By Michael Roberts
ONE: Saving Private Ryan
Stephen Spielberg’s blockbuster film “Saving Private Ryan” was a fictional war film that was as dramatic as effective because of its realistic portrayal of the horrors of war, notably the D-Day landings. The realism was rendered feasible by the availability of solid accounts of the D-Day invasion that included film footage. In contrast any review of the efforts made to save the LTTE leader, or talaivar, Velupillai Pirapāharan (also presented as Prabhākaran) has to negotiate the murky world of international politics and its whispers.
TWO: Declining LTTE Fortunes, 2008
Let me set up the context leading to these efforts in point form.
(A) Having set a course towards securing Eelam through war by initiating the ‘final struggle’ in July 2006 at Māvil Aru, the LTTE’s first major setback was the loss of their guerilla bases and political power in the Eastern Province by July-August 2007.
(C) Nevertheless, the state of Thamilīlam remained a viable entity in late 2007/08 (Roberts, “Citizens,” 2013). It was only when the SL Army broke through on the western section of the southern front circa March 2008 and advanced northwards along the coast from Wilpattu to take control of the western coast by November 2008 that Thamilīlam was imperiled. The supply route from Tamilnadu in India was the LTTE’s chief military lifeline. This path of advance also enabled the SL Army to press eastwards from the Mannar-Madhu area from about April 2008. So, by mid-2008 the LTTE would have realized that they were in dire straits.
Way back, Sivaram alias Taraki taught us that one dimension of talaivar Pirapāharan’s military genius was his “scenario planning” (2004a and Roberts 2006: 83). It is this vision and his uncompromising fascist inclinations that guided him towards fashioning a diabolical international act of blackmail in 2008/09. The plan was summed up neatly by the Tiger political chief Pulidēvan speaking on the phone to a friend in Europe in early 2009: “Just as in Kosovo if enough civilians died in Sri Lanka the world would be forced to step in” (quoted in Harrison 2012: 63).
(D) Any review must attend to the fact that the majority of the Tamil civilians were pro-Tiger and closely linked to their order via kinship, ideological faith, jobs and dependency. A significant number had also been trained in basic military action in the makkal padai (civilian auxiliary force) in the years 2005-08. It was not till the LTTE regime became draconian from early 2009 that segments of this population turned against their supremo, the talaivar as he was called. But even in late April 2009, as TamilNet pictures show, a significant number moved south to the Tiger command area rather than joining others who seized the opportunity to escape.
(E) As a first step, in early 2008 the LTTE responded to the situation they faced by persuading and pressing their civilian populace to retreat well ahead of the SLA advance – in effect enforcing multiple displacements and considerable privation on their people. This was a central element in a grand strategy involving the creation of a spectre, namely that of “an impending humanitarian crisis.”
(F) This dire picture was perpetuated by the Tiger’s many propaganda arms abroad and quickly recruited support in the West from gullible radicals and humanists as well as those already pro-Tamil; while many channels within the Western media readily fell in with this line of thinking (aggravated as they were in the course of 2008/09 by the intimidation and killing of local journalists in Sri Lanka).
(G) The LTTE succeeded in slowing down the SL Army advance eastwards from Mannar and northwards from Omanthai by deploying a berm defense system (impregnated with mines and booby traps: Fig. 04) and the considerable skills and bravery of its fighters. The “berm” is an age-old tactic, a method which the Indian military refer to as the “ditch cum bund” and a defence system which is said to stretch for miles in the North-West Frontier with Pakistan. Thus, by way of illustration, a 25 kilometre berm-and-ditch line snaked from north to south several miles to the west of the arterial A9 road and the administrative capital of Kilinochchi (see in de Silva Ranasinghe 2009a: 7). It held the SLA back for some time in October-November 2008.
(H) However, the LTTE were outgunned and outnumbered and this resistance eventually came to no avail so that Kilinochchi fell at the end of the year. The process, as witnessed dimly from the rear of the SL Army’s advance, can be gleaned from a review of the Al-Jazeera videos on the war in October 2008, January 2009 and February 2009 and also from Bryson Hull’s report on behalf of Reuters of 23rd February 2009.
THREE: A Grand Strategy to meet the Crisis
It was at this point, around December 2008 and the months which followed, that two dimensions of the talaivar Pirapāharan’s grand strategy came into sharper focus. The mass of (mostly) Tamil civilians were not only conceived as hostages servicing the spectre of an impending catastrophe. Rather they were to be (i) part of the defensive structures of the LTTE as the terrain that they held declined into a cage-like pocket; and (ii) to be strategically located on the coastal shores between Nandhikadal Lagoon and the sea so as to foil a potential operation mounted by the Sri Lankan security forces in combination that would have caged them from all sides.
The LTTE regiments may have been increasingly caged in, but the pressure in early-mid 2008 was from three sides (Map 1). Any military operation mounted by GSL forces that secured the north-eastern coastal area would square the cage. It would, worse still, prevent escape via the sea with the help of American forces marshaled by the Norwegians, the UN bureaucracy and other sympathizers egged on by KP in Malaysia (see below).
Two critical pieces of evidence support this thesis. First: in December 2008 the Tigers induced about 20,000 people from their HQ locality of Mullaitivu to move to the Nandhikadal coastal strip between Vellamullivaikkal and Puttumattalan (Jeyaraj, “Fraudulent,” 2009). Second: on the 31st December – at a point where the LTTE had decided to abandon the capital of Kilinochchi – Pirapāharan phoned the former head of the LTTE’s International operations, Selvarāsa Pathmanāthan, alias “KP,” and asked him to “re-join the movement” and start purchasing and transporting supplies again (Jeyaraj 2011: 23-24). It was during this conversation that Pirapāharan was persuaded by KP to allow him (KP) to focus on securing a ceasefire and helping the Tiger command to escape if the situation deteriorated severely. That objective became KP’s principal role. It was to be the critical “first step for a negotiated peace” (KP’s words in Jeyaraj 2011: 29).
FOUR: Issues and Tracks
There are, now, two tracks in the historical unravelling of this tale: one being KP’s subsequent account via DBS Jeyaraj and the other being the details revealed by Mark Salter in his book on the Norwegian diplomatic endeavour vis a vis Sri Lanka, details that bear a heavy imprint from Eric Solheim. The latter track has to be complemented by the information on international interventions spearheaded by the US Embassy in Colombo that one can glean from media reports and the corpus of despatches disclosed by Wikileaks.
Unravelling the events and processes is a mean task. We enter the shady world of international diplomacy where governments pursue different paths with left hand and right hand; and gloss their activity in subsequent reportage. Transcending these problems is rendered doubly difficult because key temporal moments are not always specified with clarity. One has to navigate a field of smoke and mirrors.
FIVE: KP, Norway and USA to the Rescue
KP’s account via David Jeyaraj (with my emphasis inserted) provides the central details about his efforts to rescue the LTTE leadership with international help
Q: Did you not try to save the civilians by getting the LTTE to release them?
A: I did try at the start. There was even an offer by the Americans to transport them by sea to Trincomalee. But the LTTE hierarchy was not agreeable. This attitude was most unfortunate and may appear as inhuman. I am not trying to condone or justify this action but when I reflect upon the past I think the LTTE leadership also had no choice. If they released the people first, then only the tigers would be left there. Thereafter all of them could have been wiped out.
…. In March 2009 I thought I had made a breakthrough but sadly Prabhakaran rejected the proposal.
Q: Was this the “lock-off” plan that was rejected by Prabhakaran in just three words? Could you elaborate please?
A: Well Yes. I had a tentative plan with international endorsement. The LTTE was to lay down arms by hoarding them in specific locations. The words used were “lock –off”. That is arms particularly heavy weapons were to be locked off in specific places. They were to be handed over to representatives of the UN. Afterwards there was to be a cessation of hostilities in which the people were to be kept in specific “no firing zones”. Negotiations were to be conducted between the Govt and LTTE with Norwegian facilitation.
Tentatively about 25 to 50 top leaders with their families were to be transported to a foreign country if necessary. The middle level leaders and cadres were to be detained, charged in courts and given relatively minor sentences. The low level junior cadres were to be given a general amnesty. The scheme was to [be] endorsed by the west including Norway, EU and the USA. The Americans were ready to send their naval fleet in to do evacuation if necessary.
The countries that KP had in mind and was negotiating with for one can identify as ‘safe recuperation rights’ were Eritrea, South Africa and East Timor. But, as it happened, the plans did not progress that far because the talaivar Pirapāharan would not have a bar of it. A lock-out of their guns was not negotiable: ithai etrukkola mudiyathu … “this is unacceptable” … he said on reading KP’s sixteen-page memorandum on the subject (Jeyaraj 2011: 31-32). KP’s memo had been faxed and the talaivar’s rejection in three words was also by fax (email from Jeyaraj).
The Norwegian version of this plan relayed in Mark Salter’s To End the War (2015) is different in some details. Solheim has told Salter that
The primary focus was on rescuing the civilians trapped in the war zone and facilitating the surrender of LTTE cadres who wished to do so. This would be achieved by sending a large ship under international supervision to the Vanni coast. Civilians would be taken to Colombo and set free. LTTE cadres would hand in their weapons, be registered and have their photos taken to ensure that their identities were known in order to protect them from government harm. A general amnesty would apply for everyone other than Prabhakaran and Pottu Amman (2015: 365, emphasis added).
While the differences between KP’s package and Solheim’s deal are not inconsequential, there is one point of agreement in both stories: the rejection of the scheme by the LTTE arose from the fantasy world in which Pirapāharan and his key advisors dwelt. As KP told the Norwegians, “the LTTE leadership was living in a surreal world, believing in miracles” (Solheim’s words in Salter 2015: 361). The impracticality at this point arose from Pirapāharan’s inflexibility about his final goal: a separate state. He “wanted all or nothing” …. so that [for him] the masses were mere clockwork toys, cannon fodder” (Jayatilleka 2014: 55, 54).
To End the War provides crucial details of the evolving process that are missing in KP’s account. A team of Norwegians and SL Tamils met with KP secretly in Kuala Lumpur at some point in late February. Jon Westborg and Tomas Stangeland (two senior Norwegian functionaries) and Tore Hattrem, the Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo, represented Norway; while KP, V. Rudrakumāran (from USA) and Jay Maheswaran (from Australia) represented the LTTE (Salter 2015: 348-49). We can regard them as the initial planning team.
No rescue mission could be mounted without US naval support and it seems that Ambassador Hattrem brought the US embassy in Colombo into the tentative plans that were being hatched. If Salter’s account can be relied upon, Norway and USA were seeking “a negotiated end to the hostilities” through this intervention (Salter 2015: 364ff). Thus, in late February the Co-Chairs in Colombo mulled over the possibility of mounting “a sea-directed rescue mission” and “a high-level team from the United States Pacific Command (PACOM) headquarters in Hawaii” visited [Sri Lanka] to evaluate the logistics of such an exercise.” This was because such an operation demanded long-term planning: US naval forces in the Philippines, the Gulf States and/or Diego Garcia needed at least five days to reach the eastern reaches of Sri Lanka.
In American minds the scheme was tentative at best. As a well-informed American media man who became privy to the tentative scheme later in the day told me, the US officials believed that they faced “a non-permissive environment” – a form of American-speak which is as precise as pin-point accurate. USA had learnt a lesson from the disastrous international consequences and humiliations arising from its military sortie in Somalia in October 1993 – since immortalized in the film Black Hawk Down. Given the fierceness of the ongoing military battle and given the obduracy of both the LTTE and GSL commands even the almighty USA would have had its work cut out in mounting such an exercise.
Nor could USA just march in. Such a massive operation was not feasible without the consent of the government of Sri Lanka (GSL). From Salter’s account it seems that Basil Rajapaksa was the conduit through whom this international cabal explored such options. But Solheim and Salter – perhaps deliberately – do not tell us WHEN Rajapaksa or some other Sri Lankan dignitary was approached. This is a critical gap in my present stock of information. It is my surmise that Sri Lanka was only approached with this scheme late in the day, say mid-April or late April.
We confront yet another uncertainty in our information. There is a stark discrepancy as to when precisely the deal was placed before Pirapāharan by fax and subject to his decisive rejection. KP’s account indicates that this rejection took place in early March (confirmed by Jeyaraj’s recent indication that this exchange occurred in late February or early March). However, late April is the date which the Norwegian account in Salter’s book points to (see pp. 364-65 in particular).
We must allow for the possibility that Pirapāharan was presented with rescue/surrender/amnesty plans on two occasions, first in early March and then again in late April. This set of question-marks is of consequence. The battlefield situation was different on the dates in question, while the cadences of international pressure on GSL were sharper by April than those earlier in the year 2009 or early March. It is to the clarification of these background conditions that we must now proceed.
SIX: Pressures from the West, January-March 2009
As the account above indicates, KP’s diplomatic engagements did not reach fruition and take shape as a concrete plan till early March (and maybe till late April). However, the Western international consortium led by USA was a powerful element in island politics throughout the war and especially from late 2008. The “West” was embodied in a coterie of ambassadors known as the “Co-Chairs” who met regularly and were engaged in the ongoing events in the political arena in Sri Lanka. One of their principal imperatives from 2008 was humanitarian concern for the fate of the numerous Tamil civilians trapped in the declining space of war because of the LTTE’s grand strategy of blackmail.
This humanitarian activity was not a new area of action. Here one needs to emphasise a remarkable aspect of the war between GSL and Thamilīlam over the extended period 1990-2009 – an aspect that the general Western readership probably has no inkling of. With substantial material aid from the West, GSL continued to supply the Sri Lankan people living under LTTE rule with essential supplies. The flow of material via land convoys or ships had been maintained both in peacetime and war time. In other words, GSL was feeding the enemy (while also sending salary payments and pensions to officials in that insurgent state).
The flow of supplies (especially essential foods, medical supplies and kerosene) to the Tiger-ruled areas of the Vanni had been sustained throughout Eelam War IV from mid-2006. A logistics hub at Vavuniya and a fleet of lorries were central to this task as also the services of GSL personnel and staff from specific INGOs and NGOs. The Co-Chairs were a key force in this endeavour because they generated the monies and goods required for this monumental set of tasks, with the World Food Programme (an INGO) at the centre of such operations. Thus, from 2006 through to the end of January 2009 supplies of food, medicine and other necessities were sent to the beleaguered people of Thamilīlam by land convoys. Thereafter ships chartered by the ICRC (supported and supervised by the SL Navy) took up this task and made at least 31 voyages from Trincomalee to the war zone – returning with at least 13,794 injured and sick people and their “carers”.
This massive task was feasible because of the monetary aid from USA and other governments. The Co-Chairs also supported the GSL’s efforts to house and sustain the Tamil peoples who escaped from their trapped “hell hole” (Reddy’s words) in the detention centres that were being set up on the run from late 2008 – indeed, the international consortium harangued GSL persistently on this front in a manner that deserves praise.
On the political front, however, the tale is different: the interventions sometimes amounted to brow-beating and breached the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. In January 2009 one sees several international initiatives that seem to predate the intervention sponsored by KP with the Norwegians as go-betweens. Ambassador Blake’s secret despatch No. 33 of 9th January not only reiterated the fixed US policy of fashioning “a political solution” to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka (see below for more evidence), but even noted: “we should also be prepared to help locate, detain and hand over to Sri Lanka or India Prabhakaran and other senior LTTE leaders should they leave the country.” Parenthetically, one should note that at this stage in January 2009 the US Ambassador Blake’s reading of the battle situation was as flawed as asinine: on several occasions he intimated to Washington that the LTTE could return to its old programme of insurgency.
India was also a player in the firmament. On the 25th January 2009 India made a symbolic move which gathered US support. Mukherjee, the Minister of External Affairs, flew to Colombo, where he “registered deep concern over the current humanitarian crisis in the Vanni, where Tamil civilians are caught in the crossfire between military forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) [and] insisted that the military ensure that medical supplies reach the safe zone, that exit routes for civilians be clearly marked and communicated, and that every effort be taken to avoid civilian casualties.” This was a line of demand that Blake endorsed wholeheartedly.
We do not know if Blake and USA were alive to grandstanding bluff guiding the Indian hand in Delhi. PK Balachandran (2015) tells us that a troika in Delhi was in regular touch with a troika (Gotabaya & Basil Rajapaksa and Lalith Weeratunga) within the heart of Colombo’s regime; and that at no stage did Delhi wish the LTTE leadership to be let off the hook. Likewise, GSL sometimes had Basil Rajapaksa and the Foreign Minister Bogollagama presenting an amenable listening face to the imperial pressures of the international consortium, while Gotabaya Rajapaksa played hard ball.
We must be attentive to the possibility that USA too adhered to a dual track policy, but I leave consideration of this possibility for the final summing up. What needs emphasis at this temporal point in our review, in late January/early February 2009, is that USA does not seem to have been cognizant of KP’s rescue plan as yet – in part because the scheme was still being moulded.
SEVEN: The LTTE Strategy comprehended … and yet supported
During the months of February and March the Western international consortium at the centre of diplomatic politics in Sri Lanka — with several UN agencies as their handmaidens — were quite exasperated by the LTTE’s refusal to countenance their appeals to release the civilians held in the war theatre. When Tamarat Samuel, an UN special envoy, visited Colombo in February he was “struck by two things: a general feeling of helplessness among the ambassadors he talked to and the government’s confidence that the end was near” (quoted in Salter 2015: 345). The hopelessness derived in large part from the fact that Pirapāharan and his commanders rejected their advice and refused to consider a ceasefire or a release of the civilians.
The civilians were not “trapped” by accident. They were a “central element in a grand LTTE strategy.” Ambassador Robert Blake had comprehended this clearly. In early February 2009 he presented this cogent reading to his superiors in Washington: “the LTTE had refused to allow civilians to leave because the LTTE needs the civilians as human shields, as a pool for forced conscription, and as a means to try to persuade the international community to force a cease-fire upon the government, since that is the LTTE’s only hope” (Secret Despatch 133 of 5 Feb. 2009).
Having comprehended the situation in insightful fashion but getting no cooperation from the LTTE, Blake then proceeded to meet the LTTE’s expectations. With the Co-Chair ambassadors and various UN bureaucrats as his cohorts at different moments, he exerted heavy pressure on the GSL authorities in March and April to institute ceasefires and even to halt their military operations.
EIGHT: The Battle Situation in March … and Thereafter
One must now attend to the context by addressing the progress of the unfolding military struggle in summary fashion. If talaivar Pirapāharan rejected KP’s carefully formulated proposal in early March rather than in late April, he did so in military circumstances that were dire but not desperate (as they were in late April). By early March, indeed by late February, the vast majority of the civilian population, perhaps numbering anything from 260-270,000, had been deployed by the LTTE on the Nandhikadal coastal strip as a defensive formation of so many sandbags and the main plank in their appeal for international intervention (Roberts, “Realities,” 2015). The LTTE, moreover, still retained the little town and stronghold of PTK in early-mid March; and had considerable fighting and assault capacity. Indeed, they even launched a counter attack on the 7/8th March (Salter 2015: 351).
However, PTK town was lost in mid/late-March after the only vestige of urban fighting seen in the last phase of the war. The Tiger military responded in the manner typical: they assembled their best fighters in order to counter-attack. But their assembly point in the locality Aanandapuram was rumbled by the GSL forces on the 31st April and in the next 4-6 days was subject to withering shellfire and infantry assault from all sides. Jeyaraj was way ahead of the international media in his monitoring of events and told the world that the LTTE lost 623 fighters, including several outstanding male and female commanders, in this battle.
After this debacle the circumstance of the LTTE and the civilian mass (now reduced to about 220,000 people because of escapes and death) serving as hostages/supporters/labour-force/defensive-barrier was desperate. From mid-April they were restrained to a coastal strip abutting the elongated Nandhikadal Lagoon running north-south (see Map 2) beside the coast. This arena was roughly 24 square kilometres and had been delimited as a “No Fire Zone” (also called “Safe Zone”) by GSL in mid-February.
This terminology, a diplomatic sop, was, in fact, legally invalid because (1) there was no agreement with the LTTE on this score and (2) because the LTTE and its Sea Tigers retained their military emplacements in the area and eventually assembled its HQ therein; while using the hulk of the “SS Farrah” as observation post and RPG emplacement. It is a measure of bureaucratic inertia – and its relentless power – that international agencies as well as GSL and journalists have deployed this designation in mechanical fashion…. And that they continue to do so. I have consistently avoided this misleading phrase. In my conceptualization this arena is described as the “Last Redoubt” — with the understanding that GSL had every right to direct its fire within/into this space because the mass of hostage-people was an integral pillar in the Tiger defense mechanisms and thus their responsibility.
NINE: The American Sword of Damocles
Before these battlefield misfortunes weakened the LTTE still further, the US Ambassador proceeded to ratchet up his pressure on GSL in ways that would have shored up the LTTE military dispensation. At a meeting on the 18th March 2009 he threatened the Foreign Minister Bogollagama. His report to Washington runs thus: “the Ambassador noted that he was hearing credible reports that many in the military and elsewhere favor entering the safe zone and finishing off the conflict. The Ambassador warned the Minister that Sri Lanka needed to understand that the deaths of thousands or even tens of thousands of civilians from such an action would cause an international outcry, likely subject the GSL to war crime charges, and almost certainly undermine public support in the U.S. and other donor countries for future reconstruction efforts in the north.”
“War Crimes.” This heavy human rights weapon had been explicitly deployed by Navy Pillai (the UN Human Rights Commissioner) in a widely-publicized statement five days earlier – one that levelled accusations and threats at both the LTTE and GSL (Salter 2015: 352-53). Blake was now wielding the sword over the Sri Lankan government in circumstances where the international consortium was reconciled to the fact that they their appeals would receive no mileage from the LTTE.
In other words, the international cabal was working within the framework of LTTE strategy. They were in effect encouraging the Tigers to sustain their use of the civilians as a defensive formation and a raison d’etre for international intervention. The Sword of Damocles in the form of “war crimes,” therefore, was held over the head of one party to the conflict in a manner that slotted in neatly with the grand strategy of the other party, the LTTE. In other words, in blithely positioning itself as international arbiter, and wrapping itself with a “humanitarian cloak,” USA, the UN bureaucrats working as American agents and its other international allies (embracing AI, HRW and ICG) were aiding and abetting the LTTE.
The Western international cabal, therefore, seems to have been deliberately blind to the structured circumstances that I have outlined. It follows that their earnest exploration of KP’s valiant (and understandable) efforts to save the Tiger leadership was a path that would also have materially helped the LTTE.
TEN: Approaching Climax, mid-late April 2009
Our tale is now placed in mid-April with the LTTE in dire straits and its territory confined to the Last Redoubt. As an observer from outside who happened to fly in to Colombo in mid-April just when a “humanitarian pause” declared unilaterally by GSL on the 13/14th April had brought no beneficial results, I anticipated a blood-bath. I also felt that the sacrificial devotion to their cause displayed over the years by the Tigers could translate into a mass act of civilian/Tiger suicide in the manner seen among the Japanese people in 1944 at Saipan.
As an ordinary citizen of course, I was unaware of the flurry of political activity taking place at this moment – with USA and the UN, India, the TNA leaders and various representatives of GSL pressing their views and seeking to gain advantage in every which way. Blake had met the Foreign Minister (Bogollagama) once again on the 11th April and expressed concerns about GSL “shelling of the civilian safe zone.” He had broached the idea of an UN envoy being inserted into the LTTE terrain to talk directly to Pirapāharan so as to negotiate a surrender. Quite ominously, he observed that “the alternative of sending the army into the safe zone would be disastrous for Sri Lanka.” This was nothing less than a polite threat, yet another one.
The threat was underlined a few days later when Blake met the Secretary of Defense, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and “pressed” him “to exercise restraint [so as] to ensure civilian casualties are minimized in the safe zone.” This was a critical political push-and-deflect encounter. Its implications can only be grasped in the light of (a) the US government’s earlier indication that they could institute war crimes charges against Sri Lanka and (b) a previous meeting with Rajapaksa on the 12th March where Blake had insisted that (once the SL Army captured PTK) the GSL forces should not enter the “safe zone.” On that occasion in March Gotabhaya Rajapaksa blandly played poker: he “repeated his pledge to not enter the safe zone and stated that the Army would take a passive stance on its boundary once the other areas were secured.”
With retrospective advantage we know, now, that neither Rajapaksa nor the military forces had any intention of stopping their advance. In this intent they were secure in their awareness that India supported this goal in clandestine voice (Balachandran 2015). With the Indian General Elections looming in late April and early May, with a final date on the 13th May, their goal was to gain control of rump-Thamilīlam before then. After the triumph at Aanandapuram the SL Army’s special forces spent time practicing methods of breaching the berm defences. Suitable circumstances for attack were also prepared by aerial drops of leaflets in Tamil among the corralled civilian people augmented by loudspeaker announcements across the waters of Nandhikadal Lagoon.
On the night of 19th April commando forces “blasted through a massive earthen wall built by the LTTE” at a point near Pokkanai (Map 2) and secured a beachhead within the Last Redoubt that soon expanded and enabled them to split the LTTE domain — so that the Tigers and remaining populace were confined to about 5 square kilometres in the southern segment of the Last Redoubt (Hull & Sirilal 2009a).
The SL Army exercise over 19-22 April was a remarkable military operation – assisted by the extent to which some Tiger fighters discarded their weapons and joined the refugee streams that marched and/or waded westwards to safety along the “safe corridors” developed by the infantry. Some 39,845 people reached safety on the 20th April; and by the 22nd a total of about 103,000 Tamil civilians and (deserting) troops had exited the battle theatre on foot. Others got away in fishing boats heading north or south along the coast guided by marker buoys set up by the SL Navy. The mixture of photographs provided by Reuters are essential viewing for all students of this event.
The figures of those who survived by reaching GSL hands are not easy to compute with certainty, but an UNHCR report on 25th April indicated that some 120,000 had escaped (Salter 2015, fn. 102 on page 516). Needless to say, the number of Tamils who died from crossfire, shellfire and/or Tiger killings by gun or suicide bomber are difficult to work out, but one computation places the figure for the period 20-31 April at roughly 2,500 (IDAG 2013: section 4.4.4) — surprisingly low given the circumstances.
The operational activity and the outcome of streams of escaping people was followed by aerial footage provided by UAVs of the SL Air Force. President Rajapaksa was shown real time footage at the SLAF headquarters in Colombo on Monday morning 20th April. Thereafter a number of ambassadors and foreign dignitaries as well as some journalists were invited to watch this real-life drama unfolding slowly in real-time. While Bryson Hull filed a brief account of this momentous real-life show, I have not been able to secure a list of the personnel who were privileged to witness these scenes – a mark of governmental inefficiency on this front (also see Roberts, “Reuters,” 2016).
Without such vital evidence one cannot plot the identity of reporters who did NOT provide the world with accounts of this remarkable moment in world history. We can be certain, however, that US embassy officials were among those present. In this circumstance the ignorance and arrogance displayed at this moment by their Secretary of State, no less than Hilary Clinton, speaks volumes. On Wednesday the 22nd April she told the world that “a terrible humanitarian tragedy” was taking place in Sri Lanka, referred to “genocide” and demanded – yes demanded — a halt to fighting so that “we could secure a safe passage for so many of the trapped civilians as possible.” Notice the arrogant “we.” USA was to call the shots. However, such arrogance pales into insignificance when set beside the imperial Cardinal Pell manner in which she ignored the graphic pictures of thousands of Tamil civilians (some 120,000 people no less) fleeing across water and land to safety.
Clinton’s vitriolic broadside is a platform for reflection. If she had not read her embassy staff’s reports from Sri Lanka, she was not up to her job. However, it is more likely that she swept the events under the carpet in order to publicly birch a little Asian country that refused to abide by American bidding. That country, moreover, had leaned towards China in the recent past. Geo-political issues may have been one of the factors guiding her rhetoric.
ELEVEN: American Political Dreams
Within this overarching US interest, however, there nestled another American programme. The schemes of international intervention under consideration were not only focused on saving the civilians held as bargaining chips by the LTTE. They were designed to whisk the Tiger leaders to safety in another country where, in effect, they would be without weaponry and be in “international” pockets. Here, “international” reads as “American” or “Euro-American.”
This line of wishful thinking on the part of USA came to light (inadvertently perhaps) in May. To understand that moment one must procced step by step to that month and the LTTE’s final denouement in mid-May. Albeit highly successful, the SL army operation launched on 19/20th April had not overwhelmed the LTTE as yet. The LTTE still held a stub of territory, perhaps five sq. kilometres in extent, in the southern segment of the Last Redoubt where its remnant command and fighters were among the 80,000 or so persons hemmed in all sides by government forces.
Thus, the humanitarian concerns of liberals in the world order and the humanitarian-cum-strategic concerns of the Western powers remained. Indeed, agitation in the Western countries continued at high-octane levels. Sri Lanka remained the target of adverse media reportage and still very much in the spotlight.
It was in the midst of continuing Western pressure on the government in early May 2009 that Michael Owen, the Political Attache at the US Embassy (Fig. 00), told the world on the 6th May 2009 that one had “to find a way for the LTTE to surrender arms possibly to a third party in the context of a pause in the fighting, to surrender their arms in exchange for some sort of limited amnesty to at least some members of the LTTE and the beginning of a political process.” Admitting that the plans were “vague,” he said “but that is something that is under way behind the scenes.”
This piece of information fits neatly with KP’s disclosures earlier. It also lets the American cat out of the bag. What cat? Answer: their political schemes for Sri Lanka, well-intended schemes that had been formulated in the 1980s, but which were quite unsuited to the new circumstances arising from the establishment and consolidation of Thamilīlam under a fascist ruler.
Owen’s presentation included a note to the effect that the “Tamils had legitimate grievances.” Thus, it seems that USA was keen on returning to programmes that it had sketched out for Sri Lanka during the 1970s and 1980s: they wished to negotiate a devolutionary federal solution (Gamage 2014, Roberts 2015). The Tiger leadership parked in some neutral country, one surmises, was to be an instrument of this future settlement. One can surmise that the reshaped LTTE would then have been headed by, say, Rudrakumāran, Pulidēvan, Nadēsan, Bishop SJ Emmanuel and Arjuna Sivanandan rather than the military men.
These are sketchy contentions. Subject to this caveat, it seems that the Tamil National Alliance in Sri Lanka was to remain in the shadow of the LTTE in this future dispensation. As critically, and fatally, the fascist character of the LTTE was glossed over…. and remains glossed over today in the agenda of USA and its handmaidens in the UN bureaucracy. How devolution can be rendered feasible within a political arrangement involving a fascist sub-unit does not seem to have entered the minds of the liberal-arts simpletons designing American policy.
TWELVE: The SL Armed Forces’ Achievement
If there were any reservations about the remarkable success of the SL Army and its supporting arms in the Navy and Air Force in overcoming that formidable foe, the LTTE, it should be dispelled by the evaluation provided by the retired SAS officer, Major General JT Holmes:
“the SLA did not rush in, but instead took its time to plan and adapt its tactics to take account of the civilian presence. It was, in the view of the author, an entirely unique situation and the fact that 290,000 people escaped alive is in itself remarkable…. In my military opinion, faced with a determined enemy that were deploying the most ruthless of tactics and which involved endangering the Tamil civilian population, SLA had limited options with regard to the battle strategy they could deploy.…The SLA had either to continue taking casualties and allow the LTTE to continue preying upon its own civilians, or take the battle to the LTTE, albeit with an increase in civilian casualties. The tactical options were stark, but in my military opinion, justifiable and proportionate given the unique situation SLA faced in the last phase.”
This evaluation supports my bold assertion previously from the position of a raw amateur: that the penetration and capture of the Tiger’s Last Redoubt in April-May 2009 must rank as one of the outstanding military operations in recent world history (Roberts, “Winning the War,” 1 Sept. 2014).
These appraisals can be placed alongside the misleading directions and bombast in the account presented by Gordon Weiss in The Cage and the comic ‘interludes’ within the assessments peddled by Solheim through Salter. Take the latter’s illustration of the “brutality” of the SL Army in mid-May: “from 13 May advancing [SLA] soldiers fired or threw grenades into civilian bunkers as a ‘precaution’ against the possibility of the LTTE using them to launch attacks” (Salter 2015: 371). In circumstances where many Tiger fighters were not wearing uniforms and where some of the fighting occurred at night, the criteria deployed by Solheim and Salter underline their infantile military intelligence. Soldiers can hardly peep into every foxhole/bunker and inquire in Tamil “who goes there?” In any event, the standard infantry tactics in the face of numerous foxholes in their path is directed by the importance of speed of advance so as to deny the enemy time for redeployment.
What should be clear, however, is that considered evaluations do not always carry weight in the world of international politics. Media clout varies and big-powers drown out little minnows. General Holmes’s evaluation lies buried in a document in little Sri Lanka. Western institutions such as the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Sydney and the Greens Party of Australia chose to be guided by Gordon Weiss and simply ignored documentary data and bodies of reportage that could undermine their goals in surveying the war outcomes in Sri Lanka. When one dominates the oceans, those located in little backwaters can be ignored.