Last week’s military fatalities and casualties, the highest in recent times, has once again focused national attention on the grievously high cost of war. On top of these losses, the LTTE took on a soft target at Piliyandala late on Friday evening, exploding a CTB bus and making hapless civilians pay a horrendous price risking a reversal of international opinion tilting in their favour in recent weeks. The world, and especially the western nations, wants the government to halt the military offensive and return to the negotiating table. Given that the Tigers have been taking a beating in recent months, this fits in neatly with the LTTE agenda. But halting the military thrust at a time when a military solution appears visible, in the context of Prabhakaran’s repeated assertions that he will settle for nothing less than separation, is not a viable option for the government. This is especially so, as Sri Lanka’s well-intentioned foreign friends are not talking a language that the Tigers will understand.
This includes impressing on the LTTE that negotiations, if any, must run parallel with the verifiable decommissioning of arms and talks must conclude within a specified timeframe. The history of previous attempts to resolve the long drawn conflict at the negotiating table is replete with the Tigers, under pressure, agreeing to talks purely as a time buying exercise to regroup and rearm. When they feel the heat, they are ready for ceasefires, some unilaterally declared by them, and negotiations. They then ensure that the talks go nowhere, sometimes withdrawing from the table in pretended high dudgeon. Such tactics do not take this country any closer to peace and this is something that our foreign friends must take into account in pushing for a negotiated settlement. It is time that those who urge a negotiated settlement set the ground rules for negotiations and ensure to the best of their ability that the LTTE conforms to such conditions. That would mean mounting pressure, much more serious than at present, on fund raising particularly in Europe and North America and cracking a harder whip on Tiger fronts that abound in countries with sizable Tamil populations. Tightening surveillance or arms buying is also a sine qua non.
Having said so, it must also be exposed that the military understated its losses on the Muhumalai front last week. Even senior officers who are very well aware of the facts blatantly resort to giving fictitious numbers. The people are very well aware that both sides understate their own losses and exaggerate those suffered by their opponents. One news agency has been keeping a tab on the numbers supplied and running them regularly on its wire to sock home the point that the figures belong to the realm of lies, damn lies and statistics. Propaganda is very much a part of war and truth is seldom an ingredient of successful propaganda. While the state media will blindly parrot what is given to them, the more professional journalists would try to ferret out the reality often attracting official ire. This is largely dependent on hearsay because there are no journalists physically present in the theatre of war at present. Sources sometimes put their own spin on the information given and it is a difficult task to sift the grain from the chaff. Nevertheless the truth will finally out, despite the best efforts of those in authority to ban reporters from hospitals and undertakers establishments for reasons that are self-evident.
Attempts to suppress the facts by offering wrong figures will only help rumour mills to flourish. Admittedly, high fatalities and casualties are demoralizing both to the forces themselves and to the country at large and decision makers may choose a strategy of trickling out information with the final figures officially revealed only when the prime minister speaks in parliament during the monthly extension of the ongoing state of emergency. It was only last week that the army announced another amnesty for deserters. Given the losses in the northern front that has now gained currency, the timing of the newest amnesty could not have been worse. Nobody can be blamed for that because it would have been impossible to foresee events of the future even in the short term.
It is unfortunate that politicians who look for benefits from battle field gains, like those who like to father the cost of living travails of ordinary people to oil prices forgetting the contributory effects of their own profligacy and bad governance, too often try to push the military agenda to slot in with political needs. Given such experience, it is natural for the suspicion to arise in the public mind whether the timing of the military move was in any way tied to the forthcoming Eastern Provincial Council election on May 10. A major success in the war, undoubtedly, would have been widely trumpeted to get votes. Although the losses have been visibly heavy, if the forces have in fact overcome the first major resistances of the LTTE last week, future forward movements will be easier and less costly.
It is to be fervently hoped that such is the case and that military commanders are armed with the total responsibility to decide when and where they strike on criteria that are apolitical. Both the security forces and the political leadership must act in such a way that both the soldier in the battle field and the man on the street have no doubts whatever on that score.