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This is my Nation


 

The ‘liberation’ of Thoppigala

It is a common perception among those in government that the general public will grin and bear many a hardship on the economic front, if there is a distant ray of hope vis-à-vis the war. In fact, President Rajapaksa makes it a point to relate a story of how he questioned villagers about the rising cost of living, only to be told that if he could win the war, they were ready for any economic sacrifice. This, then, is the message the government media machinery is trying to convey to the masses

The word that reverberated throughout the country last week was Thoppigala, a stretch of much-coveted territory in the Eastern Province. As security forces wrested control of the region, the response of the rest of the country said much for its debates and divisions with regard to the ethnic conflict that has engulfed the nation.

It cannot be denied that parallel to the military operation to ‘liberate’ Thoppigala, there was another strategic war that was being fought in the state-run media houses in Colombo. The instructions were quite clear – portray the capture of Thoppigala as a significant military advance that has the potential to be the beginning of the end for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Hence the barrage of video footage in the electronic media, which captured for posterity the capture of Thoppigala.

Then came the congratulatory messages beginning with a brief but special announcement from the Commander-in-Chief himself, President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Even the likes of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) – which does not always see eye to eye with the government these days – joined in paying tribute to the war heroes.
The dissenting voices came first, understandably, from the LTTE, which described the event as a temporary retreat for strategic reasons. That was supplemented by a threat which the Tigers made no attempt to disguise – a warning that the terrorists would now focus their attention on vital economic targets.

The other to pooh-pooh the Thoppigala success was, predictably, United National Party (UNP) and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Perhaps what Wickremesinghe meant to say was that capturing Thoppigala did not mean that the Eelam war was over, but given his penchant for expressing the correct sentiments in the worst possible way, he did not do himself any favours with his utterances.

But the main thrust of the opposition was that the government was using the troops’ success at Thoppigala as a smokescreen for the other current issues confronting the country – main among them, the deteriorating human rights record and the economic standstill Sri Lanka is slowly heading towards.

It is a common perception among those in government that the general public will grin and bear many a hardship on the economic front, if there is a distant ray of hope vis-à-vis the war. In fact, President Rajapaksa makes it a point to relate a story of how he questioned villagers about the rising cost of living, only to be told that if he could win the war, they were ready for any economic sacrifice. This, then, is the message the government media machinery is trying to convey to the masses.

Unfortunately though, there are a couple of chinks in this strategy. Firstly, the military is far from being in a comfortable position in the Eelam war. The east may be ‘liberated,’ but whether this ‘liberation’ would last remains to be seen and the cost of retaining and sustaining the recent successes would possibly be enormous.

Secondly, the Rajapaksa government, goaded on by its nationalist allies, the JVP and the JHU, appears to be hell-bent on pursuing a military strategy and a military strategy only as a solution to the ethnic issue. It has, time and again, ignored or resisted the many overtures to come up with a comprehensive package of devolution to the minority Tamil community.
It is unfortunate for this country that the two principal political parties in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the UNP, are pursuing myopic visions diametrically opposed to each other.

What the SLFP is proposing is an archaic devolution package at the district level that regresses from the currently administered provincial council system with a military option against the LTTE, the latter easier said than done.   
The UNP on the other hand appears to want devolution at all cost and is equally reluctant to push a military thrust against the Tigers for the fear of alienating an international community which sees terrorism for what it is when it is in its own backyard but chooses to turn a blind eye when it is in Colombo or Kilinochchi.

Then, to aggravate matters, there is a tendency for the SLFP to dispose of whatever the UNP proposes and of course vice versa too. Add to this the various crossovers and personal conflicts of interest and the result is a recipe for disaster. Surely, Velupillai Prabhakaran in his hideout in Kilinochchi must be asking himself why he needs friends when he has enemies like these!

It is in this context that the victory at Thoppigala must be viewed. The military success is certainly a tribute to the tenacity and determination of our armed forces and the achievement should not in any way be belittled. Nevertheless, to say that Thoppigala is a sign of coming events casting their shadows would be premature, to say the least.

The government should also guard against the overkill of publicity that Thoppigala is being accorded. The LTTE – despite its public pronouncements of a ‘strategic retreat’ – must be smarting under this setback and will be keen to restore the morale of their own cadres, hence the warning about striking economic targets.

Success at Thoppigala therefore is only one small step for the military; it is no giant leap in defeating the military machine of the LTTE. As long as this reality is borne in mind by those walking the corridors of power, one cannot grudge them a few celebrations for what is this government’s first major military success against the Tigers.

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