By: Ranjith JayasunderaCourtesy
(From the Sunday Leader - October 19, 2008, of Sri Lanka)
Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake's announcement in parliament two weeks ago that 200 soldiers had been killed in action during the month of September 2008, elevated the military's loss of life and limb to a whole new level.
With this announcement, a symbolic threshold has been reached, as over 1,000 soldiers have now been killed in battle during the first nine months of 2008 according to government statistics mind you, with the worst of the fighting clearly yet to come as the military delves into the heart of the Tigers' political and guerrilla capitals.
The government has been largely successful in anaesthetising the Sri Lankan people to the gravity of the human losses sustained by the army from the way it conducts its war. By releasing daily figures minimising the casualties suffered by the military, and announcing the actual statistics in parliament just once a month, albeit without the 'Missing-In-Action' and 'Deserters' figures, the administration has been able to hide the fact that the war it is waging is the most costly - in terms of life - being waged by any civilised nation anywhere in the world.
The United States has not suffered casualties as high as 1,000 dead soldiers per year in any conflict it has entered into since the Vietnam War. European nations too have not suffered such losses since the end of World War II.
At the height of the ongoing war in Iraq, the most number of foreign coalition soldiers killed in an entire year was 961 in 2004. This loss itself was divided among seven countries. The lengthy war in Afghanistan, which has been going on since 2001, has taken the lives of under 1,000 US and coalition soldiers.
Yet the government's handling of our war with such sky-high casualties has not caused nearly the type of uproar that has made George W. Bush the most unpopular President in US history, and cost Tony Blair, and possibly incumbent British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, their jobs. The UK has lost only 120 of its soldiers in Afghanistan and 176 to date in Iraq.
Apart from a burning desire by all Sri Lankans - Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and all other ethnic groups to see the LTTE wiped off the face of the planet, the two main reasons for the unstinting public support for this bloody war are the government's ruthlessly effective propaganda campaign and deathly silence from a kept, intimidated and stifled media, and an unconscious political opposition.
The most recent sign that the government is streets ahead in the war of words is the public hysteria over the 'imminent' fall of Kilinochchi. In one fell swoop, the administration's defence media handlers have been able to nullify the embarrassment caused by their repeatedly extended deadlines, Tiger kill counts and multi-murdered-Pirapaharans by putting the public spotlight on the impending fall of Kilinochchi.
The first shot was fired on Monday, August 18, when Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake announced at an election rally that "our boys might even take Kilinochchi by August 23," the date of the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council elections. "We are very close. Kilinochchi is not far from our sight," Wickremanayake assured a raucous audience.
On the same day, President Mahinda Rajapakse, addressing another rally announced that his war would not stop "until every inch of land is recaptured and each and every terrorist is killed or captured." According to the President, there is "no turning back under any circumstances."
Over a month later, on September 22, President Rajapakse announced during a speech in New York that the armed forces were just four and a half kilometres away from Kilinochchi. Close, but nothing near the 'almost there' claims given by the Prime Minister to butter up the pro-war election base. The Prime Minister's ability to see Kilinochchi it seems carries as much weight as Alaska Governor and Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin's ability to 'see' Russia from Alaska.
More than anything, it is the clear, political driving force behind the conduct of the war that is frightening. All the meandering and waffling about when the government is to finish the war has made criticising their strategies and predictions as elementary as shooting fish in a barrel. The real objective, as demonstrated in the recent provincial council elections, is to use the war to secure complete political power for the next several years.
This is the only way in which the government can survive given the financial catastrophe it has set in motion by its exorbitant spending and it is by leveraging the war it hopes to win the coming elections by margins large enough to prevent the kind of coalition politics that dictates its policies today.
As the mighty mega-wealthy United States funded its war in Iraq through borrowing, mainly by selling Treasury Bills to China and others building up debt, Sri Lanka has followed a similar but far more deadly path in how it has paid for not just the war but its extravagances from Mihin Lanka to rip-off price infrastructure projects such as the Iranian oil refinery project and Kerawalapitiya power plant.
The plan for unprecedented defence expenditure of Rs.177 billion in 2009 (including Rs.18 billion for capital expenditure) shows that either the administration is serious about not being able to wrap up the war this year, or that it will need Rs.18 billion in new arms, ammunition and hardware in order to continue to wage its battles.
The collapse of financial systems and economies worldwide could have a crippling effect on Sri Lanka's export market for its staples, garments and tea, which will in turn cause nightmares for servicing our staggering foreign debt. Coupled with double digit inflation and a weak financial sector, all the government will have to offer Sri Lankans is a pyrrhic 'victory' over the LTTE.
Not just the Army Commander, but several government spokesmen and senior officers have now made it clear that it is this government's policy to treat Tamils and Muslims as second-class citizens, and not seek a serious conclusion to their genuine grievances.
The President himself in an interview with Al Jazeera aired on Wednesday, October 8, drew a distinction between his determination to finish the war against the LTTE and his desire to seek a political settlement for the grievances of Tamil speaking people. He said that once terrorism has been defeated, his government "might be able to give a political solution" to "the reasonable people."
The "might" in that one sentence - which the usually flamboyant President uttered in a somewhat choked whisper - lays waste the government's claims that it is serious about resolving the ethnic tension in Sri Lanka.
It follows statements from his brother, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse that "nearly all Tigers are Tamil," and that thus it is tough cheese that Tamils at large were persecuted as a result. By the government's own figures (10,000 Tigers need to be killed in 2008 to win the war, and 8,140 have been killed thus far) there are less than 1,800 LTTE cadres holding out against the army's military onslaught given that bit of government propaganda.
But the Defence Secretary feels that it is all right to persecute a community of 2.7 million people for the sins of under 2,000 (less than 0.1%) of its total number. By that same logic, if one minister is found guilty of corruption, all ministers should be assumed corrupt.
Even more twisted, by Gotabaya Rajapakse's brush logic, if a single member of the armed forces has committed a human rights violation, then all members of the armed forces should also be suspected of human rights violations and take collective responsibility by default.
When the Prime Minister announced the September casualties in parliament, he soberly noted that "anyone having some regard for the motherland cannot be happy" with these figures. While those of us with 'regard for the motherland' can do little other than be unhappy, no one has stopped to ask what the Prime Minister - as Minister of Internal Administration - or what the rest of the defence establishment is doing to minimise the number of battle casualties in the war.
The number of soldiers killed each month in combat has seen a gradual increase over the last quarter. In July 106 soldiers were killed, in August 155 and in September 200. In an interview with The Sunday Leader published on March 16, former army chief of staff, the recently assassinated Major General Janaka Perera warned that if the war was not over by September, the troops would face taxing conditions.
"Come September, the northeast monsoon will set in," General Perera warned, causing the weather to add to "the physical and mental exhaustion" that "conspire(s) to keep the troops down."
"That means, the sick rates will go up with malaria and fever attacks. It is going to be a nightmare if the war drags on. It is easy for people to say that we can continue to fight. But I have been in the field and I know what it is like to be on the field - you are stuck, you are wet, and you are muddied - you are simply miserable. Besides these, you are physically and mentally exhausted."
The government's response to this constructive criticism was to ban all commanding officers from having any contact with Major General Perera and strip him of the security detail that a war hero of his stature clearly required.
Signs are that the late General's predictions are coming true. With the monsoon setting in, thunderstorms are set to plague Vavuniya and move further north in the coming week. This is the first time that Gotabaya Rajapakse or Sarath Fonseka have presided over a large scale military advance against a fiercely guarded LTTE stronghold.
Rajapakse retired from the army before Jaffna was re-captured in 1995, and General Fonseka's contribution towards the Jayasikurui debacle was modest, to say the least. Now injected with a morale boost after having soft-pedalled through the east with Karuna and Pillayan serving as guide-wheels, the retired Lieutenant Colonel and the Army Chief have committed themselves to a strategy of claiming scores of slaughtered terrorists from a front line sealed off to independent media.
The government has assured the international community that it is following a 'zero-civilian-casualty' policy, despite the Defence Secretary's "almost all Tigers are Tamil" doctrine.
However, when the BBC asked Government Defence Spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella last week to comment on the killing of two civilians in an airstrike in Kilinochchi, the Minister was unable to confirm or deny the deaths. Instead he was quoted as saying "those Tamil people" in LTTE controlled areas "will have to make some sacrifices." He was not specific about whether these "sacrifices" involved being killed in indiscriminate aerial bombardment.
The government has also sent a clear message that differences from their policies and views on the ethnic conflict will not be tolerated. Thus, the pressure on moderate, non-racist, level-headed, senior military officers to tow the government line was taken to another level with the death of Janaka Perera.
The Janaka Perera episode is the second time this year that the government's strategy of 'reducing security' has led to an assassination. The first was the murder of UNP MP Thiyagarajah Maheswaran on New Year's Day. The most recent incident sends a message to officers in the security forces that showing valour on the battlefield for over three decades is not sufficient to earn the protection of the nation you served.
Tow the line
Officers will have to tow the Rajapakse line politically. Should they refuse, like Perera did, their lives will be handed on a platter to the enemies they patriotically made during their years of service to the 'motherland.'
Thus is the fate that awaits any brave valiant officer currently serving on the front line after retirement, who would dare to question the military hierarchy's war of bogus deadlines, bogus performance reports and over a thousand very real, warm, breathing, patriotic soldiers dying in combat in the bloodiest year our country's military has seen in the 21st century.
Strangely, there is no prevailing national feeling of grief, mourning, or exceptional sympathy for the human tragedy by the families of these men and women killed in action, or the miserable existence that awaits the thousands of young soldiers permanently maimed in combat.
It is all drowned out by the drum-beating 'almost done' euphoria of the military media propaganda machine. Therein lies the true, decisive victory of the Rajapakse administration. It is one of a marketing, not military, nature. But hey, don't say that out too loud or you will be called a traitor.
Media reports of soldiers killed
Official number of soldiers killed
Difference between official and media
Month (2008) Tigers Killed
Oct (as of 17) 559
May 28, 2007
Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka
"The LTTE has 4,000 cadres in the north." "They are not its best cadres." "If they lose 2,000 cadres, they are finished."
December 30, 2007
Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka
"LTTE has 3,000 cadres remaining." "Military plans to kill them within six months." "Our daily target is to kill at least 10 LTTE terrorists."
January 11, 2008
Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka
"My term of office is coming to an end this year and I will not leave this war to the succeeding army commander."
February 10, 2008
Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka
"They are an organised force with a lot of experience. They have thousands of fighters. I don't conduct the war looking at deadlines and timeframes. " "The LTTE has around 5,000 fighters." "This time when we take Kilinochchi, we will not leave it after a while. But we must realise that the offensive is going to take time."
February 19, 2008
"We would have cleared them out of the remaining areas long ago but we also had to ensure no civilians were killed. I would say, in a year and a half, we might be able to do it."
February 22, 2008
Brig. Udaya Nannayakara
"But we have never said that we will finish them off. We have never set deadlines. We are fighting a terrorist organisation, not a conventional war." "The more we weaken them, then the more they will come into negotiations. It is not possible to wipe them out."
Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka
"4,000-5000 Tigers remain." "They have lost that capability, although they are fighting with us, not in the same manner like earlier. They had the defensive lines, we couldn't move even one kilometre for two or three months. That kind of resistance is not there anymore." "Maybe a maximum of one year from now onwards the LTTE should lose large areas.""They should not be able to maintain their present control over the population, to be able to resist the army in the way they are resisting now. They would have to lose all that capability." "Even if we finish the war, capture the whole of the north, still the LTTE might have some members joining them." "There are people who believe in Tamil nationalism. The LTTE might survive another even two decades with about 1,000 cadres. But we will not be fighting in the same manner. It might continue as an insurgency forever."
September 12, 2008
Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka
"11,000 Tigers killed since July 2006. Only 4,000 Tigers remain."