SPECIAL REPORT : Part 68March 24, 2015, 6:08 pm
by Shamindra Ferdinando
High Security Zones (HSZs) had been an integral part of the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) defences in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The SLA had no option but to gradually expanded HSZs in the war-torn provinces, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula, to meet the growing threat posed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The gradual expansion of HSZs deprived a sizable Tamil speaking population of their rights.
The Navy and Air Force, too, maintained HSZs, depending on their requirements. The military transformed the Palaly-Kankesanthurai security sectors, to one vast defence complex, in accordance with its overall plan to defend the peninsula against the LTTE build-up across the Jaffna lagoon. For want of an overland route to Jaffna peninsula, troops deployed there, and Jaffna islands, had to depend on supplies through the KKS harbour, as well as the Palaly airfield.
One-time Defence Secretary, Austin Fernando discussed the issue of HSZs, during the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). The CFA came into operation, in February 2003. (Fernando received the appointment as the Governor of the Eastern Province in the wake of Maithripala Sirisena assuming the presidency. Fernando succeeded retired Rear Admiral Mohan Wijewickrema)
Fernando took up the issue, in an article titled ‘The Peace Process and Security Issues’, in Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe’s ‘Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons’, launched in February, 2006.
Having explained the LTTE’s efforts to use men, women and children, to cause chaos in HSZs, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula, Austin Fernando asserted the LTTE wanted access to areas dominated by the SLA. The LTTE project was meant to gain access to HSZs on the pretext of paving the way for public presence in areas hitherto denied to them. The military strongly opposed the move.
According to Fernando, the LTTE, too, maintained HSZs in several areas, including Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Puthukudirippu in the Vanni and Vakarai, Taravai and Karadiyanaru in the Batticaloa district. In spite of demanding access for Tamil civilians to HSZs, maintained by the SLA, the LTTE never gave them freedom in their HSZs, Fernando declared.
However, the then UNP led United National Front (UNF) government, the then five-party Tamil National alliance (TNA) or civil society organizations, never publicly raised the issue of Velupillai Prabhakaran’s HSZs. The Colombo based diplomatic community, too, never realized the need to take it up with Prabhakaran, though interested parties repeatedly urged the government to do away with HSZs. Those who had been demanding clearing of HSZs conveniently forgot they formed part of the overall defence of vital installations.
Gradual release of HSZs begins
The release of HSZ wouldn’t have been realistic, without the LTTE’s defeat. The freeing of long-held land, even in the Jaffna peninsula, couldn’t take place even after the SLA brought the entire peninsula under its control, in early 1996. The SLA always feared that its Jaffna bases would be vulnerable to an assault across the Kilali-Muhamalai-Nagarkovil frontline and therefore Jaffna HSZs couldn’t be done away with until the Vanni was brought its control. The SLA accomplished that task, in May, 2009.
But the release of HSZ didn’t begin until late October, 2010.
Before the release of 425 acres of land, in Vasavilan, east in the Jaffna peninsula, on Monday (March 23), with the participation of President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, as well as former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the army has freed 26,865 out of 34,561 acres of land held by five security forces commands in the Northern and Eastern Provinces since the conclusion of the war, in May, 2009, up to Dec. 2013. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has promised to release 1,000 acres, during 2015.
Land has been released in stages with the people living in areas, covered by the Security Forces headquarters, Jaffna, being the main beneficiary.
According to Defence Ministry records, of 33,156 acres held by the Jaffna command, 26,729 acres had been released as at Dec. 2013.
Security forces commands in Vanni (69 acres), Kilinochchi (632 acres), Mullaitivu (572 acres) and East (132 acres) had held a total of 1,405 acres of land, at the end of the war, whereas the Jaffna command alone occupied a staggering 33,156 acres.
Twelve acres of private land in Vanni, 71 acres in Kilinochchi, 15 acres in Mullaitivu and 38 acres in the East had been released on a staggered basis, as at Dec 2013.
The Maithripala-Wickremesinghe administration recently declared that 1,000 acres of land, currently held by the Jaffna command, would be freed during this year. As at Dec, 2013, the Jaffna command held 6,427 acres of land. The area freed on Monday formed part of the 1,000 identified for release.
The Palaly-Kankesanthurai sector had been gradually expanded over the years to meet the threat posed by the LTTE. In the absence of the overland main supply route, five Divisions, deployed in the Jaffna peninsula, at the height of the war, in addition to the navy, air force and police, relied on sea and air supply lines. All civilian supplies, too, had to be moved by sea and the Jaffna district deployment remained the largest single commitment, until the end of the conflict.
With troops gradually giving up private land, there had been significant changes in the deployment pattern of battalions, assigned to Jaffna, Vanni, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu commands. At the conclusion of the war, in May, 2009, there had been 152 battalions assigned for those commands. That deployment was meant to face a possible low intensity hit-and-run terror campaign. However, as the situation steadily improved, army headquarters reduced the northern deployment by 48 battalions, with more than half the battalions assigned for the Mullaitivu command, redeployed.
The LTTE, too, held substantial land, particularly in the Vanni east, during the conflict, though no one requested the LTTE to give up such land.
Prabhakaran resorted to HSZs to protect his vital installations in the Vanni. The LTTE’s underground complexes, three airfields, east of the Kandy-Jaffna A9, road as well as artillery and mortar bases, had been covered by HSZs. The LTTE operated HSZs, east of the A9, until troops gradually evicted terrorists in series battles, consequent to the liberation of Kilinochchi, during the first week of January 2009. The army smashed through all HSZs, by May, 2009.
Had the LTTE somehow survived, with the intervention of the Western powers, the military wouldn’t have been able to give up HSZs. Those who had been demanding the return of HSZ never backed the military campaign against the LTTE. They never acknowledged that normalcy couldn’t be restored in the northern and eastern provinces, as long as the LTTE retained its conventional military power.
2002-2003 controversy over Jaffna HSZ
In accordance with the CFA, arranged by the Norwegian government, the then Wickremesinghe government made an attempt to at least partially do away with HSZs. The government felt that HSZs could be removed without jeopardizing military bases in the Northern peninsula. The project went awry due to the then Jaffna Security Forces commander, Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, publicly opposing the plan. The nation should be grateful to Fonseka for standing up against the government plan to do away with HSZs.
The government sought the advice of one-time Indian Army Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar, to advice the Sri Lankan military, on security matters, as regards the Jaffna HSZs, during the 2002-2003 period. Subsequently, Sri Lanka obtained advice from retired Vice Chief-of-Naval-Staff, Vice Admiral P. J. Jacob.
Sri Lanka initially engaged Nambiar, who commanded the UN troops, in what was previously Yugoslavia, to review the Jaffna HSZs. His report on HSZs was released in mid 4 January, 2003. It was his second report on the HSZs as the LTTE rejected his first report which basically endorsed the views of the Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Major General Sarath Fonseka.
Jacob was subsequently engaged by the government to obtain an independent assessment on SLMM head, Major General Triggve Tellefsen’s proposals after the navy top brass rejected them on the basis that they would give official status to the Sea Tigers.
Fonseka declared a set of tough per-conditions for the military to give up Jaffna HSZs. The war veteran emphasized that giving up of HSZs should be directly linked to a series of measures to prevent the LTTE from taking advantage of the situation. Fonseka earned the wrath of the then government, as well as all those who had been backing the Norwegian initiative, regardless of its security consequences. Had the then government had its way, the LTTE could have destabilized the Palaly-Kankesanthurai sector. Large scale destabilization/sabotage operations could have undermined both air and sea supply routes, and that would have affected the government position in the entire peninsula. Had that happened, Jaffna would have been vulnerable for a massive assault and the ground situation, altered to such an extent, that the LTTE would taken the upper hand in the Jaffna peninsula.
Fonseka went to the extent of releasing his controversial proposals as regards the Jaffna HSZs in a bid to pressure the UNP leadership to drop its plan. Fonseka imposed tough conditions to prevent the LTTE from taking advantage of proposed resettlement of civilians in areas demarcated as HSZs. The Sinha Regiment veteran also involved the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) in proposed counter measures. Fonseka proposed additional powers and fresh mandate to the SLMM to pave the way for the five-nation grouping to play a pivotal role in an effective de-escalation plan.
Fonseka highlighted the danger in doing away with Jaffna HSZs without taking adequate precautions. Fonseka’s stand should be examined in the backdrop of extremely poor ground situation in the Northern Province at that time. Having suffered a humiliating defeat, at Elephant Pass, in April, 2000, the army held a forward defence line, extending of Kilali on one side to Nargarkovil on the Vadamaratchchy east coast via Eluththumaduval and Muhamalai. The LTTE retained strong forces capable of breaching defended positions. In that background, doing away with HSZs, in the Jaffna peninsula, to facilitate the Norwegian led peace process, could have caused catastrophe unless counter measures were taken, in accordance with Fonseka’s plan. Perhaps, no other army officer, at that time, had the guts to publicly oppose controversial plan to do away with HSZs much to the embarrassment of the then political leadership.
Key points identified by Fonseka
* Withdrawal of LTTE weapons as well as decommissioning of artillery pieces and long range mortars, positioned against military in the Jaffna peninsula. This was to be done with the assistance of the SLMM.
*Measures to prevent resettlement of LTTE cadres, their families and sympathizers close to military camps.
*Possibility of the LTTE having military hardware, including missiles within areas categorized as HSZs.
*Threat posed by suicide cadres operating in HSZs.
*Use of information provided by civilians in HSZs to direct accurate artillery and mortar fire at specific targets.
*Under any circumstances, LTTE will not be allowed to engage in politics (Under the CFA, the LTTE was allowed to enter government-held areas in both Northern and Eastern districts to engage in political activity. The LTTE used that opportunity to organist hit squads to eliminate those individuals whom it considered a threat to the organization).
*Strict controls on movement of those allowed to return to HSZs with certain areas declared out of bounds for returnees, under any circumstances.
*Regular checks on people, at both entry and exit points, at HSZs.
*The need to retain buffer zones within the HSZs to meet any eventuality.
=Prohibition of resettlement of civilians at places that could be used to threaten ship movements, to and from Kankesanthurai, and aircraft operating to and from the Palaly air base.
*Under cover LTTE units exploiting the presence of civilians to mount attacks on the military.
The Army made huge battlefield sacrifices to eradicate the LTTE conventional fighting power. At the height of the war, as many as a million people had to leave their dwellings, in addition to those who had been forced out of HSZs.
Post-war satellite survey
Sri Lanka’s primary High Security Zone (HSZ) in the Northern Peninsula has been surveyed by satellite consequent to a request by a UK-based NGO, namely the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice.
The Geo-spatial Technologies and Human Rights Project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has obtained/studied high resolution satellite images of the Palaly-Kankesanturai zone.
The UK NGO is based at Grayston House, Charles Square, London.
The project has examined the developments that had taken place in the area since the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009.
The strategic Palaly air base and Kankesanturai harbour are located within the studied zone.
The Indian army, too, maintained HSZs during its deployment here (July 1987-March 1990).
Among the advisory council members of the UK, based NGO, are Norwegian producer of ‘My daughter the Terrorist’ (which dealt with female LTTE suicide cadres preparing for missions) Beate Arnestad, Nirmanusan Balasundaram, who fled Sri Lanka during the war and was on the payroll of the Berghof Foundation for Conflict Studies in Sri Lanka, Prof. Adele Barker, who has been critical of Sri Lanka’s victory over the LTTE, one-time Deputy Australian High Commissioner in Colombo, Bruce Haigh, former Sri Lankan journalist, J. S. Tissainayagam, and member of the UNGS Panel of Experts’ Yasmin Sooka. South African - born Sooka joined two of her colleagues in recommending war crimes investigation targeting Sri Lanka.
The US institution has also obtained satellite images of the Vanni east front, where the Sri Lankan Army fought a series of battles, during May, 2009. The study had been carried out on the request of the Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch (HRW) made on May 10, 2009. The study had focused on satellite images, obtained during the early part of 2009 of the Civilian Safety Zone (CSZ).
The Sri Lankan military pointed out that the study revealed 1,346 burials in three separate locations within the CSZ, though some of them were of those who died fighting for the LTTE. A senior official told The Island that the examination of satellite images, obtained during the early part of 2009, would help refute unsubstantiated allegations made by a section of the international community.
The military said that since the conclusion of the conflict, in May, 2009, the government had gradually reduced the strength of the Army deployment in the Jaffna peninsula. At the height of the conflict, the government maintained four Divisions, including 53 and 55 (fighting formations) in the peninsula, though they were relocated after the conclusion of the war.