Can the Tigers Recapture Lost Territory in the East

August 29, 2007

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By D.B.S Jeyaraj  

 

Sri Lanka’s Eastern province will be experiencing a new sunrise, according to Government propaganda. The Rajapaksa regime claims to have vanquished the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and cleared the province of two – legged felines. Now the focus will be on development of the region. If Colombo is to be believed, the east is rising!

 

Naturally, the LTTE disputes this. The tigers say that they have merely executed a strategic withdrawal. Rasiah Ilanthiraiyan, the LTTE spokesperson on Defence affairs – an eastern son of the soil himself – was candid enough to admit on the BBC that the tigers had suffered a “setback”. It was not a “defeat,” he said. The LTTE is abandoning positional warfare and adopting guerilla tactics in the future.

 

There was a time when the LTTE controlled extensive territory in the East. The tigers claimed then that 70% of the East was under them. When Jaffna fell in 1996, LTTE propagandists tried to make the best of a difficult situation by pointing out that more “land” in the east had come under their control than what was lost in the north.

 

 In Trincomalee district, the LTTE had areas north of Trinco town and the greater part of Muttur and Eechilampatru divisions in the South. It also had a small portion of the Seruwila division.

In Batticaloa district, the LTTE controlled the bulk of territory in the hinterland to the west of Batticaloa lagoon, the Vaharai region and also the Kudumbimalai /Thoppigala areas.

In Amparai district, the LTTE controlled the Kanchikudicharu – Rufuskulam jungle areas and adjacent villages. It also maintained a presence in the Lahugala and Pottuvil jungle areas.

 

At one stage the Eastern coast from Sampur down to Panichankerny was dominated by the LTTE. Possession of Sampur by the tigers posed a threat to strategic Trincomalee harbour.

 

The present reality is that the LTTE is not in  control of areas in the East. However the tigers continue to maintain a low – key presence in the jungles of Kudumbimalai/Thoppigala in Batticaloa, Kanchikudicharu jungles in Amparai and the Kadawanaikulam  – Peraaru areas in Trincomalee.

 

Tiger operatives also maintain a clandestine presence in the Eastern littoral. They are from the intelligence section and the assassination squads.

 

It is estimated that around 250 – 300 such tigers are living covertly in this mode. Around 400 – 500 tigers in small groups are moving about in the jungle areas of the entire province.

 

Currently more and more cadres are re – locating to the Wanni. Apparently the LTTE wants to whittle down its cadre strength in the East to an optimum level of a few hundreds in the near future.

 

 Recent history shows that the LTTE did not wrest control of Eastern territory through direct confrontation. The mid – nineties of the last century saw the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) withdrawing personnel from the East and deploying them in the North. The tigers simply filled the vacuum and gained real estate.

 

 The “surprise” factor in recent eastern fighting was not the fact that the LTTE” lost” but the fact that it “withstood” for such a long time. The LTTE faced overwhelming odds in terrain unsuited for positional warfare but managed to hold out in the east for nearly 15 months.

 

The question that arises at this juncture is- Can the LTTE change the eastern military status quo through future armed action?

 

These questions gain significance against the backdrop of past events where the LTTE gets cleared out only to return in full force. GOSL strategists feel that the past scenario will not repeat itself. LTTE circles are confident that it will.

 

The LTTE is the cynosure of all eyes in this respect. What the tigers can do or cannot do will determine the future.

 

It is indeed a moot point as to whether the LTTE will make a strong effort to regain the East through military action.

 

 It is noteworthy that the LTTE did not make desperate endeavours to retain grip of the Province. After proffering resistance for specific periods, the LTTE withdrew, retaining a considerable part of its military assets.

 

It is also worth remembering that the LTTE did not make powerful attempts to capture territory in the East during the early nineties. This was a time when the tigers controlled extensive territory in the North.

 

This indicates that the tigers did not regard the east as a great “prize” for which the LTTE had to fight to the finish.

 

 The LTTE gave greater priority to the preservation of the Northern Wanni mainland as its “rear base” than risk grave losses in a bid to retake the East.

 

Militarily, retention of territory in the east is not as important as retaining territory in the Wanni. Therefore the LTTE is unlikely to launch offensives to recapture the east.

 

A guerilla force like the LTTE cannot hold on to Eastern territory in the face of intensive offensives launched by the security forces.

 

Geographically, the east is too long, and too narrow for a force like the LTTE to hold on indefinitely. Also unlike the North, Tamil territorial contiguity is seriously impaired through interspersed Sinhala and Muslim areas.

 

Attempting to ” hold ” can only result in debilitating losses. It is better therefore not to try and grab something which you can’t hold on.

 

Retaining territory that passed into tiger control by “default” is acceptable. But to risk heavy losses in trying to retain or recapture the “unretainable” is simply unacceptable.

 

Even during recent fighting in the east, the tiger hierarchy in the Wanni did not make any major effort to send reinforcements to replenish depleted Eastern ranks. The Eastern tigers had to fight on their own with little logistical support from the North.

 

The hundreds of tigers present in the east are capable of launching many guerilla type attacks and assassinations of key individuals. But their ability and capacity is limited unless greater input from the north is received.

 

It is doubtful whether the current “eastern” strength can enable the LTTE to conduct a major offensive to retake territory or reverse the current military balance of power.

 

This can be possible only if the LTTE hierarchy is willing and able to induct men and material in a big way from the North to East. This is highly unlikely because the LTTE high command is concentrating on retaining the Wanni at present. The security forces are knocking on the “gates” of many different entry points to the Wanni.

 

The Wanni too is highly vulnerable now. So the tigers will give priority to the Wanni and not the east. It is not in LTTE interests to dilute manpower and firepower by sending a portion to the East at this critical juncture.

 

Even if the LTTE was to send reinforcements, there is a big question of “how”? The security forces now dominate the Eastern sea coast. The LTTE can beach a boat or two discreetly but will find it difficult to mount a massive naval offensive.

 

The only land-based link between the Eastern and northern cadres is the “beirut” trail. This is a jungle based “route” between the jungles of Kudumbimalai/Thoppigala to Manalaaru/ Weli – Oya. Many of these jungle tracts are in areas populated by Sinhalese and Muslims.

 

Tiger groups have revived use of this trail now. It would however require much effort to utilise the same “beirut trail” for a reverse flow and transport men and materials necessary for an Eastern assault.

 

It has to be remembered that such an operation was not conducted even when Karuna was Eastern regional commander of the LTTE.

 

Today the situation is one where a breakaway faction ostensibly led by “Col.” Karuna is cooperating fully with the security forces. The “Karuna cadres” know all about the “beirut trail.” It is only a matter of time before combined units of security forces and Karuna cadres commence jungle-patrolling.

 

Even if the LTTE mobility via the Beirut trail is not stopped entirely, the possibilities of large-scale tiger movement could be effectively curtailed.

 

One development that could transform this climate drastically is a tiger victory in Weli – Oya/Manalaaru. If the LTTE can overrun this region and remove the military presence there, it would seriously undermine the security forces in the North-East.

 

 In such a situation the tigers could launch effective attacks against military installations in Trincomalee district. More importantly, north-east transport would be made much easy.

 

Again it must be pointed out that the LTTE could not overrun Weli Oya/ Manalaaru earlier when the tigers were perceived to be much stronger than now.

 

There are other reasons also that militate against large – scale offensives by the LTTE in the East.

 

Firstly the security forces have displayed a pugnacious tenacity unseen before. Massive aerial bombardment and artillery shelling has seriously undermined the helpless Tamil civilians. Displaced Tamils have not returned home yet.

 

The ordinary Tamils in the east will not like resumption of hostilities. They would prefer that the LTTE leave them alone while they try to pick up pieces of their shattered lives. There won’t be public sympathy for a tiger assault.

 

Secondly the Muslims are alienated from the LTTE.  So are the Sinhalese. This provides greater strength to the security forces while handicapping the LTTE.

 

Thirdly the LTTE split has weakened it considerably. With the Karuna cadres on the side of the security forces the power balance has altered dramatically in favour of Colombo.

 

Against this backdrop, the prospects of the LTTE trying to retake lost eastern territory or reversing the situation is highly improbable.

 

What is most likely is a series of guerilla attacks on army, police and STF patrols, lightning raids on Police stations, posts and small army outposts. Sniping; landmine ambushes; and assassination of politicians and administrators perceived as agents or collaborators of the regime.

 

While keeping the Eastern cauldron boiling, these types of action cannot reverse the military situation. It can only invite reprisals and make life hell for the civilians.

 

These LTTE attempts will be counter balanced by the regime’s ruthless resolve to retain the east at any cost. The Rajapaksa government is blowing up the Eastern victory to enormous proportions. With such a political investment, it is of utmost importance to retain its hold militarily.

 

If the LTTE does display any sign of making a comeback, brutal retaliation will be underway. The reign of terror unleashed in Jaffna will be replicated more intensively here. The Karuna and Douglas groups will be the instruments of terror. The STF too has a terrible past.

 

In such a situation where two powerful forces clash for domination, the helpless civilians will bear the brunt as usual.

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