Monday, 13 August 2012

How the media propagated ‘a war that can’t be won’ theory

War on terror revisited: Part 27


By Shamindra Ferdinando 
A section of the women participants at a passing out parade of civilians at Lt. Malathi Sports ground, Puthukkudiyirruppu in Mullaitivu, on Sunday 4 June 2006. The event, presided over by Pongu Thamil co-ordinator Vinthan, the LTTE’s Head of Women’s Political Wing, Thamilini, lit the ‘flame of sacrifice’. The LTTE’s Head of Education Section, and Senior LTTE member, V Ilankumaran, hoisted the Tamil Eelam flag. ‘Col’. Ramesh and ‘Co’. Soosai addressed the gathering. At the conclusion of the conflict, Thamilini was captured and detained by the security forces. She is currently undergoing rehabilitation.

On March 22, 2007 online Bloomberg news agency quoted defence and political analysts as having said that Sri Lanka’s war couldn’t be won by either side.

A story captioned ‘Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger Rebels Fight a War That Can’t be Won,’ by Colombo based Anusha Ondaatjie, quoted head of terrorism research at Singapore’s Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Rohan Gunaratna as having asserted: "Continuing the current spate of violence is not going to bring about a different outcome or change the status quo. Both parties have developed significant support to be able to recover from losses, but this type of warfare is protracted." Gunaratna declared: "What is needed is a negotiated settlement to the conflict."

The website also quoted Gunaratna as having claimed: "The two parties have decided to fight each other", hence conveniently forgotten the circumstances leading to eelam war IV in Aug 2006. The government responded to the LTTE military challenge reluctantly, after making a desperate bid to revive the Norwegian initiative.

Three months after Dr. Gunaratne stressed the need for a negotiated settlement, the military liberated the entire Eastern Province.

Commenting on the split caused by Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna, Sanjana Hattotuwa, a senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) was also quoted by Bloomberg as having said, "Karuna’s departure was a major debacle to the LTTE in the East, but it will be a stretch for the government to think they can liberate Jaffna using Karuna."

About three months before the liberation of the Eastern Province, the newly raised 57 Division launched operations west of the A9 road.

GR, SF vow to finish off LTTE

The Rajapaksa government, unlike its predecessors, didn’t take any notice of such pessimistic opinion on the war effort. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Army chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka remained confident of annihilating the LTTE through military means. The military laughed off the Bloomberg report.

In fact, some of those who had commented on the status of the conflict in early 2007 failed to realise the true impact of the Navy going after the LTTE fleet in the high seas. The Bloomberg posted its report online four days after the Navy destroyed two LTTE floating warehouses in the high seas. Before the Navy achieved that success, a joint Navy and SLAF attack had destroyed an LTTE ship carrying ammunition off Kalmunai on Sept 17, 2006. It was followed by another successful attack on a ship on Feb 28, 2007.

A section of the media cleverly peddled that the LTTE had retained its conventional military capability to face any eventuality in the Northern Province, though the organisation could be compelled to give up the East for tactical reasons. The international community took that assessment quite seriously, in spite of the government declaring its intention to defeat the LTTE.

Lt. Gen. Fonseka did not mince his words, in an interview with The Island on May 11, 2007, when he said that the LTTE was on the verge of collapse in the Eastern Province and a major resettlement project could get underway as early as May 14, 2007 in the Batticaloa District (Army clears the way for resettlement in the East––The Island of May 12, 2007). In the same interview, he said that the army was engaged in offensive action north-east of Vavuniya and that the LTTE had to be eradicated. The army had the strength to sustain two ground offensives simultaneously in the East and the North, he insisted.

Those sceptical of Sri Laka’s military strategy didn’t foresee the prospect of the LTTE being forced to fight on several fronts in the Vanni.

Media intervention

Those who believed that the LTTE had the wherewithal to overwhelm the military on the Vanni front, based their assertion on LTTE propaganda disseminated by a section of the media. The LTTE had its own propaganda outfits, which bombarded local and international media with statements exaggerating the group’s military strength.

The Norwegians took the LTTE propaganda seriously. Obviously, it felt that the LTTE could turn the tables on the army in the Vanni.

A post-war evaluation of the Norwegian peace initiative, commissioned by the Norwegian government, exposed strategic miscalculation in the peacemaker’s strategy. The report, Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka 1997-2009, has highlighted Norway’s failure to comprehend the actual ground situation. Norway never realised the gradual deterioration of LTTE capabilities. It also failed to take into consideration the split in the LTTE, destruction of the LTTE’s floating warehouses and most importantly the GoSL’s resolve to finish off the LTTE, while assessing the group’s strength and weaknesses.

Bloomberg estimated the LTTE fighting cadre at 12,000 and plus a 4,000 strong Sea Tiger force.

According to the Norwegian evaluation, the mediation team involved in the Sri Lankan initiative in May 2007 asserted that all observers believed that the conflict couldn’t be won by military means, and the majority was of the opinion that the government wouldn’t be able to defeat the LTTE militarily. The report pointed out: "Strategic thinking thus tends to hinge on the premise that at some point, a new stalemate may emerge, either because the LTTE rolls back the frontline (as it did several times in the past), or resorts to guerrilla style tactics to avert defeat. In hindsight, Norway underestimated the GoSL’s strength, both militarily and politically. The team considered a wide range if likely and less likely scenarios, but (like most observers at the time), it did not reckon with the sequence of events that was to follow: a strong SLFP-led coalition and a military victory."

The LTTE remained intransigent as long as it sensed the multi-pronged ground offensive on the Vanni front could be halted and a devastating counter-strike mounted, which could off-set major battlefield victories of the army. Had the LTTE succeeded in eliminating Lt. Gen. Fonseka on April 2006 and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on Oct 1, 2006, President Rajapaksa wouldn’t have been able to keep the offensive on track.

SLMM backs down

The LTTE enjoyed the support of many NGOs as well as the five member Nordic truce monitoring mission to undermine SriLanka’s war efforts. On the eve of the 5th anniversary of the CFA, the truce monitoring mission said that 4,000 people had been killed during the past 15 months. The mission declined to provide The Island with a breakdown when this writer sought a clarification as regards the number of civilians who perished during that period. When pressed for an answer, the mission said that 1,500 of the 4,000 dead were civilians (SLMM backs down on breakdown; Changes figure to 1,500 from 4,000––The Island of March 12, 2007).

Although and websites operated by the army, navy and air force as well as the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS), kept the public informed of the day-to-day ground situation, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa regularly discussed policy issues. The Island had the opportunity to report critical statements attributed to the Defence Secretary, throughout the offensive. The Defence Secretary apprised US State Department official Steven Mann and the then US Ambassador Robert Blake on March 9, 2007 of the GoSL’s plan to finish off the LTTE. Mann visited Colombo in the wake of Sri Lanka and the US concluding an agreement, which would allow US ships and aircraft facilities at all SL bases. The Americans were told that there wouldn’t be peace as long as the LTTE retained its military capability (No halt to offensive against LTTE with strap line Lanka seeks more US support to stop arms flow––The Island of March 11, 2007).

Attack on chopper with envoys

On the morning of Feb 27, 2007, the LTTE fired seven rounds of 120mm mortars towards the Batticaloa air base and the Weber stadium, targeting a chopper. Among those caught in the mortar fire were several top diplomats, including UN representatives and US Ambassador Blake. Much to the embarrassment of the Colombo-based diplomatic community, Blake claimed that the LTTE wouldn’t have targeted the group had it known of his presence. Blake was speaking with Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama and Foreign Secretary Dr. Palitha Kohona (LTTE would not have attacked us if they knew I was there-BlakeThe Island of March 6).

Immediately after the mortar attack, the US Ambassador declared that he didn’t think the LTTE intended to target the diplomats. Basically, the US didn’t criticise the LTTE publicly, though it exerted pressure on the LTTE to return to the negotiating table. The LTTE quit direct talks in April 2003. In the run-up to the commencement of war in Aug 2006, the LTTE had insisted that it wouldn’t return to the negotiating table unless the GoSL agreed to the setting up of ISGA (Interim Self-Governing Authority) for the then temporarily merged North-Eastern Province.

But the Supreme Court directed that the Eastern Province be separated from the North, in Oct 16, 2006. A bench of five judges, headed by the then Chief Justice, Sarath Nanda Silva, ruled that the temporary merger of the Northern Province with the Eastern province was "unconstitutional, illegal and invalid."

The three petitioners, being residents of the Trincomalee and the Digamadulla Districts, within the Eastern Province, alleged infringement of their fundamental rights to the equal protection of the law, guaranteed by Article 12(l) of the Constitution.

Shortly after the SC declaration, the LTTE carried out a massive suicide attack at Digampothana, where it targeted a group of off duty navy personnel, killing over one hundred. The strike sent shock waves through the defence establishment. A section of the media predicted similar strikes unless the government gave up its military efforts.

The navy vowed to hit back.

Tigers arm civilians

Soon after the signing of the CFA in Feb 2002, the LTTE launched a special plan to enhance its media coverage. The LTTE expanded its media coverage to various parts of the world after the acquisition of satellite links. It had a way of justifying any wrongdoing with the support of the media. In fact, the LTTE strategies involved the media, with the latter directed to justify its actions. The LTTE cleverly exploited the failures on the part of successive governments to employ the media as a tool. Tamil politicians were made part of their operation. In the run-up to the outbreak of all-out fighting in Aug 2006, the LTTE launched a special project to involve civilians in their macabre project. Instead of forcing those living in areas under its control to take up arms, the LTTE brought media focus on the project to train civilians. The GoSL strongly objected to the LTTE move. Peace Secretariat chief Dr. Palitha Kohona and Army Chief of Staff, Maj Gen. Nanda Mallawarachchi urged the international community to take up the issue with the LTTE (Govt. expects international pressure on Tigers over use of civilians––The Island of July 3, 2006) . TamilNet on June 30, 2006 reported that 6,000 Tamil civilians living in Muttur east had received military training from the LTTE. That report highlighted a passing out parade of civilians at Sri Senbaga Maha Vidyalayam grounds, in Eachchilampattu.

The LTTE allowed some media outfits access to its fighting units. Parades held in Kilinochchi attracted the media. Pictures of young men and women suicide cadres and Sea Tigers operating fast attack craft or suicide cadres posing with LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran helped the organisation to attract more youth to its ranks. Abroad, such propaganda material facilitated fund raising projects, whereas the international community accepted LTTE propaganda as proof of its fighting strength.

On the other hand, regular visits undertaken by various foreign dignitaries too helped the LTTE to enhance its public image. The government failed to counter the LTTE propaganda campaign. Instead, it supported the LTTE project. Successive governments allowed the LTTE to use Rupavahini facilities to broadcast Prabhakaran’s heroes day message on Nov 27, which Colombo based local correspondents considered the LTTE’s policy statement.