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Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

Tigers think: Why talk, when we are riding high

6 April 1997

There is strong speculation that the gov ernment will soon enter into negotiations with the Liberation Tigers. It was initially based on rumours about Thilakar’s visit to the Vanni and, in the opinion of many, it has been corroborated by the clause in the Ranil-Chandrika agreement that the party in the opposition will not undermine any discussion or decision between the party and the government and any other party, group or person including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam aimed at resolving the ethnic conflict…

The Tamil weekly ‘Thinamurasu’ this week even went to the extent of claiming that talks would be held in South Africa and that Minister G. L. Peiris who is on a visit to that country is scheduled to meet Lawrence Thilakar for a dialogue sponsored by the African National Congress.

It is necessary to consider what appears to be the LTTE’s current thinking on the Eelam War before one can hastily jump the bandwagon of those who are convinced of secret talks between the PA and the Tigers, facilitated through the mediation of a third party in the west.

The LTTE has been insisting on some preconditions for talks since last year. It reiterated them recently in its official organ ‘Viduthalai Pulihal’ and ‘Erimalai’. The latter is published by the LTTE’s office in Paris. The main precondition is that the army has to pull back to its pre-Eelam War III positions in the north.

LTTE spokesman Shankar also confirmed this when we met him at Kadukkamunai in Batticaloa two weeks ago. The Viduthalai Pulihal says the Tigers cannot agree to a definite timeframe which the government is likely to insist on as a pre-condition. Prabhakaran has stated that normalcy has to be first restored in Tamil areas if talks are to take place. This, according to the publication means the withdrawal of forces and the lifting of economic and travel restrictions. The Erimalai article is a comment on the speculation that a dialogue is going to take place between the government and the Tigers. It argues that the possibility of government initiated peace negotiations is quite remote.

The LTTE knows full well that any insistence on the withdrawal of the army from the recaptured areas in the peninsula effectively forecloses the prospect of preparing the ground for a dialogue with the government. It will also be difficult for the organization to change or give up its pre-conditions after widely and consistently iterating these.

Why are the Tigers doing this?

They think that they have a distinct advantage at this juncture in the Eelam War and that they stand to lose militarily if they enter into negotiations with the government before fully exploiting it. This, I am certain, will sound utterly inane to many observers of the Eelam War.

Here we have to consider the fact there is more than one way to look at the current military balance in the Northeast. This depends on what, in one’s view, constitutes a military advantage. The government (and perhaps the army too) obviously thinks that capturing and holding politically important population centres and strategically important Main Supply Routes are what decide the military balance in the Eelam War.

On the other hand the LTTE assumes that it is the ‘strategically significant’ degree of military pressure which it is able to exert on the army today is what primarily constitutes the singular advantage it enjoys in Eelam War III.

Let us examine why the LTTE is so convinced of this perceived advantage that it does not want to lose it for the sake of a dialogue with the government.

The army keeps spreading more and more troops on the ground. Holding operations inevitably wear the troops down and provide more space for the LTTE to choose the time, place and intensity of destruction it wants to wreak on the security forces.

Although the government appears to be having success with expanding the area under its control it is unable to even partially destroy the military assets of the Tigers in the Vanni. The possible capture of the MSR to Jaffna may further reduce its capacity to do so.

The LTTE thinks, if we are to go by the analyses in its official organ, that its ability of to inflict damage on the army’s positions — and hence morale in the years to come — has dramatically increased since last year with the ‘expropriation’ of a significant number of artillery pieces and the development of effective ‘camp destruction’ methods. The Tigers say the attack on the Paranthan-Elephant Pass complex has introduced a new dimension to their war making. And they say they are yet to fully avail themselves of the artillery in their possession now. This, according to what they have acknowledged so far amounts to six 120 MM mortars (one from Pooneryn, two from Mullaithivu and three from the Umayal Puram camp of the Paranthan complex), two 122 MM Howitzers and one 85 MM artillery gun. This is the first time in his entire career that Prabhakaran has come by such fire power.

The LTTE assumes that its current military capability provides the dual advantage of keeping up the pressure on the army to have it stretched thin on the grounds, giving it little respite for retraining and troop replenishment, while dramatically increasing the degree of damage it can inflict on the army. The Tigers also believe that they can strain the navy in the eastern maritime zone, limit its mobility and thereby compound the supply problems of the army in the peninsula.

In this connection we have to note that the most significant aspect of the recent engagement in the seas off Chalai is that the Sea Tigers have developed a capacity to take on large navy convoys in the deep sea. Such engagements limit the navy’s mobility just as the increasing power of a hit and run guerrilla group imposes psychological and physical limits on the freedom of movement which an army or police force enjoys in an area supervised by it.

This also puts pressure on the navy to assemble larger and larger groups to traverse the eastern seas — inevitably developing, in the process, resource and replenishment problems. That such large engagements have begun to take place is the crux of the story of the battle in the deep seas off the Mullaitivu coast.

The LTTE’s primary concern today, therefore, is to tire the army out by keeping it tied down and stretched and by creating supply problems over a long period. And in the short term, to dramatically raise the degree of damage it can inflict on the security forces with its newly acquired and yet to be tested military capability.

In the final analysis, the possibility of a third party bringing the Tigers into a negotiation process will depend mainly on whether they think that the advantage acquired in Eelam War III can be preserved during the period of dialogue.

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