‘Our heroic Sinhala ‘Ranaviruvo’ have roundly defeated and decimated the Tamil “terrorists” in the war in May 2009’. That, in essence, is the refrain of the Southern political class in post-war Sri Lanka and the theme that sustains all bluster and braggadocio of the hardcore Sinhala ultra-nationalists. That is rather a simplistic assertion. Tamil militancy represented our collective resistance to Sinhala majoritarian oppression and tyranny. In the face of state-sponsored terrorism and aggression, fledgling militancy morphed into full-fledged armed struggle.
Majoritarian discourses on Tamil question in Sri Lanka never addressed the root causes of Tamil insurgency during its infancy. Instead, the mandarins and military leaders of successive racist regimes, gnashing and grinding their teeth, snarled “Tamil terrorists” and launched savage terror campaigns against Tamil youths.
Since early 1970s even before their armed struggle took off, hundreds of innocent Tamil youths were indiscriminately hunted down and scores of them were killed.
Nelson Mandela – a ‘Terrorist’
After all, to be dubbed as “terrorist” is not always universally a stigma. Nelson Mandela, the most iconic leader of the 20th Century, had earned the epithet “terrorist”. The U.S. Government had his name on Terrorist Watch Lists until 2008.
Why/how did Nelson Mandela become a “terrorist”?. “Since its founding in 1912, “the ANC fought against apartheid for decades through rigorously nonviolent means, mostly labor strikes and public service boycotts,….” The ANC’s policy of nonviolence received a sudden and brutal setback in 1960. That’s when the Sharpeville Massacre took place. In 1960, South African police killed 69 black protesters in the town 40 miles south of Johannesburg; amid the crackdown that followed, the government banned the ANC. As the ANC went underground, Mandela became the head of the military wing of the African National Congress, ……..(Spear of the Nation)…..”. “Defending the shift in strategy as a last resort, Mandela said in one of his interviews from prison, “‘The armed struggle [with the authorities] was forced on us by the government.’” (TIME magazine, 18 July 2018)
Tamils ‘Satyagraha’ struggle
For over three decades the Tamil people carried on a non-violent Satyagraha struggle against majoritarian oppression and discrimination. A single ‘Sharpeville Massacre’ had forced the hands of ANC leaders to shift gears and opt for armed struggle. How many ‘Sharpeville Massacres’ and genocidal killings – savage attacks and periodic pogroms (in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983) – the Tamils had suffered or endured, before the younglings took up arms?.
Rebels silenced their guns – 17 May 2009
LTTE fighters silenced their guns on the 17 May 2009. However, Sri Lankan military blitzkrieg continued with all guns blazing onslaught even on 18 May 2009 and the army’s heavy artillery booming until they completed the slaughter of the entire civilians remaining trapped in the No-Fire Zone (NFZ).
“A statement carried by the pro-rebel Tamilnet website said that the Tigers had given up their fight and “have decided to silence our guns“. “The statement was issued as the Sri Lankan government was moving in for a final push today in its 26-year civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after announcing that all civilians had been evacuated from the rebels’ tiny enclave on the north-east coast of the island.” (Verily, the government’s claim that all civilians had been evacuated was a blatant lie). “Their claims were challenged, however, by western diplomats and humanitarian workers who said they feared thousands of civilians remain trapped in the so-called “safe zone” and face a “massacre” as government forces move in to crush the last of the Tamil Tigers.” (The Telegraph, (UK) 17 May 2009 – “Tamil Tigers ‘silence their guns’ after Sri Lankan president claims victory”
Massacre of Surrendees
The massacre of surrendering LTTE leaders and their families by the Army was a treacherous act. It may seem ironic that days/hours before their surrender, the Tamil “terrorists” released the Sinhala PoWs in their custody in one piece. But, what did the “war heroes” do? The narrative, which has since gained international notoriety as ‘White Flag’ incident, merits elaborating a bit (per Wikipedia-Excerpts):
(QUOTED) It was all a desperate attempt to save the lives of an estimated 300 fighters and their families. LTTE’s Political Wing leader Nadesan and Pulidevan agreed to surrender and contacted the UN, the governments of Norway, UK, USA and ICRC, and intermediaries, Tamil M.P. Rohan Chandranehru, Basil Rajapaksa and Sunday Times (UK) reporter………. Marie Colvin. Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa was aware of the negotiated surrender………… On May 17, 2009 Marie Colvin received a call from Nadesan asking that she relay to the United Nations that, “they would lay down their arms, they wanted a guarantee of safety from the U.S. or Great Britain”.
UN official’s role
(QUOTED) According to Colvin, she established contact with Vijay Nambiar, Chief of Staff to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and relayed the LTTE’s conditions for surrender, which he in turn agreed to relay to the government. By the night of May 17, the LTTE ……… requested Nambiar to be present to guarantee their safety in surrender. Nambiar told Colvin that he had been assured by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa of the surrendering combatants’ safety, all they had to do was “hoist a white flag high”. Nambiar told her that the President’s assurance was enough and that his presence was unnecessary. At 1:06 AM on May 18, 2009, Nadesan made his final call to Tamil MP Rohan Chandranehru saying they were walking towards the Sri Lankan military and, “I will hoist the white flag as high as I can.” …….., Nadesan’s Sinhalese wife was among those in the front of the surrender party. LTTE surrendered to the 58 Division army, carrying White flags. …………… Hours later, the Sri Lankan Army announced that the Nadesan, Pulidevan, and the LTTE members accompanying them had been killed. That evening they displayed their bodies.
Contradictions by Sri Lanka
(QUOTED) Sri Lankan Government has given various contradicting explanations of the deaths – from denying the surrender to claiming that those surrendering were shot by their supporters in the back. General Sarath Fonseka, the commander of the Sri Lankan Army at the time, claimed Defense Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave instructions to Shavendra Silva, commander of the 58 Division, to kill the surrendering LTTE. ……..Pictures have surfaced of Balachandran Prabhakaran, the 12-year-old son of …….Prabhakaran, alive, unharmed and in custody of the military.
A photo from a few hours later shows the boy’s dead body shot in the chest five times. Other photos have appeared of Isaipriya, …., alive and in the custody of the Sri Lankan military. Footage obtained by Channel 4 News shows a number of dead bodies, including that of Isaipriya, which showed signs of possible sexual assault.
These emerging eyewitness reports, photos, and videos are part of the mounting evidence of Sri Lankan soldiers summarily executing captured Tamils in the closing stages of the war.
Journalist Marie Colvin’s role
(UNQUOTE). One need not labour the point why Sri Lankan leaders get the jitters on hearing the word “Geneva”. Sadly, journalist Marie Colvin was killed on 22 Feb.2012 while covering the war in Syria. Writing on her death, the BBC made reference to her role in the “White Flag” episode: “She was angered that senior Tamil Tiger leaders who surrendered by arrangement with a very senior United Nations official to the Sri Lankan military were killed. On the evening of 17th May 2009 she had received a ‘desperate phone call’ from the LTTE political head Balasingham Nadesan……She has then called the UN Secretary General’s Chief of Staff Vijay Nambiar who she said had been assured by the Sri Lankan president that Mr. Nadesan would be safe in surrendering to the Sri Lankan Army. “They would take him under international law,” she quoted Mr. Nambiar.” (BBC -Sinhala Service, 26 Feb. 2012 – “Marie Colvin and Sri Lanka War Crimes” ).
A Family affair!
Incidentally, it is relevant to figure out some family bonds relating to certain UN apparatchiks. Vijay Nambiar is the younger brother of Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar, aformer Indian General, who had previously served as an advisor to the Sri Lankan government (2002/2003). Satish was later quoted on the Sri Lankan military’s portal praising the Army’s conduct of the war in the north. UN Chief Ban Ki-moon’s daughter is married to Major Siddharth Chatterjee, who had served in the IPKF in Sri Lanka (1987 to 1990). According to Sunday Times (4 Sept. 2016) Mr. Chatterjee is reported to have praised the Sri Lanka Army for the way they defeated the LTTE.
We haven’t had UN Chief of the calibre of a Dag Hammarskjold or Kofi Annan, during the war. The “War without witness” was conducted, sans the UN agencies, the ICRC, international media, INGOs or any other monitoring groups. All of them were ordered out of Sri Lanka. In response to criticisms, Ban Ki-moon appointed ‘The Internal Review Panel on UN actions in Sri Lanka.’ BBC has commented on the leaked draft of the Panel’s Report, which states, inter alia: “The panel questions decisions such as the withdrawal of UN staff from the war zone in September 2008 after the Sri Lankan government warned it could no longer guarantee their safety. Benjamin Dix, who was part of the UN team that left, says he disagreed with the pullout”. “I believe we should have gone further north, not evacuate south, and basically abandon the civilian population with no protection or witness,” (BBC News, 13 Nov. 2012 – “UN ‘failed Sri Lanka civilians’, says internal probe”)
Rajapaksa called it a “humanitarian operation” to liberate the Tamils. Massacre of multitude of civilians marooned in the “No-fire Zones”, heavy artillery/aerial attacks on hospitals and the use of prohibited weapons (WMD) could not have constituted a “humanitarian operation”. Likewise, abduction, torture and disappearance of detainees held in internment camps, savage sexual attacks on them and summary execution of captive rebels could not have constituted their “liberation”. During the influx of IDPs into the camps, our modest womenfolk were ordered to strip naked and paraded before male officers for ostensible ‘security check’. One cannot overlook that some of these “war heroes” had not spared even the famished female children of Haiti when they later served as UN Peacekeepers in that country.
These were some of the exploits of the “Ranaviruwo” during or after their decisive battle against the “terrorists”. We have lost count of the number of massacres – let alone the number of victims – carried out by the military in random or reprisal attacks against innocent civilians during the course of the war. It is a very long list!
32 nations vs. Tamil rebels
Sri Lanka had enlisted the support of 32 countries in the war. Countries which were mutually antagonistic had ganged up against the LTTE. Thus, India, China and Pakistan, together with USA, UK, Russia, Israel, EU and others had offered crucial support – military/ material aid, financial, technological, intelligence etc. India stands out as the premier benefactor.
“………The Sri Lankan Navy led by Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, executed a maritime strategy based on intelligence on LTTE ship movements provided by India. In 2006 the SL Navy had tremendous success when, based on Indian intelligence, it launched operations to destroy six LTTE warehouse vessels. Subsequently, by 2007, two more were destroyed, which completely disrupted the LTTE’s supply line.”
“In a recent interview to the Jane’s Defence Weekly, Admiral Karrannagoda said, “It was one of the major turning points in the last 30 years of the conflict. That was the main reason why the LTTE are losing the battle, we did not allow a single supply of replenishment ship to come into (Sri Lankan) waters over the last two and a half years since 2006.” (Indian Defence Review, Issue Vol.24.3 of Jul-Sept 2009, 19 Nov.2014 –“Lessons from Sri Lanka’s War” )
Constriction of space does not permit cataloguing the material support provided by each country. (Vide- South Asia Journal, 23 Jan. 2020 – “Which countries helped the Sri Lankan government in the civilian war 2009 ”). The rebels have not had this luxury. With supplies completely stopped, it was as though they were fighting the war with bare hands – and largely on empty stomachs! I believe, their spirit and grit sustained them.
Not only the “Ranaviruwo”, the rebels also have had their share of ‘military marvels’ to brag about. If one can adore the armed forces as “war heroes”, what shall we call the ‘boys’, who fought for a cause and fought clean, through monumental adversity and against monstrous adversaries? Some of the battles won by the rebels against the superior firepower of the security forces bear testimony to their spirit and intrepidity. The enormity of the losses suffered by security forces show the intensity and ferocity of some of the battles which the rebels had won.
Tamil rebels were denigrated by military leaders and the media as “Baby Brigade” and “barefoot soldiers”. For Sri Lanka, with a 250,000 strong armed forces including aerial and naval military resources and reinforced by the military, material, logistic and diplomatic support of 32 powerful nations around the globe, it took almost 25 years to subdue the rebels. Manekshaw was the first Indian to be decorated as a Field Marshal. The rank was conferred on him in 1973 in recognition of his leadership in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, which changed the course of history of three different countries as well as the political geography of the subcontinent. In Sri Lanka, Sarath Fonseka was decorated as a Field Marshal for leading the fight against the ‘boys’ to a finish. Bravo Sri Lanka!
Abuses by Rebels
After all is said and done, some of the heinous crimes committed by the LTTE continue to haunt my memory. Let me reflect on a couple of them. The rebels had no legal, moral or strategic justification for committing these crimes.
*July 1989-Killing of my leader Amirthalingam and my friend Yogeswaran is still hurting me.
*June 1990- The massacre of over 600 Policemen who had surrendered to the LTTE in Batticaloa was a dastardly act. The excuse that that it was carried out by Karuna, the LTTE honcho in the East, does not absolve the LTTE of the crime.
*Oct.1990- Mass expulsion of Muslims from Jaffna. I have heard LTTE apologists rationalizing the atrocious act. I could not find them convincing.
*May 1991- The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi was an insane, evil enterprise which had drastically changed the dynamics of our political discourse. It had not only wrought the LTTE’s eventual undoing, but had also critically undermined the Tamil struggle.
Some of us may not have fully agreed with the methods or message of the LTTE. Nonetheless, in pursuit of the liberation of our people, the rebels have fought until their very last breath. Their sacrifice is a shining example of bravery and devotion to one’s ideals and they have made the supreme sacrifice. LTTE leader epitomizes self-sacrifice. He did not seek safe sanctuary for his wife and children, but had pledged his whole family to the cause – and, perhaps, they all have perished in the hands of their predatory captors in the most cruel manner. We salute our martyrs. Equally, tens of thousands of brave young men in the security forces, drawn mostly from poor rural families, have fought hard and died in the line of duty. We salute them too. They are the real heroes – not the vainglorious “war criminals” out there, flaunting their insignia on their uniforms. They are fugitives from international justice.