Dam issue may be excuse to secure military objectives
The controversy over the Mavil Aaru dam, which has sparked off a full-scale military confrontation between the Sri Lankan security forces and the LTTE, is being portrayed by the two sides as a dispute over water, a legitimate humanitarian issue.
But underlying the humanitarian issue are politico-military objectives of far greater import.
Both sides are jockeying for more advantageous political and military positions in the Eastern districts of Sri Lanka. Both want to strengthen themselves there.
The LTTE is trying hard to make up for the defection of its formidable Eastern commander, Col Karuna, in March 2004, and regain the confidence of the Eastern Tamils, whom Karuna had represented in the LTTE's leadership.
The issue of water is an emotive one, and the LTTE stands to gain local support, and support from the Eastern Tamils as a whole, if it is able to secure water for them and deny water to Sinhala settlers, who are seen as intruders in a traditionally Tamil area.
Mavil Aaru is a Sinhala settler area.
The government and the Security Forces, on the other hand, have been itching to capitalize on the depletion of the LTTE's politico-military strength in the East and drive it out of the East altogether, if possible by a quick military campaign.
Of course, there is always the danger that the LTTE will try and put pressure on the Security forces by attacking the Jaffna Peninsula in the North, surround the 40,000 odd troops there, and bargain for a let up in the East.
But the Sri Lankan government is apparently of the view that India will not allow Jaffna to fall into the hands of a terrorist and separatist group like the LTTE, because of its closeness to Tamil Nadu.
It is hoped that, as it did in 2000, when 30,000 Sri Lankan troops were under siege in Jaffna, India would send a message to the LTTE and stop it in its tracks.
Since supplies to the North have to be ferried by sea, and India is very concerned about the growth of the Sea Tigers (the LTTE's naval arm) it is hoped that the Indian Navy would be deployed to keep the sea-lanes free.
Importance of East
At any rate, Sri Lankan strategic planners have always advocated retention of the East, sometimes even at the cost of the North.
This is because the East, unlike the North, is multi-ethnic with a sizeable Sinhala and Muslim population, which does not fancy the separatist agenda or sentiment of the LTTE or the Tamils.
The East also has long borders with Sinhala-dominated districts, which facilitate easy movement of troops and supplies.
The Eastern districts are also agriculturally rich, endowed with good water sources. Above all, it has the Trincomalee harbour, one of the world's best natural harbours.
Right from President R Premadasa's time in the late 1980s, the Sri Lankan government has been fixated on the retention of the East.
Premadasa allowed the LTTE to take over the North after the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) left in March 1990, but he fought tooth and nail for the East when war broke out in June 1990.
Likewise, President Chandrika Kumaratunga was willing to allow the LTTE to rule Jaffna freely for 10 years if it compromised on the East.
But for the LTTE, led by Prabhakaran, and the Tamils at large, the East is an essential part of the "Tamil Homeland", an area, they feel, had been taken away from them unfairly by systematic state-sponsored colonisation by Sinhalas since independence in 1948.
And on an emotional plane, Trincomalee is the capital of the putative "Tamil Eelam" and the location of Thirukoneshwaram, one of the main and oldest Tamil temples in Sri Lanka.
Of all the areas in East Sri Lanka, the most hotly disputed are those areas in Trincomalee district, which were colonised by Sinhalas since independence.
The Tamils and the LTTE allege that some of these were colonised to break the contiguity between the Tamil North and the Tamil East so that there is no case for an integrated Tamil Homeland in the North-East.
The LTTE, which sees the Sinhala settlers in these areas as intruders and state-agents, has been trying to drive them out.
In its background note on the Mavil Aaru water dispute, the LTTE clearly says that the area had been colonised by the Sinhalas in 1970s after an irrigation scheme was implemented there.
The issue hung fire for long, but came out into the open again this month, because the government was dragging its feet on the question of supplying water to some areas under the control of the LTTE like Muttur East and Eachchilampattu.
As a pressure tactic, on July 20 the LTTE closed the sluice gates of the Mavil Aaru dam and stopped water reaching 15, 000, mostly Sinhala families, cultivating over 30,000 acres of land.
The government said that it had promised to supply water to the LTTE controlled areas but the LTTE was adamant and was increasing its list of demands with the intention of prolonging the conflict.
Military action was launched only after six days of talks through the Nordic truce monitors failed, the government said.
And the government denied that the air raids were "military action". They were "humanitarian operations" to facilitate the dispatching of engineers to Mavil Aaru to open the sluice gates.
But as one military experts asked, why should air strikes be launched when a small body of chopper-borne commandoes could have stormed the place and opened the gates?
The government said that the LTTE's bases in Mullaitivu and Batticaloa were hit in order to prevent the rebel group from sending reinforcements to the beleaguered cadres in Mavil Aaru.
Independent military analysts do not think that this is a good reason to use air power over such a wide area.
They suspect that the air and ground war over a wide swathe of territory in the North-East is to demoralise the LTTE and militarily weaken it, a step which will have long terms consequences.
The attack on the LTTE's conference centre in Karadiyanaaru in Batticaloa was apparently meant to kill top Eastern military leaders like Col Bhanu and Col Jeyam.
This is justified on the ground that the LTTE had tried to kill the Sri Lankan Army Commander Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka, and had killed Maj Gen Parami Kulatunga, the third in the army hierarchy.
The idea in attacking Iranamadu in Kilinochchi district, and Keppapulevu in Mullaitivu district, was to cripple the fledgling LTTE air force, allegedly comprising five small propeller driven aircraft, which could do a 9/11 in Colombo though a sneak attack.
The Sri Lankan strategic thinkers may well be wanting to finish the LTTE in Trincomalee district in the hope that the LTTE will not be able to go the whole hog because of the Indian presence in China Bay next to Trincomalee harbour.
Once Trincomalee district is cleared of the LTTE, it cannot be used as a land bridge between the LTTE-held Mullaitivu district and the LTTE-held parts of Batticaloa district.
Strategic importance of Mavil Aru area
Mavil Aru dam is located in a strategic place. It is important for both the LTTE and the government. The Verugal river region in which it is located, had played a decisive role in the battle between Karuna and Prabhakaran in April 2004.
It was because Karuna's legions were defeated on the banks of the Verugal river that Prabhakaran was able to launch his land and sea operation to capture the renegade's bases in Batticaloa district further south.