Mis-Reading Pirapāharan: Western Pawns beyond their Depth

Michael Roberts, 1 July 2011

Preamble: Having seen an item in the New York Times authored by former Foreign Ministers David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner and entitled “The Silence of Sri Lanka,” I sent a short comment to the NYT without much expectation that it would be published or my letter answered. This was on the 8th June 2009. I did not try the Australian media outlets because I had got nowhere with them that week when I sent a reduced version of my article on “People of “Righteousness” to them that same week. The Lowy Institute for International Policy based in Sydney, where Tamil ‘associates’ of a Global Tamil Forum line of thinking publish articles every now and then, also did not respond. I am now posting this short essay under one of the titles I selected for the presentation. I append my original covering letter at the end. Those interested in my argument should also turn to my criticism of Hilary Clinton – I called her intervention in late April 2009 “simpleton” – in my commissioned Frontline essay in May 2009. For comparative reflections, with suitable adjustments for differences in detailed context, they should also read “Give War a Chance” by Edward N. Luttwark, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, in Foreign Affairs, Jul/August 1999, vol. 78, No. 4, pp. 36-44.

Essay: “Prabhakaran would rather commit suicide than compromise.” So wrote a Dutch Christian welfare worker named Ben Bavinck in his diary on the 5th January 1989 in recording a dialogue with Rajan Hoole. Bavinck had lived in the Jaffna heartland for years and knew Tamil like a native. It took other Sri Lankans much longer to learn this lesson. After two peace agreements had been unilaterally dismantled by the LTTE in April 1996 and August 2006 most Sri Lankans, whether governmental or not, knew this full well. The LTTE would not compromise.When the LTTE found itself on the military slide from 2008 this unyielding attitude translated into an act that even surpasses the actions of the Japanese at Saipan in June-July 1944. They persuaded and/or forced some 320,000 Tamil people, their people, to retreat ahead of them into ever-shrinking territory. These people, now in 2008/09, SERVED as their labour pool, human sandbags and bargaining chip.

This horrendous strategy was predicated on do-gooders of poor intelligence and large hearts intervening to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. Hilary Clinton, David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner were among the well-intentioned simpletons who became pawns for Prabhakaran and the wide-ranging LTTE lobby in the West. On 22 April 2009, just as the Sri Lankan forces were on the verge of victory, Clinton wanted the Sri Lankan government to adopt a ceasefire. Miliband and Kouchner even visited Sri Lanka in April 2009 to call for a ceasefire. 

From their position of military superiority in early 2009 the Sri Lankan government had asked the LTTE to commit themselves to an unconditional surrender – not unlike Harry Truman vis á vis the Japanese in 1945. But the LTTE high command was rather like the Japanese of that day. Surrender was not in their vocabulary. Besides they had political chips that the Japanese war cabinet did not possess. They had people of righteousness, do-gooder outsiders who had no subjective experience of the Sri Lankan war and did not have Ben Bavinck’s discerning eye.

Today, some two years afterwards, Miliband and Kouchner reproduce their simpleton ways, and swallow the conclusions of a shoddy inquiry by a body of personnel who had no first-hand knowledge of the terrain of war or its recent history and who pose as “experts” despite their abysmal credentials for such a difficult job; and who accept many unverified and/or unverifiable testimonies marshalled by a well-oiled Tamil network that has perfected its art of propaganda over the last 20 years. 

Because many Tiger fighters operated in shorts or sarongs, it was, as inSaipan, difficult for Sri Lankan troops to differentiate a Tiger from a “civilian.” That a significant number of civilians died from shelling or fire-fights is certain. But they were so placed because Prabhākaran wanted them there as shield and bargaining ploy; while any statistical figure on the number of deaths is a bunny from a magician’s hat. One cannot, of course, pose as expert without a statistic to display!

France, Britainand USA deserve better guidance than they have been offered by the interventions of such persons as Darusman, Kouchner and Miliband.


COPY of letter to New York Times, also sent subesequently on 26 June to East Asia Forum, who did respond immedaitely and say they needed a broader focus.

Dear Editors

I am taking the liberty of submitting an article entitled Misreading Prabhākaran: then and now. It is a critical note directed at Hilary Clinton, David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner among others for the stance they adopted in 2009 during what is known as the “End-Game of the LTTE war.” This perspective has recently been resurrected by Kouchner and Miliband in a post in the NY Times.

I am in effect reiterating the position adopted in my commissioned article, entitled “Realities of War,” Frontline, 22 May 2009, vol. 26, no. 10, pp. 16-20, (http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl2610/stories/20090522261001600.htm).

 The essay is organised for online presentation by references to links; but of course that can be deleted or re-framed according to editorial convenience.

I assume that my submission will be assessed on its merits rather than any standing that I have or my curriculum vitae. I append some bare details about myself.

 Michael Roberts

Adjunct Associate Professor, Dept of Anthropology, University ofAdelaide

Rhodes Scholar forCeylonin 1962 Michael Roberts is a historian by training and has taught at the Dept of History atPeradeniyaUniversity(1961-76) and the Dept of Anthropology atAdelaideUniversity(1977-2003). His major works are in agrarian history, social mobility, nationalism and ethnic conflict.

Books by Roberts include

  • Caste Conflict and Elite Formation,CambridgeUniversity Press, 1982;
  • Exploring Confrontation, Harwood Academic,Reading, 1994);
  • Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1500s t0 1815i, (Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2004.




Filed under historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, LTTE, military strategy, power sharing, Rajapaksa regime, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, terrorism, world events & processes

4 responses to “Mis-Reading Pirapāharan: Western Pawns beyond their Depth

  1. Pingback: Troubled legacy of civil war in Sri Lanka | Thuppahi's Blog

  2. Kannan

    Mr. Roberts, I disagree with your view that the Sri Lankan government is less responsible for the killing of Tamil civilians. Both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government are equally responsible. Mr. Pirapaharan was a product of the Sri Lankan state and the Sinhalese politicians who discriminated and utilized state sanctioned violence against a minority that has a long history in Sri Lanka. Furthermore the Sri Lankan state did not need the LTTE to brutalize the Tamils (1956, 1977,1981 & 1983). Until there is an honest reflection regarding the failure of the Sri Lankan state to define it’s self as a multiethnic state where the Sri Lankan identity is not about Sinhalese supremacy but a common identity where the minority has a stake. If the Indians are able to construct a common indian identity the Sri Lankan state should be able to do so. One could also say that the Western nations were pawns of the Sri Lankan state. They never understood the ideology of the Mhavamsa mindset and its inability to come to terms with the modern world. Mr. Pirapaharan’s failure was grounded in reactive politics that did not take into account geo political realities. He was blinded by nationalist Eelamist ideology that was a reaction to the nationalist Sinhala ideology.

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