The government is gung-ho and the Tigers are licking their wounds in the aftermath of the fiercely fought battle for Thoppigala. It is, however, a matter for happiness that the government has, as we reported yesterday quoting sources close to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, said its crucial military victory will not stand in the way of the on-going efforts to evolve a political solution.
Government propagandists are all out to make a political Himalaya of Thoppigala while the Opposition claims the government has nothing to crow about as that terrain is of little strategic importance. It is trying to bolster its claim with opinions expressed by retired Indian generals, who led the IPKF operations against the Tigers in the late 1980s. The real war, it claims, should be fought not in the East but in the North, where the LTTE is strong.
Military strategies of the present-day political leaders smack of policy U-turns on the part of their parties. President D. B. Wijetunga, to whom appeasement was anathema, upon being inducted as President Premadasa`s successor, launched a military campaign in the East in 1993, in keeping with his policy that defeating the LTTE was contingent upon the clearing of that province. Military experts of his government boasted that they were driving the LTTE from the East and cornering them in the North `like water poured into a funnel`. Their position was that the weakest link of the LTTE had to be attacked first of all! Ably assisting President Wijetunga in his war effort was his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who used to even chair Security Council meetings at that time.
President Wijetunga managed to achieve his military objectives to a considerable extent and held Local Government elections in the East. Maj. General Lucky Algama was instrumental in making that project a success and openly advocated that weakening the LTTE militarily was a prerequisite for resolving the conflict. That was why the LTTE killed him in 1999 at a UNP meeting on the day when it made an abortive attempt on President Kumaratunga`s life at the Town Hall ground. It obviously wanted to effect a regime change without Algama, who was tipped to be Secretary of Defence under a UNP government. (The claymore mine attack on Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is also evidence that the LTTE goes all out to prevent battle hardened soldiers from functioning as Defence Secretaries.)
President Kumaratunga stood the UNP`s military strategy on its head and pulled out troops from the East to take Jaffna back. The PA government believed it was not `the tail of the Tiger but its head` that had to be attacked. Hence, its decision to launch Operation Riviresa, which it justified on the grounds that the LTTE had already put infrastructure of a de facto separate state in place and UDI was only a matter of time, with Jaffna under its control.
Here is what the then Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who was a trusted lieutenant of President Kumaratunga had to say about the situation that had prevailed in 1994/95, in an exclusive interview with The Island (Aug. 11, 1997): `That was a very serious matter. One of the so-called Eelam stamps had even been registered with the London-based International Philatelic Bureau. The danger was that the registration of that stamp was tantamount to recognition by that institution of Eelam as a separate state. For, only states can issue stamps!`
President Kumaratunga, however, found herself in a contradiction. She publicly admitted that she had offered the North to the LTTE in 1994 without elections for a period of ten years. The LTTE had rejected the offer as it wanted the Eastern Province as well. Later she went to war with the LTTE to wrest control of the very province that she had offered to the outfit on a platter. She also tried to achieve that feat at the expense of the Eastern Province that she had refused to grant to the LTTE. Intriguing, eh?
What is of greater significance is how the SLFP and the UNP have changed their positions on the war effort. The SLFP-led UPFA now believes the East has to be cleared first of all, though it is not seeking to do so at the expense of the North. The UNP, which wanted to strike at the `weakest link` of the LTTE?the East?at one time, is pooh-poohing the government`s successful military campaign in that province. The SLFP dissidents loyal to former President Kumaratunga, who offered the North to the LTTE like?to borrow a word from her political lexicon?a bibikkama (a kind inexpensive cake) are now stressing the strategic importance of that province. The UNP dissidents who were bitter critics of President Rajapakse`s military strategy are now full of praise for it.
Interestingly, for the first time since the inception of war, a government is in control of Jaffna and the Eastern Province, the be-all and end-all of Eelam, at the same time. The present military strategy appears to be a cross between those of the SLFP and the UNP. But, strangely there is no convergence of interests or views of the two parties.
Sadly, political interests of some leaders have taken ascendancy over national security and it is natural that Thoppigala is being viewed through political glasses!