Reviewing Eelam War IV, 2006-09: A Think-Piece drafted in May 2011

Michael Roberts, 23 July 2011

In May 2011, in the context of debate and emotions arising from the Moon-Darusman report and the anniversary of the final blow against the LTTE regime, I drafted a “Think-Piece” for my own edification. This was in point-form and as such lacked elaboration and comprehensiveness. It provided the foundations for my subsequent explorations in a series of articles (listed separately). These essays only surveyed some aspects of the issues raised by this Memo and were also informed by the ongoing discussions in print and cyber-world in May-June onwards.

 Pirapaharan and Anton hold court at Kilinochchi, April 2002

The Pirapaharan family home in Nov 2004 with the talaivar’s formal title on wall — Pic by Roberts                                                        

I present this Think-Piece in its original form here so that readers can derive a succinct overview that will enable them (a) to question my directions; and (b) perceive those aspects that have not been developed so far. This ‘stepping-out’ in incomplete attire anticipates potential new essays from my pen.

My intention is to broaden the debate. I remain intrigued by the fact that the moral crusaders abroad have focused on the last stage of Eelam War IV in their recriminations and have totally neglected the war crimes during the three previous Eelam wars. As puzzling is the relative neglect of the evidence collected by the UTHR outfit for the whole period 1983-2009, evidence that has greater empirical foundation than the shoddy and appalling methods of the Moon-Darusman report, a work that would not receive a pass in if placed before a dissertation committee. The UTHR work for the Second Eelam War II has recently been supplemented by the evidence that unfolds in Ben Bavinck’s remarkable diaries in the period 1987-92; and will be further augmented for latter events when the subsequent diaries appear in the English medium in the near future.

It is, of course, easy to surmise why the Tiger and Tamil nationalist lobbies wish to concentrate on the last war. One can also produce plausible a priori reasons why some Sri Lankan human rights activists focus only on the Rajapaksa regime and do not spread their crusade to cover governmental crimes over the whole period, especially those committed in the Premadasa and Kumaratunga regimes.

Such conjectures must be part of a broader investigation which attempts to bolster the conjectures with empirical data of an ideological kind, while yet addressing the broader issue: why have select Western governments, UN agencies, INGOs and Western activists concentrated solely on the immediate past and not embraced a broader time-scale? The empirical evidence on state atrocities in the periods 1983 to 2002 are far more substantial than those for 2008-09 when the LTTE’s horrendous act of utilizing their own people as hostages, labour pool and bargaining ploy created extenuating circumstances that make all international conventions on war crimes wholly dubious and impractical. I stress this not because I am a lackey of the Rajapaksa government, a paid functionary, or one of those rallying around the flag, but because it is a bundle of social science facts – at least in my  mind.

 In other words, the pursuit of this restricted agenda by moralists is a classic case of individuals imprisoned in cloistered ethereal space. I refer here to Weiss and other moral crusaders as well as the Sinhala, Tamil, Burgher and Muslim activists who are not directed by Tamil ultra-nationalist motives of retribution when they adhere to this narrow framework of accusation. As for the Western governments that have taken up these war crimes accusations in narrow-temporal-scope, one can generate surmises as to their selectivity in this field; but it will require someone with greater expertise than I have to clarify the international interests and internal processes that drive specific Western protagonists in particular ways in this accusatory project. Michael Roberts, 23 July 2011

There is now a propaganda war raging about the so-called “UN report” – a private initiative of Ban ki Moon which does not have official UN council credentials. As in propaganda wars, there is much dissimulation and subterfuge in efforts to secure legitimacy for a range of claims and counter-claims.

 It will be a major shortcoming if we review the Moon-Darusman Report (MD hereafter) without attending to the more grounded UTHR Report No 34 and the wide range of reports on conditions in the IDP camps by visitors and other students of the scene.

 Here I comment on the international commentary as it emanates in Australia on the basis of ‘exposure’ to some of the outpourings. I have not read all the representations so I cannot claim comprehensiveness. Within these limits my position is out of LEFT FIELD.

  1. I find deficiencies in the public positions of most parties, including the witch hunters and those defending the govt by attacking the MD report. There is inadequate attention to space, time, and history. Among those beyond Sri Lanka – and this includes the three Moon appointees writing the Darusman report – there is simply no grasp of the spatial geography of the conflict as it evolved over recent time, say, between 1995 and 2009. This blind spot extends to their picture of the spatial distribution of the Tamil peoples inSri Lanka. This is a colossal shortcoming, one compounded when the readers of the report and/or commentary in the public realm inAustralia and elsewhere also do have not the foggiest idea about these critical characteristics (obviously a criticism that does not apply to older-generation migrants from Lanka).
  2. Some of the commentary is presented by well-intentioned individuals working from a cloistered office – individuals who lack any first-hand or vicarious second-hand understanding of the realities of war. They think in abstract terms not the harsh realities of firefights, etc etc. I shall describe this ivory-tower location as “Ethereal Space.”
  3. A central shortcoming in much of the evaluation of the end-game in Sri Lanka in the critical period October 2008-May 2009 is the propensity for critics to think in either/or terms. This failing is especially pronounced among the evangelical moral crusaders. In their readings both context and action are read as either Black or White. There are no grey areas, no ambiguities, contradictions. In other words there is gross oversimplification.


  1. The LTTE was a de facto state from 1990 and acted like one. It was also recognised as one by foreign governments, some of whom sponsored LTTE delegations to study their constitutions etc, etc, et cetera. I will concentrate on the LTTE in the period dating from 1995/96 because they lost territory in the western two-thirds of theJaffnaPeninsula in the latter part of the year. Thereafter the domains they ruled were roughly constant.
  2. When they lost their symbolic centre around Jaffnatown in 1995, they made Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu in the north-eastern segment of the northern Vanni their headquarters. This shift involved a demographic movement of about 80 to 100,000 Tamil people from the JP to the northern reaches. This was a massive displacement that was mostly voluntary and involved individuals and families closely bound with the LTTE regime (some as maaveerar kin). Thus we are addressing the circumstances of about 350-400,000 people in the northern Vanni when we refer to the LTTE state in the period 1996-2009 – which I will call “Tigerland” in differentiation from (ii) the Sinhala-majority areas which can be deemed  “Lankaland[1] and (iii) the Tamil localities under state control, namely the Jaffna Peninsula and Vavuniya which can be termed “In-between-Land.” In theJaffnaPeninsula the GOSL was the overseeing government and the LTTE was the underground government because many Tamils regarded the state elements as an “occupying army” and leaned towards the LTTE, while the LTTE had its agents everywhere within theJaffnaPeninsula. So, here, in theJaffna segment of “Inbetween-Land” the LTTE was a state within the state.
  3. Our principal focus should be the people of the northern Vanni, that is, those in Tigerland from 1995-2009. In the eyes of the LTTE these Tamil people they were citizens of Eelam, full stop. In surmise, arguably, the majority of the people shared this conception in their hearts and minds.” In making these two overlapping assertions I am giving priority to their subjectivity. Note, too, that in reviewing the situation that was in place in the years 2002-08 Murali Reddhiyar, the Hindu correspondent, opined that there was little that the SL government had done which would have endeared the state to the people of this region (so too within the Jaffna Peninsula; I am not sure about the Vavuniya In-betweens). This was in part because there had been no concrete efforts towards power-sharing.
  4. Point F requires a serious proviso: the LTTE and the Tamil people may have rejected the SL state but they were quite happy to receive pensions, salaries and some food and medical supplies from the state. Thus, there was ambiguity and duality in the de facto situation (though not necessarily in their hearts).
  5. What one sees – and what few in the West have given much weight to – is the unique situation in the northern Vanni or Eelam in the period 1995-2009: in technical terms these people were dual citizens. For the people whow ere not Tiger fighters or functionaries, this was a crunch, sandwich situation with some advantages, but mostly disadvantages.
  6. This circumstance arose from the fact that GOSL insisted on treating them as citizens for constitutional reasons (rather than humanitarian reasons, which were, at best, secondary). Opposed to the concept Eelam, GOSL continued to appoint administrative officials to the area and paid their salaries while also continuing to send pensions. Not only that: they permitted banks to establish branches in Tigerland and remit monies sent by Tamils abroad to kin and friends in that land through their central Colombo HQ. GOSL went further; they sent a modicum of medical supplies and essential goods to Tigerland, channelling it through (a) the GAs in Tigerland and (b) various UN agencies who stationed Tamil officials and a few foreign personnel in de facto Eelam to disburse and administer these goods. When I explained this situation to Professor Eric Richards of FlindersUniversity(a tennis mate) his reaction was instructive: “how bizarre!” he said.
  7. The bizarre characteristic of this duality was accentuated by the fact that the pool of salaries and pensions flowing into their area courtesy of GOSL was one of the pillars of the LTTE war economy (relying here on an evaluation conveyed to me personally by Rajesh Venugopal).
  8. The duality of technical status did not obscure the fact that for the Tamil residents within Tigerland the LTTE was their government and taskmaster in daily life; and the recipient of their loyalty and even reverence in a proportion of cases (though one can only essay guesstimates re this proportion). The LTTE was a hard taskmaster because of the exigencies of war during the course of Eelam Wars III and IV; and even during the ceasefire interregnum between 2002 and 2006. Apart from rigorous taxation, all able bodied personnel were subject to conscription. In this arena the LTTE was exercising the rights of state that have been demanded by nation states since the French Revolutionary wars. It is absurd for HR advocates and the SL government to depict this practice as “forced coercion” because that term could be extended to all conscription in all time especially because of the weight of bureaucratic efficiency in modern states. Initially the LTTE state’s demands decreed that every family should send at least one adult to fight for their cause of liberation, but as Eelam War IV turned against them the screws seem to have been tightened (see P below).
  9. There is clear evidence from a series of telling photographs (images that could only have been snapped taken by LTTE personnel themselves) that in the period 2006-08 the LTTE were training the civilians, even grey-haired ladies in sari, in basic military skills. Thus, the line between civilian and armed members of state was blurred because a fair proportion of the Tamil population in Tigerland was turned into the equivalent of the home guards deployed in frontier villages by GOSL — a category that is clearly part of the fighting services.
  10. As Eelam War IV progressed, the LTTE lost control of theEasternProvincewhere they had previously possessed a patchy but strong presence; and then from early 2008 their war fortunes everywhere went into precipitous decline because they were outgunned, outmanned and outmanoeuvred. They were forced to withdraw from west to east, but continued to delay the advance of the GOSL armies through brilliant defensive tactics including the building of bunds and ditches.
  11. A central part of their defensive strategy was to take the people with them. One could say the “sharks took the sea with them.” Partially valid, this description is also erroneous insofar as the people of the sea distrusted GOSL and were bound to the LTTE in sentiment and job-interest, though not without grumbling and ambiguity. This was not the first time the LTTE adopted this tactic. It was applied in the JP in mid-late 1995 and the Vakarai area in the EP in 2007(?). But, on this occasion in 2008 it was thorough-going. This means that from mid-2008 perhaps some 350-450,000 people and Tiger personnel were withdrawing eastwards towards Nandhikadal Lagoon – the figure here being retrospective knowledge because few outside Tigerland knew the precise population figures.
  12. The LTTE needed the “civilians” as a source of new recruits, a labour pool and, vitally, as a political bargaining chip to attract foreign intervention. They were also like sandbags insofar as they rendered military operations hazardous if/where the local army commanders were attentive to “civilian” safety. For this reason the situation has been likened by GOSL spokespersons as a “hostage situation.” This is only partially true. It is partially true because a fair proportion of these Tamil people were willing hostages: they were committed to the LTTE cause and bound to the leadership by ties of job, kinship and sacrificial devotion. It is probable that a majority of the last 60,000 “civilians” who remained with the LTTE high command in May 2009 were hard core Tiger. Murali Reddhiyar’s piece on the interview provided by one Aryanathan to a corps of journalists should be compulsory reading for everyone. Subsequent interviews by Fr. Rohan Silva and D. Siddharthan have condensed the information gleaned from the rescued Tamil peoples and demonstrated that a good segment of those trapped believed that the West would intervene and save them and LTTE. In a word, the LTTE believed this would happen and their certainty rubbed off on the people around them.
  13. Since theTamils in the declining areas of LTTE control in the five months Janaury-May 2009 were, in fact, hostages (both willing and unwilling), in my logic it follows that any deaths there were due to those who kept them hostage. Though one must underline the differences in ‘players’ and physical circumstances, the Sri Lankan story of the north-east battle shares some similarities with the case of the Chechen hostage crisis at a school in Beslan.

“On the third day of the standoff, Russian security forces stormed the building, using tanks, incendiary rockets, and other heavy weapons. A series of explosions shook the school, followed by a fire which engulfed the building and a chaotic gunbattle between the hostage-takers and Russian security forces. Ultimately, at least 334 hostages were killed, including 186 children.”

Since there were about 1100 people held hostage in that school, the death toll adds up to about 30 per cent. The spatial circumstances were tighter and the rescue operation more difficult for the Russian armed forces than those faced by the SL armed forces, but this comparison highlights the difficulties of any intervention without causing civilian casualties.

  1. Both Western politicians and Sinhala moderates advocated a ceasefire to prevent civilian casualties. But, as I argued then, this would have been a foundation for the escape of the LTTE leadership and the eventual outbreak of Eelam War V. Caught thus in the horns of a dilemma, there was no alternative but for the GOSL to press ahead. It is easy for individuals, whether migrant Lankan or local, who are seated in lounge rooms in the West to pronounce on the importance of human life. But Sri Lankans had lived through 27 years of war, wars that extended to killings and mayhem in the heart of the metropolisColombo. Without attention to the weight of this historical experience and the subjectivities it produces, no one should pontificate on the excesses of the last stages of war. “Excess” is always relative to historical context and particular circumstance. People inSri Lankawere better placed to take hard decisions within this Hobsons’ Choice they confronted. The CPA arm, Groundviews, confronted this dilemma head-on by raising this question on 3 May 2009:

 “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 (using pseudonyms), 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.

I did not participate in this debate, but the conclusion was in line with my two articles “Dilemmas at War’s End” presented within the same site earlier.[2]

  1. The LTTE defence against the advancing GOSL forces involved the extensive use of mines and booby-trap devices as well as increased conscription. In this state of crisis it is doubtful if they had the capacity or inclination to keep producing uniforms for their fighters. Certainly, images from the Aanandapuram battle in which Colonel Theepan and 600 odd Tiger fighters died in one day early in April indicates that many corpses were clad in sarong and shirt. In short, the distinction between civilian and non-civilian in the five months of 2009, if not earlier, is a chimera that is a product of minds in Ethereal Space. This space occasionally includes agents of GOSL who operate in mechanical ways.
  2. The principal object of GOSL was to defeat the LTTE and to do so thoroughly. The war was not a “humanitarian operation” in any primary or overwhelming sense (though some humanitarian considerations may well have operated in a secondary manner and/or fitfully).
  3. If Sri Lanka had been an isolated island in archaic time and not subject to Indian Ocean geopolitics and influences from afar, the military arms of GOSL could have taken its time in advancing on the Tiger HQ and taken the utmost precautions to minimise casualties on those genuinely civilian (where such civilians were identified as such). But the Western world and Indian political elements were threatening intervention of some sort. With the general elections in Indiascheduled for mid-May and the outcome uncertain, this became a deadline for the GOSL project. If there were undue “civilian” casualties, it was in part because of these realpolitik issues arising from this external pressure of circumstance.
  4. In the meantime the LTTE regime became increasingly “draconian” from circa January 2009, the pithy description being the word deployed by Murali Reddhiyar who visited the front on several occasions in the eight month period October 2008-May 2009 and interviewed about 70-80 Tamil people among those (a minority) that had escaped the crunch situation of starvation, bombing and shooting they were often exposed to – an escape sometimes in the shadow of LTTE guns turned on those fleeing.

[1] This is a short-hand carved out for convenient reference. There was a critical difference between Lankaland and Tigerland. In the latter realms there were few Sinhalese and Muslims to speak of since the early 1990s. In contrast Lankaland still retained a multi-ethnic diversity within the g hegemonies of a Sinhala majority. The Tamil population inColombo district and the populous areas of Greater Colombo even increased both numerically and in percentage proportions between 1981 and 2001. One must also attend to the presence of a considerable body of people categorized variously as “Plantation Tamils,” “Indian Tamils” and “Up-country Tamils” [but best referred to as Malaiyaha Tamils].They may constitute 5-7 e percent of the total populationand have for the most aprt distanced themselves from the demand for Eelam, though perhaps admiring Prabahkaran for the manner in which exemplified Tamil capacities and honour.

 [2] Since reprinted in Roberts, Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Poitics,Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications,


Filed under historical interpretation, LTTE, power sharing, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, terrorism, world events & processes

13 responses to “Reviewing Eelam War IV, 2006-09: A Think-Piece drafted in May 2011

  1. Excellent overview. I’ve always wanted to know, how exactly did the LTTE organise the march of the 300,000 ? How was it organised, fed, sustained and controlled? Did anyone manage to avoid going along with the LTTE evacuation?

  2. This is a pertinent set of questions — ones I cannot answer. I believe that some sections of Mannar district were not embraced by this move, but that may be because the GOSL advance circa April (?) 2008 was quick and moved from south to north.
    There will surely be many Tamils caught up in this move who can provide partial answers.
    Do not forget that at the initial satges most of the nothern Vanni Tamils did not trust the government — for good reasons — and were LTTE faithful. I say “most”‘ as a conjecture so that raises another issue: HOW MANY AND WHAT PROPORTIONS WERE PRO-LTTE , however ambivalanetly, in mid-2008?

  3. David Blacker

    Interesting thoughts.

  4. To continue from above, I’m surprised given the numbers involved (about 300k+), there hasn’t been any decent, detailed, verified account of exactly what happened. I mean we know more about the events at the Jim Jones mass suicide in Guyana in 1978 than the precise details of how this retreat/evacuation was organised and implemented!

    For instance, how did the LTTE communicate their orders to the civilians living in areas under their control? It’s not as if they were all on email or had mobiles to which a message could be sent saying “please gather at XYZ Junction at 1030 with your belongings. We’re evacuating the Vanni”.?

    All the accounts ever really say is ‘thousands of civilians accompanied the retreating LTTE units’ or something similar. Has no-one interviewed the released IDPs to find out how it happened? I totally understand that they didn’t have any particular love for GoSL.

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