Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Changing security landscape


Jaffna peninsula:



by Shamindra Ferdinando

Prisons Reforms, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs Minister, D.M. Swaminathan, recently expressed gratitude to yahapalana leaders, President Maithripala Sirisena, Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the current military leadership for releasing 54 acres of land, along the coastal belt, in the Thaididi grama niladari area, including the Myladdi fisheries harbour, adjoining the strategic Palaly cantonment

Myladdi harbour is second only to the Mirissa fisheries harbour, in terms of its size, and the Navy-maintains a crucial presence there as it is required for the overall security of the Jaffna peninsula.

The navy constructed a new pier, at Myliddy, in Dec-Jan 2007, following Basil Rajapaksa’s intervention. The then Navy Chief, Vice Admiral Wasanha Karannagoda, sought an additional pier to enhance their capability to bring in supplies required by Tamil civilians in the Jaffna peninsula. Deprived of overland Main Supply Route (MSR), to the Jaffna peninsula, both the armed forces and civilians received supplies from sea. The SLAF, too, played a tremendous role, in spite of having to operate in ‘missile environment.’

UNP National List MP Swaminathan hadn’t been present at the land handing over ceremony, held on July 3, hence issuance of brief press release, three days later, underscoring his role in regaining the land.

Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Maj. Gen. Darshana Hettiarrachchi, handed over documents regarding the release of land to the District Secretary for Jaffna, Nagalingam Vedanayaham.

Maj. Gen. Hettiarrachchi of the Engineers and a former Commissioner Gen of Rehabilitation (Feb 2012 to July 2013) succeeded Maj. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake, in April this year. Senanayake, last week, received the coveted appointment as the 22 Commander of the Army, after having held the post of Chief of Staff for a brief period.

The releasing of land enabled 187 families, who had been living in refuge camps, or with relatives, to return to their original places of living.

In April this year, the Army released 35 acres of land, in Urani, including Urani fisheries harbour that had been under Jaffna Security Forces headquarters.

Swaminathan concluded his brief statement, issued on July 6, 2017, declaring that he had received an assurance from the ‘security sector’ to release more lands by the end of this year.

In Colombo, newly appointed Lt. Gen. Senanayake explained his efforts to promote post war national reconciliation, in the Jaffna peninsula, during his post-war stay there.

Commenting on Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran’s repeated calls for the military to vacate the Jaffna peninsula, the Army Chief emphasized that the country shouldn’t be unduly worried about such statements. "The deployment of troops is the prerogative of the armed forces, depending on requirement. There is absolutely no point in taking up armed forces deployment on the political platform."

Lt. Gen. Senanayake said the land held by the military would be released following proper assessment. Calling Wigneswaran a good friend of his, the former Jaffna Commander explained various measures taken by the military to strengthen post-war reconciliation process.

"We are ready for any eventuality", the new Army Commander said.

Against the backdrop of giving up Myladdi land, adjoining Palaly cantonment, and Swaminathan expecting further reduction of military presence in former war zones, it would be pertinent to examine the circumstances leading to releasing of land. The vast majority of the people are glad Lt. Gen. Senanayake is ready for any eventuality.

TNA heavyweight, MP M.A. Sumanthiran, was among those present at the Myladdi land release. Jaffna District MP Sumanthiran was also given an opportunity to address the gathering. Army headquarters posted pictures of Sumanthiran with other invitees, including Maj. Gen. Hettiarrachchi, on its website, army.lk.

"We welcome release of Myliddy fishery harbour; it is of symbolic significance," Sumanthiran said in TNA’s Twitter account.

"The rest of the land must also be released, as per the promise of the Sri Lankan government," Sumanthiran has further said.

Had the LTTE secured an understanding, with the previous government, with the intervention of Western powers, in 2009, perhaps attorney-at-law Sumanthiran wouldn’t have been able to enter parliament through the TNA National List, in April 2010. Having gained influence among the parliamentary groups, as well as the electorate, within a few years, Sumanthiran successfully contested the Jaffna District at the August 2015 parliamentary polls. Had the LTTE survived, Prabhakaran would have had the ultimate say in who contested elections, at any level, or entered parliament through the National List.

Let me stress that the eradication of the LTTE in May 2009, freed the TNA from LTTE control and paved the way for the grouping to take decisions on its own. The LTTE formed the TNA, in late 2001, to facilitate its overall eelam project. In line with its overall strategy, the TNA had to recognize the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people. The LTTE received that recognition until a soldier shot Prabhakaran through his head on the morning of May 19, 2009 on the banks of Nanthikadal. That brought relief to the entire nation and paved the way for post-war national reconciliation process.

Unfortunately, none of those, who had been preaching importance of reconciliation, are willing to accept the fact that peace wouldn’t have been a reality as long as Prabhakaran lived, here or abroad. No less a person than President Maithripala Sirisena acknowledged that a negotiated settlement would never have been possible with Prabhakaran. President Sirisena said so in response to a query posed by the writer at a meeting between the president and a group of journalists.

Had the LTTE survived the Vanni onslaught, releasing of military-held civilian land wouldn’t have been a possibility. The bottom line is that as long as the LTTE maintained sizable combat presence in the Vanni, the army couldn’t have given up the Jaffna land taken over the years in defence of its strategic bases.

Jaffna land release

The combined armed forces brought the Jaffna peninsula under government control, in early 1996. But, the LTTE had again gained the upper hand, in the northern theater of operations, by 2002. The LTTE inflicted devastating battlefield defeats on the army at Mullaitivu (July 1996) and Kilinochchi-Elephant Pass (1998-2000) and Muhamalai (2001) thereby deprived the Army of an opportunity to strike back. The LTTE had been so strong, on the northern front (Kilaly-Muhamalai-Nagarkovil sector) Jaffna Divisions, that even the elite 53 Division couldn’t move southwards, across Elephant Pass, until the then Brigadier Shavendra Silva’s celebrated 58 Division cleared the area, northwards of Paranthan, during eelam war IV. The military brought the war to an end in May 2009. Then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa authorized the releasing of Jaffna land several months after the restoration of peace. The armed forces could begin gradually giving up areas as the defeated LTTE lacked the strength to launch a sustained hit and run attack campaign.

In the Jaffna district, three Divisions held nearly 15,400 acres of land at the time Prabhakaran was killed, with the 52 Division holding nearly 11,000 acres. The 51 and 55 held the rest. In addition to the areas held by the three Divisions, the Palaly cantonment comprised about 11,600 acres and since the conclusion of the conflict, nearly 8,300 acres had been released. Over eight years after the restoration of peace, 14,000 acres, out of 15,400 acres, that had been held by the 51, 52 and 55 Divisions, were released gradually.

According to the latest statistics available, the land, in acres, held by the Army, in the Jaffna district, has been reduced to 4,700 acres from nearly 27,000, in 2009. With the gradual releasing of land, the number of displaced families, too, has come down to 770 from 2,300 in 2009. The number of welfare centers has come down to 29 from 64 in 2009.

In addition to 4,700 acres held by the Army (three Divisions plus Palaly cantonment), the Air Force and the Navy occupied nearly 1,000 acres and 580 acres, respectively.

The much anticipated process, to release Army-held land, coming within the Palaly cantonment, commenced in late Oct 2010. The Army released 370 acres of land in the first phase. It was followed by the release of nearly 1960 acres, in late Nov 2010.

The previous government released land on a staggered basis leading to gradual decreasing of military presence in the Jaffna peninsula. Parallel to the giving up of land, in the Jaffna peninsula, the Army reduced the number of battalions deployed there.

In addition to the 51,52 and 55 Divisions, deployed in the Jaffna peninsula, the elite 53 Division, too, had been positioned there until 55 and 53 joined the Vanni offensive, in early January, 2009.

Expansion of Myliddy harbour

Myliddy played a significant role in the previous government’s overall strategy meant to defend the Jaffna peninsula. The ground situation in Jaffna changed with a massive LTTE attack, on Muhamalai, in Aug 2006, which resulted in the closure of the MSR. Uncertainty gripped the north as the government and the military struggled to ensure sea and air supplies to the Jaffna peninsula under extremely difficult conditions. For want of a larger transport fleet, the Air Force couldn’t sustain supply operation on its own. The government faced the daunting task of maintaining supplies to the military, police as well as the entire civilian population. Those who had been shedding crocodile tears, for the Tamil community, didn’t utter a word to discourage the LTTE from depriving Jaffna of required supplies. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and wartime Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had the courage to face the LTTE challenge. In response to the LTTE threat, the Navy, on the instructions of Vice Admiral Karannagoda, constructed a new pier at Myliddy within 45 days, to facilitate movement of cargo. While the Navy had been busy constructing pier, LTTE suicide squads attacked civilian cargo ship MV Liverpool unloading essential supplies at the Point Pedro harbour. The attack on Liverpool disrupted the Point Pedro harbour. The availability of Myliddy to bring in cargo eased pressure on the government and the military. The armed forces ensured the supplies needed by civilians. Western powers, in spite of having direct contacts with the LTTE, refused to demand an end to LTTE operations meant to disrupt civilian food supplies. The ICRC declined to accompany civilian food supply lines for want of security guarantee from the LTTE. The LTTE was never allowed to succeed in its effort to starve the people of Jaffna. Sadly, the UNP refrained from at least commenting on the situation at that time.

Unfortunately, the government pathetically failed to remind the country how Myliddy harbour was used for the benefit of the Jaffna community. Had Myliddy harbour being situated outside Palaly cantonment area at that time, the government would have faced a major problem. Thanks to Myliddy being situated in the military held area, the then government could swiftly use it.

Since the end of the war, Western powers and the UN (on behalf of Western powers) had been putting pressure on Sri Lanka to reduce the military presence in the northern province, particularly the Jaffna peninsula. The Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) had repeatedly requested Sri Lanka to sharply decrease military presence there. India, too, had taken up the issue, on several occasions.

Those who had been pushing for a military-free environment, in the Northern Province, are keen to ensure police powers to the Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran in accordance with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution forced on Sri Lanka 30 years ago. The same crowd succeeded in forcing Sri Lanka to do away with her annual armed forces’ victory day parade in 2015. Appalachian government meekly gave into Western demands though only Canada officially requested for the permanent cancellation of the event. Shame on spineless politicians.

Those who had bent backwards to appease elements who couldn’t stomach Sri Lanka’s victory over terrorism caused irreparable damage to national security. Yahapalana leaders hadn’t countered ongoing efforts to weaken the military through devious means. A section of the media, as well as the so called civil society, too, had contributed to this despicable project. Unfortunately, the Joint Opposition, in spite of being dubbed as the real opposition, both in and outside parliament, has pathetically failed to initiate an effective campaign. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot absolve himself of the responsibility for not properly defending the country in Geneva. Instead of countering specific allegations, the Rajapaksa administration played politics with the issue. The former President also authorized a controversial project that resulted in millions of US dollars squandered on international PR firms. The project meant to improve Sri Lanka’s image overseas, particularly in the US achieved nothing. Sri Lankan ended up having to face the Geneva Resolution in Oct 2015.

Having won the war, the previous government couldn’t justify its actions. A pathetic situation, indeed.

It would be necessary to inquire into an internationally backed project to compel Sri Lanka to do away with High Security Zones (HSZ) in Jaffna in 2002-2003. Had that happened, the outcome of eelam war IV would have been different. Thanks to the then Jaffna Commander Sarath Fonseka, the UNP couldn’t do it.

2002-2003 controversy over Jaffna HSZ

In accordance with the CFA, arranged by the Norway, the then government made an attempt to at least partially do away with HSZs. The project went awry due to Fonseka, publicly opposing the plan.

Sri Lanka 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. 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 Fonseka.

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 (Palaly cantonment). 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 from 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.

What armed forces won through blood, sweat and tears, the politicos might surrender on a platter