Thoppigala – The Inside Story

August 29, 2007

It was a sunny morning on Saturday, July 28. The swirling rotors of an Air Force Bell VIP helicopter stirred up a cloud of dust and dry grass as it slowly settled down in an open patch surrounded by thick jungle.

Troops clapped as the door swung open.

The visitors dismounted. They were Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Donald Perera and Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka. Unlike the highly publicised event at Independence Square on July 19, there were no television cameras, radio commentators or media corps. A lone official camera operator took photographs of this short ceremony. It was being held at Thoppigala. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa laid a commemorative plaque watched by the VIP visitors and troops.

He was then at his residence in Los Angeles and thus chose to give a slip, like his brother Basil Rajapaksa, to the Independence Square ceremonies. They were telecast live countrywide on TV and broadcast on radio. The move was intended to obviate criticism that together with their brother President Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa, they ran the military and the country. Whether the absence helped erase that wide public perception is doubtful. Even if the nation did not see him, the Defence Secretary wanted the troops to know that he, the one who ran the military machine, acknowledged their role.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa had declared in an address to the nation that the Tiger rebels have all been driven out of the East. He wanted to be able to say that, more than anything else, to shore up the image of his Government. Allegations of human rights violations, killings, abductions, kidnappings, and the breakdown in law and order have all been having a telling effect on President Rajapaksa. He grew impatient when the military operations in the East dragged on.

At a meeting of the National Security Council on July 4, he asked Army Commander Lt. Gen. Fonseka why there was a delay in capturing the last bit of rebel dominated territory – Thoppigala. Troops had so rapidly seized the Mavil Aru, Sampur, Kathiraveli and Vakarai areas. It is those actions that had forced the rebels to concentrate in the midst of the jungles of Thoppigala. The military operations to seize areas west of the A-5 Maha Oya – Chenkaladi Road had been launched on April 8. President Rajapaksa set a deadline for July 11, the date of the next meeting of the Council, to accomplish the task. If that was not possible, the Army was to explain why it could not be executed.

By the time the Presidential deadline was set, the Army’s intelligence operatives had confirmed that only a group of 200 rebels were holed up in Thoppigala. Others were making a hasty retreat. They opined that the delay was to give them time to escape safely and at the same time inflict as much casualties as possible on the rebels. In that week the Air Force stepped up air raids over Thoppigala. The rebels stepped up mortar barrages on advancing troops. This made their march difficult through open terrain and passage through the hill tracts.

Unlike the failed rebel attack on troops at the positions in Muhamalai on August 11, last year, there were no close quarter battles in Thoppigala. It was a war of stand off weapons – artillery (from the Army), mortars and sniper fire from the rebels. That was why, unlike at Muhamalai, there were no gory photographs of rebel dead bodies lying strewn in the battlefields. Despite official claims of hundreds of rebels being killed, no such photographs of those who died ever surfaced. Nor did photographs of vehicles being destroyed ever surface. Not despite official claims which spoke of immobilizing them. The absence of close quarter battles meant casualties on both sides were much less than claimed.

Even if Army officers insisted that the rebels have been cornered and would have to fight to a finish, the ground reality was different. Thoppigala and its environs were much larger in size than the City of Colombo. Though the troops had blocked escape routes, the rebels found many areas from which they could make a safe exit. Lt. Gen. Fonseka kept the pressure on Brigadier Chagi Gallage, Commanding Officer of the Army’s Task Force One to expedite the last phase of seizing Thoppigala. As the deadline neared, Army officials feared it was not possible. Hence, they told a conference at the Public Administration Ministry, held to plan out ceremonies on July 19, that it could not be done.

But Brig. Gallage’s troops had cleared a path and reached Thoppigala by the morning of July 11. This was with barely hours to go for the National Security Council meeting where President Rajapaksa set the deadline. The Army was in a hurry and leaked the story that they had already captured Thoppigala. Unaware of the developments, initially the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) denied the claims. It was only on the night of July 11 that both agreed that Thoppigala in fact had been re-captured. That was how President Rajapaksa’s congratulatory message was distributed during the night of July 11.
As euphoria spread amongst Government leaders, the Leader of the Opposition and United National Party, Ranil Wickremesinghe was to publicly announce that some 800 to 1,000 rebels had been allowed to escape. This, together with his earlier remarks that Thoppigala was a jungle area, and thus not giving credit to the troops for their actions, did cause some faux pas. Firstly, there were not more than 200 rebels in Thoppigala at the time of the re-capture.

But to a Government which was content on only press releases and rhetoric by a myriad of spokesmen at news conferences, the significance of Wickremesinghe’s remarks were lost. They failed to exploit it to their advantage. If, as claimed, some 800 to 1,000 rebels were allowed to escape from Thoppigala, it naturally raises an important issue. One is that the Army hierarchy allowed them safe passage, a charge that impacted badly on them. In other words, Wickremesinghe is saying that the Army, the backbone of the country’s national security, was responsible for allowing the enemy to escape. The fact that the remarks did not go down well from the soldier to the officer is no secret.
Once again, if as claimed, the rebels did take advantage of such a safe passage to flee the area, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had become militarily weaker. Thus, Wickremesinghe is confirming the Government’s assertion, though questionable, that the LTTE has been militarily weakened. The Government’s media advisors failed to seize the lack of foresight in Wickremesinghe’s argument. Like in the case of the Police raid on the Army’s intelligence cell at Athugiriya, when he was Prime Minister, Wickremesinghe had apparently been ill informed.

Did the security forces, as claimed by their Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief, President Rajapaksa rid the East of all rebel presence? The answer is no. One need not be privy to top secret information to realize that the claim is unfounded. Just four days after the re-capture of Thoppigala, the rebels shot dead the Chief Secretary of the Eastern Provincial Council, Herath Abeyweera. And recently, the Special Task Force (STF) of the Police had killed five rebels including an area leader during operations in Ampara.
Army’s own intelligence operatives have reported that groups of LTTE cadres fled Thoppigala to several areas  in Trincomalee. They included Kumburupiddy, Kadawana and Peraru. Some of these groups later found their way to the Wanni. The others have shifted to Ampara where they have begun opening up new bases. It is known that the LTTE intelligence bases that operated in the Batticaloa West area have now shifted to Ampara. Intercepts of radio communications by the STF have confirmed that these intelligence bases are regularly in touch with LTTE bases in the Wanni.

Thus, with small groups operating in Trincomalee and Ampara, which are two of three districts in the East (the other is Batticaloa), the threat factor remains. It only takes a few rebels albeit one or two to carry out assassinations or sabotage. Thus, the Government’s ambitious development programmes, the proposed elections to provincial councils and local bodies are fraught with danger. Some senior security officials have proposed that candidates could be secured in one central area under armed protection. But the central question is how they could win elections without mixing with the people.
A much bigger concern after the reported re-capture of the East is fears that the Rajapaksa administration is trying to convert the security forces as its new constituency. This is because it has lost the support of a larger mass of people over a number of issues, most importantly the rising cost of living. This will exacerbate further with the latest increase in fuel and flour prices.

Signs that Rajapaksa is getting the military slowly but surely involved in governance have become clearly evident. With the victory in the East, the Commander of the Security Forces there, Major General Parakrama Pannipitiya, had directed Government Agents, senior Police and security officials that grass roots level committees for development should be headed by the military or the Police.
The fact that such a directive has come from an Army officer in charge of the East is questionable enough. The worst is how he could give such rulings which are matters of Government policy and should be decided upon by the political leadership. On the other hand, if he had in fact been told to issue those instructions, it portends a new trend where the military and the police will be involved in not only development work but governance too.

With the reported re-capture of the East where the Government claims it has driven out the rebels, military offensives are to begin shortly in the North. Thus, a Ceasefire Agreement, now only on paper, remains forgotten. Even if it has increased its strength, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission will remain impotent. Though undeclared, Eelam War IV is set to reach newer heights as the nation’s economy and the cost of living hit a new low.

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One Response to “Thoppigala – The Inside Story”

  1. N said

    Perhaps you meant the cost of living hit a new high?

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