Sink or swim

The big news last week was the stunning LTTE attack on the Anuradhapura airbase which, despite some half-baked efforts by some who should know better, was a major setback for the country. While most impartial Lankans will agree with the government's call to the opposition not to attempt to gain political mileage at the expense of national effort to subdue the Tigers militarily, the government itself has in recent months played a game of accruing political capital for itself by presenting the successes of the security forces as an achievement under the belt of the administration with the politicians, as usual, taking precedence over the armed forces. Thus last week's admonition to the opposition which went on record saying that as many as 18 aircraft had been destroyed comes ill from those who first tried to make out that as few as two aircraft had been lost.

Later in the week Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, in a welcome parliamentary speech (spoiled by two words calling what was undoubtedly a serious debacle a "little mishap") came clean by itemizing the actual aircraft losses. They added up to eight. But Wickremanayake was not as forthcoming about the planes that had been damaged. Perhaps that is where the difference between the government's figures and those of the opposition lie. Our defence correspondent stays with the UNP figure. The air force commander is now on record that the cost of the aircraft that has been destroyed is USD 15 million but he has not said how many aircraft were totally destroyed. It must be freely admitted that propaganda is very much a part of war and the imperatives of sustaining morale often necessitates economy with the truth. It is not only governments that practice disinformation; the terrorists do likewise. But today we live in an age where news travels at the speed of sound and electronic images appear on television screens worldwide within minutes of an incident. Thus the art of Paul Joseph Goebbels cannot be practiced in the modern world in the same manner as in Nazi Germany. The truth will finally out. The reality is that the Sri Lanka Air Force has not lost its strike capability but its surveillance ability appears to have been blunted, more by the loss of the Beechcraft plane fitted with sophisticated equipment rather than several 'drones' as the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are commonly described.

While security forces losses in terms of lives 13 airmen including highly trained pilots were killed and aircraft were considerable, the LTTE too had to pay a very heavy price to inflict this damage. Velupillai Prabhakaran is not known to have previously thrown as many as 20 highly trained suicide commandos into a single operation as he did at Anuradhapura during the pre-dawn hours of Monday morning. Obviously his desperation in the context of recent reverses was such that he had to throw the cream of his fanatics into the operation with the full knowledge that they were launched on a one-way street. Prabhakaran has always been cavalier about lives - whether they be those of his own cadres, the people he claims to represent or innocent civilians who have been the victims of his numerous terrorist attacks. Using human shields has been a continuing strategy of his in the past and the future will be doubtlessly no different. Yet he would not have easily dispensed with the hard core he threw into Monday's attack without a meticulous cost-benefit assessment. That operation was obviously rated very high.

The UNP calling for the defence secretary's resignation is no surprise. He is, after all, the president's brother and very much within the opposition's political sights. Neither the UNP nor its leaders would have expected Lt. Col. (Retd.) Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to resign merely because they demanded it. Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe has not resigned despite similar calls following a string of election defeats and desertions from his parliamentary group. The demand that the SLAF commander resigns was less predictable. Did any service commander or their political bosses resign during any previous watch due to military debacles that have abounded in the course of this long-drawn war, whoever was on the driving seat be it JRJ, Premadasa or Kumaratunga? Undoubtedly the head of any institution must assume eventual responsibility for ground failures within their organizations. There is no need to labour the point that Monday's event at Saliyapura was a major failure in the area of base defence. What went wrong must be identified by an investigation rather than a witch-hunt and necessary remedial and preventive measures taken. As senior military officers, both serving and retired, well know, there have too often been instances of cover-ups in the past without apportionment of responsibility and due punishment. The culprits were allowed to escape unscathed and were in due course rewarded with promotions and even diplomatic assignments post-retirement! Who took the rap for July 1983, we would like to ask.

The display of the naked bodies of the LTTE dead at Anuradhapura, though denied by the military spokesman, appears to be a fact. The fact that there were three women among the LTTE dead makes the situation much worse. The International Committee of the Red Cross is on firm record saying that neither the government nor the LTTE had asked that the bodies be transferred as has been done on numerous previous occasions. The fact that there was no transfer is not an issue. While it has to be freely admitted that feelings must surely have been running high in the forces following the attack, parading the dead in the manner depicted by photographs claimed by the spokesman to have been faked is totally unacceptable. The president ordering an inquiry into this is a pointer to how this incident is being viewed in the higher echelons of government.

There are many lessons to be learned from Monday's events. Hopefully we have the capacity to learn from the mistakes that have been made. Most importantly we must unite across political and other differences for, as the prime minister said in his speech in parliament, it is up to us to decide whether "we should swim together or perish together."



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