Cycles of war and lessons from the past

Fifteen years ago, the elation was the same. In 1992, Army Chief Cecil Waidyaratne and Chief of Staff Major General Lucky Algama had led the military to victory, the east had been cleared, hurrah and all’s well, the war was almost ended.
The military victory was quickly followed up by local government elections to elect the people’s representatives and with a feather in its cap, the government sat back on its haunches, like the cat that got the cream. Months after the 1992 victory, the LTTE assassinated the Sri Lankan President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, elevating an aged D.B. Wijetunge to hold the most powerful position in the country.

Two years later, we were dealt a rude shock when pockets of the east fell once again to the LTTE, proving what military experts are constantly saying – that winning land and claiming territory is not as easy as holding it.
This is not to take anything away from the armed forces who have fought tooth and nail for several months to penetrate this final LTTE stronghold in the east and ‘flush’ the rebels out of the region. We have heard the stories, we have offered up silent prayers of thanks and we have mourned their fall.

That this clearing of the east is a strategic manoeuvre to regain the upper hand should we decide at some point to resume negotiations is fully comprehended by even the most inflexible of all peaceniks. Shame on the UNP for undermining this victory of the forces. As a responsible opposition, it must be capable of criticism and blame in equal measure.
An opposition that criticises lapses in security on the part of the government cannot in the same vein scoff at the military victories when they come about. The tragedy of this country has, is and always will be the inability to unite, even at the most crucial junctures and it is a failure for which we have paid dearly for 20 years.
But that is not to say we are not sceptical.
rrogance, as we have seen from certain government quarters following the fall of Thoppigala, is highly misplaced. There have been wild claims about marching onwards to the Wanni and about this being the victory of victories. They have called Thoppigala ‘impregnable’ and ‘impossible to capture,’ quite forgetting that it was well and truly captured in 1992, only to be lost again in 1994. Is this to be a 15-year cycle then?

The point is that ‘land’ and ‘territory’ cannot define ‘victories’ in Sri Lanka’s civil war. This is too complex a conflict to simplify it thus. And as for the Wanni, as discussed in depth elsewhere in this issue, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The LTTE, which has retreated in the east in the face of an army marching forward in the Eastern Province, has an elite fighting force that has stayed intact and untouched during the flushing of the east.

No doubt, the intention of the Tigers was to retain all of its best cadres for what they knew would be a push towards Wanni. To safeguard its de facto capital and prove that it is not a spent force yet, the LTTE will fight tooth and nail to save Kilinochchi, a consideration that should make the defence establishment cautious if they have learnt anything from history.
To assume that the battle for Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu will be the same as those fought to recapture Sampur, Vakarai and even Thoppigala would be a grave mistake. Humility and perseverance must and should replace the arrogance and ‘cowboys with guns’ attitude in certain quarters, if one is to believe in the dictum, hubris before nemesis.

The military equation is hardly the only reason to caution against celebrating too much over the Thoppigala victory. There are innumerable lessons from the past to prove that no amount of progress on either war or peace front will come to anything as long as the southern polity remains divided. And the divisiveness the south has seen in recent times has been tremendous.
If anyone thinks this is a fight that can be fought to the finish on the military front alone, they are sadly mistaken. This is not that type of conflict. Any military victory must be followed up by tangible and genuine attempts to bring about a much talked of final solution politically.

If steps are being taken to eradicate the LTTE, there must also be extreme care taken to reassure the Tamil people of the north east, peace with dignity, peace that comes with acknowledgement that they have been wronged and the government is willing to right those wrongs.

In order to ensure seeds of terrorism are never again sowed, it would behove the state to act in a manner that would prove to the Tamil community that they do not need armed representation that was strangling democracy in their own areas because their government was representation enough. Inclusiveness, equality and meaningful devolution of power, these are key to permanent peace in Sri Lanka and this is simply not an option with divided polity.

It is time that politicians in this country grow up. It is time that they act like our true representatives and quit failing us at every crucial juncture. We, the people, will not revel in military victories alone unless there is an assurance from the state that one faction of us shall not be rendered voiceless and without redress.