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
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
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
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
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.