This Friday, LTTE cadres and their invisible leaders were holed up in an area less than 10 square kilometres. They faced almost 40,000 Sri Lankan Army troopers and heavy artillery in front and the Bay of Bengal coastline, heavily patrolled by Sri Lankan Navy ships, at the back. And over their heads, fighter jets and unmanned vehicles criss-crossed the sky.
Just three years ago, the LTTE controlled more than 15,000 square kilometres. They ran a parallel government from Kilinochchi, with its own courts, schools and a civic administration. Now, summer winds howl through the empty buildings of the town. The Sri Lankan Army has set up offices in some of them.
In one such building, Brigadier Shamindra Silva, 58 Division Commander, has put up his headquarters. “The LTTE put in (the front) at least 15 different regiments. But we attacked them after midnight. They were not alert enough,” said Silva, explaining the operations that led to the exodus of more than 1.5 lakh Tamil civilians from the no fire zone.
But since 2006, many more factors apart from the lack of alertness and the inability to fight in the dark have eroded the LTTE’s conventional fighting capabilities.
Harsh V Pant of the defence studies pepartment at King’s College, London, wrote in a recent analysis: “The rising global abhorrence of political violence post-9/11, the drying up of support from the Tamil diaspora, as well as Colombo’s success in courting China and Pakistan to strengthen its military capabilities enabled the Sri Lankan government to turn the long-running battle in its favour.’’
The LTTE’s cadre strength rapidly dwindled and it did not do well in procuring arms. In the last three years, according to the military, the LTTE lost 18,000 cadres.
Former Sri Lanka foreign secretary Bernard Goonetilleke traced the rebels’ downfall to the Rajapaksa regime’s realisation that it was impossible to negotiate with the LTTE. ‘’Within 10 days of the President’s swearing in towards the end of 2005, the LTTE carried out a strike. In April 2006, Army chief Sarath Fonseka was attacked by a suicide cadre,” Goonetilleke listed out.
He added that small events, which went unnoticed during the time, also contributed to the LTTE’s failings. “Between 2006 and 2007, the Sri Lankan Navy sank at least 11 ships coming from Southeast Asia carrying arms, ammunition and other supplies for them. At about the same time, the European Union and Canada began to crack down on LTTE offices in their countries. It impacted fund collection. There were also two major raids and arrests in the US in mid-2006. Tamil Tigers from Canada and the UK were arrested in New York and Baltimore while attempting to purchase weapons,’’ he said.
What also helped matters was India’s position. Pant wrote: “India, itself facing secessionist challenges, has maintained that the conflict of Sri Lanka must be resolved within the territorial integrity of the nation. Given its own sensitivities about the involvement of outside powers in myriad insurgencies from Kashmir to the Northeast, it’s in India’s interest to support a solution within the Sri Lankan framework.”
In Sri Lanka, the military was evolving and streamlining new strategies. A Colombo-based strategic expert, requesting anonymity, said it helped that defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and the President are brothers.
The defection of Colonel Karuna, Prabhakaran’s strongman in the East, was a big blow for the LTTE. The rebels lost a few thousand cadres. Not long afterwards, the LTTE was pushed out of the eastern districts.
The Lankan army’s victory in the East triggered a spurt in military recruitment. It not only countered the high rate of desertion but bolstered the strength especially for the army. Ever since, the army has largely outnumbered the LTTE cadres.
The Lankan Air Force, too, has played a crucial role. Since 2006, fighter jets have flown more than 13,000 sorties over LTTE territory, carpet bombing many areas. “Earlier, the LTTE’s missiles were a worry. But in the last two-three years, the air force outmaneuvered the LTTE,’’ Goonetilleke said.
But does the end of LTTE’s military might mark the end of grievances of the Tamil community? No.
Rajan Hoole of the Jaffna-based University Teachers for Human Rights warned: “At the moment, the people are very angry with the LTTE. But their grievances remain. They are worse than third-class citizens under a government pursuing a Sinhalese extremist agenda. That is where the source of future trouble lies. The leader might go, but there is room for a mythified LTTE to re-emerge with a larger base. India cannot be complacent and must use its authority to ensure that the minorities in Lanka get a fair deal.”
It is at once a warning and a plea.