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Will new war be in the east?

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Despite the signing of the tsunami aid distribution mechanism between the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lankan government other developments have once again raised the prospect of a resumption of the armed conflict on the island. The adamant stance by the ultra-right Sinhala nationalists that there should be no agreement with the Liberation Tigers on even tsunami-related aid has only served to solidify Tamil doubts about whether a Sinhalese-led government will be willing - or able - to give the Tamil people political space. In particular, Tamil scepticism goes thus: “the LTTE has gone from asking for independence to considering a federal solution, to asking for a five year interim administration, to demanding a one year agreement for distributing aid, and even this is being vehemently opposed. What chance then of a lasting political solution being agreed?” Meanwhile tensions simmer over the provocative building of religious icons on what used to be shared communal spaces. The construction of Buddha statues in bus depots and at crossroads in areas in the east (Trincomalee being the prime example) and some parts of the north (most recently Vavuniya) have stirred acrimony in those areas and inflamed ethnic sentiments across the island.

But it is the continuing ‘shadow war’ that is corroding the peace platform the quickest. Using the paramilitaries as cover, the Sri Lanka military continues to target members and supporters of the Liberation Tigers. Recent deaths in the east and Colombo suggest that both protagonists have stepped up their military activities, with targeted killings becoming the norm rather than the exception. Under these circumstances, the prospect of a recommencement of a full on military conflict seems closer than at any time over the past three years. The Tamil publication Eelanatham argued recently, “the veil of peace that had occupied the minds of people for the past few years in the name of ceasefire, talks and interim administrations is slowly lifting as the conditions for war starts to take over.” Reflecting growing Tamil disillusionment, it bluntly added: “whatever it may be, it is certain that the Sri Lanka armed forces have decided to resume the war. What demands thought now is how they are going to prosecute this war against the Tamils.”

Thus, amid the pessimism, speculation about the shape that war will take and the areas it will focus on has already begun. One theory gaining increasing credence is that if the war commences in the near future, the main theatre will be in the east, rather than the north. Sri Lanka military strategists consider control of the east as critical to winning the war against the Tigers as the separation of the north and east cuts fundamentally through the concept of a Tamil homeland, destroying one of the pillars of the Tamil struggle. In other words, ‘No Eelam without the east.’ It has also long been felt amongst Sri Lankan leaders and commanders that while Jaffna and Vanni are considered to be the head of the ‘Tamil terrorist problem,’ its heart lies in the east.

The Thimpu principles, which enshrine the soul of Tamil aspirations, argue that “any meaningful solution to the Tamil national question must be based on the … cardinal principles [of recognition of the Tamils as a nation, recognition of the existence of an identified homeland, recognition of the right of self-determination of the Tamil nations and recognition of the right to full citizenship and other fundamental democratic rights of all Tamils].” The Tamil homeland, fundamental to the Tamil nation, is the contiguous territory of the north and east of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka military strategists therefore feel that if they are successful in capturing and dominating the east entirely, this would fundamentally shatter the unified territorial claim of the Tamils and weaken their position at any future negotiating table, if not undermining their aspirations to nationhood entirely.

An examination of the Sri Lanka military’s strategic efforts over the past twenty years reveals the importance it gives to bringing the east under its control and separating it from the north. The massive effort to colonise the Manal Aru (now renamed Weli Oya) region and the establishment of several military complexes in the area are both an ideological effort to dismember the Tamil homeland, but to position an insurmountable obstacle to its reunification. Apart from the ideological compulsion to focus on the east, there are also practical considerations, not least with the military feeling that there are some specific advantages to it in the east that are not available in the north. Firstly, with the Tamil armed struggle emerging in Jaffna in the eighties the epicentre of the conflict being the northern peninsula, before it shifted to the Vanni in the late nineties. The LTTE therefore does not have in the east the well-developed military infrastructure it has built in the Vanni.

Furthermore, whilst the Sri Lankan military controls much of the Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Amparai coasts, and has abandoned large tracts of the interior, particularly in Batticaloa, to the Tigers, the Army feels the LTTE will not be able to resist a major push into these areas. On the other hand, the Army itself does not have the troop numbers and firepower to sustain (i.e. invade and hold) the large tracts of LTTE controlled territory. This, in turn, has spurred the Army’s development of ‘deep penetration’ units capable of waging guerrilla-style campaign against the LTTE in its controlled areas. In keeping with ‘traditional’ counter-insurgency (CI) models, military analysts argue that the Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-dominated Army and police (which serves in a CI role in the east) will be more successful in combating the Liberation Tigers in the east if they have a path into the Tamil community. The long-standing presence of anti-LTTE Tamil paramilitaries in the eastern theatre has become a key tool in this strategy. The unwillingness of the Sri Lankan military to disarm and disband paramilitaries, in defiance of the requirements of Ceasefire Agreement and calls by international donors, has to be viewed in this context.

Indeed, according to reports in the Tamil press, the reverse is currently underway, with the Army’s Military Intelligence stepping up its efforts to strengthen and unify the disparate paramilitary elements, including cadres of the Karuna Group and Eelam Peoples’ Democratic Party (EPDP) into a coherent force. An incident in Vavuniya on June 11, when an Army intelligence officer was killed and another injured in an attack on the Kurumankadu EPDP camp is one of many recent indications of the strengthening links between the military and the paramilitaries. Press reports suggest that the camp had initially belonged to another paramilitary organisation and had converted to an EPDP site only a few weeks before the attack. Similarly, another camp attacked by the LTTE in April was revealed as a base shared by cadres of the Karuna Group and the India-based ENDLF. Such collaboration among paramilitary cadres are indicative of decisive moves to unify strategy and coordination of local tactics, if not a precursor to the physical merging of these organisations.

Meanwhile, the Special Task Force (STF), the paramilitary wing of the Sri Lanka Police has also been strengthened with its commandos undertaking new training in jungle warfare. Press reports earlier this month said that STF units had completed trained in ‘advanced jungle warfare’ in the jungles of Pottuvil in the latter half of May. The Commandant of the STF, Deputy Inspector General of Police Nimal Lewke was quoted as saying: “the particular exercise involved small teams where they had to survive in the jungles for 14 days with minimum food and water and under hard conditions,” mirroring tactics developed by the Army’s Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) unit.

In the event of a new war, Sri Lankan military is expected to deploy small, paramilitary led units inside LTTE territory to target the movement’s leadership and field commanders, a strategy which it feels was vindicated in the closing stages of the last period of conflict, especially by the killing of Colonel Shankar in September 2001 and the narrow escapes of Colonel Karuna and other senior leaders. In the past year, exploiting Karuna’s defection to the Army, and citing ‘internal infighting’ with the LTTE as a cover, Sri Lanka’s military intelligence has stepped up the activities of the paramilitaries and its own operatives. The results, the Tamil press says, can be seen in the deaths of a number of LTTE cadres and prominent Tamils, including the massacre of the head of the LTTE’s political wing in Batticaloa-Amparai, E. Kousalyan, and his team in February and the abduction and murder in Colombo of wellknown Tamil columnist Dharameratnam Sivaram. The volatile east, with its hazy frontlines, the sprawling expanses contested by both sides, and the remoteness from the capital Colombo provides an ideal theatre for the shadow war. Paramilitary-related violence is increasingly taking place in the Trincomalee region north of Batticaloa-Amparai as well.

But there are other developments indicative of manoeuvres ahead of a possible renewed war. Citing the tension created by the provocative erection of aBuddha statue in the centre of Trincomalee town, the Sri Lanka Army has moved a whole new brigade of troops into the area, rolling back the withdrawals it had been compelled to effect under the terms of the ceasefire agreements. Troops are digging into the town, building new bunkers and camps. Under cover of providing security in the wake of or ahead of anticipated communal violence, Sri Lankan troops have expanded their positions, building new checkpoints and camps. The Navy has established more coastal camps in several areas, including the Jaffna peninsula.

In the wake of Karuna’s rebellion and amid the escalating shadow war with, the LTTE too has been rebuilding its military and civil administrations in the east. The Sunday Times defence correspondent Iqbal Athas warned Sri Lanka’s establishment in his column in mid May that the LTTE is ‘regaining’ the east. Citing various incidents in early May, Athas quoted ‘intelligence sources’ as saying that whilst on the road to successfully gaining control of the East in the shadow war, the Tigers have already made plans to put into place their own administrative machinery. The appointing to the east of two of the LTTE’s most combat-experienced commanders, Colonel Sornam (to Trincomalee) and Colonel Banu (Batticaloa-Amparai) are indicative of the movement’s increasing focus on the east, as is the redeployment of battle-hardened fighting units and stepped up recruitment to new ones. Reports in the Tamil press indicate that the LTTE is also expanding its deep penetration operations. Existing commando units being expanded, while other specialist forces, trained in new weapons, are being raised they say.

Despite both sides’ emphasis on preparing on deep penetration operations, considerable efforts are being put into strengthening conventional capabilities also. Tamil press reports have claimed the LTTE has expanded its artillery corps acquiring 130mm howitzers. The Army has doubled its artillery firepower and tripled the size of its battle tank force since signing the truce in February 2002. The Navy has also expanded to double its size to 20,000 officers and sailors and is planning major new acquisitions. The Air Force has doubled its fleet of attack helicopters and also doubled its numbers. Curiously, the massive build up is not deterring Tamil belligerence, as reflected in the Tamil press for example, as much it might appear it ought to. The Eelanathan, for example, was notably sanguine: “one can see that the strength of the Tamils’ side has always increased during the lulls between each stage of Eelam War. Although the Sri Lanka armed forces themselves increased their manpower, technology and tactical ability during each one these lulls, they could not overcome the strength and ability of the Tamils’ forces. In fact, each time they have been defeated by the tactics and the better use of armaments by the Tamil forces.”

Yet any war in the east is likely to be hard fought and bloody. Unlike the north, where the Sinhala soldiers are contained in camps surrounded by an ‘alien’ Tamil populace, with little motivation to fight, in the east many soldiers have their homes and families nearby, amongst the patchwork quilt of ethnic enclaves resulting from decades of state-sponsored colonisation, conflict-related displacement and ethnic cleansing by all communities. Conversely, unlike the north, where the Army was able to fall back on scorched earth strategies and indiscriminate use of heavy weapons to contain the LTTE’s onslaught, it will have to close with any Tiger advance. Again reflecting widely held sentiments in the Tamil areas, the Eelanatham newspaper argued: “although the government of Sri Lanka and its armed forces may see the coming war as another stage to weaken the Tamils and bring them to their knees we can firmly expect the Tamils' armed forces will fight it as the ultimate war.”

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