Originally Published 2005-01-11 10:15:44 Published on Jan 11, 2005
Sri Lanka has suffered the most human fatalities (30,000 plus) and infrastructure and other property damage after Indonesia in the catastrophic Tsunami disaster of December, 26, 2004.
The Tsunami & the LTTE
Sri Lanka has suffered the most human fatalities (30,000 plus) and infrastructure and other property damage after Indonesia in the catastrophic Tsunami disaster of December, 26, 2004.

According to reliable reports from independent sources, the Sri Lankan Tamil community in the Northern and Eastern Provinces has suffered the most in the tragedy, registering more than a half of the fatalities in the entire country.

The road and other infrastructure in the Tamil areas, which was already in an unsatisfactory state due to nearly 20 years of the Tamil insurgency for an independent Tamil State to be called Tamil Eelam, has suffered further damage, thereby hampering relief and rehabilitation efforts.

Since the Tsunami has caused widespread damage or destruction of the fishing and other boats in the area and since the large number of mines planted by the security forces and the LTTE during the conflict have been loosened up by the water surge thereby causing serious danger to any one moving on foot or by vehicle across agricultural and other fields, the only way of rushing humanitarian assistance to the Tamils is by road.

The repair of the roads and damaged culverts and bridges has, therefore, to be given priority. Unfortunately, the efforts of the Sri Lankan Government in this regard have been sluggish so far. It is alleged by the Tamils that the Government has been paying more attention to the repair and restoration of the damaged road and rail communications infrastructure in the Sinhalese majority areas of the South.

The LTTE was the first to be on its feet after the disaster hit the area and lost no time in organising relief, in disposing of the dead bodies and initiating measures for the restoration of at least a semblance of normalcy in the areas under its control.

The Governmental agencies and the Army were much slower to react in the Tamil areas, preoccupied as they were in the Sinhalese-majority areas. Pro-LTTE sources have alleged that President Chandrika Kumaratunge's Government, including the Army, turned a deaf ear to the LTTE's request for urgently placing heavy earth-moving and other equipment at its disposal so that it could repair and restore the damaged road communications.

The insensitivity of the Government to the tragedy suffered by the Tamils and its apparent attempts to draw political mileage out of it are also evident from the reported orders of Chandrika Kumaratunge to the Army to take over the responsibility for running the relief and rehabilitation camps set up by pro-LTTE non-Governmental organisations in the Tamil areas controlled by the Government

When they found the Governmental agencies slow to move into the affected Tamil areas under Government control, these non-governmental organisations took the initiative in setting up these camps. Instead of appreciating their efforts and encouraging and helping them to continue to do so, the Government has ordered them to hand them over to the Army. This has been strongly resisted by the LTTE, which has threatened to continue to resist it at any price.

The Government has reportedly rebuked the Italian Embassy in Colombo for sending humanitarian relief directly to the affected Tamils and has made it clear that all governmental assistance from other countries should be routed to the Tamils through it. It strongly opposed the wish of Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, who was in Sri Lanka on January 8, 2005, to visit the affected Tamil areas in the Northern Province too and meet the Tamil leaders (meaning apparently the LTTE leaders) in order to express the solidarity of the international community with them, thereby forcing him to cancel his plans to go there. The Government reportedly took him only to the Tamil areas in the Eastern Province still under its control.

While repeatedly denying the LTTE's allegations of discrimination against the Tamils, Chandrika Kumaratunge has claimed that 80 per cent of all foreign medical assistance and other humanitarian relief groups have been sent by the Government to the Tamil areas, but this is questioned by the Tamils. On the ground, the way the Government has been acting gives the impression that it is giving the first priority to the Sinhalese majority areas, the second to the Tamil areas under its control and only the last to the areas under the control of the LTTE.

Independent reports from the Northern and Eastern Provinces indicate that the military infrastructure of the Government as well as the LTTE has also been seriously damaged by the Tsunami, with the LTTE, which had a stronger and a wider presence than the Government, suffering a much greater damage.

President Kumaratunge has been quoted in the media as saying that the possibility of the LTTE returning to insurgency due to its continuing differences with the Government was far more remote than it was before December 26, since, according to her, the LTTE had suffered heavy losses to its cadres and equipment. "Our camps have also lost a lot of equipment but physical damage to camp structures are less." she said.

It stands to reason that the LTTE's military infrastructure in the North as well as the East must have suffered considerably since the most devastating impact of the Tsunami in Sri Lanka was reportedly in the Tamil areas. However, it has been difficult to quantify the losses suffered by the LTTE and to assess its impact on the LTTE's capability for resuming the insurgency and keeping it sustained. In the absence of reliable information, it is also difficult to estimate what effect the devastation has had on the LTTE's following amongst the people, particularly in the Eastern Province where its hold had been showing signs of weakening since March 2004.

While the LTTE has been more efficient than the Government in documenting the losses suffered by the Tamil civilians and in sharing the information with the international community, it has been playing down the losses suffered by its military infrastructure and giving figures which do not seem to be correct. On the other hand, the Sinhalese media, suspectedly fed disinformation by the military intelligence, has been reporting what appears to be highly exaggerated figures of the losses allegedly suffered by the LTTE.

The Reuters news agency, which one would presume to be independent, reported as follows in a dispatch from Mullaitivu on December 29, 2004: "The Tigers' main naval base at Mullaitivu was devastated, as was part of its fleet. Bodies littered the ground like an upturned graveyard and the overpowering stench of death wafted over the area. Children accounted for the bulk of the victims in nearby fishing villages. All 135 children at an orphanage run by female Tigers were swept away to their deaths. "We have only found bodies so far," said Col. Soosai, head of the Tigers' naval arm, the Sea Tigers. "We have not received any aid from the Government yet.If the Government warned us early when the quake struck, the devastation could have been partially avoided," he said angrily. The rebels, whom the United States have placed on a list of banned terror groups alongside the likes of al Qaeda, said just 15 of their cadres were among the dead. A whole battalion of Sea Tiger cadres in fatigues collected bloated bodies and lined them at the roadside ready for mass burial. Some wearing white medical masks and gloves used leafy branches to swish away thousands of flies swarming over the dead. Few buildings on the coast were left standing. Mangled wreckage of trucks, mopeds and fishing boats lay twisted along the shore, and crumpled bodies were tangled in fishing nets. Telephone lines to the south were disrupted. Aid workers said that residents in the northeast now faced a new threat, from thousands of an estimated one million mostly plastic landmines sown across the region and now uprooted by floodwaters. Officials said just 12 of 1,500 local fishing boats were still seaworthy. More than 120,000 people in Tiger-held areas had been displaced from their homes, many now housed in makeshift refugee camps. Roofs sagged, walls crumbled and bricks littered the town. Many distraught survivors could only look on in desperation."

A website of the LTTE has quoted Soosai as stating as follows on the losses suffered by the LTTE: "In Mullaitivu three of our fighters perished. Major Dharmendra, a fighter who was assigned to provide support to him (Soosai) and a civilian fighter we call "Petrol Iyah," died in the calamity. In Vattuvagal and Chaalai we didn't suffer any losses to personnel. In Vadamaradchy east we lost three fighters manning the forward defence lines. An LTTE woman cadre who had come to Vadamaradchy East on leave died in the flooding. Loss of lives of our cadres was limited to those I have mentioned. We suffered some additional property damage. In Trincomalee and in Batticaloa two observation posts were washed away. The losses are not that significant."

However, non-Tamil and non-LTTE sources have been giving differing estimates of the LTTE cadres killed, varying between 1,200 and 5,000. According to them, large quantities of arms, ammunition and explosives stockpiled by the Tigers have been destroyed. Tiger camps at Nagar Kovil in Jaffna, Mahalnadu, Welvetithurai, Thandamanarau, Malati, Mathagal, Mankarni and Sea Tiger camps at Mullaitivu, Nayaru, Chmmaale, Championpaththu and Chalai have been completely destroyed. Four Tiger radar centers positioned along the Mullaitivu coastal belt have been damaged beyond repair.About 200 boats belonging to the Sea Tigers as well as 1,500 boats belonging to fishermen, who are sympathetic to the LTTE, have also been badly damaged.

Mystery surrounds the fate of Prabakaran, the leader of the LTTE. While a statement on the disaster attributed to him was disseminated by the LTTE on December 29, 2004, he has neither been seen nor heard since December 26, 2004. The only senior LTTE leaders, who have been active visiting the devastated areas, are Tamilselvan, the head of the political department of the LTTE, who has been liaising with the representatives of non-governmental organisations engaged in relief work, Col.Soosai, the head of the Sea Tigers, Col. Bhanu, who is the overall LTTE commander for Batticaloa-Amparai District in the Eastern Province, and some of their juniors.

All statements critical of the Government and appealing to the international community have been mainly coming from these three leaders. According to one report, Prabakaran, Pottu Amman, his intelligence chief, and some other senior leaders of the LTTE were attending a special Christmas service in a Mullaitivu church on the morning of December 26, 2004, when the Tsunami struck the church and they have not been seen again. Nor have their dead bodies been found.

The Government-owned Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) stated on January 8,2005, quoting a Vice- Admiral of the Sri Lankan Navy, that Prabakaran and Pottu Amman were among the dead or reported missing, but the LTTE immediately denied this as a mischievous fabrication. Even Soosai has been quoted in some reports as saying that there were at least 1,600 fatalities in Mullaitivu. If Prabakaran was located there at the time of the disaster as claimed by non-LTTE sources, it should not be a surprise if he was among the victims. However, the SLBC is since reported to have retracted its statement without giving any reason.

One has to treat these reports with considerable skepticism for the present due to the following reasons:

· The same sources had earlier claimed that Tamilselvan was also among the dead or missing. He has since appeared in public and has been moving around. 
· If the entire congregation in a church had been killed, the church leaders would have made a reference to it. They have not. 
· The day before the arrival of Kofi Annan in Colombo, some senior church leaders of the Northern Province had written to him appealing to him to visit Mullaitivu and see the devastation for himself and meet the LTTE leaders. The LTTE itself and many pro-LTTE organisations had addressed similar appeals to him. It is doubtful whether they would have done so if Prabakaran was dead or missing. If Annan had visited Mullaitivu and if Prabakaran was not there to receive him, it would have been taken by the public as confirmation of his death. 

Whatever be the ultimate truth, one thing appears very likely, if not certain. Its military-cum-terrorist machine has been badly damaged by the Tsunami. Similarly, its tax-collection machinery and its usual sources of funds have been damaged. Some of the statements of the LTTE leaders show that they are on the defensive. Even while criticising the Government, they are avoiding unnecessary rhetoric.

The Tsunami has been a traumatic shock for the LTTE and its surviving leadership, but there is no evidence so far to indicate demoralisation in the ranks of its survivors or a weakening of their motivation. Unfortunately, only Ranil Wickremasinghe, the former Prime Minkister, who initiated the peace process with the LTTE, has been conducting himself in a statesmanlike manner in this hour of tragedy. He has been pointing out that despite the set-back suffered by it, it was the LTTE, which was the first to recover from the shock and rush to the relief of the people. He has, therefore, been arguing in favour of routing all relief and rehabilitation through it and through organisations allied to it.

At this hour of national and regional tragedy, one could detect among sections of the Sinhalese signs of malign glee not only over the damage suffered by the LTTE, but also over the fatalities suffered by the Tamil civilians. One only has to visit the Internet chat rooms of many Sinhalese groups to have an idea of their mind-set. I am giving below random examples of the comments of the Sinhalese: "If we let them alone, disease will wipe them out. Sounds like the seven plagues in Egypt to me. Let God do what man has been unwilling to do;" "Nothing like a giant Tsunami to ruin a good rebellion;" "Those kids (children who were killed by the Tsunami) would have ended up as child soldiers of the LTTE anyway;" "Let them (the Tamils) rot. Perfect opportunity to go in and wipe out what's left of them;" "Have their leaders strap on MEGA-bomb vests, then explode themselves. I'm sure they'll leave behind a crater large enough to bury quite a few bodies."

One finds it difficult not to form an impression that many Sinhalese feel that the Tsunami has had a brighter side in that it has taught a lesson to the Tamils and the LTTE. Even Chandrika Kumaratunge and her colleagues seem to feel that the Tsunami has brought the LTTE to its knees and this is the time to teach it a lesson.

The LTTE is a ruthless terrorist organisation and Prabakaran was the most ruthless terrorist leader in the world. One need not shed any tears over his death, if he is really dead. I have been repeatedly writing that the Sri Lankan Tamils need an LTTE minus Prabakaran and that if the LTTE throws him out and gives up terrorism, India and Sri Lanka should be prepared to do business with it. Without the protective role of the LTTE, the Tamils would be at the mercy of the Sinhalese chauvinists. Statesmanship demands that the Sri Lankan leaders should work for such a denouement through special gestures to the Tamils and the other leaders of the LTTE at this hour of tragedy. The signs of insensitivity in the attitude of Chandrika Kumaratunge are unwise and dangerous and could further aggravate the feelings of alienation of the Tamils. 

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-mail: [email protected].

South Asia Analysis Group, New Delhi, Paper No. 1217, January 10, 2005

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