanise public opinion in its favour and for its design to find a military solution to the island’s ethnic question. Besides, a triumph in Muhamalai would also have provided a political boost for the ruling party alliance and its chances in the May 10 Eastern provincial elections.

    Its three-decade experience has made the SLSF well aware of the Tigers’ ability to bounce back and recover losses. Yet, military superiority seems to have emboldened it to think that the Tigers’ well-trained reserve cadre and artillery could be induced into battle and summarily defeated as well with the application of maximum force. But success eluded it in this venture, and the battle for Muhamalai revealed that the Tigers are still capable of withstanding an SLSF offensive. If this is an indication of things to come, then the SLSF’s stated objective of capturing Wanni this year seems unlikely. Besides, the Muhamalai battle has cast doubts on the Rajapaksa government’s stated promise to the Sri Lankan public and the international community that it has a better chance of resolving the ethnic question given that the Tigers are cornered.

    For its part, the LTTE was desperate to demonstrate some operational success, given its fast disappearing support base both within the Tamil Diaspora as well as among Tamils in Sri Lanka. The success at Muhamalai has a significant psychological value in terms of boosting cadre morale and keeping the Sri Lankan government on tenterhooks. The Tigers have also confiscated considerable amounts of SLSF arms and ammunition from the battle scene. Moreover, they have a strong defence line, ranging from the Black Tigers to the Jeyanthan Brigade. With an estimated 4000 committed and trained fighters, they are still in a position to deny success to the Sri Lankan military.

    The message being put out by the LTTE is that it will not wilt under an SLSF offensive, especially on the Wanni front. It also appears that while the LTTE may have lost its hold in the East, its war machine in the North is still intact. In fact, the Tigers’ use of light aircraft to bomb military targets in the Weli Oya region is significant, even if the attack is seen as only symbolic. Despite the Sri Lankan Air Force’s (SLAF) pre-eminence and advanced air defence capabilities, the LTTE’s use of air power once again illustrates that its aircraft are indeed intact and that it is determined to put up a fight.

    At the same time, the LTTE has been ruthless in its efforts to undermine the Sri Lankan government’s military moves even if this involves inflicting higher costs on civilians. Bomb explosions targeting the public transport system outside Colombo and a crowed restaurant in Trincomalee are cases in point in this regard. If this is an indication of how things will unfold, it may prove difficult for the new provincial government in the East not only to subsist but also to uphold the democratic set-up.

    Coupled with the Tigers’ resolve are two other issues that point to a continuing stalemate in the North. The first is growing inflation in Sri Lanka and the second is the international community’s diminishing patience at the lack of a political devolution package for the Tamils. These two factors are also likely to make it difficult for the Sri Lankan government to sustain its military offensive. In particular, sustaining the present high level of defence spending and large scale military recruitment will not be easy for the Rajapaksa government. It remains to be seen how it can win the battle in the North as well as the hearts and minds of civilian Tamils in turning its military victories so far into an enduring peace.