Starvation a Global Concern
Shyam Saksena | 14 Apr 2008

Though it is not easy to believe the claims and counter claims made by the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government for obvious reasons yet it is clear that they are running out of steam. The diabolic scheme of Prabhakaran to ensure Rajpakse’s victory in election has not made any headway because of the wise course adopted by the latter. Aggravating the situation are the numerous military setbacks to the Tigers.

In the past few weeks there have been many media reports that point to the prevalence of confusion and disarray among the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the face of heavy losses inflicted by the armed forces of the government of Sri Lanka.

Apart from many references to the injury sustained by the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in the course of an aerial bombardment in November 2007, there was some speculation that he may even have died. (Claims of Prabhakaran's death may be set to rest after Prabhakaran's "public appearance" at the funeral of the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance member of parliament, P Sivanesan, in the rebel-held Wanni area, of which the LTTE released photographs on March 9).

In the checkered history of the LTTE, spanning the past three decades during which Prabhakaran has held sway as its supreme leader, there have been several spells during which its insurrectionary capacity suffered serious setbacks.

Prominent among such recessions were: the brief eclipse of the LTTE in the aftermath of the Indian peacekeeping intervention in 1987; the worldwide anti-Tiger sentiment evoked by the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991; the strategic losses stemming from its expulsion by the Sri Lankan armed forces from the Jaffna peninsula in 1995; the constraining effects on its international operations generated by the global tide of hostility towards terrorism following the al-Qaeda attack on the United States in 2001; and, more far-reaching in impact than any other, the internal revolt led by "Colonel Karuna" in March 2004.

However, all along, its efforts were directed mainly at enhancement of military strength, expanding the territory under its control in the Northern and Eastern provinces and eliminating its rivals in that part of the country, mobilizing international support for its cause, and destabilizing the government of Sri Lanka through carefully regulated intimidation and terror. Instigating a Sinhalese backlash of violence against the Tamils living outside the northeast - a re-enactment of 1983 - also remained a prime objective as was underscored by the assassination of Sri Lanka's charismatic foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, a provocative outrage committed in the final days of Chandrika Kumaratunga's presidential tenure.

On the eve of the presidential election of November 2005, Prabhakaran enforced a boycott of the polls in the north and parts of the eastern lowlands where Ranil Wickremasinghe, former prime minister and a frontrunner of the presidential stakes, would have attracted substantially more support than his rival, Mahinda Rajapakse. This decision appears, in retrospect, to have been a monumental blunder that marks the onset of a drastic change in the fortunes of Prabhakaran's Eelam campaign. The boycott decision was evidently based on the premise that Wickremasinghe, hailed internationally as the "peace candidate", would, with his commitment to power-sharing under a federal system of government, place in serious jeopardy the case for a secessionist campaign.

Prabhakaran's expectation was that Rajapakse, backed as he was by electoral allies vehemently opposed to a political compromise involving devolution of power to the northeast, would actually attempt to implement his campaign pledges to jettison the ceasefire agreement, to evict the "White Tigers" (Norwegians) from their role as facilitators of peace negotiations, and to discard the notion of the LTTE being the sole representative of the Tamils. Such a hawkish approach, the LTTE leadership believed, would pave the way for a resumption of military confrontations in earnest, backed by vastly enhanced international sympathy and support for the rebels' cause.

The repercussions of Prabhakaran's capricious gamble at the presidential polls soon instilled into his strategy a sense of desperation. This found expression in a series of "Sea Tiger" attacks (including an act of piracy) that evoked strictures from several quarters including the secretary general of the UN and the head of the Scandinavian "Ceasefire Monitoring Mission" stationed in Sri Lanka.

Throughout this period of intense military activity in the east, confrontations between the security forces and the LTTE elsewhere in the country took various forms. The Forward Defense Lines (FDL) of the government-controlled areas in the Jaffna peninsula and in the hinterland of Mannar continued to be venues of low intensity clashes, with occasional flare-ups.

In localities adjacent to the FDL in Vavuniya District, army killings of suspected insurgents and LTTE claymore-mine attacks and ambushes of army patrols occurred in routine fashion. The severe maritime losses suffered by the LTTE during these months included the sinking of 11 of its vessels off the east coast. Most significant, as an ingredient of the LTTE military debacle, was the destruction caused by the constant aerial bombardments in which Thamilchelvan, head of the LTTE's political wing, perished on November 3, 2007, and Prabhakaran suffered injury on November 27, 2007.

These military defeats constitute only one (albeit the key) component of the current LTTE crisis. Foremost among the internal causes for the present LTTE crisis is the prevailing trend towards factional disintegration of its leadership which, as the related evidence suggests, could well represent the emergence subterranean rivalries that had been in existence all along.

In addition, throughout recent years, there has been the barely concealed animosity between two of the highest-ranking Tiger leaders - "Pottu Amman" (aka Shanmuganathan Sivasankaran, the feared head of the Tiger intelligence network whose spectacular "hits" include the masterminding of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination) and "Soosai" (aka Thillaiyampalan Sivanesan), the charismatic "Sea Tiger" admiral.

Factional rivalries of this type in the Vanni and their repercussions outside the country are likely to intensify if, indeed, the reported weakening of Prabhakaran's grip over the LTTE is true. Yet another internal dimension of the crisis is seen in the recent resurgence of several anti-LTTE political organizations among the Tamil community of Sri Lanka, most of which were reconciled to a shadowy existence in the heyday of the Tigers in the past.

Tamil critics of the LTTE have become bolder in expressing their views than ever before. Some among them repeatedly announced that the "Eelam" campaign is doomed. A distinction between the LTTE interests and those of the Tamils of Sri Lanka is being drawn with clarity and vehemence. There is also a publicly expressed suspicion that the recent spate of murders of several pro-LTTE activists operating outside the northeast represents the work of such organizations, the members of which rank among the innumerable victims of LTTE terror.

As a barrier to statutory recognition of the entire northeast as a ethnically distinctive entity (which, of course, constitutes the conceptual basis of the secessionist campaign), the Supreme Court announced on October 16, 2006, that the then-existing amalgamation of the Northern and Eastern provinces as a single unit of Provincial Government (a sequel to the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987) had all along been constitutionally ultra vires. This is an even more insurmountable measure than the military eviction of the LTTE from the east.

The cumulative impact of these complex military and political defeats on the LTTE has been devastating, producing the most acute crisis of the group's existence. Sustained government operations in the north now have the capacity to inflict progressive damage on the rebel infrastructure and support base, increasingly undermining any residual potential for recovery and consolidation.