Sri Lanka: Blackmail During The Endgame In Eelam War IV – Analysis
Posted on April 13th, 2012

Courtesy Eurasia Review-By Michael Roberts

April 10, 2012

I: Blackmailing Sri Lanka, 2009

The long and episodic war between the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) and the Tamil liberation forces commanded by the LTTE from the 1980s to 2009 involved numerous atrocities on both sides, notably those in the Eastern Province in 1990. It is puzzling why, today, certain Western states and the human rights lobby (HR) are concentrating solely on the crunch situation in 2009 at the end of Eelam War IV in pressing alleged war crimes charges against the Sri Lankan government; and why symbolic LTTE figures such as V. Rudrakumaran and Adele Balasingham are also not being placed within the bars of moral justice.

The puzzle serves as a backdrop for my argument that the Western nations, both individually and collectively, were complicit in the one of the most outstanding acts of political blackmail the world has seen in recent centuries.i This was when the LTTE utilised its own people, some 310-330,000 citizens of ThamilƒÆ’-¾«lam as a hostage-bargaining chip that would enable them to pursue their fight another day.

Guided by their well-placed connections in media and other circles in the West, the LTTE had read the international scene well. Strands of secular fundamentalism had secured a prominent place and humanitarian impulsesii could be persuaded to seek intervention on behalf of the Tamil people. The Tiger act of moral blackmail was only feasible because of this climate of opinion in the West. In consequence, Amnesty International, HRW, ICG, Hilary Clinton, David Miliband, Bernard Kouchner,iii James Blake, et cetera became cats-paws in a grand LTTE strategy.

This act of blackmail did not succeed. Backed by their people (including some Tamils) the Sri Lankan Government (GSL) defeated the LTTE military machine “”‚ principally through its military strategy, albeit assisted in various ways by an assorted cluster of states. Both state and society in Sri Lanka are now paying the price for their success and their refusal to kow-tow to Western demands during the last stages of the war.iv

To comprehend this LTTE strategy one must attend to (a) the character of both PirapƒÆ’-¾haran and the state of ThamilƒÆ’-¾«lam and (b) the origins of Eelam War IV.

II: PirapƒÆ’-¾haran

Testimony from PirapƒÆ’-¾haran’s colleagues in the LTTE”s underground days reveal that PirapƒÆ’-¾haran admired the military training methods of the Wehrmacht in Nazi Germany’s time and believed that a supreme commander vested with the unrestricted authority that Hitler enjoyed was an essential requisite for the Tamil liberation struggle.v Loads of evidence from varied quarters demonstrates that PirapƒÆ’-¾haran eliminated individuals within LTTE ranks who were a threat to his control; while the LTTE revealed unmitigated ruthlessness in eliminating other militant groups in the Tamil firmament as well as Tamil parliamentarians who could stand as an alternative voice for the Tamil people. PirapƒÆ’-¾haran believed in the pre-emptive strike. The assassination of potential enemies was one of his favoured modes of operation.

III: The Citizens of ThamilƒÆ’-¾«lam

Assisted by considerable help from India,vii PirapƒÆ’-¾haran’s investment in sea logistics and advanced communication on the one hand and Tiger ruthlessness on the other enabled the LTTE to become a major force by 1986; and, eventually, to withstand Indian military power for two years (1987-89) after the two allies fell out. By mid-1990 the LTTE was not merely an insurgency, but a de facto state ruling northern Sri Lanka and in command of scattered patches of the eastern districts where a fluid war situation prevailed.viii Then, in in mid-late 1995, an army offensive resulted in the LTTE losing control of most of the Jaffna Peninsula. Throughout, from mid-1990 to 2009, the state-like character of ThamilƒÆ’-¾«lam gradually expanded and encompassed not only taxation and conscription, but border controls and judicial courts.

My focus is in the state of ThamilƒÆ’-¾«lam as it existed from 1996-2009, with particular interest in what I shall call “the Northern Vanni.” This area covers most of the Districts of Kilinochchi, Mannar and Mullaitivu as they had been delimited in 1983. It was territory that was firmly under LTTE authority. This was the nation-state of ThamilƒÆ’-¾«lam.

It had been an area that was sparsely peopled in 1981, constituting only six per cent of the total Sri Lankan Tamil population in Sri Lanka “”…” with Mullaitivu and Mannar Districts holding 112,783 Sri Lanka Tamils and 25,065 “Indian Tamils. The latter were Malaiyaha Tamils from the plantation areas who had moved into the area, usually as agricultural labourers, in the face of political discrimination and economic pressures in the 1970s. In late 1990, the Northern Vanni’s demographic composition was further altered by the LTTE’s act of ethnic cleansing which forced the Muslim Moors to leave.

However, the population was augmented in 1995/96 by the migration of roughly 100,000 Tamils from the Jaffna Peninsulax “”‚ virtually all being staunch Tiger supporters distancing themselves from the army occupation of their beloved soil and favouring the liberation struggle. Nevertheless, we must also attend to the out-migration of Tamil people from this area as refugees slipping out to India or as well-connected individuals able to transcend both Tiger and GSL barriers to outmigration. The pertinent issue here is that few agencies had firm figures on the number of people in the northern Vanni when Eelam War IV broke out in July 2006.xi It is only now, in the aftermath of the war, that we can say that the population of civilian and LTTE personnel probably added up to something around 360-380,000 in July 2006. This figure could be scaled down to about 320,000 in mid-2008 after the LTTE lost control of the Madhu area and the north-western coast from Vidattaltivu to Pooneryn in early 2008.xii

These people were dual citizens. They were citizens of ThamilƒÆ’-¾«lam and citizens of Lanka. They were serviced by banks with HQ in Colombo and the pensioners received their dues through such agencies.xiii There were government agencies staffed by Tamils appointed (and paid) by the regime in Colombo. But these personnel took their orders from the LTTE. They also delivered specified goods (e.g. medical supplies, food) supplied by GSL or NGOs to those entitled to such benefits.

For all that, in the light of past experiences and unfulfilled political promises, as Muralidhar Reddy indicated,xiv these Tamil people had little reason for loyalty towards the Sri Lankan state. In brief, they were Tamil nationalist and pro-LTTE in sentiment. To be sure, there were a few dissidents, especially among the Pentecostal and Protestant elements in the population.xv There were others partial to the LTTE who had reservations about the Tiger policy of conscription which took their youth away from their hearth and those who were unhappy about the privations enforced by a war economy. However, a large proportion of the population was dependent in one way or another on state agencies subject to the LTTE.

Given such dependencies, given past sufferings and a sense of Tamilness nurtured over the centuries, I have little hesitation in asserting that the vast majority of these people in ThamilƒÆ’-¾«lam, maybe as much as 80 per cent, were partial to the LTTE.xvii This patriotism centred on PirapƒÆ’-¾haran as the founding father of ThamilƒÆ’-¾«lam and the epitome of Tamil resistance to what was considered oppression. This reverence was vigorously stoked every year by the LTTE’s multi-media activities, culminating at 6.05 pm on 27th November, where the citizenry paid homage to the Tiger martyrs, the mƒÆ’-¾vƒÆ’-¾«rar.xviii To repeat, most were Eelamist in sentiment and citizens of ThamilƒÆ’-¾«lam.xix

IV: The Origins of Eelam War IV

The capital-creating activities within the state of ThamilƒÆ’-¾«lam were mostly state run. ThamilƒÆ’-¾«lam was a military regime. Its civilian population was subject to disciplinary training in a programme known as makkal padai.xx Even during the ceasefire period 2002-2006, the LTTE directorate was gearing state and people for another war. This was clear to me during my visit in late 2004.xxi A report from Human Rights Watch in March 2006 reveals how Tamils abroad were cajoled and intimidated to support the project through well-organised p fund-collecting activities.xxii However, as they noted, the blows struck by the tsunami in late December 2004 were a setback which delayed the LTTE’s eventual move to war.

The war was initiated in July 2006 when the LTTE closed the floodgates of Mavil Aru as a step towards the seizure of Trincomalee. Rejecting governmental overtures, they were confident that they would teach the Rajapaksa government a lesson.xxiii This, then, was the beginning of Eelam War IV.

The LTTE’s confidence, as we know now, was misplaced. Colonel Karuna’s defection had weakened its capacities and supplied the government with both military elements and ground knowledge that was vital. Moreover, GSL had built up its military capacities in all three services; and had officer corps that was battle-hardened and innovative. General Fonseka had trained Special Infantry Operation Teams within all the Divisions with the capacity to generate bottom-up plans of attack.xxiv The Army gained control of the Vakarai area by January 2007 and the last Tiger stronghold in the east at Thoppigala fell on 11 July 2007. Thereafter, the LTTE presence in the Eastern Province was minimal.

With its superior resources in manpower and hardware GSL could now squeeze ThamilƒÆ’-¾«lam. The LTTE remained as resilient as innovative. Colombo’s ground offensive on several fronts got nowhere till early 2008. “[We] fought for about 8 months without moving” said General Fonseka in reviewing the war.xxv It was not till January 2009 that the army succeeded in taking control of the north-western coast up to Pooneryn. This gain eliminated the LTTE supply chain from India. In the meanwhile intricate naval operations in the high seas at different points of time in 2007 and 2008 sank several supply ships that were part of the LTTE’s transnational logistics cartel.

The statistical proportions attending Eelam War IV can be understood by marking the respective toll of soldier dead on both sides in the previous three stages of war: in the gross figures provided by General Fonseka the SL Army had lost 20,000 and Tigers 22,000 by 2006. In contrast he alleged that during Eelam War IV the Army lost 5273 personnel, while the LTTE had 22,000 of their troops killed by the Army and another 2000 by the Navy and Air Force.xxvi Indeed, he stressed that in the crunch situation in 2009 the LTTE were losing as many as 20-30 personnel per diem. His figures for Tiger dead must be treated with scepticism and we must attend to the difficulty of separating “Tiger” from “civilian.” However, some figure for the Tiger personnel killed must enter any evaluation of the alleged death toll at the last stages of the war in 2009. It is significant that the Darusman Panel and other voices on this front took little notice of such statistics and the comparative insight of proportionality that they provide.

V: LTTE End-Game: International Blackmail

In its ground warfare from early 2008 the LTTE was forced to fight on three fronts: facing north, south and west. They used heavy equipmentxxvii and manual labour to construct bunds and ditches that restrained the armoured corps of GSL; while fields of land mines and intricate booby-traps enforced caution on all troops seeking to advance. With the exception of some sections of their citizenry in parts of Mannar and the western coast, the rest of the Tamil Tiger populace was induced to move eastwards. The people were told that they would be mistreated by the SL army. This appears to have been widely believed.

In the result the people were subject to multiple displacements in the period dating from May 2008, moving east well ahead of the advancing enemy forces.xxviii Throughout, the LTTE continued to conscript new recruits to replenish its declining manpower; while also deploying able-bodied adults as labour in its defensive operations and catering needs.xxix In brief the line between “civilian” and “Tiger personnel” was severely confused. This was compounded by the fact that many Tiger combatants did not wear fatigues (probably in short supply).

As the territory they controlled declined, the LTTE was now sandwiched in a crunch situation. The fall of Paranthan junction at the end of December 2008 and the administrative centre of Kilinochchi in January 2008 meant that they were restricted thereafter to the regions east of the A9 arterial road. This region can be called the Vanni Pocket, an area that gradually shrank in size.xxx

Vanni Pocket about midway stage –Source: Ministry of Defence Web site

It is the death and suffering that is said to have taken place in the Vanni Pocket in January-May 2009 that is the focus today of the war crimes allegations against the GSL. This is the culmination of agitation that began way back then “”…” from late 2008. Aware of its desperate situation the LTTE marshalled its extensive international network to penetrate, feed and promote various human rights agencies to intervene in Sri Lanka to circumvent a “humanitarian disaster.” Key personnel in Western governments were also drawn into this frame of thinking, sometimes through constituency politics.

Central to this strategy was the herding of the ThamilƒÆ’-¾«lam citizenry into their besieged space, the Vanni Pocket. The people were not only a human shield. They were a tool in an enormous act of international blackmail which was directed towards securing outcries from (a) vocal political forces in Tamilnadu; (b) human rights agencies in the West and in Colombo; (c) elements in the UN and (d) elements within the Western states of Canada, USA, Britain, Norway, Sweden and elsewhere within the self-defined “international community.”

The General Elections in India were due in mid-May 2009. There was the prospect of change in government or, at the least, the emergence of some coalition where blocs from Tamilnadu would carry weight. This was the unproclaimed deadline guiding both the LTTE and the GSL in their war objectives from mid-late 2008.

Absolutely ruthless as always, Pirapaharan was prepared to deploy his citizenry as both protective sandbags and ransom ploy; and to capitalize on the rising alarm among Tamils abroad so as to mount an international campaign to save “civilians.” That is no surprise. What, in retrospect, is alarming is the facile manner in which the “international community” fell into this trap. Whether intentionally, or unintentionally, they were party to the LTTE strategy.

“Ceasefire” was the mantra shouted out by Amnesty International from late 2008.

Western leaders and their ambassadors in Sri Lanka also sought a ceasefire from both warring sides. As any informed observer would have forecast, the LTTE did not respond. The government declared a short-term ceasefire on 31 January. The LTTE used this moment to launch a brilliant counteroffensive on the 1-4th February that penetrated army lines and caused major problems.

Despite such experiences and despite Pirapaharan’s ruthlessness, the “international community” and its mouthpieces among the NGO secretariat in Colombo kept parroting the idea of a ceasefire. Hilary Clinton told the world on 22 April 2009 that “a terrible humanitarian tragedy” was taking place in Sri Lanka and demanded a halt in the fighting so that “we could secure a safe passage for as many of the trapped civilians as possible.”xxxiii Foreign Ministers David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner followed up with a visit to Sri Lankaxxxiv at the end of the month to demand a truce.

Such interventions revealed the extent to which the Western leaders had failed to comprehend the mentality of the LTTE or were pursuing their own hidden agenda. Both “humanitarian pause” and unilateral ceasefire were unworkable proposals. The LTTE stuck to its policy of keeping their citizenry as a military buffer and a ransom pathway to the peace tablexxxv till a hoped-for change of government in India provided political relief. The absence of grounded pragmatism evidenced in the Western interventions was manifest THEN and induced my sharp criticism in Frontline in May 2009.

In the meanwhile many Tamils trapped in the Vanni Pocket had begun to turn away from their attachment to the LTTE. Reddy had been visiting the rear battlelines periodicallyxxxvii from November 2008 and told me that from January onwards the reports from Tamil civilians who had fled and whom he interviewed revealed increasing dissatisfaction. We cannot treat this as a blanket generalization. Information gathered by Fr. Rohan Silva and D. Siddharthan post-May from Tamil IDPs indicate that a good segment believed in the Tiger leaderships statement that the West would save them.xxxviii There also was a substantial body of hard core loyalists who remained bound to the LTTE to the very end.

VI: Hobson’s Choice & the Government’s Achievement

Faced with diplomatic pressure GSL declared that their military action was (1) a “humanitarian operation” directed towards (2) “zero casualties.” No one was fooled by the first claim and the second was sheer absurdity “”‚ even as a desired goal. Such idiocy was compounded further when some spokesmen later asserted that there were in fact zero casualties.

GSL also declared specified areas to be No Fire Zones. This device restricted military flexibility in a context of turbulent battlefield variation. The final NFZ, moreover, was in the coastal strip juxtaposed between the elongated Nandikadal Lagoon and the sea. This was where the remaining brown water craft of the Sea Tigers remained potent. From mid-late April it also housed the LTTE command centre and eventually all its remaining hardware and fighters. How anyone could seriously consider it a NFZ from this moment baffles any form of pragmatic logic.

This strip of land, some 13 by 4 kilometres in extent, became a tent city as the remaining Tigers, civilian auxiliaries and true-blue civilians, in crude estimate perhaps 190,000 in mid-late April, crammed into this limited space of sandy terrain. The eastern waterline of Nandikadal Lagoon facing west was heavily embanked, fortified and booby-trapped. Some tents in the NFZ hid bunkers and other military installations. The LTTE remained dedicated to its task of defending this space to the last person, while retaining a belief in some miraculous escape.

Sitting in Colombo on the 18th April 2009 a massive bloodbath was a distinct prospect and one wondered if a mass act of suicide of the Saipan-Okinawa sort would be sponsored. Then, between the 18th and 23rd April the SL army breached the defences in an intricate operation which saw numerous Tiger fighters drop their weapons and join a body of some 106-120,000 people who streamed across lagoon and sandy terrain to the safety of the government lines where they were offered water, food and succour in ways that surprised them (as recorded by the Tamil moderates who comprised the University Teachers for Human Rights and Narendran Rajasingham). To my eyes this event, highlighted as it was by the scenes on television, was a miracle. A moderate and veteran Tamil news-editor, Jeyaraj in Toronto, also applauded the moment with an essay “Wretched of the Wanni earth break free of bondage.

However, some 60-70,000 Tiger personnel and “ƒ”¹…”civilians’ remained in the southern segment. It was not till a final assault mounted from the 9th May to 19th May that this force was subdued and the LTTE lay defeated. Among the dead was PirapƒÆ’-¾haran.xli

This final battle cannot be reviewed without attending to the character of the Vanni landscape and that of the coastal NFZ and its tent city. This NFZ area included houses with red roofs built after the tsunami. The aerial set of photographs taken by the Times cameraman who flew over the area with Ban Ki-Moon in late May 2009 reveals quite a few buildings intactxlii “”…” as do those taken by Kanchan Prasad when she and Reddy toured the strip on foot between the 14th and18th May.xliii There was certainly no carpet bombing and the devastation does not accord with the verbal imagery presented by the moral crusaders and Channel Four.

Any estimate of the number of Tamils who died between 1 January and 19 May 2009 will necessarily be approximate. One must allow too for natural deaths of some 600-900 over five months in any population of three lakhs or so, with the figure derived from an application of the standard death rate for the island being increased to allow for (a) deaths by malnutrition arising from a starvation diet and (b) the increase in snake-bite deaths as the populace moved through bush and jungle in numbers during day as well as night.xliv Any evaluation must also highlight the impossibility of separating true-civilians from Tiger cadres and conscripted civilians. The figure of 1400 dead presented by Rohan Gunaratna is far too low and quite spurious in its air of precision.xlv Guided by the estimates provided by three moderate Tamils with access to information from Tamil government servants and others who survived the crunch, my present evaluation is a figure ranging from 15,000 to 16,000, a total that includes Tiger dead (approximately 5000) as well.

We cannot, as Indi Samarajiva has stressed, weigh this death toll figure without attention to “proportionality” and “context.”xlvii It must be placed beside the figure of roughly 286,000 Tamil people (including some Tiger personnel who successfully masqueraded as “civilian”) who ended up in the detention centres in the Vavuniya and Jaffna Districts during this period. Add to this the figure of 11,800 persons deemed “Tiger” who were imprisoned under stronger security and then subject to a process of rehabilitation and we have roughly 298,000 survivors.

The war between the LTTE and the state was a sustained affair over 25 years, with considerable suffering on both sides and among all ethnic groups. Their subjective sentiments are of overwhelming importance in any overview. Few of the world leaders and media personnel commenting on this topic today have any comprehension of this experiential backdrop.

Some sense of local sentiment can be gathered from the vibrant debate which developed through an intervention by Sanjana Hattotuwa in the Groundviews web sitexlviii on 3 May 2009 through this question: “Would killing 50,000 civilians to finish off the LTTE bring peace?” When, predictably, this question was misunderstood, the Groundviews editors clarified the issue thus: “This post intends to interrogate extremism. The numbers in the quote are really peripheral to the argument, which exists today, that to finish off the LTTE, collateral damage is not just unavoidable, it is even a prerequisite. What do you feel about that?” It is to the credit of some measured voices who spoke up at this point, among them several Tamils (with pseudonyms, but speaking as Tamils), that the defeat of the LTTE was a vital goal and that “we” should be ready to accept civilian casualties of even 50,000, though hopefully somewhat less.

This discussion occurred at the tail-end of the End-Game, when no one was certain quite how many people were still held as ransom/blackmail, though we know now that perhaps 50-70,000 Tiger personnel and “ƒ”¹…”civilians’ remained in the roughly 10 square kilometre patch under LTTE control. The answer in Groundviews is significant beyond words. It captures the subjectivity of a society that had gone through years of strife. It matches the sigh of relief in most quarters in Sri Lanka that took hold from 19 May onwards.

5 Responses to “Sri Lanka: Blackmail During The Endgame In Eelam War IV – Analysis”

  1. AnuD Says:

    I don’t think that the international community did not know what LTTE was doing. IC exactly knew what LTTE was doing. Amnesty International (AI) and Other human right organizations are funded by specific countries and organizations for specific purposes. As far back early 1980s, LTTE-Tamils were working for AI.

    Only important thing is whether LTTE knew and did on purpose the act of establishing block votes in western countries. Some where, I read even that was pre-planned.

    Most of the Tamils who got into these safe zones and became civilian hostages got into that situation on purpose. Those who moved away from Jaffna into Wanni were those so-called Maaveerar families and also should be from those of Makkal padai. There were thousands of Maaveerars. I hope some one counted the number of dead in the cemeteries. Even that won’t give a good count as at the end LTTE had mass graves for large numbers of dead cadres as well as at that time they could not build proper graves.

    The most important thing is SLA’s agility both as a conventional army as well as a Terrorist army. SLA had to be better terrorists in order to beat the most ruthless terrorist on earth at that time.

  2. AnuD Says:

    I have listened to more than one time and it seems even Michael Roberts believe that there was a separate Tamil Home land in the North. That is the Tiger propaganda and the interested western readers believed. If you read the history into this Tamil problem, it is the very early European Colonial masters, mostly by missionaries, who used South Indian Casteism to their advantage which finally resulted Tamil nationalism. In South India that sub sided with the creation of TAMILNADU in 1964. The creation of the State Tamilnadu did not help the impoverished and Caste-oppressed Tamils in Tamilnadu. They are suffering even to date. That may be the reason why more Tamilnadu Tamils moved to Sri Lanka during the 30 years of this mayhem.

    The same struggle began in Sri Lanka. That was basically a fight against the Caste discrimination. but, the politicization of the struggle and Tamil extremists in Sri Lanka used exact terminology and the methodology or the strategy that Jews used in their creation of their homeland. Even to date those extremist tamils who living now in western countries are using the same terminology and the strategy.

    If Michael Roberts compare term by term and the each approach by Tamils to date you find that is not just a coincidence.

  3. Vis8 Says:

    Thank you Robert! At least one foreign journalist is not on the payroll of left-over ltte terror money :)

  4. weeralanka Says:

    I read a story someone saying that Killing list of Pabakaran consists mostly Sinhalese (buddhists), Hindus and Muslims, and that the LTTE movement is a Christian movement.
    I wondered what Thamillians (Hindus) role in that, and of course it is the SUICIDE role in the hope of an Thamil country ( in your dreams).

  5. A. Sooriarachi Says:

    Thank you Mr Michael Roberts for your impartial analysis of the conflict in SriLanka.
    Though I do not agree with some of your assessments, I do applaud your efforts to be impartial and unbiased, which the majority of Western media foreign correspondents lack, even when reporting on other conflicts around the world.

    I believe your reference some people as “Tamililam citizens” is a misnomer as they were all SriLankans, residing or herded to a region which came under Tiger control, mainly after the flawed Peace Pact intiated under Norweigian advice was implemented by the then Government in 2002.

    Also, the number of “civilans” dead though could be correct, if you exclude the number of “civilians” who were forced to carry guns and shoot at the advancing security forces, then the actual number of civilians who were non-combatants should be far far lower than your figure and Mr Rohan gunaratne’s figure could be closer. However, I would go with the figure of around 1500, which was estimated by the doctors who were treating the injured in Norther hospitals.

    Anyway, thank you Mr Roberts and I am confident that any LTTE dispora favours if offerred to you to change your views, will be rejected and you would avoid being drawn into their trouble making media machine, which now includes Ch4.

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