The Capture of Thoppigala – A Phyrric Victory

By Air Vice Marshal Harry Gunetilleke (Rtd)

Come around mid-July this year, there were victory celebrations with much euphoria, if not in the North and North East of Sri Lanka, with some enthusiasm certainly in the rest of the country, at the behest of the State which gave the lead with a colourful military parade at Independence Square, reminiscent of the yearly Independence day celebrations, on the occasion of the conquest of Thoppigala, even before the powder ran dry.

Here, it must be noted that the military hierarchy desired another week or two for mopping up operations but the power that be would have none of it perhaps, wanting to put up a great show before the other big event of the opposition planned for 26th July through a mass rally where crowds in six figures were expected for the event.

I leave it to the readers to judge the reaction of the masses and other organizations as to who outdid the other and at what expense to the nation. As an ex-military chief, I am pleased at the exploits of our soldiers, sailors and airmen in the battle-field which commenced with the Jaffna Peninsula being brought under the writ of authority of the Government in 1995, followed eleven years later with the reacquisition of a large land area in the Trincomalee district comprising Muttur, Sampur, Thopur, Mavil Aru and Kattaiparichan in July/August last year, ending up, to this point of time, at Thoppigala in the Batticaloa district after securing the seaward defences in Verugal, Mankeshi, Panichchankerni and Vakarai areas.

Having said that on behalf of our fighting men, I begin to wonder what strategy the Government is adopting for future exploits – Is it to search and destroy or acquire territory or real estate as the late General Denzil Kobbekaduwa was to tell me a few months before his demise? He abhorred the latter prospect and always stood for “the weakening of the enemy and forcing him to the conference table, whereupon my job is over,” he used to say. No wonder we eye to eye on most matters, although I was retired over a decade by then.

Be that as it may, let’s get down to the crux of the issue – Do we wipe out the terrorist, and by extension, terrorism, or do we chase them out of all their strongholds/habitats and occupy their terrain to maintain the authority of the State? Perhaps, “patriotism” demands most southerners to say, lets do both simultaneously. Easier said than done, as the history of the world would record. Take for instance, the phenomenon of capturing territory and thereafter, holding it. At a cautious estimate where an advancing force requires about a thousand foot troops, backed up with fire power and assistance from sister forces to conduct a successful operation to seize an area of say about 100 square kilometers, you would require approximately ten times that number, to hold that piece of territory securely, depending on the terrain. It is being mentioned that the re-captured Thoppigala region as a whole is approximately 760 square kilometers in extent, without considering the seaward areas of Vakarai, Verugal, Mankerni etc., and if the entirety of this land area in the Batticaloa district that has been brought under the writ of authority of the State has to be fully secured, my calculated guess is that we would require between thirty to forty thousand troops in sit in this region to safeguard it from the known enemy. In fact, Minister Rambukwella was to say as such late July in a television broadcast but whether he refers to the entirety of the North and East being provided with an extra 30,000 troops after its recapture was complete, is not clear. I would think that his figure would suffice only for the Batticaloa district, therefore, a further thirty to forty thousand would be required for the defence of Trincomalee which will have to include the envisaged High Security Zone of Sampur, Thoppur, and Muttur, amongst other areas in the Southern district, not including the northern sections of Trincomalee.

Consider – with a square area of 978 sq. km. brought under the writ of authority of the Government in the Jaffna Peninsula form 1995, excluding the islands (another 196 sq.km.) employing 35 to 40,000 troops (excluding the Police) for its security; approximately 700 to 800 sq.km. in Trincomalee South in August last year, requiring another 20 to 25,000 hand for this area, and now a further approximately 35 to 40,000 men need for the entirety of the Batticaloa district of over 1,000 km; the total number of security personnel required for safeguarding the North East territory amounts to over 100,000!! For this specific task mentioned above. On the basis of remuneration alone for the lowest ranking military man of approximately Rs. 12,000/- per month, a sum of Rs. 7.2 billion per annum has to be provided for salaries alone, not considering the fact of providing uniforms, clothing, footwear, housing, food, weapons with ammunition, etc!!

Consider – just prior to the ethnic conflict breaking out in July 1983, the total Defence Budget for the Armed Services was Rs. 1.7 billion. Over the years, it sky rocketed to Rs. 61 billion by 2001. Then it came down again to approximately Rs. 58 billion for 2002 and 2003 as a result of the ceasefire agreement.

Thereafter, the rapid rise once again continued in 2004 until it reached Rs. 69 billion in 2006, and the astronomical figure of Rs. 139.5 billion was made for this year, exactly a 100% increase in Defence spending.

These are budgeted figures and do not take into account supplementary provisions over the years which included one of approximately Rs. 35 billion in 2006, to raise the level of expenditure for that year from Rs. 69 billion plus to Rs. 104 billion!! I am convinced, but I hope I would be proved wrong, that before this year is out, a supplementary estimate of around Rs. 60 billion would have to be entertained to meet the additional costs arising from the new problem created by the LTTE air threat in March this year. This was not anticipated when the budget was prepared for 2007 in September/October last year resulting in having to make extra provision for the three services by way of new Aircraft/Helicopter, radar, Ships and additional fire power. If this comes to pass, then we have a mind boggling figure of Rs. 200 billion as defence expenditure for 2007 or Rs. 0.57 billion per day!!

The question that emerges from the above facts and figures is have we the capacity, financially speaking, to prosecute a war which will not see light at the end of the tunnel at least for a few years, as stated recently by the Defence Secretary, more likely for several years, without the goodwill and assistance of the International Community that insists we forget about Military solutions to a political problem and get down to the negotiation table with their help.

Those of you reading this column may be pondering as to why little mention is made of Thoppigala quite out of proportion to the blazing news items in some sections of the print and electronic media that highlighted its re-capture.

To be quite frank, the last bastion of the terrorist stronghold was mainly jungle and barren land with patches of paddy fields to support approximately 5,000 inhabitants in this Thoppigala region. The best description was given by the then area Commander and its big chief, Lt. General Metha of the IPKF days upto mid 1990, who was compelled to respond to an accusation by the Ministerial Defence Spokesman recently that at no time in the history of Thoppigala, it was ever cleared of terrorists/insurgents by any force other then the present regime. He was to say in a newspaper interview in India about mid-July this year, words to the effect that he didn’t come with thousands of troops to sit out I camps in this difficult jungle terrain after his job was done to clear the area of the LTTE. The IPKF stationed there, went back to their main camps on the periphery when hostilities were over due to reasons of communications, logistics and route clearing problems, he further stated. I think he knew what he said, well, so much for the claims of the Government and the Opposition that they were the first to do so. Only time will tell, may be in the next six months to an year, whether a thorough clean up job was done, particularly with the infusion of a Rs. 6.5 billion ambitious development plan in 180 days to wean the Tamil people away from the Eelam concept, vis-à-vis the LTTE in the North eastern province. Let’s wait until January 20087 for the expected results.

This article first appeared in Montage Vol 1 Issue 8, published by Counterpoint. To get in touch with Montage, please email montagesrilanka [at] gmail.com