An Indian general’s view of the current Sri Lankan conflict

General Ashok Mehta

 The interview with General Ashok Kumar Mehta, which is reproduced below, makes interesting reading. He’s the dude second from left in the photo above.

It reminded me of two things. Firstly, it reminded me of a conversation I had with a British friend of mine whose family owns a holiday home in very rural Tamil Nadu. Their household staff had told her in August that there is an LTTE camp in the jungle hills bordering their home. If this is true, does it necessarily mean that the Indian federal government approves of these camps, or is even aware of them? It could be just the Tamil Nadu government, or even they may not be directly involved. Incidentally, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi has just written a poem eugolising Thamilchelvam’s death.

Secondly, it reminded me of a conversation I had with a fairly senior member of the Indian intelligence. I asked him whether India would ever allow Tamil Eelam to become a reality, and his diplomatic answer was that there is little difference among South Asians and that we should all unite. I think he was suggesting indirectly that India wants Sri Lanka as another state. This was at a wedding, and he was drunk at the time. 

On a tangent, according to this article below, Hillary Clinton seems to think of the Tigers as a liberation movement, and not a terrorist organisation. The only non-depressing thing about the Bush administration being in power was their hardline stance against the LTTE. I hope that wont change with the Democrats’ almost certain victory in 2008.

There is also a good discussion of this article at: http://www.tamilcanadian.com/page.php?cat=501&id=5250

 Sri Lankan Government is barking up the Wrong Tree” – General Ashok Kumar Mehta

By: Nilantha Ilangamuwa
Courtesy: Sri Lanka Guardian – November 4, 2007

Q. What do you think of the new political and military developments in
Sri Lanka between Government of Sri Lanka and Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam?

Ans: There are two aspects, military and political. On the military
side, the government has changed tack and shifted the focus from the
ethnic conflict to counter terrorism. By doing so, they have derived
considerable international cooperation and understanding. The
liberation of the East is a big feather in the military cap but this
does not mean that the LTTE has been completely cleared from the East.
There are known to be at least 200 armed Tigers in hiding and an equal
number of sleepers. In addition there are the various Tamil
paramilitary groups like Karuna and Pillaiyan and Tamil political
groups chiefly EPDP. These are bound to come into conflict with one
another in the future. Therefore the main task for the Army and STF
will be in managing the East.

Colombo has been sanitised and made safer but this has consumed at
least one Infantry Brigade and some Special Forces. The occupation of
the East and security tasks in the Colombo region are bound to affect
the troop strength available for operations in the North. The recent
attacks on Anuradhapura and Yala demonstrate that the LTTE has both
reach and resilience which go beyond the North East. On the political
side, the devolution package remains an elusive as it has always been
in the past. Despite the APRC with some 50-plus meetings the end
product will lack a southern consensus as the TNA, JVP and UNP are
formally out of it.

Q: We met for the first time at the International Counter Terrorism
Conference at BMICH, Colombo a few days ago. That day you have spoken
on what the Government of Sri Lanka can do to counter terrorism in Sri
Lanka. Also you welcomed recent operations won by Government troops
against the LTTE. Does the Anuradhapura airbase incident change all
that and your views? Can you critique GoSL’s Counter Terrorism
operations?

Ans: The Sri Lankan Security Forces are fighting a conventional war
while the LTTE is using a mix of guerilla war, conventional tactics
and terrorism. But it has to be noted that the bulk of the targets
they have attacked are military ones. The objective of the SLSF is
both the capture of territory and attrition – weakening the LTTE. The
aim is to separate the LTTE from their support base of 400,000 local
Tamils. The Air Force is supporting the Army and Navy in their
operations against LTTE. In addition, the security forces have
launched productive intelligence operations and the results are
manifest in the targetted assassination of SP Tamilselvan and the
success story scripted by the Sri Lankan Navy over the last ten
months. It has virtually crippled the logistics lifeline of the Tigers
which will require at least 12 months to restore.

The LTTE is trying to make inroads into Jaffna and the daily attacks
against FDLs are designed to infiltrate their cadres into Jaffna.

Q. Is there a military solution to the current problem? In the light
of Anuradhapura, is GoSL even capable of a military solution even if
it were feasible?

Ans: Categorically no. But the Sri Lankan Government thinks there is.
Many governments in the past have lived with this illusion. And paid
dearly for it. The intention to liberate the North as was done in the
East is bound to fail due to various reasons; notably there is no
Karuna group to support the military; no one knows the Wanni region as
it has never been under SLSF control. Further, the LTTE has very
strong defences and an elaborate network of barriers and minefields. A
protracted war can result in a humanitarian disaster especially if air
and naval bombardments are combined with ground assaults. So the Sri
Lankan government must rethink its offensive plans. Rather than open a
new front it should consolidate its gains in the East and carry out
focused development. The attack on Anuradhapura should caution the
establishment.

Q. Some say there is no difference between LTTE bombs in Colombo on
the one hand and the massacre of Tamils civilians in periodic riots
from 1956 and government shelling of civilians on the other. Please
comment on the origin of Terrorism in Sri Lanka. What are the recent
influential factors leading to the build up terrorism in Sri Lanka?

Ans: I think all human beings have the gift, from God, of forgetting.
A lot of forgetting has to be done by both sides in Sri Lanka. The
LTTE calls itself a left-leaning people’s army. Please explain to me
how the rights of the oppressed, no matter what their race, are served
when you blow up trains and put bombs in public places where the
working classes congregate. I don’t think anything is served by
repeatedly raking up issues of whether LTTE terrorism came up first or
state terrorism. Sri Lanka is a polyethnic society. It needs a
polyethnic polity. Both sides must demonstrate the ability to share
power.

Q. As far as Tamil civilian deaths during military operations are
concerned, do you see any substantive difference between Sri Lankan
Army or Air Force operations and IPKF operations?

Ans: The IPKF did not use its air force in the manner the Sri Lankan
Air Force is employed. Only armed helicopters were selectively used
and there was no carte blanche bombing of targets. IPKF operations
were guided by use of minimum force and minimum collateral damage. The
IPKF was extremely conscious of civilian casualties especially in the
Tamil areas because of the fact that there were several Tamil speaking
infantry units. IPKF also had to be mindful of the reaction in Tamil
Nadu. Overall, great care and extreme sensitivity about civilian
casualties prefaced military operations.

Q. What are your observations on Tamil Youth Militarism in Sri Lanka?

Ans: I think militancy is a hallmark of the young. I just feel it
wasn’t handled right – not in the case of the LTTE, not in the case of
the JVP.

Q. Why did India support Tamil military movements in Sri Lanka in the past?

Ans: there was a specific geopolitical situation that warranted this.
India did not want a problem on its shores and some Sri Lankan regimes
tried to bring external powers into the Indian Ocean region that made
India angry, alarmed and determined to retain some leverage in
influencing politics in the region. There was a certain context.

Q. India is strongly opposed to terrorism but India strongly supports
Sri Lanka Tamils and, it is no longer disputed, has even trained and
armed Tamil militants. Why is this?

Ans: India strongly opposes terrorism, state sponsored or otherwise.
If the Sri Lankan Government’s minorities feel oppressed and find
echoes in India, it could become an even greater problem for both our
countries. It is better to engage and address issues instead of using
coercion.

Q. If the LTTE didn’t kill former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi could
you please speculate on whether India would have backed the LTTE goal
of Eelam?

Ans: Hard to say.

Q. How did Indian support, if any, help in recent defeats of the LTTE
such as the loss of LTTE cargo vessels? In 2002 when the Sri Lankan
army was trapped in Jaffna with some 30-40,000 troops close to being
massacred, it is said that India stopped the advance of the LTTE. Is
this true? What did India do?

Ans: India has provided usable intelligence and training to Sri Lankan
Navy. The second part of your question is fiction

Q. A top level intelligence officer in Sri Lanka told me at a personal
interview that India never supported the Sri Lankan military. Also he
claimed that the joint patrol by both countries of the Indian Ocean is
a joke. Is his comment true? Is this all an Indian drama with Sri
Lanka?

Ans: I think you should ask the gentleman who told you. He seems to
enjoy a lively sense of humour! By the way India is the biggest
trainer of Sri Lanka’s military – Army, Navy and Air Force. No other
country gets as many vacancies as Sri Lanka on training course in
Indian military training institutions.

Q. Hilary Clinton, wife of former US President Bill Clinton has said
during an interview with the London-based Guardian newspaper that the
Tamil Tigers are a liberation movement, not terrorists. What is your
opinion on her comment?

Ans: I am not sure how familiar she is with the realities of this region.

Q. Please comment on the international implications of the LTTE and
its threats to peace and stability regionally and more widely.

Ans: The LTTE is militarily at its weakest today. Gone are the days
when liberation movements and human rights violations could move
nations to act. The LTTE may believe that support of the people of the
north and east is with it, but the patience of international opinion
is wearing thin with them. The overall international threshold of
patience with ‘liberation movements’ is at an all time low. So it
should not expect any backing from any established regime. Yes, if
they are content to call themselves liberation guerillas on the basis
of equipment and money they extort, steal and smuggle, I have nothing
today about them.

Q. What do you feel abut the liberation of the East by Government of
Sri Lanka? Does it advance the cause of peace by humbling the LTTE or
retard the cause by making the GoSL feel it does not have to meet
Tamil aspirations?

Ans: This is certainly a victory of sorts. One must remember that a
guerilla force cannot be permanently defeated. The LTTE has been
cleared from the East but retains a residual presence and over time
can always recoup. The victory celebrations have a political
connotation. They may be premature.

Q. After the arrest of the top arms procurer and smuggler of the LTTE,
Kumaran Pathmanathan, better known as KP, you have said that this is
the time to tame the Tiger. First, was KP really arrested? And second,
could you give us your observations on LTTE’s military capabilities?

Ans: I think Thai authorities have said clearly –and so have the
Indians – that the arrested man wasn’t KP. I don’t believe in
conspiracy theories, only facts. The LTTE has acquired military
capabilities against heavy odds. But they must realize that a military
victory against the Sri Lankan state is impossible to achieve.

Q. LTTE has just attacked the Sri Lankan Air Force base in
Anuradhapura a few days ago. This is the first time Prabhakaran has
used a suicide team and Air Wing on a single joint mission. What do
you think about the LTTE’s latest attack?

Ans: Of the four air attakcs carried out by the Tiger Air Force, this
one is the most audacious and brilliant. The psychological pay off is
much greater than the 21 out of the 24 Aircraft which have been
disabled and resulting in the loss of $ 40 m The fact that the Black
Tigers were able to damage or destroy almost every piece of equipment
in sight barring the three helicopters which were parked away shows
the skilful planning and execution of the operation. That 17 of the 20
Tigers blew themselves up shows nothing will stop them from carrying
out even more daring attacks.

The combined ground and air attack also revealed big holes in Sri
Lankan Air Forces’ low level air defence and quick reaction
capability. They have not ben able to bring down a single Tiger
aircraft. That says something for both sides.

Q- Please comment on the death of S.P. Tamilchelavan who was the
political wing head of the LTTE?

Ans: It seems they got the wrong chap. The targeted killing by the
SLAF of Mr SP Tamilchelvan, the head of the political wing of the LTTE
and the international face of the botched peace process signals the
virtual end of any prospect of a negotiated solution. While the Sri
Lankan Air Force may have demonstrated its talent in acquiring
actionable intelligence and precision bombing, Tamilchelvan’s
assassination is bound to lead to an eye for an eye and escalate the
conflict still further.

The elimination of Tamilchelvan confirms the widely held belief that
the Sri Lankan government is simply not interested in a political
solution and is hell-bent on liberating the North as it has the East.
The government is barking up the wrong tree.

Q. What are the responsibilities of Government of Sri Lanka?

Ans: To expeditiously evolve a devolution package which enjoys a
southern consensus and offer it to the Tamils including the LTTE?

Q. Please comment on the ongoing operations against the LTTE by GoSL.

Ans: This question has been answered. The Northern offensive appears
to be in two parts. The first is along the A 32 coastal road from
Mannar to Pooneryn. This operation will ensure that LTTE guns will not
be able to target Palaly airfield. The second front is in the Wanni
area and it is believed that the Sri Lankan Army has made at least
three incursions of battalion size in this area. But this is a long
haul, fraught with risk and danger.

Q. What are the responsibilities of anti-LTTE Tamil political parties
in this situation?

Ans: I think they must do everything possible to ensure devolution of
power and a polyethnic polity. This is the fundamental issue and there
is no point being in denial about it.

Q. What are the weak points in the Sri Lanka government and military
for counter terrorism operations?

Ans: There is excessive use of force and military operations are not
compatible with human rights and humanitarian law of conflict

Q. Can the LTTE win Eelam?

Ans: No.

Q. Please comment on what you expect to be the forthcoming military
strategies of the LTTE, and how government forces can counter them?

Ans: LTTE will continue to wage its war by employing a mix of
conventional and guerilla tactics and terrorism. Government forces
have to fight on all three fronts.

Q. Can Government of Sri Lanka ever annihilate the LTTE? If so how
long would it take?

Ans: Never.

Q. How can Sri Lanka find a sustainable solution for the ethnic
crisis? Also what are the responsibilities of the other political
parties?

Ans: The Southern parties must work together on power sharing and
evolve a dignified devolution package that will satisfy the Tamils and
the Muslims and which is acceptable to all the people in Sri Lanka.

Published: Nov 04, 2007 6:08:27 GMT

7 thoughts on “An Indian general’s view of the current Sri Lankan conflict

  1. I think the good general is mistaken about the barking up the wrong tree part. It’s quite likely that the MoD is targeting all of the tiger brass. They just got TC in their sights first. It could have been any of the others.

  2. May be that Mehta is barking up the wrong tree🙂 the SLSF are fighting not only a conventional war but a kind of “guerrilla” war as in the small groups of SF deep behind enemy lines and also the DPU. That is what has made a big difference from the previous wars fought and also the success.

    And may be they went after the right person, TC was the ass who was in charge of Poonareen, so it may be one part of the SLSF operation to take the A32🙂

    Just to prove for every opinion there is a counter opinion that may be true or feasible.

  3. His focus on the primacy of the need for an equitable devolution package is dead on. His seems like the most clear-headed adn concise analysis of the situation as i’ve seen.

    I’m not sure what the SL military hopes to achieve by trying to win militarily against the Tigers. Do they think the tamil populace will fall at their feet? Have they really drank the president’s koolaid? There’s an analogy to Iraq to be made here.

    So to recap: Lots of forgetting to be done – > share power in an equitable and inclusive fashion. This conflict won’t be won with a gun.

  4. I think David and Tony Major are correct but overall A K Mehta’s assessment is, from my point of view, fairly accurate. While some of the military’s achievements (LRRP, TC’s assassinations etc) are commendable, it must go hand in hand with some concrete plans for the future. The danger is that the powers-that-be may get carried away by military success, perceived or real, and by their own hyperbole that they ignore the reality of the need for a devolution package that has southern consensus. Getting southern consensus will be difficult due to the nature of SL politics where most debate is based on ideology, half-truths, outright lies. As mentioned in a recent report, there is hardly any fact based debate in this country and it will take a Herculean effort to get the different parties to put aside their short term interests and come up with a plan that will put the country on track.

  5. So Tamils have a homeland called TAMIL NADU with 60 million Tamils in it and twice the land area of Sri Lanka but the Sinhalese can’t call Sri Lanka their homeland? Nope. Because morons like Ravana insist that it’s not.

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