Military Matters


Wanni top brass in ‘musical chairs’

Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka on Friday made a beeline to Vavuniya where he was received by outgoing Wanni Security Forces Commander Major General Upali Edirisinghe.
General Fonseka met Divisional Commanders and Brigade Commanders to review the security situation in the Wanni and brief them on operations ahead, now that the East has been cleared.

The Army Commander’s visit to the Wanni came exactly a week after army headquarters announced changes in the Wanni command, which were reported in a Sunday newspaper last week.
Senpathi reported changes to the commands in the Wanni - 56 and the newly created 57 Divisions- on June 17. Brigadier Jagath Rambukpotha from the artillery was appointed General Officer Commanding (GOC) 56 Division while Brigadier Jagath Dias from the infantry was appointed GOC 57 Division.

Commander, Mannar Division, Major General Udeni Munasinghe, given a Brigadier’s appointment, retired prematurely and was replaced by Brigadier Channa Gunatilleke.
Area Commander Weli Oya, Major General Nimal Jayasuriya, once GOC 53 Division, was replaced by Brigadier M.K. Jayawardena. And to top it all, Security Forces (SF) Commander, Wanni, Major General Upali Edirisinghe was also removed and replaced by Major General Jagath Jayasuriya.

Ever since the GOC 53 Division Brigadier Srinath Rajapaksa was selected for a defence course in China, speculation was rife that Major General Jagath Jayasuriya, would replace him. This would have been a stepping stone to SF Commander Jaffna, from General G.A. Chandrasiri, who further climbed the ladder. General Jagath Jayasuriya has been brought straight away as SF Commander Wanni. With this appointment and that of Major General G.P.R.S. de Silva as GOC 21 Division, the entire Wanni Command has changed within a space of two months.

Changing the entire Command in a very vulnerable area, may send mixed signals to the LTTE. It may mean that the military would no longer be pursuing operations in the Wanni or, it could also mean that officers were handpicked to undertake specific operations in the region.

Generally, change of the entire command could be disadvantageous to the forces. SF Commanders and Division Commanders need time to familiarize themselves with Brigade Commanders and Field commanders, to get to know their strengths and weaknesses and to familiarize themselves with the terrain and be privy to intelligence inputs of the enemy, before taking the plunge. Of course, those leaving the command would pass on available intelligence.

With the Wanni waiting to flare up, and the buildup already reported previously, the question is which side would take the initiative? The LTTE has two options, either to dig in with a formidable defence or, pre-empt with a strike. A successful strike would unsettle the Government, making it more vulnerable.

Political events do have an impact on military operations. This week the ruling alliance was rocked with the news that a coalition partner, the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), withdrew its support for the government. A major section of the CWC, headed by its leader, Arumugam Thondaman, decided to sit in the Opposition benches from next week.

This follows SLFP (M) wing leader Mangala Samaraweera’s announcement that several members would cross over to the Opposition. Generally, such crossovers begin with minority parties like the CWC and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), as witnessed in 2001. These are followed by disgruntled members of the key party in a ruling alliance that takes a decisive step after satisfying itself as to the direction the wind is blowing.

The initial euphoria of military victories has already died down, with the cost of living spiraling even as the expenditure shoots up. The government is cash strapped and not knowing where to turn.
On the other hand, the LTTE, which hit a low ebb, has the advantage of playing for time, a factor any terrorist organization relishes. On the other hand, governments- whether they are pursuing peace or war agenda- have limited timeframes to achieve their objectives. The government is three years, three months old and already showing signs of cracking up, unless the JVP supports it with its numbers. This will be to its own advantage, as the JVP would not want to go to the polls for fear of reducing its own numbers. To continue the war, the JVP would support the government, which, however, allowed the JVP to go its own way, after accepting crossovers from the Opposition, against the wishes of the Marxist party.

Political support apart, the question is how would the government raise money to carry on its programmes, even as the international community seems to distance itself from the administration.
Even if it has the political support in Parliament and the financial wherewithal to continue operations, what is the guarantee that the LTTE, well entrenched in the Wanni, would cave in. On the other hand, if the military faces a reversal, it would affect the ruling SLFP’s chances of returning to power.

All its achievements so far, culminating in the liberation of Thoppigala and the entire east, would come to naught.
The operations to drive away the LTTE from Muttur (first anniversary this week), Kattaparichchan, Lower Thopur, and Selvanagar, Sampur, Vakarai , Verugal , Kadiraveli and Thoppigala were reported in great detail by Senpathi who also recorded shortcomings of the military and the LTTE air raids, much to the chagrin of certain officers. The Navy’s direct contribution in the early operations and indirect support to the military, by preventing supplies and reinforcements by sea, must also be recorded.

During the past year, the military recovered an unprecedented amount of arms and ammunition, after each operation. The recent ones are no exception. Major Sarada Samarakoon who led soldiers from the 10 Gajaba Regiment recovered a massive haul of arms and ammunition including four mortar launchers, a grenade launcher, two machine guns, a Sniper gun, 24 T-56 rifles and 60 rounds of ammunition, 200 mortar shells, 325 anti-personnel mines, 6,500 rounds of live ammunition, two claymore mines, 400 cartridges and 199 detonators. These were buried and camouflaged with leaves. Meanwhile, the 51 Brigade in Jaffna, this week, recovered a cache of arms and ammunition including five suicide belts loaded with ammunition.

Defence Secretary Gotbhaya Rajapaksa joined Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagam to the Philippines. ASEAN Regional Forum members, especially India, China, Australia, Japan and the United States were requested to help Sri Lanka protect its maritime borders. The Government is doing all it can, on all fronts, to prevent the LTTE from smuggling weapons into the country.
However, back home, the government is in a crunch. The JVP would support the government only until a point of time, when it is advantageous. The JVP would not want to be identified with the ruling party, as it would further affect its ratings at an eventual election.

While the options of the military are limited, given the political and financial considerations, the LTTE, on the other hand, is neither bound by financial constraints nor political compulsions.
Hence, the LTTE would, in time to come, when the government is weakened, begin to strike. Weli Oya has been identified as a vulnerable area
A former Reserve Strike Division (53) Commander Major General Nimal Jayasuriya who was accorded a farewell as outgoing Area Commander Weli Oya, now takes up a logistics duty as Forward Maintenance Area in Jaffna, ensuring enough provisions- food, fuel and the like.

At the time Jayauriya took up the appointment at Weli Oya, there was no Forward Defence Line (FDL) between Padaviya and Kebethhigollewa, which was attacked twice last year. As Weli Oya had been identified as a probable target by the Tigers, all out to prove they are still in the running, General Jayasuriya got a 25-km bunker line constructed to prevent raids on villages in Weli Oya. This was also to prevent the Tigers from infiltrating and placing bombs in the area.

A stretch of five km of no-man’s land between Kokkutuduvai, almost on the eastern coast, and Janakapura, was a tactical disadvantage to the army. General Jayasuriya had a fortified bunker line built linking Janakapura. This was also appreciated by the villagers.

A raid on a Sinhala border village could have a political fallout at the centre, which in turn, could affect the military balance in the war.
The LTTE is currently in a similar situation to the immediate post Riviresa, sans both the Jaffna peninsula and the East. In the earlier phase, it took Mulativu, this time it has to defend Mulativu.
It is tempting to go for the big kill in Mulativu and it is uncertain whether the military would receive the nod from a government trapped on all sides.


‘All Clear’ for Madhu feast

The military has given a written assurance that it would open the Madhu Road from August 10 to 17, to enable pilgrims from the South to visit the holy shrine for the August 15 Madhu Matha feast.
The road closed by the army after the August 15 feast last year, was not opened for the July 2 feast this year. The LTTE which has given a verbal assurance, is expected to give it in writing tomorrow.

The breakthrough was significant, as Mannar was tense with operations and counter operations by the two sides, and only last Tuesday, the LTTE targeted an army vehicle at Cheddikulam on the Mannar-Medawachchiya Road.
The two sides, following several meetings with the church authorities and the ICRC, have agreed to refrain from any political or military activity, ahead of and after the feast, until all pilgrims have left.

The army had last month declined to open the Madhu Road for the July 2 feast, even after the LTTE agreed to do so after a meeting between Mannar Bishop Rayappu Joseph and LTTE Political Wing Leader S.P. Thamilselvan.
As the military agreement was not forthcoming for last month’s feast, access to the Madhu shrine was through the Uliyankulam Road.

Two days after the feast, Bishop Joseph wrote to Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on July 4, requesting the army to open the Madhu Road for the main August feast.
After the matter was taken up at a high level security conference, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa had instructed Additional Secretary R.M. Ratnayake to write to Bishop Joseph. Accordingly, MOD clearance was granted, courtesy a letter dated July 23, addressed to the Bishop of Mannar and signed by Assistant Secretary Defence, H.A. Chaminda As the Defence Secretary was out of the country, his brother, Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa, met Bishop Joseph and sorted out matters on Monday.

In April this year, during an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was requested by Vaticam Secretary Cardinal Tarcisco Bertone to allow pilgrims to visit the holy shrine.
LTTE top official Suda Master conveyed the LTTE’s clearance to open its side of the Road for the Madhu feast and on Monday a written assurance is to be sent to the Mannar Bishop.

There were also meetings between Bishop Joseph and outgoing Security Forces Commander, Wanni, Major General Upali Edirisinghe and Vavuniya Commander Major General Ratnasabapathy and Brigadier S. Ranasinghe from the Wanni.
Accordingly, the Madhu Road will be opened from 8:00 am to 6:00 p.m. for all pilgrims but, the church authorities are trying to obtain clearance for a 24-hour opening during these days. Church and civil authorities are confident that there would be a turn out of between one to two lakhs from the South and the North. During peace times, an average 500,000 people make the trek to the Madhu shrine from around the country.

Anuradhapura Biship Norbert Anradhi and Galle Bishop Harold Anthony have confirmed participation and so have more than half-dozen priests, Mannar Bishop Joseph said.
Bishop Joseph said that while pilgrims of all faiths would have their unique spiritual experience, he was keen on having pilgrims from the north and south to live together as a testimony of unity and brotherhood in a country torn apart by strife from war. He said the theme this time is Prayer for Peace and pilgrims are advised to bring their tents as usual, as there are only limited housing facilities.

All proceeds are used for the maintenance of this 450-year-old holy shrine in the middle of a jungle.
The nine-day novenas, ahead of the August 15 feast, will commence tomorrow, with the hoisting of the church flag, a day after the church administrator Rev. Fr. S. Emillanaspulle celebrated his silver jubilee of ordination.
Access from August 6 to 9, will be through the Uyilankulam entry point and not through the Madhu Road. Pilgrims are expected to carry their NIC as well as copies and vehicle insurance and ownership details with copies, to pass through army and LTTE checkpoints in the forward defence lines of the two sides.

On Friday, Mannar Government Agent Nicholaspulle held a meeting at the Kachcheri with all the relevant authorities from different sectors, including Health and Sanitation, Water Supply and Drainage, Food and Fuel, Roads and Transport, Police and Security attended by the OIC of the Uliyankulam Police Point and officers from the Thallady Army Camp.

This was the third such meeting held on Friday while the second was held last Wednesday on August 1 and the first on July 25 after MOD clearance was granted. The last meeting would be held on Wednesday, August 8 after road clearance.
The army is in charge of the first section of the Madhu Road which is nearly 800 metres up to no-man’s land, which is another 300 metres, while the LTTE is in charge of nearly 11 km. The road is being cleared up to 50 feet on both sides and demarcations made to ensure the protection of pilgrims. Clearing of no-man’s land will be done by the Army and the LTTE in the presence of monitors or the ICRC and church authorities.

The area south of the A-14, Mannar-Medawchchiya Road, is under army control and areas north are under LTTE control. The Madhu Road starts at the turn off on the Mannar-Medawachciya Road and is under army control initially followed by no-man’s land and the road up to the shrine is under Tiger control. The approach to the shrine is being cleared by the church. The A-14 Road extends up to Talaimannar, which is under Navy control. From Uliyankulam where there is an entry-exit point, there is a road that leads all the way up to Pooneryn that is under LTTE control.


Have we no shame?

By Dharisha Bastians
This time, last year, we were doing the rounds in Kantale, where the tension and the sound of gunfire were palpable. The small town of 45,000 people, bordered by the beautiful Kantale tank, was unrecognisable. Every corner we turned, scores of refugees, some holding their worldly possessions in one polythene bag, littered the roadsides, making temporary shelters underneath bullock carts and trees, because the schools and temples were full. Oxfam was complaining that they could not provide adequate sanitation facilities, because there were just too many people populating a single area - within days of the Mutur siege (August 2), Kantale’s population had tripled.

We arrived in Kantale on August 2, 2006. People were fleeing the area in droves and hostilities had come all the way down to the primarily Sinhala villages of Serunuwara and Ali Oluwa.
When we embarked on that trip to Seruwila, the tiny village holding out against the conflict raging outside its borders, we never imagined we would become refugee convoys that day. All day long, the Multi-Barrels drummed on and the Kfir jets thundered overhead. There was a brief encounter with a Reuters correspondent, a few kilometres away from the conflict zone we were nearing. He refused to go any further, no matter how good the story – “I don’t want to die here in your war,” he told us. We ourselves never realised how close we had gotten to the conflict, until we were confronted with the reality of an entire village on the run, the fighting taking place less than 50-metres away.

As the pregnant women, children and aged men and women piled into our van to hitch a ride back to Kantale, our thoughts stayed behind at the Mahaweligama Maha Vidyalaya, where there were so many we had to leave behind. We left all the water and snacks we had with us at the school, but none of that could still our collective conscience. There we were heading back to Colombo, to relative safety and running water, while a section of our own people were locked in a conflict from which there was no escape.

Two days later, we were in Kantale again, our minds reeling from the tale of the 17 Action Contre Faim workers killed during the Mutur siege between August 2-4, 2006. Theories abounded in Kantale, so close to the heart of the tragedy. One thing was clear; the murders had taken place after the LTTE had fled the area in the face of an offensive by the security forces.
“It was most probably the home-guards, that is what we hear. They are the least trained, and the most afraid,” I recall one journalist opined.

All fingers pointed at the government forces, but one year later, apart from the strange disappearance of a bullet that was part of the evidence, nothing more has come to light. The government has shamelessly dragged its feet in the investigation, which would serve its own interests best, if it were conducted in a fair manner, since its top priority should be clearing the name of the security forces personnel, who to this date, stand suspected of the crimes. To this date, the Mutur massacre of aid workers, remains one of the most brutal crimes committed against humanitarian workers in the world ever, and a hideous blot upon the bona fides of this government and its commitment to upholding the rights of all human beings. Yes, Mutur, Serunuwara, Kantale – the stories are indelibly etched in our minds. The government could have temporary memory loss, we cannot afford to, for our consciences might just eat us alive. So much has happened since.

Sampur has been taken, Vakarai captured and the feather in the government’s cap, Thoppigala is ‘ours’ again. But elsewhere in this country, 17 families grieve for loved ones lost, for crimes gone unpunished, for disclosures never afforded to them. On behalf of my ‘elected representatives’, I hang my head in shame.