Getting Prabhakaran

Raj Chengappa

Colombo, February 8, 2008

The Sri Lankan Army Headquarters in the heart of Colombo is among the most heavily fortified complexes in the country. To get to the office of Lieutenant-General Sarath Fonseka, commander of the army, one has to go through a confusing maze of security checks.

For good reason-a year and a half ago, a suicide bomb attack inside the headquarters by a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) saw Fonseka seriously injured and hospitalised for months.

Yet, that only steeled his resolve to wipe out the world's most ruthless terrorist organisation, whose members parade themselves as freedom fighters for Sri Lanka's minority Tamil population. (Tamils form 23 per cent of the 20-million-strong population and LTTE has been waging a 30-year war for a separate homeland for them.) Since then, Fonseka and his 1.6-lakh-strong army have inflicted body blows on LTTE.

In less than a year-and-a-half, the army has wrested control of seven districts in the east and the west, which LTTE had previously controlled.

The Tigers now have effective control over only two districts-Killinochchi and Mullaitivu-in the north. This is a rump compared to the vast stretches of coastline where their writ once ran.

The armed forces also recently succeeded in killing two of LTTE's toprung leaders-Tamil Selvam, the political head, and Shanmuganathan Ravishankar alias Charles, the military intelligence chief-in surprise strikes.

They narrowly missed striking the feared chief Velupillai Prabhakaran in late December, when the Air Force scored a direct hit on a bunker, known as X-ray, that he frequented.

When he didn't make an appearance at Charles's funeral, they suspected Prabhakaran was injured. Subsequently, intelligence believes that he is alive and in full command of his forces.

Fonseka and his army are not willing to allow that position to continue for long. With Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse formally putting to an end, on January 16, the tattered Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) that a previous government had entered into with LTTE in 2002, the armed forces have stepped up their campaign to tighten the noose they had thrown around the Tiger's last bastion.

In a major offensive, Fonseka has lined up five of the 12 divisions of his army to engage Prabhakaran and the LTTE army in a decisive operation to wipe out the organisation.

The commander, who announced a policy of killing at least 10 Tiger cadres a day, boasts that of late, he has been able to double that number.With the LTTE army reduced to 3,000-5,000, Fonseka calculates that it can be wiped out in less than a year.

To ensure that he meets the target, Fonseka has brought under siege the dense Wanni jungles that act like a natural fortress to the two remaining districts under LTTE's control.

He has spent a good deal of time and money in training and equipping his men to fight like the Tigers. Breaking up his battalions into deep penetration units adept at guerrilla warfare, he has surprised LTTE by the capacity of his army to inflict maximum damage with minimum casualties.

To stretch LTTE's defences, he has launched a four-pronged attack coming in from all directions (see chart). While the Tigers engage in conventional warfare by firing mortar, Fonseka's army moves in small bands of killer units, laying booby traps, gathering intelligence and destroying infrastructure like bridges and communication lines.

Fonseka, who is not willing to rush in and strike, says, "We are taking the territory inch by inch and foot by foot while inflicting heavy casualties on them. It's only a matter of time before LTTE begins to wilt."
Part of the army's strategy is to step up attacks on all LTTE leaders, with Prabhakaran being on top of the list. As Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse-the President's younger brother-says, "LTTE, being a monolithic organisation, will collapse if we strike at the head, allowing us to finish it with less casualties and destruction."

The younger Rajapakse has been instrumental in transforming the way the Sri Lankan armed forces fought. A former lieutenant-colonel, who fought against the Tigers in the late-'80s and the early-'90s, Gotabaya believes "it is not the weapon but the man behind it that matters most".

To make sure he has the best men, he has not only doubled the salaries of the existing rank and file in the army, but has also put aside money for equipping them with the latest weapons.

Having the President for a brother helped, as there was no political resistance when he jacked up the defence budget to $1.5 billion (Rs 6,000 crore) in 2007, a 100-per cent increase over the previous year's budget. Most importantly, he let Fonseka and the chiefs of the other two forces have a free hand.

Fonseka used the unfettered mandate to radically restructure his army.

With photographs of lions adorning his chamber, the army commander speaks with a quiet confidence as he describes how he went about shaking up a moribund, ineffective and corrupt force into a fierce army that could take on the world's most feared terrorist organisation. (See graphic: Lankan Army turns the tide)
He first appointed commanders who had proven themselves in military operations, brushing aside protocols of seniority. Fonseka, who pushed for extensive training of troops in jungle warfare and engineering, was given a carte blanche to buy weapons.

He also started a major recruitment drive that saw close to 40,000 being inducted into the army in the past year, raising five new divisions. "We now have 25,000 new bayonets pointing at LTTE, not to mention the reserve units that can be brought into play if needed," he says.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan Air Force and Navy, too, have begun to look smart. After the surprise bomb attacks on Colombo by two light aircraft that LTTE had smuggled in, the air force has imported radar-reportedly from India-to improve surveillance.

The Tiger's survival plan
" By withdrawing his army to the thick jungles of the Wanni, Prabhakaran is conserving his dwindling troops for a possible long battle.
" If he can hold off the Sri Lankan army for a year, the war would become political and economically unsustainable for the Government.
" Terror strikes wiping out important leaders would send the Government's calculations awry and cause panic among the common people.

A whole squadron of MIG 27 has been added. With better ground and air surveillance and bunker-buster bombs, the air force has made successful precision strikes.

The navy, too, got its fair share of change, with better patrol boats and warships that have seen it destroy much of the Sea Tigers' fleet and floating arsenal in recent months.

This has severely limited the flow of arms to LTTE from the sea, thereby diminishing their fighting capability. The Indian Navy has helped by quietly blockading the Jaffna seas and passing on critical information about movements of ships to the Sri Lankan Navy. US intelligence, too, has played a role in increasing the rate of successful interdiction of ships carrying weapons.

For the embattled LTTE, the options are dwindling. With the US and Europe designating it as a terrorist organisation, much of its illegal funding has been blocked.

The territories it had held in the east in the past had helped it get a constant supply of fresh recruits. With Karuna, a former LTTE eastern command chief, turning against Prabhakaran, the organisation is considerably weakened. (See graphic: Spreading terror)

Reportedly, the Tigers are now forced to conscript very young or middle-aged people not suited for fighting. It hasn't helped that its top leaders are either in their forties or fifties, making it a middle-aged army- a far cry from the young, battle-hardened guerrilla force that could once strike back with great ferocity and win big battles against the Sri Lankan Army.

Prabhakaran himself is around 53 years old, has become portly, and is said to be suffering from ailments that possibly include diabetes. An accidental bomb blast left Soosai, the Sea Tiger chief, confined to his wheelchair and also killed his son. Balraj, deputy chief of the military, is also said to be ailing.

As the Sri Lankan Army's bombings get more accurate, Fonseka takes delight in the fact that he is giving Prabhakaran sleepless nights, since he has to constantly change his hideouts. The Sri Lankan intelligence believes that there is no clear line of succession if Prabhakaran is killed or incapacitated in an attack.
Says Fonseka, "When a ship is sinking, there is no succession line." Pottu Amman, Prabhakaran's intelligence chief and the man who masterminded Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, is the closest to him and controls access to the LTTE chief. It was apparently a battle for supremacy between Amman and Karuna, which saw the latter leave the outfit in a huff. Of late, there has been talk of Prabhakaran passing the mantle to son Charles Anthony, but Fonseka dismisses him as "fat, lazy and incapable of taking over LTTE".

Other reports say he is a computer geek and his father is using him to boost LTTE's communications via the Internet. Colonel (retd) G. Hariharan, an Indian military expert, says that after Prabhakaran, Afghan-style warlordism may arise, with LTTE fragmenting.

Already, the Tigers are showing signs of desperation. They have unleashed a wave of attacks on civilian targets in a bid to take the pressure off them in the battle for Wanni.

On the eve of the Independence Day celebrations on February 4, they penetrated the tight Sri Lankan security. A suicide blast at the Fort Railway Station saw 12 people, including seven children, being killed. A bomb had also been planted close to the President's Temple Trees office and only luck prevented what would have been an embarrassing blast for the Government.

LTTE's plan to strike in different towns and not in Colombo alone is intended to stretch the Sri Lankan internal security forces and get them to divert some of the army units from the battle for the north.
The Tigers also want to trigger ethnic riots and get the international community to pressure the Government into ending the offensive. The other option is to maintain status quo in the north, where the battle rages, and to tire the people and the Government.

Already, inflation is running at over 20 per cent, and the cost of a loaf of bread has gone up from Rs 15 to Rs 35. If LTTE ensures a stalemate in the war, peoples' patience for the Government may wear thin.
Meanwhile, President Rajapakse has to answer to the international community, including India. He has been told firmly that there is no military solution to the ethnic problem and that peace could return only if his Government came up with a credible devolution package for the Tamils.

So Rajapakse hustled the All Party Representative Committee (APRC), which he had appointed to look into the question of devolution, into submitting an interim report. APRC had recommended the implementation of the 13th Amendment brought in by the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord in 1987, which had advised the setting up of Provincial Councils with powers to run matters related to police, education, health and infrastructure.
Very little was done by successive governments to implement its recommendations. Now, the President promises to implement it in toto "as the first step" and has promised to consider any more demands that APRC may make. Meanwhile he has deployed brother Basil Rajapakse to go full speed in developing the east and forming its Provincial Council by March.

This has calmed the international community that has tacitly allowed Rajapakse to continue the war. But there are growing complaints from the West about human rights violations and media censorship. Internal resistance is also growing.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the Opposition and the architect of CFA, does not share the Government's optimism about the war. Nor is he enamoured by the devolution package being promised to the Tamils. Wickremesinghe told India Today: "Apart from antagonising the international community by abrogating CFA, the Government still has not come up with a credible devolution plan for the Tamils."
Tamil factions, too, are critical. S. Adaikkalanathan, MP and leader of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation, says, "Unable to lay new eggs, the President is duping the Tamils, promising to hatch an egg that has rotted for 60 years."

By staking his prestige on winning against LTTE, or "putting all his eggs in the war basket", as a diplomat describes it, Rajapakse has narrowed his options considerably.

The Tigers may be down, but they are certainly not out. And given their past history, there is every possibility that they may bounce back and succeed in bogging down the Sri Lankan Army in a debilitating stalemate.
A terror strike on an important leader could also send the President's calculations awry. People's discontent over prices may boil over before the one year the President has asked for is over.

Rajapakse has embarked on a dangerous game of brinkmanship. If he succeeds in bagging Prabhakaran, he is certain to win the next elections and continue his reign. If he fails, well, the dustbin of history is never short of space.


'We now want only a final solution'

February 7, 2008


In the past few months, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse seems to have come into his own. His defence forces are notching up successes against the LTTE, he has fended off attempts to have his Government defeated in Parliament and is one step ahead of his rivals by announcing a devolution package for the Tamils. In an exclusive interview in his Temple Trees office in the heart of Colombo, a confident Rajapakse spoke to India Today Managing Editor Raj Chengappa about what he sees as the challenges ahead. Excerpts:

Q. Do you want to get Prabhakaran dead or alive?
A. Alive. For the crimes he has done, he needs to be tried and I would like to send him to India too for he killed a leader who would have changed the face of not just India but the whole region.

Q. Why did you decide finally to end the five-year-old Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) between the Government and the LTTE?
A. When the CFA was introduced in 2002, I was leader of the Opposition and the first one to speak out against it. When I became the President, I said I will try to negotiate with the LTTE, talk to them and achieve peace to settle the issue. But it did not mean that I approved of the CFA. But they went on a killing spree, not only attacking our army commander, the defence secretary, who is my brother, but also began targeting civilians and children. I wanted the killing to stop. They had violated the CFA so often that it had become a farce. So I decided to end it.

Q. What makes you so confident of taking on the LTTE in an all out war now?
A. Either the LTTE accept a political solution by giving up arms and terrorist activities or we will have to curtail their moves. The Government can't kneel down to terrorists. Since I came to power we have cleared the eastern and western provinces of LTTE control.
They are now restricted to just one-and-a-half districts. From top to bottom the Government is committed. There is greater coordination between the Government and the defence forces which helps our cause.

Q. If the LTTE comes back to the negotiating table, will you talk?
A. Yes, only if they give up their weapons. They can't have their cake and eat it too. Ceasefire will give them time again. We don't want them to strengthen themselves and attack us. We want a final solution.

Q. If the LTTE doesn't come around, how long will it take to wipe them out?
A. We would have cleared them out of the remaining areas long ago but we also had to ensure no civilians were killed. I would say, in a year and a half, we might be able to do it.

Q. The LTTE's counter strategy seems to be to attack civilians.
A. It is a desperate move in the hope that the international community will put pressure on the Government. They can't achieve anything.

Q. Inflation is running high. Do you think people are willing to pay the price of war?
A. People will understand. A recent survey done by a rival paper did show that they supported me on the development work that I am doing.

Q. So will there be no cut in the defence budget?
A. The money we are spending on defence is not high. It is 3.5 per cent of the GDP. I believe no country can afford to compromise on its defence.

Q. When you took over as President in 2005 you said that you expected India to do a lot. Has India lived up to your expectations?
A. India's approach has been very positive and encouraging. Our relationship is now probably at the best of levels.

Q. But India is not willing to sell your Government offensive arms to fight the LTTE.
A. We can buy arms from anywhere, but we can't buy a good friend. And that is what we need. India is a power in this region. It is very strong and can do a lot to develop the neighbouring countries. Not just Sri Lanka, but also others. India is with us and they have showed us their support.

Q. The EU and other countries have alleged human rights violations by your Government during the conduct of war.
A. There are a few allegations in the East. We enquired into all such allegations but no one was even willing to file a complaint to begin action. We have appointed a commission of eminent persons to look into all the allegations but we need a complaint, evidence and witnesses to do justice in such cases. We will take action.

Q. Coming to a political solution, the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) to go into a package to solve Tamil grievances has recommended the implementation of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution done in 1987 that wanted power to be devolved to the provinces. Why should the Tamils accept something that was offered to them 20 years earlier?
A. Why shouldn't they? It was never implemented because the parties that agreed to it-the LTTE and the then government-fell out soon after that. I believe it is a good way to begin. We should first start something we can implement. I don't need twothirds majority in Parliament to do it. So it's a beginning. The APRC can then give me some new proposals and we can consider them too. But I don't want to waste my time on solutions that are not practical just to satisfy the international community. They may look good on paper but will be burnt in Parliament. There will be riots.

Q. How quickly do you see the package implemented?
A. I have already appointed an Advisory Cabinet Committee. I am waiting for their report. As soon as I get the report, I will implement it.

Q. You had also said that you would give the Tamils more than just the 13th Amendment.
A. I am waiting for the proposals to be given to me by the committee to decide. Meanwhile, let us implement something that had the blessings of all-the then government, the LTTE and all other Tamil parties. Something that Rajiv Gandhi had helped get under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. In addition I have already started taking steps to ensure the implementation of the official language policy by promoting the learning and usage of Tamil in administration. I am also recruiting Tamils in the police. Don't think we are only fighting the terrorists.

Q. Do you have consensus among the Sinhala parties to implement it?
A. How can the UNP oppose this when its own government had passed the 13th Amendment. Only the JVP (Janata Vimukthi Peramuna) is the problem. But let's not forgot that the JVP has asked for more powers for the provinces and even participated in Provincial Councils.

Q. Why don't you hold a referendum in the liberated Eastern districts to decide whether they should join the North as envisaged in the Accord?
A. Why should I? If you go now to places like Batticalao you would find they oppose it. I will not have this country divided.

Q. Why not have a federal system like India?
A. Federalism is out-just don't talk about it. Historically the word is suspect and is linked with separatism. Maximum devolution under a unitary government is the mandate that I have got and I am going to implement that.

Q. Your party doesn't have a twothirds majority in Parliament. Will you go for elections to implement it?
A. I don't need two-thirds majority in Parliament for what has been proposed. When the need arises I certainly will.

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