Thursday, July 07, 2005

Who’s gunning for the SL forces; besides the Tigers?

The military propaganda of any army maintained by a sovereign State is considered a primary responsibility of the State.

Starting from the United States to India from Russia to Pakistan, keeping the morale of the army, be it in times of war, truce or peace, is considered a high priority.

Just as much as wars are fought in the battlefield, similar wars are waged on the internet with the governments fighting its web battles with rebels in Kashmir, Chechniya, Iraq and groups like Basques, IRA and even Al Qaeda.

This type of counter-propaganda by the governments is considered as an integral part of State military strategy, since powerful propaganda machines of the rebels work round the clock, often presenting a distorted picture of what exactly is going on.

That the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has one of the most effective global media networks is a fact.

It is also true that the pro-Tiger media, more often than not, twist news, cover up LTTE human rights violations and project the Sri Lankan security forces as nothing less than Hitler’s Nazi army.

Still there is very little that has been done by successive governments since the break out of the 1983 war to correct the records and counter LTTE propaganda internationally, especially when it comes to making use of information technology.

While the nationalist parties and groups complement whatever media campaigns by the governments elsewhere, even that had not been done in an effective and organized manner here.

This imbalance in the volume of military propaganda had always been to the disadvantage to the consecutive governments and especially the security forces.

If this has been bad, a worse trend has been set since the truce – that is in the form of depriving the military of their due, accepted share in the government media.

What the country has been witnessing since February 2002 is a dilemma of the State media as to how they should react to LTTE ceasefire violations and other violent activities.

The penchant has been that whenever there are gestures of goodwill by the LTTE the state media would play down Tiger violations and expose those in times of hostile vibes.

Besides, with part of the media parading as independent, the security forces of Sri Lanka, have found that there is only a handful of groups to present their side of the story even to the local audience. In no way a match for the Tiger propaganda.

The rebels on the other hand, true to its style, had been religiously adhering to one single stand in their media campaigns, be it during war or peace – to ruin the reputation of the government forces.

The effectiveness of the LTTE campaigns is such that even the southern media organizations, more often than not, borrow reports from the Tiger media with ‘exclusive’ Tiger versions, in the mad rush to meet deadlines.

The result –a growing disillusionment among the security forces of the manner in which incidents are presented in the media.

Last Saturday, nearly eighty LTTE cadres were escorted from Black Bridge in Batticaloa to Omanthai by the Sri Lanka Army. That was barely 48 hours after the Tigers gunned down three soldiers attached to the intelligence unit of the 223 Brigade Headquarters.

Hours after the grave ceasefire violation, the country witnessed how LTTE Political Wing Chief S.P. Thamilselvan demanded escort for their cadres with a two-week deadline.

His deadline has been given serious thought while the murders of the three soldiers have already gone down history as ‘just another” violation of the ceasefire. This tragedy of the army was overshadowed by political theatrics, including debates on P-TOMS, public rallies and extravagant birthday bashes.

One hardly hears a word these days from government quarters about the broad daylight murder of Major Muthalif in the heart of Colombo in the run up to the P-TOMS.

Just talk to a military personnel – an officer or a soldier - and ask how they feel about the developments. One could gauge the frustrations of our security forces in an honest answer.For them it is not a question about saving their own lives, thanks to the truce – but more about the dignity of the forces and the territorial integrity.

The military top brass and the retired flag-ranking officers attribute the developments to a couple of key factors.

First, the total ignorance of the seniors of the governments as to how they should handle the media in times of a ceasefire.The officers are of the opinion that the leaders of the principal parties should study cases where State or public media was handled during ceasefires in other countries. While there needs to be a change in the tone of reporting, a truce does not at all mean a drastic scale down of military propaganda, they argue, especially when the rival group is as powerful as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The second factor is a group of obnoxious anti-SL security forces lobby, mainly comprised of a handful of NGOs and INGOs.

And unlike the JVP which just scratches the surface when it talks of an anti-State NGO infiltration of the government, the military is armed with enough evidence to prove this point.

Especially the Sri Lanka Army is of the opinion that there is a concerted effort by this lobby to weaken the military morale and block any moves by the State to strengthen the military capabilities, and they cite many instances to prove this.

Generally identified as sympathizers of the LTTE, this lobby, the senior officers argue, is almost having coercive powers over several leading figures in the government and the main opposition.

In no other country, many observe, would the State have allowed anti-government forces to infiltrate the State machinery in this manner.

And where this reading of the political and military developments would lead to, is the question.

The third group that contributes to the undermining of the government security forces, they claim, is a section of the media which carries out agendas of political parties which are intrinsically prejudiced against the government forces.

How and why they are doing that, the military points out, is public knowledge.

It is already on record that the government forces are of the opinion that several clauses of the ceasefire agreement compromised their security concerns. And it goes without saying that if the tri-services were properly consulted, the P-TOMS would never have seen the light of day as it is.

The decision to let the LTTE engage in “political work” in government-controlled areas as per Article 1.13 of the Ceasefire Agreement, while barring any movement by the security forces or the Tamil parties other than the LTTE in Tiger territory, had always been seen as a tilt in favour of the LTTE.

Article 1.2 of the Ceasefire Agreement bans “firing of direct and indirect weapons, armed raids, ambushes, assassinations, abductions, destruction of civil or military property, sabotage, suicide missions and activities by deep-penetration units”.

All these banned activities, including suicide attacks, have been carried out by the LTTE so far.

The military is of the opinion that despite the high incidences of violations, the Tigers have managed to get away with minimum publicity for their mischief, and they ascribe this to the success of the anti-SL forces lobby. These, they claim, are in the form of re-wording or sugarcoating of government responses to Tiger truce violations.

As for the P-TOMS, it is viewed as a part of a political agenda to woo the international community rather than one executed with any genuine concern for the tsunami-affected.

They observe that minimum regard had been paid to the security implications in the over-enthusiasm to rope the Tigers into a deal by those who were following an outright political agenda.

Once again the anti-SL security forces lobby is being implicated for working on several high-ranking and secondary level counsellors to make sure that the deal got off the ground despite the grave security implications it poses.

It is true that pursuing an all-out military agenda would make it impossible for any government to make headway towards peace. A healthy equilibrium has to be struck between security and political agendas if one is to make progressive moves towards reaching a negotiated settlement to any conflict.

However, there is growing consensus that what had been done in the name of peace by the principal parties is jeopardizing the most crucial security concerns of the State.

And there is a steady build-up of frustration within the military ranks over this state of affairs.

While the government can dismiss the rhetoric of the nationalist parties as slogan politics, it cannot do the same with the concerns of the military.

Initiating a dialogue with the security forces, at all levels, is a must for the government, before it is too late.