Myths are more powerful than bombs and bullets in warfare, be it guerrilla or conventional. While the Kumaratunga government was readying for a foray into the LTTE-held Jaffna in 1995, a myth was disseminated that the army would lose as many as 15,000 men, if it tried to advance. But, the army wrested control of that town with relative ease and the LTTE beat a hasty retreat to Kilinochchi.
In the late 1980s, the JVP also generated many a myth to glorify itself. A ruse employed by small groups of JVP combatants who surrounded houses at night either to kill their rivals or issue threats was to run here and there several times before knocking on doors so as to create the impression that there were many of them around. They also `posted` many fictitious accounts of their military exploits on the grapevine. Besides their violence, such measures helped them frighten people into submission and effectively declare `curfews` with chits delivered through brats.
There prevailed a similar myth about Thoppigala. It was described as an impregnable stronghold defended by the crème de la crème of the LTTE. But, today, that myth has been blown sky high. The army is now in control of Thoppigala. The Tigers have suffered a massive psychological blow. Prabhakaran, who plunged the country into war by capturing the Mavilaru anicut, finds himself hoist with his own petard. The loss of Thoppigala is too much for him to stomach. How can he explain his failure to defend it to his cadres? What have his propagandists got to say about that defeat?
However, the government is now faced with far bigger challenges than the capture of Thoppigala. It has to accomplish the uphill task of reconstruction and resettlement in the East. It finds itself in an unenviable position. On the one hand, it has to prosecute war and, on the other, it has to carry out rebuilding as promised. That it is intent on making a foray into the northern stronghold of the LTTE is no secret. The LTTE is fortifying its defences in anticipation of an imminent onslaught and the detractors of the government are waiting for a military setback.
The political situation is aggravating the government`s woes. The Opposition is stepping up its anti-government campaign. The high cost of living and callous disregard that most government politicians have for the plight of the public have stood the Opposition in good stead.
Meanwhile, the international community is not well disposed towards the on-going operations against the LTTE, which it wants contained but not crushed in keeping with its `enlightened self-interest.` Aid donors are sure to ratchet up pressure on the government to go slow on its military campaign and to concentrate more on the APRC process to offer a political solution.
The deteriorating security situation in the UK and the US with France also expressing serious concern about terrorist threats may have distracted the international community and the global media from what is going on here. But, if the military advances into the Wanni and the LTTE resorts to unbridled terror out of desperation, Sri Lanka will again attract international attention in a bigger way. In such an eventuality, the government will have its work cut out.
It is against this backdrop that the proposed government ceremony to mark the capture of Thoppigala should be viewed. Its urge to gain political mileage from this decisive military victory is understandable. That is one way of silencing the critics of the on-gong military campaign. But, playing politics with matters that are military is often counter productive.
In 1995, the Kumaratunga government made a grand show of the `liberation` of Jaffna. The troops who had fought valiantly against tremendous odds to drive the LTTE away were seen in the background while politicians were basking in the limelight. That was the last of that government`s military successes. The war effort got politicised with politicians planning and directing military operations and the inevitable happened. Camps began to fall like nine pins. By the time President Kumaratunga `was retired`, the military had lost most of its vital installations in the North including the Elephant Pass base. The LTTE had marched right up to the outskirts of Jaffna.
War is said to be too serious an affair to be left entirely to generals. Politicians have a role to play in it. But, the Kumaratunga administration overstepped its limits after Operation Riviresa and that mistake has to be avoided by the present regime, if disaster is to be averted. The LTTE would have been a thing of the past a long time ago, had it been led by a politician. That`s why Prabhakaran makes it a point not to mix politics with his military campaign. He doesn`t even allow peace negotiations to last for more than a few months for that reason.
It is manifestly too early for celebrations. The Thoppigala victory is certainly something that the government can preen itself on. But, the fact remains that the war is far from over. It will be a mistake for the government to get distracted by political objectives, which usually make political leaders oblivious to booby traps on their way. President Kumaratunga made that mistake and the country had to pay dearly for that.
Whether history will repeat itself remains to be seen.