Military Matters


Sylvan shrine sullied

In more than two decades of war, many a tragedy has taken place in the month of April. This year too, the month began on a violent note in the very precincts of the sylvan Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu, a hallowed place of worship for the past 450 years.
In an area once infested with snakes, its venom had no power over victims bitten within the church compound. Later, the soil was used to cure snake bites and pilgrims from all over the island, would take Madhu soil as a medicinal cure for snake bites, while many would sprinkle this soil in their own gardens for protection.

Only fools would mess around with the Divine and on All Fools’ Day (April 1), the Tigers fired mortars, not once but thrice, on the residential quarters of the incumbent priests of this shrine. Initial reports said there were no damages, but the very act was one of desecration of a specially consecrated area.

Tigers terrorise Madhu

This is certainly an act of terrorism perpetrated, not just on unarmed civilians, but religious people who have consecrated their lives to God.

This act was a sequel to the Tigers first requesting and then ordering the priests, nuns and faithful to leave Madhu premises, for its own insidious designs. Mannar Bishop Dr. Rayappu Joseph, Vicar General, Fr. Victor Soosai and the priests of the diocese were adamant that the incumbent priests would remain in the shrine. The LTTE was insisting, but the clergy stood their ground. This was, as it were, a culmination of the tug-of-war the Mannar clergy, including the shepherd, had with the LTTE during the past year.

To show their solidarity with the priests and nuns who remained within the holy precincts, 5,000 Catholics from the Mannar District, put aside their daily chores, and gathered at St. Sebastian’s Cathedral on Wednesday (2), to pray for the safety of the shrine, in the face of growing tension in the area.

After prayers at the Church, they marched peacefully, carrying banners and placards, to the District Secretary’s office and handed over a petition calling for a “Zone of Peace” around Madhu. A copy of the petition, along with a covering letter to the President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was handed over.

In a strongly-worded press release the very day the mortars were fired, Bishop Joseph said, “As military operations are taking place, very close to the shrine” he appealed to the two parties, “to keep away from the shrine area and ensure the area remains completely and solely under the administration of the church.”

Not only did he want the LTTE out, he was also not willing to allow the Army to take control of the area.
“The Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka, the Bishop and the priests of the Diocese of Mannar, have been appealing to the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army to refrain from using the area gazetted as the “Madhu Church Reservation” under the Pilgrimage Ordinance in 1982, for military and political purposes,” the statement read.

Bishop’s appeal to no avail

The two parties, it appears, have both military and political aims to achieve.
The LTTE wants to prevent the Army from advancing north of Mannar and, at the same time, is keen to provoke the Army into firing at the shrine, to bring the Government of Sri Lanka into international disrepute.

The government wants to secure Madhu, to score brownie points with the Catholic community in the South, by making the shrine accessible to pilgrims from all over the country. This is part of the political strategy to secure votes at a future election.

But, in the end, the sacred statue was removed further into the uncleared areas, depriving not just Catholics of the South, but also Catholics of the cleared areas of the North, from making a pilgrimage to view and pray to the miraculous statue.

The easiest way out was to have the Madhu Road or the Uyilankulam Road opened by both sides, for the five feasts of Madhu.
Last August, Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, based in Rome and tipped to become Sri Lanka’s second Cardinal, together with Bishop Joseph, met LTTE Political Wing Leader, S.P. Thamilselvan and sought an assurance that the road would be opened to allow pilgrims from the South, to attend the August feast. After giving Defence Ministry approval to open the Madhu Road for the main August Feast last year, the government revoked its decision at the eleventh hour.

Ends, not means, that matters

The government also has a military plan, otherwise, the whole exercise of prosecuting war for over a year (begun end March 2007) in the Mannar region, would be a waste of men and material, now that the statue has been removed 20-km north of Madhu.

Had the government’s aim been only political, the LTTE would not have offered so much resistance. In the late nineties, the Tigers did not offer much resistance and allowed the military to secure Mannar with comparative ease. This was because the military was already on another ambitious operation Jaya Sikurui to open up an alternative land route to Jaffna along the A 9 Road. How the army blundered is common knowledge. But, this time, as securing the A 32 Road appears to be the target, the Tigers would dig in.

The military advancement into Mannar and north and northwest of Madhu, is expected to seal the western coast, to completely cut off supplies from India.
Even though the political powers may want a political advantage by securing Madhu, the Army has its own plans to penetrate the jungle areas north of Madhu, to eventually get to the coastal town of Vidatilativu, where the LTTE has a large Sea Tiger Base.

That is why the Army has emerged 10 km north of Madhu and is fighting in Palampiddi, forcing the Tigers to retreat. The aim is to ultimately wrest control of the western coastal line, to block arms and ammunition coming in from South India.

Smuggling through the waters off Mullaitivu, from South India, is not so feasible, given the northern control of the seas off the Jaffna peninsula.

The aim is to seal off the coast to prevent sea infiltration and lay siege on this belt.
As a land-sea operation between the Army and Navy did not materialise, the Army continues its advance to secure the coastal belt and eventually to move up the A- 32 Road, to wrest control of Pooneryn. This would also give the forces an alternate land access to Jaffna via Sangupiddy. This column discussed this at length almost a year back.

Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka who visited Vavuniya on Friday, in comments to the State-owned Daily News, hinted at the military’s next move. He said that the LTTE would have to take the statue to another place, once the troops capture Vellankulam, which is on the Mannar-Jaffna coastal road.

The Army top brass has repeatedly said that they are not keen on a land grab for this reason. All they want is to wrest control of the A-32 Road and coastal belt. But, judging by the time taken to reach Madhu and the surrounding areas, it may take a good six months, as the Tigers will fight tooth and claw to resist any advance by the army to secure the coast.

The Tigers want to stall the advance of the troops, and in the process, provoke them into firing at the hallowed site.
Hence, the terrorists, after they failed to verbally force the clergy to leave, did what they are best suited to do- use terror tactics by firing mortars.

Madhu in the line of fire

In late March 2007, 10,000 civilians took refuge within the Madhu Church, after a new front opened in Mannar and fighting erupted. As far back as March 2007, the LTTE wanted these internally displaced people (IDP) to leave the Madhu Shrine. But, the clergy and the people resisted those moves.

But, as government troops closed in on Madhu, the LTTE virtually forced these IDPs to leave, and leave they did to the north of Madhu.

Bishop Joseph said that the exodus began after 20 people died on January 29, when a blast occurred due to a misplaced target that was taken 10 minutes after an LTTE vehicle passed the site.

But, the four priests, four nuns and six workers refused to budge, despite the LTTE forcing them to vacate the church.
On Tuesday (1), Bishop Joseph phoned Security Forces Commander (SFC) Vavuniya, Maj. Gen Jagath Jayasuriya, who had promised that his troops would not enter the sacred shrine area. Bishop Joseph met General Jayasuriya on the previous Friday (March 29) and LTTE Political Wing Leader Nadesan the previous week, and obtained an assurance that both parties would resist from firing at the holy precincts. Both parties were appealed to, to refrain from any military activity in the area and not to harm the sanctity of the shrine.

But, the appeal appears to have been disregarded, as shells exploded.
Finally, as government troops were not willing to call off their operations and the LTTE stuck to its guns and wanted to fight the forces from within the church, the Bishop of Mannar removed the statue to a secure place.

While the shrine is valuable, the statue is unique, and fighting close to the church could result in the destruction of the statue, for which a bunker was constructed a few months ago, as exclusively reported by Senpathi on December 16, last year.

It was to these bunkers that the devotees had to take cover from artillery shells exploding close to the church.
The Army was a kilometre away, south of Madhu in Pandivirichchan, and advancing towards the shrine.

Bishop Joseph told The Nation that the priests had to put up in the bunker for their safety. On Thursday (3), they were in the bunker from 12:00 noon to 5:00 pm., in the face of incessant artillery fire.
He said a decision was taken to move the statue to an area free from combat.

Too close for comfort

After a final service held in the Madhu shrine, amidst a torrential downpour, the Blessed Sacrament was removed and the miraculous statue taken down at 6:00 p.m. from the high altar, amidst tears and fears in an emotional get away.

Though the statue was taken to St. Xavier’s Church, Thevanpiddy in the Vellankulam area on the Mannar-Jaffna coast, Bishop Joseph said that he was appealing to both parties to allow the statue to be brought back to Madhu, with an assurance that the area would, at least now, be declared a “No War Zone”.

The origins

Once, during the peace process, on a decision by the Bishops Conference, the statue was brought to the South and taken in procession from parish to parish in the Colombo deanery.

Previously, during Dutch persecution, the statue was first moved in 1670 to Maruthamadhu from its original home in Mantai, a village on the mainland and about six miles from Mannar, which has been a nursery of Catholic faith in times of persecution.

This Mantai Church was the original home of the statue of Our Lady of Madhu, which at that time was called Our Lady of Good Health.

To avoid Dutch persecution in Jaffna, about 700 Catholics crossed over to Pooneryn and sought refuge in the Wanni. Having wandered for days in anxiety and fear, they were miraculously led to Maruthamadhu. Helena, whose fervent piety won for her the title of “Santa Lena” i.e. St. Helena, built the first little church dedicated to Our Lady of Madhu. For this good act, the Christians have immortalized her memory by calling the place “Silena-Marutha-Madhu”, which, to the present day, continues to be one of the names of the holy sanctuary.

In 1824, the present shrine was built, and a century later, in 1924, at a coronation ceremony attended by a representative of Pope Pius XI, two separate crowns, one each for Mary and the Infant Jesus, were placed. After the High Mass celebrated by Bishop Guyomar of Jaffna, at which Bishop Roche of Tuticorin, preached the sermon, His Grace, the Papal Legate, explained the significance of the great function to the multitude at the solemn ceremony of the coronation. Bells rang out, canons boomed and a salute of guns was fired at the ceremony then.

Save the Shrine

Exactly a year after President Mahinda Rajapaksa had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, during which an inquiry was made of the Shrine of Madhu, the bells have ceased to ring. However, the modern canons- artillery guns and mortar guns- are booming in the sacred area, not to salute, but to destroy the enemy on either side. But, the danger, Bishop Joseph envisages is the eventual destruction of the shrine, he fears would be razed to the ground, as fighting intensifies. He has appealed to the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Mario Zenari, both before and after the statue was taken away, to get Vatican to intervene.

“At the time the priests left the shrine, the place was largely intact,” said Bishop Joseph, adding that the Army had taken great care to avoid firing at the shrine. But, now that the LTTE has taken possession of the shrine, it may be a different story, he said.

More than 300 Tigers are occupying Block B and Block C used by the priests, which were given out to pilgrims during the festive seasons, and the bunkers used by the clergy.

The Catholic Bishop’s Conference also issued a statement on Friday, signed by the President, Kandy Bishop Vianey Fernando and Secretary General, Anuradhapura Bishop Norbert Andradi.
“It is with deep sadness we learn that the hallowed and miraculous Statue of Our Lady of Madhu had to be removed from the shrine, due to the escalation of the armed conflict in and around the sacred area,” said the statement.

“What alarms us is that the sacred precincts of this particular sanctuary is rapidly becoming an arena of war and continued military operations. There is every danger that the sanctuary would be devastated in such an armed conflict. Time and again, we, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, have appealed to the government and the LTTE, that Madhu, as a place of worship, should be kept out of the combat and treated as a haven of peace. Here, people come to live and pray, regardless of ethnicity or any other differences and hence, has become a unique place that binds people together in harmony.”

It appeals to the government and the LTTE to be mindful that the “hallowed shrine of Madhu has been and is precious to all communities” and to “avoid, at any cost, making it a zone of combat and thereby, ensure its safety and sanctity.”
“It will hurt the sensibilities of all Catholics and people of goodwill, to see the desecration of this shrine and its destruction,” said the appeal.

Army mindful of area’s sanctity

SFC Vavuniya, Maj. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya, however, told The Nation that the Army, which is a kilometre to the south of Madhu and 10 km to the northeast of Madhu, would ensure that the fighting is away from the shrine area.

General Jayasuriya said that, though the falling shells exploded with a deafening sound, they were far away from the church.
General Jayasuriya had told the Bishop during his meeting last Friday (March 29), that the Army had no interest in fighting in the sacred area, but had to secure it. He had even stated that, if the Bishop could get the LTTE to steer clear of the church area, the Army would be satisfied.

General Jayasuriya even requested the Bishop to intervene to enable his troops to secure the area, leaving their weapons behind. But the LTTE was not inclined to give up the area.

As for the priests, devotees and civilians, General Jayasuriya, had told the Bishop that they could come to the cleared area, bearing white flags, and their security would be assured.
The military was not willing to call off the goal, but were willing to accept a peaceful settlement that was not to be. So, the operations continued.

Even as the forces were advancing, the Tigers were preparing for their last battle to retain the Madhu area. They planted anti personnel mines and booby traps all over the area, to stall the advance.

The 572 Brigade, under Lt Col Senerath Bandara, which is in the forefront of the military operation, was less than a kilometre from the Madhu area. They captured Periyapandirichchan and Sinnapandirichchan villages, which were under Tiger control.

According to Military Intelligence, Jeyam, who commanded the LTTE forces in the Madhu area from the Jeyam Base between Palampiddi and Madhu, retreated, shifting his camp on Tuesday. He called the small groups in Sinnapandirichchana and Periyapandirichchan to the Madhu area. LTTE cadres who deserted ranks and surrendered to the security forces, revealed that many Tigers were fleeing the area without weapons, and that the Madhu Church is now occupied by the Tigers. Civilians in Sachchinamauthamadu, Madhu and Periyamadhu areas were fleeing to Vellankulam, where the statue was taken. These were the civilians who were earlier displaced and settled in Madhu.

Military Intelligence reported that the statue was carried through Palampiddi, Mannar and Pooneryn to Vellankulam, where it was placed in Thennampiddy Church.

General Jayasuriya said that the Bishop’s assistant, Vicar General Fr. Victor Soosai had informed him the following day, after the clergy had left the shrine.

Commander-in-Chief keeps tabs

It was only last week that President Rajapaksa summoned the Divisional heads from the Wanni and Weli Oya regions, for the Security Council Meeting on Friday, to be briefed on the latest operations, as well as to instruct them on what had to be achieved.

As the General Officers Commanding three Divisions were in Colombo, SFC Vavuniya General Jayasuriya remained in his headquarters and took the opportunity to meet with the Mannar Bishop and suggest a way out.

But, the military proposals did not work, and the statue was taken to a “safer” location in uncleared areas, even as some questioned why it could not have been brought to a neutral zone such as the Mannar Cathedral.

President Rajapksa was informed of the latest developments, vis-à-vis the statue, by his brother Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on Thursday evening. The Defence Secretary also informed the President that US Ambassador Robert O. Blake had made inquiries from him whether the military were conducting operations in the sacred Madhu area. Pope Benedict XVI will be visiting Washington shortly, on his first official visit to the US as Head of the Catholic Church, ahead of the US presidential polls.

A visibly annoyed President told associates that the US Ambassador was interfering too much in the internal affairs of the country.
President Rajapaksa was further incensed when UNP MP Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena telephoned him on Thursday to instruct on the easiest route for the Army to take to Madhu.

He lost his cool and told Dr. Jayawardena that, even though he was President, he only instructed on what he wanted done, but did not deem it fit to tell the Army how to do it.

Confident that the Army would wrest control of Madhu, President Rajapaksa reportedly told associates in mid December last year, “I don’t need the permission of anyone this time to visit Madhu.” This is how Senpathy reported on December 16, 2007.

“As presidential candidate, Prime Minister Rajapaksa, in a bid to attract a slice of the Catholic minority vote, requested the Church authorities to grant him permission to visit Madhu.”

“Alive to the fact that the LTTE had previously targeted presidential and other candidates when campaigning, Church authorities were not willing to take that risk, as his security could be in peril.

The Army has done its part to fulfill the wishes of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. It is closing in and is on the verge of wresting control of Madhu, but the statue has been removed and the significance lost.
It would be prudent to ask whether the authorities did not envisage such a scenario, and the risk involved in wresting control of an internationally recognised sacred site.

LTTE holier than thou?

But, of all groups, what moral authority does the LTTE have to question the Army on an act, it is equally or more guilty of.
In a statement issued on Thursday (3), the LTTE had the gumption to state thus:

“Converting the sacred area, which has given refuge to many thousands of people, into a war zone, is a barbaric act of the Sri Lankan State.”

It was the LTTE that first tried to get rid of the displaced people from as far back as March last year, a request the Church authorities declined and resisted for almost a year.

The Mannar Bishop, in his release, said “The Madhu Shrine has been recognised, locally and internationally, as a ‘safe haven’ and a ‘place of refuge’ for people fleeing from war and destruction.” But, the LTTE tries to apportion complete blame on the security forces, forgetting its demand to drive away the people, and then the priests and nuns from the shrine.

“Sinhala armed forces, by their indiscriminate attacks, are converting the Madhu Church, the holy shrine of the Catholic people, into a war zone. The LTTE strongly condemns the action of the Sri Lankan State that has let lose its armed forces into this sacred area to carry out indiscriminate military attacks. By doing so, the Sri Lankan State has disregarded international customary laws and UN Conventions to safeguard holy religious places from military attacks,” the LTTE statement read.

The LTTE had better first practise what it preaches and desist from holding the predominantly Catholic population in Mannar and the church leaders at its mercy.

The Tigers, who may be feeling the heat of the military operations, must desist from quoting the scriptures, as even the devil is capable of that.

But, the civilians are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, as successive governments have failed to resolve the ethnic conflict through a political solution. The Bishop of Mannar has called for fasting and prayer including the recitation of the Rosary, so that, “Our Lady of Madhu, the dear Mother of the people of this land, bless our country with peace, through a politically negotiated settlement.”