A?a??A? And The Muslim Bogey

“A?a??A?.that appalling fray”.
Shelley (The Revolt of Islam)

Muhamalai, an avoidable mistake with horrendous consequences, represents the quintessence of Rajapakse rule. Muhamalai is a logical outcome for an administration with a penchant for forgetting the past and for living in an imagined reality. Muhamalai is symbolic of the place Sri Lanka is headed to, if the regime persists in refusing to learn from its past errors.

The first Muhamalai debacle (Operation Agni Keela) happened on 24th April, 2001. The latest Muhamalai debacle took place seven years (but one day) later, on 23rd April, 2008. In between, there was another, identical, debacle, in October 2006. On all three occasions the LTTE lured the SLA into its territory (with a beguiling lack of resistance) and moved for the kill. On all three occasions hundreds of soldiers were killed or injured. On all three occasions alarm bells failed to ring, at the LTTEA?a??a??s amazing absence of resistance on a front line of such strategic importance.

How could such wanton carelessness be possible? Why did memory fail, in the planning stage and on the battlefield? The second and third Muhamalai debacles happened under the same President, the same administration, the same Defence Secretary and the same Army Commander. The Army Commander visited the Security Forces Headquarters in Jaffna on April 21st “to observe the ground situation in the Jaffna FDLs” (Daily News A?a??a?? 25.4.2008). Did he not feel a sense of dA?A?jA?A? vu? The President cannot be expected to remember the details of every major battle in the Fourth Eelam War but the Defence Secretary has no such excuse. Failures of memory of this magnitude, on the part of those who are tasked with and paid for remembering, amounts to criminal negligence. The ones who forgot are partly responsible for every death and for every injury.

Sun Tzu exhorts those engaged in warfare to understand the enemy. Are the repeated debacles at Muhamalai due to a fatal inability to understand the Tiger? DBS Jeyaraj (writing in Transcurrents.com) opines that the SLA was deceived by bogus Tiger radio messages bewailing their inability to defend the Muhamalai FDL. Is this why troops were sent to the Isthmus of death for the third time? Is this why air cover was not obtained in time? Is this why official websites carried jubilant notices of victory (subsequently removed) even as the troops were marching into the Tiger death-trap?

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The Cowardly TigerA?a??A?

What was Muhamalai A?a??a?? defeat or victory in deep disguise? The Army Commander says that Muhamalai was a non-debacle: “According to the Commander, a veteran infantryman whose capabilities are well known to the terrorists than many others, the number of army casualties is nowhere near what could be termed a military debacle. He explained that not all battles are cakewalks and there will be times like this where the LTTE will be pushed to expend its best fighting cadre and resources but with no significant gain. Few more such attempts will bring the LTTE to its breaking point from which it could soon meet its fate, he explained” (Muhamalai Attack: LTTEA?a??a??s Defeated Aim A?a??a?? The end is nigh for terrorists A?a??a?? Army Chief A?a??a?? Ministry of Defence Website A?a??a?? emphasis mine).

Does the Army Commander seriously believe that three, four, more non-debacles a la Muhamalai will ensure the final defeat of the Tigers? Perhaps he is basing himself on the fantastic statistics given in the same article A?a??a?? 145 dead Tigers, 340 injured Tigers (170 in government hospitals; 170 in LTTEA?a??a??s medical bases). Creating Tiger deaths on paper will not kill living Tigers; similarly denying Lankan deaths on paper will not give life to the dead soldiers. The state owned Daily News in its Defence Column gives an account of the Muhamalai battle which is remarkable for its pathos. The SLA began moving towards Tiger positions by 2 am and for almost 10 hours it was a cakewalk: “Troops have reached the Tiger FDL by 11 am and it was between 12 noon to 1 pm the fierce battle erupted with rains of artillery and mortar fell onto the Tiger FDL dominated by the troops. Though the casualties were relatively low till 11 a.m. the number of casualties suddenly increased between 12 noon to 1 p.m. as the LTTE was firing directly onto Tiger trenches which were dominated by the troops. Since the number of casualties increased on the part of the Security Forces at 12.30 pm the field commanders decided to withdraw the troops from the second line of the Tiger FDL into the first line. The Field Commanders were of the view that it was a futile attempt to hold that ground with a large number of casualties on the part of the Security Forces. It was at this stage some soldiers went missing when the troops were withdrawing from the Tiger second defence line to the first line. Troops could not recover the bodies of the soldiers due to heavy mortar and artillery fire” (Daily News A?a??a?? 25.4.2008). The men fought and died bravely but their courage provides no justification for the negligence of those who planned and sanctioned this operation.

The Tigers are terrorists who do not baulk at any act of barbarism, as the atrocious bus-bombing in Piliyandala demonstrates yet again. But A?a??E?terroristA?a??a?? is not the same as coward. It is when the enemy is underestimated, when his capacities are glossed over, avoidable mistakes are made. The latest Air Tiger attack is a case in point. Last week two Tiger planes got through our air defences, dropped a couple of bombs on the Welioya FDL and departed unscathed. What is significant is not the damage they inflicted (which was miniscule) but that they came undetected, dropped their bombs and escaped unharmed. When we underestimate the enemy we present him with the priceless gift of surprise, a decisive fact in the outcome of many a battle.

Ranil Wickremesinghe underestimated the TigerA?a??a??s ferocity and fanatical commitment. He opted for appeasement because he believed the LTTE could be won over through excessive concessions. The Rajapakses correctly see the Tigers as terrorists but believe that terrorists are faint-hearts; they underestimate the courage and the tenacity of hardcore Tigers. When the Tigers retreat without a battle, suspicions are not kindled, because such conduct is seen as natural for the A?a??E?cowardly TigerA?a??a??. Euphoria (in peacemaking and in war) blunts intelligence and clouds judgement. Just as Mr. WickremesingheA?a??a??s incorrect assessment of the LTTE defeated the peace process, the RajapaksesA?a??a?? incorrect assessment of the LTTE will undermine the war effort.

In the war for the East we possessed two major advantages A?a??a?? the ethno religious plurality of the East and the Karuna factor. In fact even with the pluralist nature of the East and the hostility of the Muslim community towards the Tigers, the East may not have been won without the Karuna rebellion. Unfortunately the Eastern victory was attributed to the political will and the ideological clarity of the Rajapakse regime than to the Karuna schism and the Muslim factor. In the resultant jubilation (which often took a Sinhala supremacist form) the very real differences between the North and the East became submerged. Any attempt to point out this difference was decried as treachery. The regime, immersed in hubris believed that the war was as good as won. The Army Commander, who is due to retire this year, declared that he will not leave the task of defeating terrorism to his successor.

It is easy to make extravagant pledges about fast victories and to put up posters in Colombo demanding a non-stop march to Vanni and Killinochchi. But if the Northern war is attempted without the sort of political corollary which can win us the backing of Tamils and the world and can create doubts in the minds of Tiger cadres about the necessity of Eelam, carnages, a la Muhamalai, will result. Oppressed by economic difficulties the Southern public is nearing the end of its tether. Only the (vanishing) prospect of a Northern victory is keeping the South quiescent. More Muhamalais will devastate Southern hopes and break its will. If so, the war will end not in victory but in a ruinous stalemate leading to another appeasement process.

A?a??A? And The Muslim Bogey

In Muhamalai history repeated itself. A similar error (of far greater magnitude) may be in progress in the East. In 1981, elections were held for the newly constituted District Development Councils. The Jayewardene administration was intent on winning this election, including in Jaffna. The TULF defied the militant boycott and contested the election. It was a situation pregnant with possibilities. But positive potential was destroyed, caught between hammer of militantA?a??a??s determination to sabotage the election and the anvil of Mr. JayewardeneA?a??a??s determination to somehow win it. President Jayewardene “despatched Sinhalese policemen from Colombo and two ministers including the rabidly anti-Tamil Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake, to Jafffna to ensure at least a partial victory for the UNP. (When two policemen were killed by a gunman attacking a TULF rally) policemen in Jaffna went on a rampageA?a??A?(and) security forces set fire to the splendid Jaffna public library” (Tigers of Lanka: From Boys to Guerrillas A?a??a?? M.R. Narayan Swamy). Despite blatant rigging by the UNP the election was won by the TULF. But by then the damage was done A?a??a?? to Tamil-Sinhala relations, to the chances of a peaceful resolution of the ethnic problem, to Sri Lanka.

A similar mistake must not be made vis-A?A?-vis Eastern Muslims. The regime is intent on winning the Eastern election, come what may. In this context the JHU is introducing an overtly ethno-religious tone to the campaign to win over the Sinhala voters. “Mr. Hakeem has let loose an A?a??E?OtuA?a??a?? (Arabic) terrorism in areas such as Pottuvil, Panama, Akkarapattu, Samanthurai, Kinniya, Mutur and Kalmunai, JHU spokesman Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe chargedA?a??A?. The party led by Mr. Hakeem is promoting sentiments against the state and the Sinhalese for a A?a??E?Muslim DeshaiA?a??a?? (Muslim state) in these areasA?a??A?. He compared this to the idea propped up among Tamil youths by the TULF in the 1960-70 period for a separate state for their community. This will end up in another armed struggle, this time by Muslim youths, for a separate stateA?a??A?.. Mr. Hakeem has also spoken about the advantage of a A?a??E?NasaristanA?a??a?? in a merged North-east. The SLMC leader is spreading Muslim extremism by destroying Buddhist places of worship in the East and taking over the land belonging to themA?a??A?. The East will come under the grip of Al Qaida terrorism if this situation continues, he warned” (Lanka Dissent .com).

Forget the factual errors (the TULF did not exist in 1960-70). Forget the illogic (can a Nasasristan be formed in a merged Northeast, with its Tamil majority and armed Tigers?). What is truly worrying is the insidious creation of a Muslim bogey to win Sinhala votes for the government. Just as the TULF and Mr. Amirthalingam were falsely accused of manipulating the LTTE, the SLMC and its weak but democratic leader Rauf Hakeem are being accused of creating Muslim terrorists and promoting a Muslim state, of allying with Al Qaida, and of destroying Buddhist places of worship. There isnA?a??a??t an iota of proof but mobs A?a??a?? especially fundamentalist mobs A?a??a?? are no sticklers for evidence.

This attempt to create a Muslim phobia amongst the Sinhala voter assumes extreme seriousness because the JHU is a part of the governing coalition and is campaigning for it. Is the President aware of these divisive and incendiary utterances and the damage they do to Sinhala-Muslims relations, to Sri Lanka and to the war effort (the East cannot be secured without Muslim support). Or is he, like President Jayewardene, willing to permit any atrocity so long as he can win the election? If so, irrespective of who wins this election, Sri Lanka and all her peoples will be the ultimate losers. Because the JHU, with its rabidly anti-Muslim rhetoric, is sowing the dragon seeds of a violent Sinhala-Muslim divide.

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