11 years later: Back on the Frontlines, Fighting for You

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM May 23 2020
Columns 11 years later: Back on the Frontlines, Fighting for You

By Gagani Weerakoon

Eleven years ago, on 18 May 2009, Sri Lanka marked a significant day in its history by freeing itself from the clutches of terrorism. This saw Sri Lanka becoming the first nation to eradicate terrorism in the 21st century, securing a momentous place in military history.

The military operations launched by Sri Lankan security forces at the Mavil Aru anicut on 26 July 2006 culminated in the final defeat of the LTTE at the Nandikadal Lagoon two years later on 18 May 2009, bringing an end to 26 years of civil war.


The Mavil Aru incident

The Sri Lankan Forces and the LTTE were locked in four years of a so-called ceasefire since 2002, when on 21 July 2006, the month of Black July, the irrigation engineer in charge of the Mavil Aru sluice gate complex received several reports of an unusual reduction in water flow through the irrigation scheme's distributing channels. The engineer proceeded to inspect the gate, before being stopped at gunpoint by the LTTE around a kilometre before the sluice gate complex. 

The LTTE's closure of the sluice gates that day, cut off the water supply to approximately 15,000 farming families in 20 villages in the East. When repeated pleas from the Government and Norwegian peace brokers to resume the water supply went ignored, Government forces commenced operations on 26 July 2006 to liberate the Mavil Aru dam with the launch of aerial attacks on identified LTTE locations in the area. 

The combined efforts of the Air Force and Army led to the sluice gates finally being opened, and the Government regained control of Mavil Aru by 11 August 2006. Military forces began their 'humanitarian war' - a twist on the Eelam War - to liberate the Eastern province. A year later, on 11 July 2007, the military declared it had gained full control of the East after capturing Thoppigala (Baron's Cap).

Describing the situation faced by the troops during these operations, major General (rtd) Chagie Gallage once said, "The Eastern theatre of operation was peculiar in that the military and the LTTE were positioned without demarcation of separate areas of control. This dispersed position facilitated the LTTE's logistics for recruitment, training and other related functions. The LTTE maintained approximately 3,000 cadres physically in the East in early 2006, which were reinforced systematically. The main effort of the security forces was to segregate civilians from the terrorists and inflict maximum attrition on the LTTE."

The Vanni theatre of operations, categorised by three deep routes and two lateral routes, gave rise to a number of concerns during planning and execution. With the lack of infrastructure, extensive foliage and conditions that hindered infantry movement, several issues were encountered that caused a build-up of combat power and logistics.

The Vanni region was categorised into central, western, eastern and northern fronts. The Jaffna A9 road dominated the central front, while the western front was dominated by the Mannar-Pooneryn road. The lateral tracks and heavy fortifications of the Andankulam forest reserve in the eastern front were the key concern. The northern front consisted of a narrow strip of land exposed to the sea and lagoon, and posed a security threat. Hence, terrain imperatives had a major impact on the planning and execution of Vanni operations.

At a defence seminar, Major General Jagath Dias recalled the threats the Security Forces faced when executing the northern operation.

"The LTTE's combatant strength was reported to be 18,000 at the time of operational launch. As operations progressed in early 2008, forceful recruitment of approximately 8,000 civilians saw this increase to approximately 26,000 cadres. The capabilities of the LTTE included operating in small groups, using their thorough terrain knowledge to launch counter-attacks, night movement, combat multipliers, sea-fighting capability - known as the Sea Tiger wing - air capability, indirect fire capability and the Black Tigers - a unique weapon the LTTE used extensively against security forces and civilians. The LTTE also used heavy weapons, such as missiles, multi-barrel rocket launchers and armoured vehicles. 

The operation against them aimed to reduce their combatant efficiency and liberate captured areas to restore the State mechanism and return them to normalcy.

As a result of the success achieved in the East, it was decided that a frontage in the Vanni theatre be opened to compel the LTTE to commit their resources in multiple thrusts. By this time, troops were manning a defended coastal area from Kilali to Nagarkovil via Muhamalai, and Mannar to Kokkuthuduwai via Omanthai. In light of this situation, the 57 Division, the first offensive formation raised in the Vanni theatre, launched its operations on 5 March 2007, along three accesses from the Vavuniya-Mannar line of defence," he added.

Troops of 57 and 58 Divisions were severely affected by an inundation due to the blasting of the Kalmadu tank by the LTTE. However, both Divisions overcame the situation to manoeuvre towards the open terrain in the East, maintaining a link between Task Force 4 and 58 Division. Against all odds, with an outflanking move of a brigade side force through the Nandikadal Lagoon, the 59 Division liberated Mullaitivu on 25 January 2009.

Chalai, the launching pad of the Sea Tigers' operations, was exclusively used for LTTE Sea Tiger training and suicide cadres. The 55 Division, after gaining control of Chuddikulam Island, engaged in heavy battle to bring Chalai under control. By then, civilians had commenced crossing into liberated areas en masse, and troops worked on a priority basis to cater to their needs, for which action was initiated to prepare a site and other essential commodities at Menik Farm, Vavuniya.

However, winning the war was not an isolated operation by the infantry or the Sri Lanka Army alone. The Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) carried out targeted attacks on precise locations that the infantry could not reach. In one such attack, LTTE Political Wing Leader, S.P. Thamilselvan, along with five other high-ranking Tamil Tiger rebels, were killed in their sleep on 2 November 2007, when the SLAF carried out an airstrike on an undisclosed location near the LTTE stronghold of Kilinochchi.

The focal point of the 4th Eelam War's success lies with the contribution of the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN). The strategies it adopted since the latter part of 2005 made sure not only that the LTTE's international supplies were cut off, but also prevented its cadres fleeing by sea. 

Naval operations began with an attempt to identify and destroy the LTTE fishing trawler fleet responsible for smuggling operations. Within a year, 11 LTTE trawlers were destroyed. The SLN used land-based radar to detect small boat threats up to 100 nautical miles from shore. Ships and boats were dispatched against these potential threats.

However, operations took a significant toll on the SLN. The bulk of the Navy's assets were on continuous patrol to detect and destroy LTTE trawlers hiding among thousands of civilian vessels, resulting in worn-down and demoralised crews, while having little impact on smuggling operations.

By mid-2006, the Navy changed its tactics. Rather than chase the small vessels, it decided to utilise intelligence to target LTTE cargo vessels, or 'floating arms warehouses', which supplied the small boats. In addition to India's cooperation, the US also provided intelligence to the SLN on the location of the LTTE arms warehouses. The intelligence proved critical in locating the more remote LTTE vessels loitering over a thousand nautical miles from Sri Lankan waters.

The SLN, with international support, hunted down the remaining LTTE cargo ships. Between September 2006 and October 2007, they destroyed eight large LTTE ships containing over 10,000 tonnes of war-related material, using a flotilla of three offshore patrol vessels (OPV) supported by old tankers, merchant vessels, and fishing trawlers.



Eleven years later

The 11th anniversary of the military's victory against terrorism was commemorated at a juncture where the entire country was hit by another pandemic. 

COVID-19 has already claimed over 335,000 lives worldwide, while over 5.11 million have tested positive for the disease. While most neighbouring countries have been severely hit by the pandemic, Sri Lanka has largely managed to contain the virus' spread.

Back on the frontlines

Interestingly, those at the forefront in playing key roles in the fight against COVID-19 are the same people who fought a winning war 11 years ago.

Then-President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who provided political leadership as Commander-in-Chief, now serves as Prime Minister, planning strategies to mitigate blows the pandemic could have on the country's economy. 

Then-Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is now the Commander-in-Chief, directing the operation against COVID-19 by bringing the Health and Defence sectors together.

The Tri-Forces and the Police are again on the frontlines, protecting civilians. Just as they served as the forward defence line in the fight against the LTTE, they have again taken the forward defence line in helping and guarding health service members and civilians, undertaking the entire quarantine operation under the leadership of Army Commander, Lt. General Shavendra Silva. 

Similar to the vital role they played in identifying military targets and enemy movements 11 years ago, the State Intelligence Service (SIS) is identifying clusters spreading the virus; SIS Assistant Director, Parakrama de Silva said that all remaining clusters have been identified.

These include the clusters stemming from the Tourist Guide identified on 11 March, the Gem Merchant in Beruwala, the returnees from Italy and Dubai, the groups that returned from a religious event in Puttalam, the Suduwella drug addicts, the people of Bandaranayake Mawatha, Colombo North, and the Navy, which were identified as the highest risk.

No war is fought without casualty. Going by the statistics, it is evident that civilian life was prioritised as the forces carried out their search operations. With the Navy being the largest COVID-19 cluster at the moment, the public evidently appeared to have been disturbed by the fact, and were seen mistreating members of the military forces.

Navy Spokesperson 

Lt. Commander Isuru Sooriyabandara pointed out that this was unfair of the public, saying, "Infection among naval personnel could have been controlled had we not all gone out to track down and capture those connected to the Suduwella cluster. We did not stop at Suduwella and in fact, continued up to Nagalagam Street in Colombo, because we were determined to stop the cluster from spreading to communities. It comprised drug addicts, and our members came into contact with them while attempting to apprehend them. Some criticise us saying that we did not follow safety measures; but one has to realise that we do not give up a battle just because we do not possess all the required equipment. We will still fight by maximising the minimum resources we have. 

"The spread of COVID-19 in the Welisara Camp was due to its composition. One sailor barrack houses about 50-60 personnel. Also due to their lifestyle, their immunity system is strong, and most cases did not present symptoms. Now that we are releasing civilians from quarantine centres around the country, we will be able to send our sailors to those centres and bring the numbers down." 

Lt. Commander Sooriyabandara added, however, that this would not discourage them from continuing to serve the public in the fight against COVID-19, and in the flood situation expected to affect most parts of the country. 


CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM May 23 2020

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