Wishful thinking - or simply deceptive lies?

[TamilNet, Monday, 28 July 1997, 23:59 GMT]
Last Thursday, the Sri Lankan army spokesman, Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe, claimed that the Tigers were being defeated and that victory was in sight. Paradoxically, his comments were made as the SLA's biggest offensive remained stalled following fierce LTTE counter attacks. However, the moral boosting claims also come at a time when the SLA is desperately trying to recruit more troops and to coax thousands of deserters back into service.

At a news conference, Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe declared "The LTTE are on the final run" and went on to say "They will keep on running and we will keep pushing them northwards".

However, several hundred miles north of Colombo, the SLA's 53rd and 55th Divisions remain stalled following two devastating LTTE counter attacks on the SLA's much vaunted Operation 'Jaya Sikuru' which was launched over two months ago. 'Jaya Sikuru' means 'Sure Victory' in Sinhalese.

After a rapid initial advance unopposed across no man's land, the predominantely Sinhalese army ran into stiff Tamil resistance. In the two counter attacks, the Tigers overran the 55th Brigade HQ and a major fire-base, killing over 425 Sinhalese soldiers, destroying 5 tanks and two massive ammunition dumps and capturing artillery, vehicles and a large quantity of small arms.

Munasinghe also colourfully stated last Thursday that "There is nothing left there except that road and, once we take it, there is no place for them to run but to the east and jump into the sea," in reference to the highway that runs through the Vanni region, linking army held Vavuniya to the Jaffna peninsula.

However, the Tigers are in effective control of 80% of the east of the island, according to western military analysts and even the SLA. The LTTE is also waging a sustained guerrilla campaign in the Jaffna peninsula, captured by the SLA nearly 18 months ago.

The predominantly Sinhalese Sri Lankan defence forces are struggling to mass enough men for their war in the Tamil homelands. Several recent recruitment campaigns have failed to attract any significant numbers of Sinhalese youth, as many are convinced that the government is concealing the intensity of the conflict.

For many recruits, the army is merely a means of employment rather than a cause. Despite Sri Lanka's severe unemployment problem, the high probability of being deployed in combat against the Tamil Tigers is a powerful dissuader for most youths.

Hence, to motivate the Sinhala youth to join, the Sri Lankan military is forced to give the impression that the fighting is almost over. When the Sri Lankan army captured the Tamil cultural capital of Jaffna in late 1995, it saw a massive rise in applicants as the Sinhalese people became convinced that complete victory over the Tamils was only months away.

Subsequently, as the Tigers regrouped in the Vanni and launched sustained guerrilla campaigns in the east of the island and the Jaffna peninsula, the flow of applicants dried up.

Whilst banning the press from the Tamil homelands has concealed the horrors being inflicted on the Tamil people from the outside world, it has also contributed to the rumour mill in the south of the island, where the Sinhalese people are increasingly suspicious of government versions of events in the North-East.

The Sri Lankan military has a well known tendency to exaggerate its claims of Tiger casualties while playing down its own losses, in a bid to sustain morale within its own ranks and the Sinhala population in general.

The Sri Lankan army has declared an amnesty to woo back tens of thousands of soldiers who had deserted over the past few years. Simultaneously, the MoD has been issuing regular claims of attacks on the Tigers and saying that hundreds of Tigers were being killed. The Sri Lankan government's ban on the press ensures that independent verification of these claims is impossible.

Cartoon Recruitment

The LTTE declaration that they were going to cut off Sri Lankan supply lines to the Jaffna peninsula has hit Sri Lankan army morale badly, as an estimated 40,000 troops could be effectively marooned in Jaffna, if the LTTE carries out its threat.

Accordingly, many of the recent claims issued by the Sri Lankan MoD has been of attacks on LTTE boats in which hundreds of Tamil fighters are claimed to have died. The impression the MoD wishes to project is that the SLN is defeating the elite Sea Tiger service, and that troops sent to the peninsula could return home at will. However, Sri Lanka has lost several gunboats in Sea Tiger attacks, and the Tiger threat has already severely reduced Sri Lankan supply trips to the peninsula.

According to western analysts, up to 10,000 soldiers are deserting the SLA each year, a number supported by Jane's defence publications. Most desertions are attributed to disillusionment that sets in as new recruits are deployed in the Tamil homelands, and realise the intensity of the conflict.

The LTTE, by contrast, is recruiting actively, and defense analysts are of the opinion that it has preserved much of its fighting strength despite several army offensives, a view privately confirmed to Asia Week magazine by Sri Lankan military intelligence officers.

Although Brig. Munasinghe claimed that LTTE fighting strength had dropped to 4000, Sri Lankan intelligence admit that the Tigers have at least 15,000 fighters under arms, and that this number is growing.

The Sri Lankan government has often told the Sinhalese people that the victory over the Tamils was imminent. In December 1995, following the capture of Jaffna the Deputy Defence Minister, Anuradha Ratwatte declared that the war would be over by February 1996. In February, he said the war would be over by April 1996; and in April he said the Tigers would be defeated by September 1996. The current promise is that the war would be over by end of 1997.

In early July 1996, in an interview to Jane's Defence publications, the SLA's chief, Lieut. General Rohan Daluwatte stated confidently that the LTTE no longer had the military capability to concentrate forces for major assaults on battalion sized government bases.

However, even as he was speaking, the LTTE was massing troops for just such an attack and a few weeks later devastated the SLA's military complex at Mullaitivu, killing at least 1200 Sinhalese soldiers and capturing a vast quantity of arms, including two 122mm artillery pieces.

Since then, the Tigers have been steadily building up their offensive capability: they have overrun a number of other SLA bases, taking other artillery pieces, mortars and large quantities of small arms. Hi-tech equipment such as night vision devices, radars and sophisticated communication sets have also been captured.

Brig. Munasinghe's comments are intended to bolster morale amongst the Sinhala people and to convince the army deserters to return. However, given his track record of inappropriate and inaccurate statements on behalf of the army, he does not seem concerned about the possibility of yet another faux pax.

The Sri Lankan army spokesman, Brig. Sarath Munasinghe has been economical with the truth on several occasions. A few such examples are listed below.

17 July 96

Munasinghe says that Tamils were not being arrested unfairly as strict procedures of informing the police, families and issuing of detention orders ensured this would not happen. "We have not had a single complaint in the recent past," he said.

[Despite Munasinghe's opinion, thousands of Tamils have been arrested in Colombo on the basis of their ethnicity alone and held without charge, sometimes for years. The problem has been highlighted by several human rights groups, including Amnesty International. Procedures are routinely ignored by security forces.]

8 August 96

"We have never said we want to take the town of Kilinochchi. We have never stated our objectives publicly."

[Munasinghe changes his story as an earlier boast of taking Kilinochchi within days appears premature amid stiff Tiger resistance.]

"We have sorted out the Tigers who were still hiding in Valigamam (Jaffna)''

[Munasinghe's boast came as the LTTE continued to wage an effective guerrilla campaign in the Jaffna peninsula, several months after the Sri Lankans declared they were in 'total control' of the region. The resistance continues to intensify]

12 August 1996

"We do not believe in shelling for the sake of shelling"

[The Sri Lankan artillery bases regularly launch indiscriminate attacks on the surrounding Tamil villages and towns. Much of Jaffna city had been reduced to rubble by shelling from the Palaly SLA base, even before the SLA launched an all out assault on the city. The indiscriminate shelling is intentionally punitive, and an inherent part of Sri Lanka's war strategy.]

25 September 1997

Munasinghe said that a curfew had been imposed but there were hardly any civilians in the areas where the fighting was concentrated, adding that the few civilians had been warned to get to safer locations.

[The Sri Lankan army was using artillery, air power and armour to attack Kilinochchi town crowded with 200,000 Tamil civilians. Even the Red Cross was forced to flee as shells smashed into Kilinochchi hospital. He also did not say how exactly the civilians had been warned or where the 'safer areas' were.]

Munasinghe said troops had advanced seven kilometres (four miles) amid intense Tamil resistance.

[In fact the first 5 kilometres had been across open ground and the LTTE had not resisted. The last two kilometers were taken after heavy fighting lasting several days, despite the SLA deploying tanks, artillery and aircraft.]

"Most of the army casualties are due to mortar bomb attacks"

[During the SLA's Operation 'Sath Jaya', most casualties were suffered when the LTTE counterattacked, and inflicted heavy losses on an army column in hand to hand fighting. The remaining SLA losses were sustained when the advancing columns became mired in a maze of LTTE trenches and bunkers.]

28 September 1996

"Our aim is to draw out the terrorists and kill as many as possible. We are achieving that already"

[Munasinghe attempts to play down the painfully slow progress of Operation Sath Jaya. However, contrary to his claim, the LTTE resolutely avoided being drawn out of their carefully laid bunkers and trenches when the Sri Lankan column swung wide around them, and did not sustain heavy casualties as a result.]

29 September 1996

"All the shops in Kilinochchi had been looted by the time we got in."

[Munasinghe fails to mention the Sri Lankan government's economic embargo on the Tamil homelands ruthlessly enforced for several years (which had reduced the amount of food in the Vanni to critical levels), and blames the Tigers for the shortage of food and other essentials.]

"All the good buildings had been blasted to deprive us of using them as shelters for troops."

[Munasinghe fails to mention the incessant bombardment the Sri Lankans had unleashed on Kilinochchi town for several weeks, using artillery, tanks and a continuous bombing campaign. The Red Cross confirmed that the town had suffered severe damage due to Sri Lankan shelling and bombing.]

Munasinghe said the military's main achievement was depriving the Tigers of the control they had exercised over some 200,000 Tamil civilians in the region.

[Munasinghe fails to mention that the 200,000 residents of Kilinochchi, and all the international aid workers in the area had actually fled deeper into LTTE controlled territory and were being harassed by Sri Lankan artillery and air strikes.]

"This appears to be last ditch battle for the Tigers. They are throwing everything they have into this. Cadres from other areas are also being pressed into service."

[Munesinghe plays up significance of the attack on Kilinochchi town, and seeks to justify a painfully slow advance. Since this statement, the LTTE has overrun half a dozen significant Sri Lankan army bases in different parts of the island, killing thousands of Sinhalese soldiers. The Tigers have also shot down at least 9 Sri Lankan aircraft and destroyed several Sri Lankan gunboats.]

10 June 1997

"There are casualties on both sides and we still don't know the exact details," and adds that troops had begun "clearing operations" in the area.

[Munasinghe glosses over the ongoing LTTE attack on the SLA's Thandikulum head quarters. It later transpires that far from undertaking 'clearing operations', the Sri Lankans were abandoning the HQ of the 55th Division, which the LTTE subsequently occupied for a day after these comments].

12 June 1997

"We are quite capable of sorting things out on our own militarily as far as the LTTE is concerned"

[Munasinghe commenting on the involvement of Pakistani officers in the latest SLA operation. He failed to mention the Ukrainians, Russians, Chinese, Israeli personnel assisting the Sri Lankan military, the American training teams on the island and the deployment of the Indian Navy to interdict Tiger ships. He also fails to mention the Sri Lankan governments oft repeated demand that other countries should 'support' their fight against 'terrorism']

13 June 1997

"The Tigers tried to cut off our men and hit them badly. They failed and got a severe mauling."

[Munasinghe commenting on a devastating LTTE attack on the SLA's 55th Brigade HQ. The Tigers blew up a bridge cutting off the HQ from the bulk of the Brigade's troops, destroyed two massive Sri Lankan ammunition dumps and 5 tanks, killed over 300 Sri Lankans and occupied the HQ (which is 10 miles inside SLA-occupied territory) for 36 hours, before moving back undetected to their own lines. The Tigers lost 80 fighters.]

"Tigers are desperate and are trying hard to stop our advance"

[Munasinghe commenting on a second LTTE assault that devastated a major Sri Lankan fire-base, killing over 100 SLA troops, and stalling the Sri Lankan offensive. The 'desperate' Tigers had subsequently leisurely withdrawn from the 2 mile wide breach they punched in the SLA's flank, taking artillery, vehicles and a large haul of small arms and ammunition with them.]

3 July 1997

"This is a sign of desperation on the part of the LTTE. They don't want civilians to use this ferry and go back to the Jaffna peninsula."

[Munasinghe commenting on the destruction of a Sri Lankan troop transport ship masquerading as a civilian ferry.]

"People said we captured a ghost town in 1995 but I am happy to say today that there are more than half a million people living normal lives in those area."

[Munasinghe failed to mention why 18 months after the Jaffna peninsula was captured by Sri Lankan troops, the international press, human rights organisations and government observers are not allowed to freely visit the people 'living normal lives', without being chaperoned by the Sri Lankan military.]

10 July 1997

"Arrangements have been made, but I can't give you details due to security reasons"

[Munasinghe commenting on what the Sri Lankans were going to do to protect their supply ships, given the LTTE interdiction of two vessels. Since this statement, supply trips to the Sri Lankan army garrison on the Jaffna peninsula have been severely reduced.]

July 14, 1997

Munasinghe said parents of deserters had asked the army to declare an amnesty to send their children back for duty.

[Munasinghe commenting on the extension of the amnesty for deserters from the Sri Lankan army. He failed to mention the lack of interest shown by deserters in the amnesty so far, or the recruitment difficulties being faced by the Sri Lankan military.]


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