Colonel R Hariharan (retd), who served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987 to 1990, analyses the war on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in an interview to rediff.com's Shobha Warrier.
The question often asked was, after Killinocchi, what? How significant was the fall of Killinocchi?
Killinocchi has three dimensions. Two dimensions are directly relevant to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and one of these is relevant to the Sri Lankan government.
First, the LTTE dimension. Killinocchi was promoted as the capital of the LTTE, on the basis of which it was trying to be on par with the Sri Lankan government in the 2002 peace talks. That was because they signed the ceasefire agreement and agreed to the peace process under the Oslo agreement. So, in a way the Sri Lankan government recognised indirectly the LTTE as the representative of the Tamil people. There were elected members of Parliament who are Tamils, but they were not there as part of the peace process.
So, the LTTE had built up a huge infrastructure to project Killinocchi as the capital with all the fanfare, judiciary, police, etc. It even had its own civil and criminal procedure courts. But it ignored the fact that they still had to depend on civil supplies from the Sri Lankan government.
The government agents, who are equivalent to our collectors or deputy commissioners, were still there. So, it gave the LTTE and those sections of Tamils who are their supporters a feeling of euphoria; that a Tamil Eelam was just around the corner.
From that perspective, the capture of Killinocchi has come as a sort of a rude awakening.
Would you say it is a big blow to the LTTE?
It is a rude awakening because the thinking until then was that the LTTE was equivalent to the Sri Lankan government. But possessing Killinocchi did not make the LTTE a government. To be a government, you require much bigger things, not just this kind of settings or decoration. So, it is a psychological blow to the LTTE.
That is the second dimension I am talking about. The psychological aspect is far more important than the military conflict. This psychological blow became aggravated because for a long time, people were calling it Stalingrad and Leningrad and El Alamein. It is a very big blow for the Diaspora that has been supporting the dream of a Tamil Eelam.
Now, let me talk about the military defeat of Killinocchi. The military defeat was actually not a defeat, as the LTTE has been losing the war all along. What it has done now is to progressively withdraw.
When you have to occupy a large area with limited forces, you fight what is called a mobile defence strategy. The LTTE has done that. It involves distributing smaller forces along likely routes of advance of the Sri Lankan army, delay them, inflict casualties, pull back a little further to a second line of defence, and again retreat the same way to a third line of defence.
What has happened here is, all axes have converged at Killinocchi. That is astride the A9 highway axis. It is not only psychologically important but it is the lifeline required to sustain Jaffna. Till now, the Sri Lankan government had to ask the army and navy to ferry supplies and protect them along the long sea route from Trincomalee to Jaffna. That was because the land route was closed, and this was the lifeline.
There is another route along the western Mannar coast. But this requires a ferry crossing, and this ferry has been in disuse though the Sri Lankan army had captured it a couple of months ago. That loss itself was huge for the LTTE.
The fall of Killinocchi aggravated the situation, and it became a strategic blow to the LTTE. The LTTE had given the impression that they were invincible. Now, the Sri Lankan army has damaged this image of the LTTE's military invincibility.
Image: A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard in Killinocchi. Photograph: Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence/Reuters. Inset: Colonel R Hariharan (retd).
Also read: Killinocchi: The kiss of death