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Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)
Counter- offensive quagmire in Jaffna
16th November 1997
Major General Lionel Balagalle took over duties officially as Sri Lankan security forces commander in Jaffna at a formal ceremony at the Palaly base on Friday morning.
The Jaffna GA, the Jaffna Bishop Rt. Rev. Thomas Savundaranayagam, the chief incumbent of the Nallai Aatheenam and two Buddhist monks who had been flown in from the south were present on the occasion. Later around 10. 30 a.m. he visited the Velvil Iluppaithazh Muruhamoorthy Kovil in Chankanai east which he had helped reconstruct.(the temple was partially destroyed during Riviresa One) Representatives of the Church of South India also joined the ceremony at Chankanai. The Catholic Bishop had left soon after the formalities at Palaly .The new Jaffna security forces commander, while speaking to the gathering at the temple, said that he wanted to convey two important messages.
First he asked all people of Jaffna to help the army bring peace and prosperity.
Then he called on the Liberation Tigers to extend their co-operation to bring about peace in the country.
Maj. General Lionel Balagalle was one of the most experienced military intelligence officers of the Sri Lankan army. His message most probably reflects the understanding he may have of the depth and size of the counterinsurgency operation the army is being drawn into with the passing of each tense day in the Jaffna peninsula. Even as he was speaking, the LTTE had attacked the army at Vathiri in Vadamaradchi. Two soldiers were reported killed. And two hours before he officially took over duties at Palaly, a Tiger attack group had fought his troops near the Sangathanai Thevarkerni Kandasamy temple in Chavavakachcheri. The day before (Nov. 13 ) the Tigers attacked army patrols in Kachchai, southeast of Chavakachcheri and in Kerudavil on the route from Kanakampuliyady to the Kodikamam road.
The only large scale counter-insurgency experience that the army has had was in the eastern province between 1990 and 1994. And from that experience it must be quite clear to intelligent commanders like Maj. Gen. Balagalle that in the absence of a suitably legitimate regional government with comprehensive powers, the basic text book prescribed components of a counterinsurgency programme can embitter the population and push it more into the arms of the enemy.
Cordon and search operations, arrest and detention, the declaration of no go areas, restrictions on essential items and transport, ban on cultivation in vulnerable areas etc., are some of the elementary components of a standard counterinsurgency programme. When an army speaking a different language undertakes the program it invariably antagonises the local population which suits objectives of the guerrillas perfectly.
However, while Maj. Gen. Balagalle was making his point at Chankanai, the Navy was rounding up civilians in the island of Karainagar for a search operation. All civilians in the island were asked to gather at Thiyagarajah Maththiya Mahavithi-yalayam and Yarlton College around 6.00 a.m. on Friday morning. This major operation by the navy went on till 10.30 a.m. Several people were detained and the others were asked to go home. No details of those detained were available. Around the time the Karainagar operation was being concluded, the army cordoned off the Thumpalai area in Pt. Pedro and also Vathiri further west. A large number of places in Vadamaradchi and Thenmaradchi, such as Alvai, Nagar Kovil, Navalady etc., have been rounded up for search operations following LTTE attacks on the army in these parts since the beginning of this month.
Again I will give an example of a typical no go area problem in Jaffna now which is inherent to counterinsurgency programmes - in the east this created a group of poor farmers and fishermen who became the LTTEs main support base during 1990-94.
The citizens committee of Ariyalai in Jaffna made an appeal to the army through one of the ex-Tamil militant groups in Jaffna to lift the ban on the movement of people in several parts of the coast southeast of the Jaffna town.
The army has declared the villages of Uthayapuram, Vasanthapuram, Maniyan Thottam, Poompuhar, Munangu and some parts of Columbuthurai as no-go areas.
Therefore the large number of people who were resident in these parts have to now live in overcrowded houses of relatives and the few places which are prepared to accommodate them.
The army does not want people to resettle in these villages because it fears that the Liberation Tigers on the mainland which is only a few kilometres across the lagoon may easily establish an entry point here to hit the Jaffna town. The terrain here is suitable for the LTTE operations which, in the armys view, can jeopardise its strategic positions in an around the Jaffna town.
All these villages are located along the northern coast of the Jaffna lagoon, south east of the Jaffna town, and by shrub jungle and coconut plantations in the background.
In the dry season it is easy to wade across the lagoon to places like Poompuhar and Munangu from several points of the Pooneryn promontory.
In this context the army appears to think that a population in the villages of the Ariyalai coast may help a Tiger build up.
At least twenty thousand people according to officials at the Jaffna Kachcheri are yet to be resettled as a result of these no go areas, particularly along Jaffnas northern coast from Thondamanar to Thiruvadinilai and in several parts of Waligamam north. There are about 54 refugee camps in the peninsula even now. Many people live with relatives.
Now let us look at another standard component of a counterinsurgency program- me restrictions on goods and services to vulnerable areas - as it has been put into effect in several parts of Jaffna , particularly the islands and Vadamaradchi east.
This is another inevitable point of friction in a C. I program which eventually backfires on the fundamental objectives of pacification.
I will illustrate this with one example - Bakeries in Vadamaradchi east which have been closed for more than 18 months are yet to get wheat flour for making bread. The supply of flour to this part of the peninsula is banned by the army. Civilians are allowed only very limited quantities per family. As a consequence bread has become a rare luxury to the working people living in the coastal villages from Vallipuram to Maamunai. The army seems to think that the flour might be taken by the Liberation Tigers for maintaining their groups in this area. The southern coastal stretch of the Vadamaradchi sector between Nagar Kovil and Vettilaikkerni is not in the hands of the army. People from these parts who visit other areas of the peninsula buy many loaves of bread to give relatives back in their villages.
The problem with such restrictions is that although they are essential from a standard C.I textbook point of view, they do not help the hearts and minds operation which is another integral component of a counterinsurgency programme.
When a population thus has not many grounds to throw in its lot with an armys C.I plan it is difficult to control it (the target population) politically. This in turn makes the key task of effectively cutting off the flow of funds, moral support and even recruitment from the target population of a C.I programme to the enemy, almost impossible to achieve.
A press release issued by the armys 51 division on October 23 in Jaffna warning people who are giving money to the Liberation Tigers will illustrate the problem. It was published in Tamil the next day in the Uthayan newspaper.
The Div 51 press release states - People were forcibly recruited by the Tigers before Operation Riviresa. They made people suffer by taking goods sent to the people and by imposing taxes. Since the conclusion of Op. Riviresa health, education, highways, electricity and telecommunication facilities have been given to the people again.
Despite all this there are attempts now to put the people in difficulties again. The security forces have come to know that money has been demanded from some people in the peninsula and that some pressure has also been applied on them.
At this time when the activities of the Tigers are being weakened, giving money to them secretly is detrimental to interests of those who give as well as to the interests of the society.
Therefore giving money (to the Tigers) should be eschewed. Legal action will be taken against those who do so.
The ex-Tamil militant groups operating in Jaffna say although they are aware that most businesses in the towns pay a substantial amount to the LTTE, they choose to completely ignore the matter - as taking any action on it, according to them, will simply antagonise a lot of people in the peninsula whose support they need to win the next election.
The army has been aware of the increasing fund collection of the LTTE in the town for many months. But they are unable to do anything due to the wide cross section of Jaffna society involved in this, said a second level leader of an ex Tamil militant group who is working in the peninsula now.
There are other issues such as the ban on paddy cultivation in Palai, Thanang-kilappu- Kerathivu and the interior lagoon basin areas.
The army, in short, is being drawn inexorably into a massive counterinsurgency operation in the peninsula. The new security forces commander has at least shown some maturity and farsightedness in addressing the problem.
His experience and long understanding of the Eelam wars obviously have made him cautious of jumping on the bandwagon with the gung ho militarists, naive politicians and a few muddle-headed Tamil liberals who expect the army to do the dirty work for them.