War Rhetoric and the Numbers Game
by Ranjith Jayasundera [courtesy: Sunday Leader, Colombo, Aug. 24, 2008.]
When Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake ascended the stage to address
an SLFP rally in the Kuruwita area of Ratnapura last week, he roared that
the military was in a position to capture Kilinochchi town by yesterday
"We are very, very close. Kilinochchi is not very far from our site," he
insisted, emphasising that "Our boys might even take Kilinochchi by August
23." Unfortunately, in a telling sign as to how much enthusiasm the
government is received with in Ratnapura, the rally was practically
This, of course, the PM attributes to the fact that people were afraid to
attend due to terrorist threats, according to the BBC Sandeshaya Service. It
appears that as the war draws closer to an end, the level of terrorist
threats seems to increase in proportion.
As startling as the Prime Minister's claim was, it was quickly rebuffed by a
retired army general with political ambitions. "I am puzzled as to why
always these predictions coincide with elections," was the wry comment of
Major General Janaka Perera, the UNP's main candidate in yesterday's North
Central Provincial Council election.
But the Prime Minister wasn't alone in his proclamations; his was simply the
most outlandish. The Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, was not far
behind with his pledge that Kilinochchi will be captured by the army within
the next few months.
His was a follow up to a statement by the military that the army had already
entered the Kilinochchi District from an undisclosed location. Yet the Army
Commander himself admitted, the military' strategy is one that might allow
the LTTE insurgency to "last forever."
As many analysts have been saying since the military campaign in the Wanni
started, it is one that lacks clarity or direction. At various times
officials have made statements so self-contradictory that they lead to fears
that - despite the ruthless professionalism emanating from the soldiers on
the ground - the top brass do not know whether they are coming or going.
It also begs the question whether overall military strategy is being
compromised at the altar of political expediency as was evident with Prime
Minister Wickramanayake's desperate claim that Kilinochchi will be captured
by election day, August 23.
The Defence Secretary, for example, told the New York Times in a May
interview that the government's main aim was "to destroy the leadership" of
the LTTE. This has in the past been the work of the army's deep penetration
units and air force bombers, coupling their strikes with accurate
intelligence information on target positions.
But by last week the Secretary Defence had changed his mind. He told the
UK's Times Online that he had to "go after (the Tigers) and completely
eradicate them." His brother, President Mahinda Rajapakse has often insisted
that the ongoing war was part of a humanitarian campaign to free civilians,
or systematic retaliation to LTTE aggression.
Yet in the heat of the elections with opinion polls not favouring the
government, the Commander in Chief too came out with his real thinking on
the war while he was addressing a rally in Ruwanwella, Sabaragamuwa. "There
is no turning back under any circumstances or influence now, until every
inch of land is recaptured and each and every terrorist is killed or
captured!" he thundered to the crowd.
Given all its contradictions, the government will find it difficult to
maintain its facade of impending victory, unless it finds some form of
tangible 'victory' to show to the public. Over 14,000 soldiers have deserted
the forces in 2008, Military Spokesman, Brigadier General Udaya Nanayakkara
told The Sunday Leader. This figure is around 5.4% of the army's total
strength over a period of just over half a year.
Although these soldiers are not from the army's most battle-hardened
regiments, they are troops who have seen combat, and whom the military
depends on to hold the territory behind its advances. The military spends
over Rs. 1 million on the 15 week training periods for each and every one of
these soldiers, the Brigadier said.
"That cost includes the cost of their starting salaries, paying their
instructors, buying their uniforms, rations, weapons and other equipment, as
well as rations and accommodation," he said. Even the lowest ranking soldier
serving in an operational area would collect just under Rs 30,000 monthly,
according to the military - a figure that even adjusted for inflation, is
far higher than that ever paid to soldiers over the last few decades of
The general thus doubts that deserters have left the army for economic
reasons and instead suggests that 'personal reasons' played a bigger role.
Brig. Nanayakkara also said that during the late 1990's, the desertion rate
was much higher and over 30,000 would desert the army in a year.
"Now the figures are far lower," he said. 5.5% however, is an extremely high
rate of desertion for any army - enough to cause alarm. At the peak of the
US military's Vietnam debacle, when a draft (effectively conscription)
policy was in place and tens of thousands of American soldiers were being
slaughtered, the desertion rate peaked at 5%.
A senior military officer, who wished to remain anonymous due to a witch
hunt against officers who speak with 'traitorous' journalists, felt that the
military was taking the desertion issue too softly. "When we are supposed to
be in a successful military campaign, 5.5% is a crazy rate. Don't forget,
you're saying 5.5% out of the whole strength of the army, but that is
including all from engineers to admin officers. If you look at what number
of combat troops are deserting, that's a huge and scary number."
It is impossible to independently establish the ground situation faced by
soldiers on the Wanni battlefront, since the military does not allow access
for journalists to visit the front lines. Yet the threat of insurgency faced
by the military, especially in the light of outright retreats by the LTTE,
has been significantly downplayed.
Even in the cleared Eastern Province, which is now effectively the domain of
Karuna and Pillayan, the military and the STF find signs of LTTE
infiltration nearly every day. Barely a day has passed since Pillayan was
appointed Chief Minister in May, without the military and STF either
encountering an LTTE splinter cell, or discovering a stash of weapons -
ranging from automatic weapons, to claymore mines, rocket propelled grenade
launchers to light artillery mortars.
If this is the situation in the Eastern Province, whose former LTTE czars
are on the government's side, it is easy to imagine the abundance of
military hardware stashed in safe-houses and jungle hide-aways, behind the
Karuna himself warned last week that Pirapaharan may have some clever tricks
up his sleeve. He told a news briefing in Welikanda - while out campaigning
- that the LTTE would use northern civilians as blatant human shields, and
use chemical weapons to try to halt the army's advances. He also took the
'credit' for the LTTE's military operations to rout the Jayasikuru campaign,
and the operations to capture Elephant Pass and Kilinochchi from the army.
Without him, says the Colonel, the Tigers are past their heyday.
The Sunday Leader earlier cited a research paper published by the
British Medical Journal, which warned that due to errors inherent in
normal casualty reporting methods, the death toll from Sri Lanka's war may
be higher than 300,000 - opposed to the earlier estimate of 60 to 70
With the government's own figures, nearly 16,000 people - of whom just fewer
than 2,000 were civilians - have been killed in the past two years of
conflict. This year alone over 600 security forces personnel have laid down
their lives, in 'return' for the military claiming to have killed some 6,300
LTTE cadres in the same period.
The month of July has been the bloodiest yet, with the government claiming
to have iced 1,017 terrorists for the loss of 106 soldiers' lives. These
figures were revealed by the Prime Minister to parliament, before the entire
government took off on election campaigning work.
The most worrying part of the Prime Minister's statement was that he said
622 - six times the number killed - soldiers were 'injured' in battle. This
is not a military that counts a scratch on the arm or a broken toe as an
injury. A lot of these soldiers, aged 18 and up, have been hurt so badly
that their lives have been effectively shattered.
Also, if the government claims that nearly 12,000 Tigers have been killed
between 2006 to date, surely at least a similar number must also have been
The Prime Minister's numbers for those killed last month however did not
tally with our own records of news releases from the Defence Ministry.
The Ministry doles out the odd news story of a soldier who "laid his life
for the motherland" or "made the supreme sacrifice" every so often,
scattered amongst the banner headlines of all the hundreds of terrorists it
is killing every week. The total number of soldiers admitted killed by the
military itself in the month of July was just 55, almost half the 106 that
Ratnasiri Wickremanayake claims were killed.
Similarly, the military's reports only allow that 299 soldiers were injured
in the month of July, despite the Prime Minister's figure being double this.
Although these figures cannot be verified, time and time again they are
found to be untrue and reek of fabrication. The intention is obvious and
there in lies the rub.
Rather than fight the war on a strategic basis to corner the Tigers what the
government is doing all too obviously is dish out false propaganda simply to
achieve political ends as opposed to real military successes. Thus while
claiming on a daily basis that only one or two soldiers are killed as
opposed to dozens of Tigers in their propaganda handouts, the government is
conditioning the minds of the people on a daily basis the war is nearing end
at very little human cost to the military.
Then comes the monthly statement of the Prime Minister at the emergency
debate giving lie to the government's own daily propaganda by stating over
100 soldiers were killed for the month with over 600 injured if July is
taken as an example. That figure of course does not spell out the number of
missing in action or deserters. What does this mean in real terms ? In July
alone for example there were over 725 soldiers either killed or injured in
battle. Simply put that is an average of 23 soldiers are killed or injured
Now the purpose of highlighting this fact is not to demoralise the soldiers
because they know the ground realities being in the frontlines but to
impress upon the government not to fight the war through the news media to
achieve narrow political ends since the truth will out and it will not do
the government's credibility any good via the very people they are trying to
Thus, over the seven months that we have been recording the Defence Ministry
reports, it has been easy to spot certain amusing trends. The number of
soldiers announced killed in any report is almost certainly couched towards
the end of a story, and it is generally zero, one or two. The number of LTTE
cadres killed however, often follows a different pattern. Often the number
of Tigers reported killed would match the day of the month or the article's
ID number on the Defence Ministry web site.
Thus the Ministry is winning its war, but a propaganda war. Around Colombo
the Presidential Secretariat has gotten in on the act by replacing the
contents of nearly every single Colombo Municipal Council hoarding to
advertise President Rajapakse and his Nelum Mal logo.
The government has set yet another target for capturing Kilinochchi,
Pirapaharan's headquarters. It is well known that as the military advances,
the Tigers will have nowhere to run, as the army is in place north of
Elephant Pass along the Muhamalai - Nagarkovil defence line.
Thus, as the President promised, once "every inch" of land has been
captured, the government would be hard pressed to explain themselves should
the senior LTTE leadership manage to escape and disappear, as did Bin Laden
in Afghanistan, or 900 Tigers who simply 'vanished' from a 'surrounded'
Thoppigala last year.
If the military is unable to capture Pirapaharan or his top rankers, and the
government proceeds to appoint another 'Karuna' out of nowhere to run shop
in the Northern Province, the sinister back room dealings that took place
between the President's confidants and the LTTE during and just after his
presidential election may finally begin to make sense.
The government would therefore at least now do well to fight the good fight
and give the valiant soldiers their due credit and respect by recognising
their achievements and sacrifices without overplaying the propaganda card
since before long they would have wiped out not just the LTTE but the entire
Tamil population twice over if it is to simply be a numbers game alone.