Colombo journalists challenge government claims

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 18 June 1997, 23:59 GMT]
The LTTE said in a statement last week that during their assault on the Sri Lankan army base at Thandikulum, they had occupied the camp, killed hundreds of soldiers and destroyed vast quantities of equipment. This was promptly denied by the Sri Lankan government. However, a Colombo based newspaper with close ties to the military has revealed that the LTTE claim is not false.

Last Thursday, the LTTE stated that its troops had killed over 325 Sri Lankan soldiers during Tuesday's assault. The Tigers admitted to the loss of 80 fighters. The Tigers also said they had destroyed tanks, a bridge and ammunition dumps. They said they had held the 55 Brigade HQ which is 10 miles inside army occupied territory, from Tuesday morning till well into the night.

The government dismissed the LTTE claims, and said the attack had been repulsed. The Ministry of Defence still continues to maintain that last Tuesdays debacle was a 'victory' for the army. The Deputy Defence minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte even claims that the troops 'had anticipated this LTTE tactic'. He went on to say: ' We are prepared. Even our tail is more powerful than their joint force', the tail being the rear of a large army column attempting to push into the Vanni.

However, the Colombo based Sunday Times (June 15, 1997) said that their military sources had confirmed that by Wednesday night, at least 180 soldiers were dead, 27 missing, 90 seriously injured (P1 category), over 100 less seriously injured (P2 category) and 130 were walking wounded (P3 category).

The Sunday Times also claims that at least 4 million US dollars worth of equipment was destroyed including tanks, artillery and massive quantities of ammunition, blown up by the LTTE troops. The paper said that army reinforcements were not able to dislodge the Tigers till Tuesday night.

From their limited public output on the Thandikulum operation, the LTTE have proved once again that the information in their press releases accurately reflect the situation on the battle front.

In the debacle at Mullaitivu also, the LTTE's claim of 1200 Sri Lankans killed was derided by the government and much of the international press: 'obviously an exaggeration' said the London Times. However, as the hours dragged on and only a handful of survivors emerged from the jungle to speak of the carnage, the Tiger claim was confirmed. In fact, the LTTE's number of 1200 was considered conservative compared to the government's unofficial admission of 1500 (including the 'missing').

Quite apart from the manipulated figures fed to the press, the Sri Lankan military has a rather peculiar way of counting it's casualties: it counts the corpses littering a battlefield. 'Without a body there is no death' seems to be the maxim. In engagements where artillery, mortars and grenades are heavily used, such as at Thandikulum, it is safe to assume that many soldiers' deaths will not be recorded.

In addition, unless bodies are clearly recognisable, they are not accepted as casualties either. Following the devastating LTTE attack on the Sri Lankan army base at Mullaitivu, out of the 1200 soldiers killed, only 441 bodies were considered complete enough to return to the SLA. However, the SLA rejected all but 55, as the others were too decomposed to be confirmed as soldiers. Most of the SLA dead at Mullaitivu were officially listed as 'missing'.

Ratwatte's version of events 'is received with light hearted contempt' according to The Sunday Times editorial. The paper also claims that international satellite news channels have imposed a self censorship, rather than either contradict the government or broadcast obviously false stories. Indeed this seems to be the attitude of much of the foreign press, including those who usually sympathise with the Sri Lankan government.

Another ploy adopted by the Deputy Defense minister, that further embarrassed the Lankan publicity effort, was the claim of 60 civilians being killed by LTTE artillery. From all news stories in the local press (except the government owned Daily News whose editorial praised the minister for bringing out LTTE atrocities to the world's attention!) it has been established that only 7 civilians had died and some injured - a far cry from the fictitious number claimed.

Even the Sri Lankan Embassy in the U.S joined in the government chorus, with its 'News release' on the Internet. The bulletin of June 10th was particularly bitter- with the now infamous word 'terrorists' used six times to refer to the LTTE in a report that had 8 sentences. Curiously, the word 'terrorists' was entirely eliminated in the next bulletin - a professional PR agency may have alerted the embassy that the vitriolic attack was only adding to the government's ridicule (or perhaps the Embassy recognised that when a national organisation engages an army in battle it is inappropriate to call the them 'terrorists'!)

The Sunday Times editorial's observation on the Thandikulum attack is indicative of most Sri Lankan government statements: "There is a discernible distinction between the reality of the event and the tenor of the Deputy Minister's statement."


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