By Michael Roberts –
This is a provocative piece on the last stages of Eelam War IV in 2008/09 and on its aftermath of Reports and You Tube cut-and-thrust. It makes specific claims in assertive style. These assertions are founded on lengthier articles with their supporting evidence. So, it is by assertion that I proceed.
The essay is not a survey of the factors that enabled Sri Lanka to defeat the LTTE. The focus is on the pursuits of the US Secretary of State’s Department through its point man, US Ambassador Blake, and its ‘auxiliaries’ in the UN and European Union.In a bold conjecture I am also guided by the feeling that the Pentagon and the Secretary-of-State’s Department were not always working in step with each other during Eelam War IV.
Let me start with GIANT QUESTION-BEARING ASSERTIONS: how many persons with some clout in the corridors of the Western governments, the UN and the leading world newspaper chains were aware then in 2009(as well as now in 2018)
1. That, as Lt Col. Gash noted then in late January 2009, it was “not possible to distinguish civilians from LTTE cadres, as few cadres are now in military uniform.”
2. That by mid-2008 the LTTE had devised a grand strategy directed towards creating a picture of “an impending humanitarian catastrophe” with the objective of stimulating forceful Western intervention to save their project in circumstances where they were outgunned and outnumbered– with …….
3. the mass of civilians serving as ‘tinder’ for this picture, while also amounting to just so many ‘sandbags’ in the Tiger defensive formation.
4. ,,,….. and that KP Pathmanathanwas re-installed as the head of the LTTE’s international operations on 31 December 2008 with the prime objective of instigating Western intervention directed towards spiriting the Tiger leaders lock, stock and barrel to a favourable country… and that ….
5. … KP convened a secret meeting at Kuala Lumpur in mid-Februarywhich brought together the Norwegian ambassador in Lanka, two Norwegian diplomats from back home and two senior LTTE activists from the international arenain a conspiracy involving USA – a conspiracy directed towards forceful intervention in the war …..
6. … with an American Pacific Air Command recce team sent to the island at the same timetasked with working out a plan of action for this line of intervention (which scheme was forcefully scotched by backroom Indian veto).
7. This line of intervention in step with the LTTE’s strategy had been ratcheted up by the US Ambassador Blake from late 2008 under the influence of a new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, so that ….
8. … Blake consistently pressed both warring parties to establish a ceasefire, while being resigned to the fact that the LTTE would not heed any such demand –in effect rendering the diplomatic pressure one-sided and one way……
9. … and that this high-handed intervention was taken to the extreme point in mid-March 2009 when Blaketold the Sri Lankan Minister of Defence, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, to cease military advances: via the remark “sending the army in would be disastrous for Sri Lanka,”while ….
10. …. rubbing the message in bytelling Foreign Minister Bogollagama on the 18thMarch that“Sri Lanka would likely meet war crime charges”if they continued their military advance –a threat that was in tune with the warning issued by Navy Pillai, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, five days previously— an indication to us today that USA and key UN agencies were operating arm-in-arm.
To this striking list of occluded or dimly-known facts, we should add the widely-canvassed set of exaggerations and lies peddled in the Western media as well as the government corridors of the Western world and the rooms of the UN. For instance, claims
11. That the events occurring on the war front were terra incognitasince it was “a war without witnesses”– even though 131 local and foreign journalists were ferried to the front(usually on a day-visits) between the 1stJanuary and 15thMay 2009.
12. That the GoSL was indulging in merciless artillery bombardment.
13. That this shelling and the military advances were exacting a horrific civilian death toll – with figures sent by satellite phone by Tamil NGO officials and/or Tamil medicos working under the LTTE being served up and circulated as ‘conclusive proof’ of such outcomes.
It was because this picture was so widely entrenched and because further calamity was deemed to be around the corner that the Foreign Ministers of Britain and France rushed to Sri Lanka in late-April 2009 and ordered the President to cease military activity. Mahinda Rajapaksa, however, did not kow-tow to this gunboat diplomacy and squashed the effort.
Its fiasco notwithstanding, the Miliband/Kouchner effort is significant in revealing the position taken by the West tout court. Most arms of the UN (but not the Security Council) were an integral part of this Western course of action.Various UN officials visited Sri Lanka at different moments in 2009 as elements in this line of intervention: Tamaret Samuel in February 2009; John Holmes on 26thMarch 2009 and Vijay Nambiar on 15thApril 2009.
Then, as the LTTE was finally crushed, no less than the Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon rushed to the island in mid-May 2009. He visited the UN supervised IDP camps on the 22nd May 2009 and then flew in a helicopter over the coastal stretch in the Vanni Pocket where the final denouement had taken place. He summed up his reading from the air thus: “seeing complete devastation and no movement of human beings” – a viewpoint that grabbed world news headlines.
The ignorance inscribed within this simpleton reading is underlined when set in contrast with an assessment provided in 2015 after a careful review 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.”There were many striking photographs of people steaming from the fighting zone in late April and mid-May in both local newspapers and international web-sites which Ban Ki-Moon could not have missed.Moreover, when he arrived in Colombo the UN personnel there would have told him there were some 290,00 Tamils inclusive of Tiger POW’s in the camps under international and military supervision. So, the headline news-nugget he presented was quite misleading.
Ban Ki-Moon’s readings display one of the major problems bedevilling the assessments of the war’s toll: namely, the gross incompetence of powerful players arising from their limited experience of war theatres and infantry battles.If Ban Ki-Moon had taken note of the aerial pictures of that very same war zone BEFORE the final battles occurred therein, he would have seen that it had been immensely crowded and was in fact a tent city in many parts, with the existing houses being only in certain localities and that too in a pattern that was not wall-to-wall. We are fortunate that a cameraman stringer was in the same helicopter as Ban Ki-Moon, so we do have a set of pictureswith which to assess the same scenes– and to note the several undamaged red roof-topsas part of this process … and thus proceed to qualify Ban-Ki Moon’s misleading summary.
Moon’s venture into the island heralded the line of punishing action that the Western world and its UN handmaidens took over the next months and years.Sri Lanka was literally hauled over the coals by UNHRC or UN resolutions from 2009 to 2012.
Perhaps the most significant project on these lines was the UN Panel of Experts appointed in June 2010 with Marzuki Darusman as Chairman and Yasmin Sookaand Steven Ratner as members. Its investigations and its report from afarwithout visits to the island were characterised by glaring deficiencies in its range of sources. A competent team from the Marga Institute in Colombo evaluated its methodology as slipshod. For instance, the UNPoE Report paid no heed to “the restricted battle space” involving LTTE fighters (many without uniforms) amidst a mass of civilians in most localities within the coastal strip which was the focus of battle from mid-April-mid May. To present just one illustration from this Marga analysis:
“The report focuses only on civilian casualties and gives no information of Tiger units coming under fire in close proximity to the civilians, something which many eyewitnesses have admitted to seeing themselves. Leaving this out of the Panel‟s narrative suggests that there was very little or no military activity in the areas around the civilians, and that therefore there was no reason for any shelling by the SL Army.”
However, UNPoE’s findings dominated the world’s media waves. Its most significant finding was that (A) “A number of credible sourceshave estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. …. [and] multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage;” leading to the statement that (B) these “credible allegations, … if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law was committed by both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity” (emphasis added).
But what happened from then on.
As a Sri Lankan observer with the nom de plume Harshula has documented, a troupe of respectable HR organisations and media outfitsconverted “credible allegations” into “credible evidence” in wielding and disseminating this quotation worldwide.
Amnesty International and International Crisis Group abroad as well as Groundviewsin Sri Lanka were among those who perpetuated this deceit. Only Groundviews altered the reference when Harshula assiduously pinpointed the error. Thus armed, such media personalities as Kerry O’Brien, Amanda Hodge and Gordon Weiss in Australia and Jon Snow of Channel Four in Britain disseminated this distorted quotationduring a visceral campaign against their figure of hate:viz., the Government of Sri Lanka and its head, Mahinda Rajapaksa. One British MP, Lee Scott, even went so far as to assert that “40,000 had been “slaughtered.”
The kind of duplicity, amplification and specious thinking that resulted in such definitive exaggerationsshould not be allowed to occlude the gross reasoning behind the figures peddled by the UNPoE chaired by Darusman. From the very beginning in 2009 it was patently clear that few people had any idea of the number of people (whether civilians, conscripted civilians or fighters) assembled within the “Vanni Pocket” in, say, January-February 2009. The figures presented by the GoSL were gross underestimates; but so too were those noted by Ambassador Blake in some of his despatches: for instance, that of 19thMarch referred to the “US and some others being engaged in intensive efforts to protect the estimated 120-150,000 civilians … from shelling” (Wikileaks).
Our calculations of the total civilian-cum-fighter population circa February 2009 must move into the 300,000 range, while yet making adjustments over time to take account of the numbers escaping by seaor foot or being evacuated by agreements on both sides via ICRC ships under SL Navy escort.
Over the course of February 2009 a Government Agent in that Vanni Pocket, one Parthipan, had essayed a census based on statistics from household and tent sites collected by his underling grama sevakasand produced the figure of 336,00 as the total number of residents in what was remnant Thamililam– a gross figurethat is suspect because it is not a head count and because 31,694 Tamil civilians escaped by foot or by sea, or been formally evacuated, during the month of February.
It appears that the UN Panel arrived at the guesswork figure of 40,000 dead by subtracting the rough figures for the number of survivors (both those deemed LTTE and those deemed IDP) in the camps under government control in May-June 2009 from this crude Parthipan estimate. So, at best, it was an approximate calculation.
Parthipan’s estimate of 336,000 for the total population was also overshadowed by the figure of 436,000 which Bishop Rayappu plucked from thin air – a figure which encouraged some writers (e. g. Frances Harrison) to suggest that the death toll could even be 146,000 (436,000 less 290,000 survivors).Thus, with the alternatives of 146,000 or 70,000 or 40,000 civilian deaths being touted by various international agencies, some observers from afar may have considered the lower figure to be a reasonable option.
For anyone to weight this kind of estimate as “credible” is amazing. It indicates that the members of the United Nations Panel had infantile understandings of battlefield conditions.They were oblivious to one of the cardinal statistical ‘rules’ relating to casualty figures: namely, that the wounded or “Wounded in Action” (WIA) always outnumber the dead or “Killed in Action” (WIA), One medical report that reviewed the casualty ratios in wars from 1940 to 1988 reached this verdict: the “number of people wounded is at least twice the number killed and maybe 13 times as high.”During the Korean War the ratio for US soldiers was over three: 103,284 WIA against 33,651 KIA.
Versed as they should have been in the travails faced by the Australian and Allied troops during the Gallipoli campaign in 1915-16, one would have thought that such Australian media men as O’Brien and Weiss would have brought some of this experiential sense into their evaluation of the UNPoE’s statements. Within the restricted physical arenaof Gallipoli in 1915 the casualties on all sides were heavy. In this context, 8,709 Australians were killed (KIA) and 19,441 were wounded: thus, the ratio of WIA to KIA was 2.23.
The UN Panel and its other experts as well as numerous commentators with university degrees in their belt do not seem to have asked a simple question: if 40,000 Tamils had died, where were the 80,000 wounded?As it happens, in May-June 2009–the UN personnel in Colombo had computed figures for the wounded in hospitals and detention centres. This computation is referred to in passing by the UNPoE: “The United Nations Country Team is one source of information; in a document that was never released publicly, it estimated a total figure of 7,721 killed and 18,479 injured from August 2008 up to 13 May 2009, after which it became too difficult to count” [paragraph 134, UNPoE]. The UN experts simply bypassed the implication of this data – a mark, perhaps, of their office room blindness compounded by imbecility.
Thus, we see that a wide range of commentators and political figures in both the West as well as Sri Lanka failed to transcend their office-room deficiencies in the ways in which they sought numerical counts for the death toll. In surmise, it seems to me that
* some were also directed by their sympathy for the SL Tamils because they believed that the Tamil people had been denied “identity, belonging and dignity” in the course of Sri Lankan politicsfrom 1956-to-2009 and subject to terrible onslaughts during the pogrom of July 1983; and
* some were animated by moral righteousness taken to blinding degrees and
* some may have been directed by a visceral dislike for Mahinda Rajapaksa and his regime because of its various excesses; andsome powerful figures in the corridors of Western states were determined to pursue their political goals in the Indian Ocean and desired to wreak vengeance on little Lanka for defying its dictates in the period 2006-09.When no less a person that the US Ambassador to the UNHRC, Eileen Donahoe, spat out“we will get you” to her SL counterpart Tamara Kunanayakam within the stately corridors of the UNHRC in Geneva,we know that the primeval desire for revenge had been provoked within powerful entities.
It is as ironic as tragic that such big-power strategies are supported by personnel attached to strands of secular fundamentalism in ways that persuade them to support interventions in favour of fascist dictatorships (the LTTE in this instance) and sunder friendships in visceral anger. As illustration, take Radhika Coomaraswamy’s reaction when I criticised Gordon Weiss and other people of righteousness: “Michael, I think you have lost it. Please don’t send me any more of these really offensive articles- people have suffered so much and you are still on with your bogey of imperialism. I have been to so many conflict areas and voices like yours are just so crass and insensitive. Maybe you should meet one victim from any war before you speak. Please don’t e-mail me again. RC.”
Individuals with capacious hearts who lament victimization and death to the degree that they cannot decipher crunch situations of the sort faced in Sri Lanka in 2008-09 and proceed to favour political settlements with the Hitlers of this world are truly a godsend for the Hitlers of this world. This is doubly so when they have positionsand friends in the corridors of the UN as Radhika Coomaraswamy did. Our old friendship is well and truly sundered.
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Ishanka Jayathilaka has pinpointed this aspect of US policy in Sri Lanka as unusual and added that in 2015 the ambassador in Colombo, Atul Keshap, too had a key role in preparing the US sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC in 2015 (email, !4 October 2018).
I am hardly an expert in this murky field and would be happy to entertain articles from those who have such expertise. However, I note one illustration of this differentiation: when Col Lawrence Smith (Military Attache at the US Colombo embassy from 2008) broke ranks – so to speak –and spoke out at a Defence Seminar in Galle in 2011: see ………………………. www.sundaytimes.lk/110605/Columns/cafe.htmland Kurukulasuriya 2018.
Roberts, “Interpreting … Gash IV” 2018 (quoting a secret document only recently aired). Also see https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/ltte-war-video-recovered-by-the-governrment-revealing-episodes/… and the SL Army photographs of dead bodies arranged on the ground after battles as the corpses were assembled for mass burials,
See Roberts, “Generating Calamity …,” 2014. Note a subsequent discovery that sustains his assessment; “Without the presence of the IDPs the LTTE would be subjected to unrestricted air and artillery strikes, so have no incentive to release them” -Gash in his secret despatch of 28thJan 2009 (see Roberts, “Interpreting … Gash IV” 2018).
Also see Roberts, “BBC Blind …,” 2013.
KP aka Selvarasa Kumaranwas from VVT like Pirapaharan and was the latter’s best man at his wedding in India in 1984. He was placed in charge of the LTTE’s international operations at anearly stage and was based in Thailand. He proved to be a mastermind in this work and it is arguable that his displacement and the appointment of Castro and others to this role contributed to the decline of the LTTE in the first decade of the 21stcentury.
See Jeyaraj, “KP” speaks out: An Interview with former Tiger Chief, 2011, pp.23-25. The countries in the Tiger scheme were Eritrea, South Africa and East Timor (p. 34).
See Salter 2015, pp. 348-49 & 355-56. Salter does not give the precise date of this meeting in Kuala Lumpur or even the date or source of Blake’s subsequent note on pp. 355-56. We can surmise that these omissions are deliberate.
Namely, V. Rudrakumaeran from USA and Jay Maheswaran in Australia.
See Roberts, “Where USA …,,,,” 2018.
Roberts “Ambassador Blake in Never-Never Land …,” 2015 and Roberts, “Ball-by-Ball through Wikileaks,” 2014.
This was conveyed to Washington in Despatch No. 283 of 12 March 2009. while a little later another despatch on the 18thMarch 2009 Blake indicated that he had cautioned Foreign Minister Bogollagama by noting that “Sri Lanka would likely meet war crime charges” if they continued their military advance. Note that, on this occasion on 12thMarch, Gotabhaya played poker: he said that the SL Army “would take a passive stance.”
Salter 2015: 352.
 Even now in September 2018 a senior Sri Lankan reporter told me (telephone chat) that it was “a war without witnesses,” This was the catch-phrase constantly repeated by Ravi Nessman of Associated Press from the moment that he spoke to America on The Tavis Smiley showon the 18thFebruary 2009. However, he had been snapped on a SLAF plane en route to the front on the 24th January and then pictured as he interviewed Colonel Udawatte at the rear arena of the war front (photos by Kanchan Prasad from India)..
This is a list I extracted from an SL Army officer who was at a talk on the IDP Camps which I presented at ICES in 2011. It is reproduced in Roberts, TPS. Pictorial,2014, pp. 252-63. I note here for the benefit of lay readers that it is rare for reporters to gain access to the interface of fighting in any war situation where battle lines are sharply drawn in rural terrain. Where reporters have been caught in cross-fire, it has usually been in locations where the fighting is in mosaic patches and in confused and swirling urban landscapes.
As an Indian journalist in Colombo noted sarcastically: “none of these westerners raised any inquiries as to how the various Tamil informants in LTTE terrain had access to satellite phones.” As further indictment of Nessman and Weiss I note here that (A) Weiss was reprimanded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for using the term “bloodbath” in an aired interview for Associated Press in early April 2009 and that (B) on the 13thMay 2009 Nessman regurgitated the claims of severe shelling and many deaths presented by human rights agencies in UK who were repeating claims on TamilNet.
Roberts, “David Miliband’s Imperious Intervention in Lanka left in Tatters,” 2016.
See Roberts, “Reading ‘devastation’: Botham, CMJ and Ban Ki-Moon,” 2014. There were no human beings THEN on 22/23 May because the civilians had fled or been rescued and taken to IDP camps, while most Tiger personnel had been killed or captured. Note, too, that this coastal area was wind-swept and the abandoned tents and gear would be subject to the force of such elements. See the selection of snaps in Times 2009.
Annex I – Military Expert Opinion by Major General (Retd) John Holmes, in Paranagama Commission Report, 2015. pp. 243-44.
That is why some of the pictorial evidence of the civilian settlements in the “Last Redoubt” on the coast in the period February to early May 2009 which are available in TamilNetand a range of sources are so valuable. For a selection, see Roberts,TPS. Pictorial, 2014
See “Times Aerial Images,” http://www.flickr.com/ photos/thuppahi/sets/72157626922360092/and for commentary on some snaps, see Roberts, TPS. Essays, 2014, Figs. 11-16. Also see Prasad “Two Indian Reporters …,” 2014.
All the houses in this part of the coast would have been new dwellings built after the arena was flattened by the tsunami of 26thDecember 2004.
See Harshula 2011.
The horrendous assassination of the respected Editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunga, on 8thJanuary 2009 – clearly, at face value, by elements in the Sri Lankan defence establishment — had raised the bar of hostility in media circles in Sri Lanka and the West; while alienating liberal thinkers in both domains.
At least 3389 escaped by sea according to the reports provided by Lt. Col. Gash (see Roberts, “Gash Files III,” 2018).
Citizen Silva somehow tracked ICRC summaries and recorded 31 voyages between 9thFebruary and 9thMay. carrying 13,794 persons. Figures from 23 of these trips show a total of 10,103 with the following breakdown: 1789 injured/sick males; 3537 injured/sick females; and 3,471 children -the rest being defined as “caretakers.” – See Roberts, TPS. Pictorial, 2014, Fig. 95 on page 140.
See details from Citizen Silva, “Number’s Game” reiterated in Roberts, “Revisiting Critical Issues,” 2017 as well as Frances Harrison, 2012: 337.
Harrison 2012: 238.
The British Major Genl Holmes said as much – see Quotations and summary in Kurukulasuriya 2018. This is one illustration: “The figure of 40,000 civilians killed which has been repeatedly published is, in my view, extremely difficult to sustain on the evidence which I have seen.”
See Coupland & Meddings 1999 and Mango 2014.
The confined physical extent of the area to which the LTTE and its remaining ‘sandbags’ of civilian people had been reduced by April 2009 was not dissimilar to that of the Gallipoli Peninsula, though the latter was hilly and criss-crossed with gullies.
Roberts, “Drama in Four Acts,” 2015.
Note Hattotuwa, ‘Identity,” 2018.
In my surmise the key drivers behind USA’s targeting of Sri Lanka appear to have been Hillary Clinton (Secy-of-State), Samantha Power, Susan Rice and Richard Armitage. It is Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who mentioned Rice and Power when I suggested that it was Clinton who initiated a sharper line towards Sri Lanka from late 2008 (see “Gotabaya clarifies,” 2016 ). From her researches Ishanka Jayatilleka is convinced (personal communication) that Richard Armitage engineered a shift towards a hard line against Sri Lanka from circa 2006 – arising in part from a close allegiance with Norwegian circles.
This email note was dated 23 June 2011. I complied readily.
Radhika Coomaraswamy was a Co-Director of the ICES in Colombo with Neelan Tiruchelvam and also became the Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commissionin 2003. She also has worked as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women (1994-2003). In 2014, she was appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon as lead author on a Global Study on the implementation of UNSC resolution 1325, on women, peace and security