Down–to-Earth: The Hard Truths of Eelam War IV

Michael Roberts

“Just as in Kosovo if enough civilians died in Sri Lanka the world would be forced to step in” – Pulidevan of LTTE to a pal in Europe (quoted in Harrison 2012: 63).

Guided by a series of studies that I have indulged in over the years 2010-15, let me summarize my findings in point form. The focus is on the period 2008-to-May 2009.  However, four facets of the broad historical context must be stressed initially: (I) Prabhākaran had one goal only: Eelam and a separate state; (II) the LTTE used two ceasefire periods in 1995 and 2001-06 as recuperating periods for renewal of their war effort; (III) as Ben Bavinck and the UTHR reports have insisted, Thamilīlam under Prabhākaran was a fascist state; and (IV) the Rajapaksa government which struggled for survival against the LTTE proved the validity of the Marxist dictum that there is an unity in any contradiction: it  became distinctly authoritarian itself, albeit still populist in its self-convictions.

A. As Sivaram indicated, Prabhākaran had a capacity for long-term scenario-planning. By mid-2008 he would have seen the writing on the wall: viz. the LTTE was outgunned and outmanned and without its warehouse ships … and thus in danger of severe defeat.

B. Therefore, from mid-2008 the LTTE marshaled its propaganda arms and its many allies (both willing and gullible) to develop a spectre of “an impending humanitarian disaster” in the regions it held.

C. From early 2008 the Tamil civilian population had been persuaded & ordered to retreat ahead of the advancing GSL forces so that they constituted the wherewithal for this picture of “calamity” (presented as “genocide” in some Tamil circles abroad even at that stage).

D. As Ranil Wickramainghe has recently insisted, the civilians were indeed “hostages” during the last five months of the war when they were all trapped within the “Vanni Pocket” in the north-east corner.  So the LTTE engaged in an unprecedented act of international blackmail (see Pulidevan’s comment above).

E. That is only a part-truth that conceals a greater strategic objective in Prabhākaran’s thinking: the people were also to serve as a defensive barrier on the coast to obviate the possibility of a GSL amphibious operation that would box in the LTTE and prevent any hoped/for rescue operation courtesy of some international intervention. Thus, as DBS Jeyaraj indicated as it occurred, some 20,000 people from the Mullaitivu locality were moved to the eastern coastal strip in Mullivaikkal as early as December 2008. By mid-February 2009 the numbers here could have been as much as 260,000 (a guesstimate) and accounted for the bulk of the corralled populace.

F. This roughly 24-30 sq. kilometer stretch of coast from Puttumattalan to Vellamullivaikkal was also the hub of Sea Tiger operations and soon became the HQ command centre for Prabhakaran and his senior officers.

G. GSL, responding perhaps to international pressure and seeking diplomatic gloss, declared this coastal stretch, viz., the Tiger’s “Last Redoubt,” to be the Second “No Fire Zone” in mid-February 2009.

H.  The GSL proclamation, G above, was legally invalid because both parties to a war must agree upon such lines of demarcation. It was also a strategic folly because the Tiger command centres and, eventually, by April 2009, a substantial proportion of their firepower, were located in that area.

I. In repeatedly deploying the concept “NFZ” in its communications both the American ambassador and GSL boxed themselves into a corner. When surveys of the war reiterate that concept today, they are misleading the world. No locality can be free of shellfire if it houses military personnel and weaponry.

J. The LTTE propaganda machinery deployed its many networks to sustain this picture of calamity by presenting images and statistics of casualties and “indiscriminate” GSL shelling, with its Tamil NGO & INGO functionaries and medical doctors serving as supposedly authentic sources of such details (part true, part bloated exaggerations).

K. These stories were swallowed hook, line and sinker by media networks and human-rights agencies in Colombo as well as the West. In Colombo Ravi Nessman of Associated Press and Gordon Weiss, the UN’s own media officer, were among those who accepted the horror tales without question – so that their reportage gave further credence to the LTTE propaganda pitch.

L. Many Tamil expatriates abroad who were not Tiger supporters were drawn into this agitation because of kinship ties and their subjectivity, that is what I call “Tamilness.” Stories retailed by word-of-mouth to each other and acquaintances in the host nations gave credence to the LTTE propaganda; while the huge demonstrations in Western cites in March/April 2009 underlined the scenario which the Tigers were painting.

M. Many Tiger fighters were not wearing uniforms so that the distinction between “civilian” and “belligerent” was not clear for either aerial surveillance or infantrymen advancing into the Last Redoubt in April and May 2009. One has to address this question: where an SL Army soldier spotted a foxhole entrance as he crawled forward at night during the final battles in April-May, could he avoid the standard practice of throwing a grenade into the hole?

N. Since the LTTE resorted on a large scale to the use of conscripts for the construction of fortifications and logistical supply tasks, these “civilians” were “belligerents” in legal war terminology. Yet the UTHR refers to “conscripts” as if they were not “belligerents,” while the UNPoE and other surveys consistently gloss over the difficulty of separating Tiger belligerents from dinky-die civilians.

O. Both SLA reports and the UTHR’s findings from oral testimony indicate that the LTTE killed a significant number of Tamil civilians as the latter sought to flee from their corralled hostage situation. This crescendo of murders peaked during the last week in mid-May 2009.

P. The LTTE deployed several suicide attacks during the last four months of the war, sometimes directing them at Tamil civilians seeking to escape and at other times aiming them at SLA forces. Some of these attacks in April/May 2009 were by speedboat deployed along the shore line.

Q. Given points O and P above, it is impossible for any agency to provide a definitive verdict indicating which fighting force, whether the GSL or LTTE, was responsible for more deaths of non-belligerent civilians.

R. In a remarkable military operation carried out between the 19th and 22nd April 2009, the SL Army forces enabled circa 103,000 civilians and fighters who had discarded their weapons to flee the crucible of war within the Last Redoubt. .This was achieved at the cost of perhaps 1500 dead (both civilian and LTTE belligerent) on the Tamil side from crossfire as well as the LTTE’s deterrent actions. In scale of proportionality this was a marvelous result, even miraculous. Thus far, no commentators or august agencies have recognized this fact.

S.  Even well-meaning individuals in Lanka who observed this result continued to be swayed by their humanitarian concerns and sought a ceasefire in early May 2009, a step which would have enabled the LTTE to survive – thus rendering their strategy (D plus E above) a success. So, one sees a “moral compass” taken to an extreme wherein it became, in effect, a pliable asset for Machiavellian fascist forces.

T. In May 2009 the UN personnel in Colombo used their networks to compile statistics on the number of injured Tamils in hospitals and detention centres. Their definitive figure for injured was 18,749, while the tentative statistic for dead up to the 13th May was 7721. Anyone familiar with war-theatres knows that the number of injured soldiers (WIA) outweighs the dead (KIA): usually on a scale of three injured to one dead, sometimes even higher. The UN’s computation of 18,749 injured supports their statistic for the estimated deaths and indicates that perhaps 9,200 died during the last five months.(speculating that another 2000 were killed in the last week).

U. The UN computation above is on the same wave length as (i) the guestimate provided by Narendran Rajasingham who reckoned that 15,000 Tigers and civilians died in the five months of 2009 (arguing, sensibly, that one cannot distinguish the two categories) and (ii) the special GSL census of 2011 which deployed its Tamil officials and came up with a figure of 7,432 civilian dead. As comparative yardstick note that the SL security forces had 6261 killed and 29, 551 wounded during Eelam War IV (Wikipedia citing the Defence Minister).

V. Hard-headed realism is called for in this field. Guided by personal experience Narendran Rajasingham has brought this grounding into the consideration of “missing persons” by highlighting how bodies decompose. We must recognize that the demise of several fleeing civilians who drowned in Nandhikadal Lagoon or died in the jungle from crossfire or snake bite may never have been recorded.

W. Apart from judgments clouded by moral extremism and self-righteousness, the reading of the war has been marred by a strange phenomenon: where moral crusaders and agencies with “human rights” emblazoned on forehead indulge in detailed studies of the war which systematically refuse to encompass several detailed studies that would reveal flaws in their documentation. One such illustration is the document Island of Impunity? Investigation into International Crimes in the Final Stages of the Sri Lankan War presented by the Public Interest Advocacy Group of Sydney. When ethical forces are intellectually dishonest our future prospects in this world are dismal.

X. There is a body of data, from oral testimony to pictorial evidence, that indicates that some senior LTTE commanders and functionaries were eliminated after they were captured at the tail-end of the war: see (1) Thangavelu, 2013 “LTTE Cadres Who Surrendered To The Army: Where Are They? Colombo Telegraph, 18 August; 2013,… (2) Weiss 2012 New Evidence-The Death of Colonel Ramesh,” 21 March 2012, https://www.; and (3) Roberts, 2014,  “Cartographic & Photographic Illustrations in support of the Memorandum Analysing the War in Sri Lanka and Its Propaganda Debates,” 18 Nov. 2014,

Y. Where international human rights crusaders pursue prosecutions in such instances as X above, they must ask themselves why their pursuits are selective and why they do not add some symbolic LTTE figures to their secular witch-hunt – for instance Adele Balasingham, Visuvanathan Rudrakumaran in New York, Dr Elias Jeyarajah  and some high-ranking LTTE officers who are now abroad. While the LTTE is condemned verbally for atrocities, no remaining Tiger leader has been arraigned. Why?

Z. Currents of secular fundamentalism are pursuing their prosecuting thrusts through many Western countries: ancient paedophile aberrations in the Catholic Church and Salvation Army, high profile sexual predators (Bill Crosby, Rolf Harris) are a few examples. Human rights and war crimes are arenas where this current is at work. Common sense suggests that in all fields the activists can only capture a few symbolic instances of “crime.” However, unlike the other targets, the moral crusaders pinpointing Sri Lanka seem to have (consciously?) restricted themselves to the recent past. Not one whisper is presented about the atrocities committed by the GSL forces during Eelam Wars I, II and III. We know there were plenty then ….  And then there is the tale of the IPKF reign of terror in the north and east. What about the Indian generals and political figures (e.g. Dixit) associated with that particular episode? The “judicious choices” made by the moral power-brokers are truly instructive.



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