Feature Article

A long year on the road

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 13 May 1998, 23:59 GMT]
Exactly one year ago, the Sri Lankan military began the largest military campaign in its history. Preceded by a massive artillery and aerial bombardment, over 20,000 Sri Lankan troops, led by elite Special Forces, broke out of their fortifications at Vavuniya and Manal Aru and pushed into the LTTE-controlled Vanni. The Sri Lankan government had much riding on the outcome of the operation, optimistically code-named 'Jaya Sikirui' ('Victory Assured' in Sinhala).

Jaya Sikirui's stated objective was to capture the A9 highway, running from Vavuniya to the Jaffna peninsula, thereby allowing the establishment of a main supply route (MSR) to the SLA's Jaffna garrison. Jaya Sikirui was also meant to engage and draw the LTTE out of its secure jungle bases into open killing fields where the Tiger military machine could be crippled - if not destroyed - by the SLA's superior firepower.

Establishment of the MSR would enable the Jaffna garrison to contribute men and material for subsequent operations against a (hopefully weakened/crippled) LTTE in the jungles of Mullaitivu. The Sri Lankan navy could be freed from protecting supply convoys to Jaffna, to focus on battling the 'Sea Tigers' (an expanding naval unit which allows the LTTE considerable flexibility in its strategic options).

Apart from serving as an MSR to Jaffna, the captured strip of land the A9 runs through would also serve as an effective forward area for further operations into the Tiger rear areas.

Thus, the Sri Lankan military could have expected a weakened LTTE to be brought under further military pressure, and its broken remnants mopped up - hopeful in time for Sri Lanka's 50th independence anniversary celebrations (due nine months from Jaya Sikirui's start date). Jaya Sikirui was expected to take 4 months to complete.

Therefore, assuming the road was opened swiftly, and the LTTE hurt badly in defending it, the Sri Lankan government would be able to reduce the 'Tamil problem' to a low-intensity guerrilla war by the end of 1997 - a kind of war the Sri Lankans are confident of winning quickly (using tactics and strategies developed against the JVP in the south ). Victory over the LTTE did indeed seem assured.

So, how has Jaya Sikirui fared?

On its first anniversary, some failures are self-evident: much of the A9 (between Mankulam and Kilinochchi) remains firmly in LTTE hands. The LTTE military machine, though bloodied (the LTTE has admitted to losing about 1300 fighters in defence of the road), remains largely intact. Ferocious Tiger counter-attacks have meant the SLA has not only been unable to launch further attacks into the LTTE's rear areas, it has been struggling to simply protect captured areas.

LTTE Captured TankJaya Sikirui is, now, the longest running military operation in the history of internal conflict, and the longest in South Asia since WWII. The Tigers are holding Mankulam and the southern parts of Kilinochchi, and the SLA has been unable to dislodge them, despite several determined thrusts.

Furthermore, the SLA has taken a battering during Jaya Sikirui. Though the SLA officially admits to losing only about 1350 soldiers, the SLA has a history of playing down its casualty figures and the LTTE claims to have killed over 3000 troops, a figure which independent western analysts say are credible.

Casualty figures themselves do not reveal all. Much of the casualties have been sustained by the SLA's elite 53 division, which comprises of the Air Mobile and Special forces and to some extent the 54 division, which have borne the brunt of the fighting. The SLA's armoured corps also, has taken significant losses, with at least fifteen main battle tanks and other armoured vehicles destroyed during the year.

These losses were sustained as the LTTE intercepted and beat back SLA advances into the Vanni and as the LTTE counter- attacked at certain points during the campaign. The LTTE's use of artillery and heavy mortars have been critical to its ability to stem the Jaya Sikirui advance, along with fields of complex defences built around strategic towns and villages in the region, such as Kanakarayam Kulam, Puliyankulam, Nedunkerni, Omanthai and Mankulam, the location of the SLA's current impasse.

The LTTE, by contrast, sustained most of its casualties during its counter-attacks on the SLA, such as at Thandikulam (9 June 97), Omanthai (25 June 97), Nedunkerni (16 July 97), Puthur (15 September 97) Karappukkuththi/Vingnanakulam (5-7 October 97), Mannakulam (4 December 97) and Kilinochchi (1 February 98).

Furthermore, during these attacks, the LTTE has expanded its arsenal considerably, capturing a 122mm artillery piece (taking its total to 5), scores of 81mm and 60mm mortars, hundreds of machine guns and RPG launchers and thousands of assault rifles. Over a million rounds of 7.62mm ammunition were captured in one week- long engagement alone, along with over 16,000 mortar rounds. In all, the LTTE captured enough military hardware to equip several thousand new recruits.

As Operation Jaya Sikirui rolled into the Vanni, waves of Tamil refugees were displaced from its path. The widespread and indiscriminate shelling and bombing inflicted considerable hardship on the civilian population, which was compounded by a strict blockade on food and medicine.

SLA advanceThe net result was a fresh flood of volunteers for the LTTE. Even in July 1997, Sri Lankan military intelligence offices told Asia Week magazine that the LTTE already had at least 15,000 full time fighters. Western military analysts say that the LTTE has a similar number of 'auxiliaries' as well.

In effect, combining the LTTE's recent recruitment, and its acquisition of military hardware since Operation Jaya Sikirui began, the LTTE has actually expanded its military capability in the past year, according to both Sri Lankan and western analysts who have followed the developments in the Vanni. The LTTE has built up its manpower and firepower such that it has hinted at intentions to achieve 'military parity' with the Sri Lankan government.

By contrast, despite fielding a total of 95000 (predominantly ethnic Sinhala) troops, with over 30,000 (possibly 40,000) in the Jaya Sikirui area alone, the SLA says it is desperately short of manpower to push through and open the MSR. The SLA cites desertion as a major reason it is unable to reach 'critical mass', and admits to 19,000 soldiers going AWOL. Some analysts insist the number is higher, with front-line units being hit hardest.

Currently, the latest amnesty to coax SLA deserters back to duty has, like such previous programs, produced lacklustre results. The SLA is also conducting a recruitment program in Sinhala high schools in the South, which has run into controversy. The SLA says it intends to persuade youngsters to join after they leave school, but others, including Opposition politicians, say that in desperation the army is trying to push 15 year olds into its ranks.

Some supporters of the Sri Lankan 'MSR first' strategy are nevertheless undaunted. They point out that the SLA has actually made a serious incursion into LTTE territory, that the LTTE has had to come out and fight and expose itself - at least to a limited extent, and that above all, that the SLA currently retains the initiative in the war.

Furthermore, they maintain that given time the SLA's numerical superiority (and a state's resources) will swamp the LTTE - eventually. They acknowledge that the LTTE has fought back more bitterly than might have been anticipated (given its behaviour in earlier operations), but are convinced that the LTTE will not be able to last the distance.

Such enthusiasm is not reflected across the rank and file of the SLA. Apart from the demoralising effect of numerous failed assaults on LTTE positions (for example the small Tiger detachment at Puliyankulam held out for six months against the repeated SLA armour-led thrusts), the Jaya Sikirui units have been forced to spend several months in the monsoon mud. Diseases have also taken their toll.

The LTTE, on the other hand seems not to have suffered major morale problems, despite the massive aerial bombing and shelling campaign conducted by the SLAF and SLA. Operating in areas and conditions it has lived in for years (particularly 1988-1989), the LTTE seems to be untroubled by the monsoons, despite the economic blockage on areas it controls.

Furthermore, the SLA is particularly concerned that simply having been able to stem Jaya Sikirui's might for a whole year will boost morale amongst the Tigers. Inevitably, the SLA will consider the celebrations underway in areas controlled by the LTTE in this light.

So what does the MSR mean for both sides now?

The SLA has pinned everything on opening the A9 soon. The much publicised promises of the Deputy Defence Minister A. Ratwatte to complete Jaya Sikirui by September 97, then by November 97, then February 98 and finally April 98 have added to the SLA's embarrassment over the affair. To abandon the project now would be unthinkable and would crush morale, perhaps irretrievably.

The Sri Lankan government too, has much riding on the A9, politically. The government has discarded the peaceful option with regards to the Tamil question and thrown everything into a swift military victory over the LTTE and in turn, along with the defence establishment on securing 'the road'.

The SLA believes that the MSR, once established will split the LTTE controlled Vanni into two. Ideally, from the Sri Lankan viewpoint, the bulk of the LTTE will be in the jungle dominated east, with most of the Vanni populace in the west. This way, the SLA can bring increasing pressure (military and economic) to bear on the east, forcing any civilians to flee into the west, crossing the MSR. The Sri Lankan navy would be freed from convoy duties to help blockade the eastern section and battle the Sea Tigers, who would be vital to the LTTE's survival in the area.

The LTTE, for its part, contrary to expectations, seems not to have thrown all its assets into the defence of the A9, a situation it seems increasingly content with. According to Sri Lankan analysts, the LTTE has operated a strategy of limited resistance, giving up a section of the road once resistance there has bought it a certain amount of time - and inflicted a certain amount of pain on the SLA.

By contrast, the LTTE has focused on building up its capabilities in the eastern province - a task made easier by the withdrawal of army, navy and police units in the region in support of 'Jaya Sikirui'. In fact the LTTE has been doing so for over two years now, and is now in effective control of over 80% of this vast province. (Some observers believed that the LTTE was upping the ante in the east to distract the SLA from 'Jaya Sikirui', but if this was the case, the SLA has not taken the bait.)

The A9 corridor is, as for as the LTTE is concerned, is an area in which the SLA - now - absolutely has to operate in, at any cost, for as long as it takes. The LTTE seems satisfied that the SLA has irretrievably mired itself along the A9. So much so that the Tigers are actually celebrating in areas they control (and celebrations are said to be planned within the Tamil Diaspora also).

By dragging out the fight for the A9 for over a year, the LTTE has turned what could have been a significant victory for the SLA into a belated chore that needs to be completed to simply maintain international credibility. This is already a pyrrhic 'victory'.

Even assuming that the opening of the A9 is achieved at some point, it is certain that securing the MSR will not, as was once expected, mean that victory over the LTTE is assured.


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