Michael Roberts, …… courtesy of Groundviews where the essay carried a different title. In presenting the article here I have embellished it with images, maps. It also has a few more hyperlinks.
Amidst the obfuscations and cumulus clouds of propaganda that have subsumed reviews of the last stages of Eelam War IV, it has taken time for some remarkable feats to emerge. The affidavit provided by Dr. Veerakanthipillai Shanmugarajah on 10th May 2012 with assistance from a British solicitor reveals astounding medical relief work by a body of doctors, nurses, attendants and administrative aides during the Tamil peoples’ enforced retreat and crucible of battle in 2009. This statement has been deployed by a collective named ENGAGE SRI LANKA in the course of its criticism of Channel Four’s video reportage and the claims of “Vany Kumar” (Gnanakumar Thamilvani in name,[i] who also presented herself under such aliases as “Damilvany” and “Vany Kumar”). As such, it is an element in the ongoing propaganda war – one which no public document can rise beyond.
However, my focus here is directed towards a larger dimension rather than seeking to demolish the fabrications and distortions perpetuated by Tamilnet, Vany Kumar and Channel Four which is the interest pressed by Engage Sri Lanka (2013 for latter). I will be focusing upon the empirical detail and the ‘lens’ provided by Shanmugarajah’s affidavit account of 10th May 2012.
I do not merely report. I marvel. I wish you, too, to marvel and applaud the dedication and capacity revealed by a substantial (and mostly unnamed) team of unsung Tamil heroes. I do so in point form with numbers identifying the segments in Dr. Shanmugarajah’s statement that provide the empirical foundation for my review. The sections highlighted in purple are contextual elaborations and contentions that embody my thoughts.
- As the LTTE administered insurgent state of Thamilīlam found itself on the military back-foot in mid-late 2008, the medical authorities and senior government agents got together and drew up a “disaster contingency plan” (5, 7) – one which was informed by previous experiences in coping with the impact of the tsunami. This involved preparatory training of staff (aided by Oxfam) and the stockpiling of drugs and medical supplies with the support of the Government of Sri Lanka (21, 22).
- Their equipment included 30 refrigerators that were generator-driven and their stockpile included fuel to run these essential items, with officials assigned to guard, move and maintain them (21-23, 30).
- When the LTTE regime enforced an eastward movement of the trapped populace of some 300-320,000[ii] so as to use them as a strategic resource and a bargaining tool to extract international intervention (Roberts, “BBC-Blind,” 2013d),[iii] the medical staff moved along with their people and established makeshift hospitals, usually in school buildings (6, 7).
Drs Sivabālan, Shanmugarājah, Varatharājan, Sathiyamoorthy and Elancheliyan at a government media event at the point of their release from detention– third quarter 2009
4. One should note that the LTTE constructed protected bunker-wards that were partially underground (see Fig. 1) alongside the buildings they used as hospitals for their injured cadre (Fig. 2). It appears that these sections were distinct from the makeshift hospitals for those deemed civilian.
5. Dr Shanmugarajah and his staff took with them “more than 30 truck-loads of equipment and supplies” (30). Though the number of available refrigerators eventually dwindled to 14 and the generators dwindled from six to three (21, 23), the medical teams were able to sustain their theatre operations till, and including, the 13th May (28) – an astounding feat surely in the eyes of anyone familiar (from whatever distance) with the circumstances prevailing within the Vanni Pocket and thereafter in the Last Redoubt during the period January-May 2009.
The Vanni Pocket, circa late December 2008
The Last Redoubt (my conceptualization) — from Graphic Map presented in the Daily Mirror
6. The medical staff included “more than ten doctors” – every one of them with reasonable experience – and 15 “trained theatre nurses” (8). As far as I know, there were only five doctors accredited to the Ministry of Health so this requires clarification (note 7 below).
7. Supplementing Dr. Shanmugarajah’s evidence, I note here that the LTTE had inserted some of their cadre into the medical streams at the University of Jaffna and recruited doctors themselves.[iv] So Shanmugarajah is encompassing them in his note. They were called “doctors;” even where they had not received medical accreditation. Tamil informants from the north indicate that the following were among the “Tiger doctors”: Ajanthan, Bāskaran, Sujanthan, Malaravan, Sivamokan and Sathiyā.[v] The LTTE also built up and trained a staff of medical orderlies to assist the treatment of battlefield casualties. There were nearly twenty such LTTE trained personnel with about ten being women.[vi] Anyone who has studied war knows that experienced battlefield medics, including orderlies, are an asset. Several of the propaganda images circulated by Tamilnet during the course of 2009 quite incidentally show the ubiquitous presence of these personnel. Much later in August 2009 when Dr Susiri Weerasekera of the Friend-in-Need Society visited the detention centre for captured Tiger women at Pompanadu in connection with the supply of artificial limbs for amputees, he came away with the highest praise for the capacities displayed by the two female medics who aided his team in their work (Weerasekera 2012).
Figs 4 & 5 Medics in support of injured
8. Apart from injuries caused from gunfire or shellfire, these medical workers dealt with the normal gamut of cases, including serious ailments, which any large body of people experience. Thus, as a specialist obstetrician, Dr. Shanmugarajah’s work entailed the delivery of babies (27).
9. Several of these doctors and nurses and some of the orderlies were formally on the staff of the Ministry of Health centred in Colombo; so that Dr. Shanmugarajah, for instance, could leave the Vanni territory constituting the state of Thamililam and visit Jaffna on business on occasions during the war.[vii] Their salaries were paid by the Government of Sri Lanka though they took orders from the LTTE state.
10. Likewise, their stockpiled medical supplies of drugs, dressings, instruments et cetera were provided by the Government of Sri Lanka, while the re-stocking that occurred from January to May 2009 was facilitated by the ICRC working in conjunction with the government. The last ICRC land convoy was in late January 2009.[viii] From early February the ICRC used chartered vessels, usually the “MV Green Ocean” but also “MV Dublin,” manned by the SL Navy to (a) send essential medical and food supplies to the LTTE controlled area and (b) to evacuate sick, wounded and elderly people.
Fig 7: Julian of the ICRC chats with Dr Sathiyamoorthy, 5th April 2009 —Pic from Tamilnet, 5 April 2009
Figs 8. 9: Medivacs in progress– Pics from Tamilnet 9 May 2009
Figs. 10, 11: Evacuees landed at Pulmoddai beach— Pic sfrom SL Navy
11. Thus, the pressure on the LTTE and Dr. Shanmugarajah and his medical staff was partially eased by this process – itself a remarkable fact during a mortal battlefield situation. Access to Citizen Silva’s meticulous work enables me to indicate the considerable achievement on this front. There were as many as 31 voyages undertaken between February and mid-May. A total of 13,794 people were evacuated. Beyond a total figure of the number evacuated we have no details about those taken away during the first eight voyages. From the breakdown for the other 23 voyages totalling 10,103, we discover that there were 1,789 injured/sick males and 1,537 injured/sick females. There was a large component of children: 3,471. This means that there were also adults who were deemed “accompanying caregivers” (or “bystanders”) by the ICRC in its public documents. These bystanders numbered 3,783 in the partial total for which details are provided and amounted to 37.4% of the adult medivac cluster.
12. It is evident that the LTTE supervised the selection of those sick or injured who should be evacuated as well as the children and adult “bystanders” granted this privilege. Thus an interesting issue arises: what happened to these “bystanders” once the sick and wounded were accepted by the Ministry of Health and military and lodged in the hospitals at Pulmoddai, Trincomalee, Padaviya, Vavuniya and Mannar over the weeks that followed? If they were not eventually sent to the detention centres at Mänik Farm but found their way to kinsmen, the death toll estimates that work backwards from a total figure (e. g. IDAG 2013) would have to be reduced. Thus, if, say, 1800 of these “bystanders” were not detained and/or counted in the GSL figures, the estimate provided by Citizen Silva, that is IDAG, would have to be reduced by 1800.
13. The processes described in Points 9-11 above mark a circumstance that has drawn limited attention in the international circuit. The people of the insurgent state of Thamilīlam benefited from the fact that they were also deemed citizens of Sri Lanka – thereby gaining access to certain resources of that state at the same time that they were subject to the dangers of shelling and death because they were corralled in the Vanni Pocket. That is, they were dual citizens. Illustratively, from the very start, say from 1990, pensioners in LTTE territory were able to receive their pensions. The logic of GSL aid described above in 9-11 flowed from this status.
14. Their citizenship in Sri Lanka, however, was an imposed one: imposed by the government of Sri Lanka.[ix] From my analytical viewpoint as an observer who attaches primacy to the subjective sentiments of a set of people, the individuals residing in the areas controlled by the de facto state of Thamilīlam were not “Sri Lankans.” They were citizens of Thamilīlam (Roberts 2013c). Their collective identity was “Eelam Tamilian” in ways that consciously rejected Sri Lankan-ness.[x]
15. Loyal to the idea of Thamilīlam and residing within its domain from the start of Eelam War IV, these peoples were nevertheless happy to receive some goods and services from GSL and the LTTE were quite willing to reduce the load on their exchequer so ‘generously’ provided by an enemy they disliked and were warring against.
16. The disadvantage for the Tamil populace at the receiving end of this duality was that they had to adhere to the LTTE’s strategy and demands: (a) providing labour of an auxiliary military character; (b) providing new conscripts; and (c) moving lock, stock and barrel ahead of the advancing SL Army till they were hemmed in within the Vanni Pocket from January 2009 – there to undergo the weight of war because they were now pawns illuminating the spectre of “an impending humanitarian disaster” that was the central pillar in the Tigers’ grand strategy of blackmail directed towards salvaging their survival as a collective entity – a goal seeking to inspire international intervention with the support of Amnesty International, other such agencies and amenable Western states (Roberts, “BBC Blind,” 2013). This was recognised THEN by some of these agencies. Human Rights Watch (2009) stressed that “the LTTE has forcibly taken along all civilians under its control …. [These] civilians … including children are subject to forced recruitment into LTTE forces and hazardous forced labor on the battlefield.”[xi] Gordon Weiss summed up this type of assessment in 2009 quite neatly within his subsequent review: “the presence of civilians served multiple purposes for the Tiger command. Primarily a civilian population was a buffer against all out assault by the army. Too many pictures of dead children transmitted around the world … might limit [the government’s] resolve and weaken its support from foreign governments” (2012: 108). In seeking a ceasefire at this stage, however, both the Western governments and these agencies seemed oblivious to the stark fact that they were falling prey to the LTTE policy and favouring the Tiger command in what was a mortal war.
Figs 12, 13: Tamil civilians on the move and subject to multiple displacement –Pics from HRW and Tamil sources
Fig 14: Some Tamil escapees in February —Min-of-Defence Pic
17. The cumulative disadvantage of these policies for those among this populace that did not successfully slip out of the LTTE corral in January/February 2009[xii] was that they were marshalled by the LTTE within a 12 by 2 km stretch of the coast east of the Nandikadal Lagoon—an arena I have termed the “Last Redoubt.”[xiii] In consequence they were congealed as a mass of people[xiv] in conditions of privation within a space that one resident described as the “world’s largest latrine.”[xv] This space thereafter became a theatre of infantry warfare in late April and May 2009.
Figs 14, 15: Congested populace in Last Redoubt from early March to May — Pics from Tamilnet & Darusman Panel
18. However, the difficulties of daily life within this circumscribed arena were alleviated not only by the dedication of the medical personnel organised by Dr. Shanmugarajah and others (as summarised above), but also by the organisational efficiency of the LTTE and officials of Thamilīlam. The latter supervised the distribution of the limited food and water resources that were available. Queuing was an integral part of life in the highly congested demographic circumstances of the Last Redoubt. Fig. 16: a queue – Tamilnet Pic
Fig 17– Dsistribution of basic foods — Tamilnet Pic
Fig 18: an OPD at work in early May — Tamilnet Pic
19. One of the themes emphasised by Tamil and other agencies seeking to inspire a ceasefire or some form of foreign intervention in Sri Lanka was the spectre of malnutrition within the mass of people trapped in the “war zone” as they called the Vanni Pocket. “We don’t have any independent assessment of the condition of people inside the zone but we understand that malnutrition levels are extremely high, not to mention of course battlefield casualties,” said the UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss (BBC 2009). Thus, it is noteworthy that Dr. Shanmugarajah categorically refutes this idea by asserting that he personally “saw very few cases of malnutrition” (11). However some caveats are in order here. 19a: While such evidence must be given weight, one must be cautious in accepting this claim as a generalisation because the condition of the mass of people reaching the rear battlefront in late April-mid May 2009 and thence at the detention centres in the Vavuniya locality indicated severe dehydration, while a few could be described as “walking dead” — a state of health that led to the initial death rate per day at the detention centres being on the high side till June.[xvi] 19b: This body of people also brought with them such illnesses as hepatitis, dysentery and chicken pox which were then diffused among the inmates as well as the security personnel and other staff servicing these centres.[xvii]
20. Dr. Shanmugarajah’s statement includes details of the shell fire that descended upon the makeshift hospitals or in their vicinity: in summary, over the 4 and one-half months five shells in total impacted upon the hospitals or their vicinity at Vallipuram, Puthukudiyiruppu and Vellamullivaikkal causing a total of 10 deaths and 24 injured; while shells (no figure) landing at the Mullaivaikkal hospital caused four deaths and 10 injuries (15-19).
21. These skeleton details indicate that the hospitals were not deliberately targeted by SL Army or Air Force bombardment. A “barrage” – a technical term – involves a cluster of bombs directed to swamp a specific target marked by advanced technology. Thus, the good doctor’s evidence indicates that the specific distress which the medical personnel and inmates underwent during these sporadic incidents was “collateral damage.”
22. It also suggests that it was mostly mortar fire that they experienced, especially at Vellamullivaikkal and Mullaivaikakal near the coast because Citizen Silva’s specialist work concludes that the craters within the Last Redoubt were mostly of mortar size as distinct from that of artillery; while there is hardly any evidence of MBR impact (there is one on the beach near the SS Farrah wreck). Mortar fire is usually the work of units in close-support of the infantry.
23. Further support for these contentions is now provided by ongoing research undertaken by Professors Gerald Peiris and Wickremagamage[xviii] of Peradeniya University which has “examined several series of satellite images (each taken at 2-week intervals during the LTTE retreat from Kilinochchi to their final stronghold at Nandikadal) of the war zone, and found that there is, contrary to what Darusman says in the section of the report dealing with satellite images, very little evidence of artillery damage in hospital premises (i.e. buildings and surrounding areas) except in the one case where one can perceive what looks like bombardment damage to one hospital building. This is probably the one referred to by Dr. Shanmugarajah as well” (email report from Gerald Peiris, 30 December 2013).
24. Therefore, Dr. Shanmugarajah (inadvertently?) adds to the body of data that demonstrate the degree of fabrication and exaggeration mounted in such intensive fashion by the LTTE in Lanka and abroad. The concocted claims manufactured by this LTTE network were willingly and widely accepted by both powerful Western media outfits and vociferous human rights advocates in ways that amounted to a veritable blitzkrieg in the second quarter of 2009. As the desperate LTTE pressed in frantic manner for international intervention in early-mid May, this propaganda programme intensified. Their campaign lit the skies and captured the moral high ground. Channel Four’s subsequent Killing Fields was therefore addressing an audience already onside. Dr. Shanmugarajah’s specific illustrations of shell fire casualties need to be matched with specific contextual data for the periods when he was at the four hospitals. One set of illustrations of the mismatch between his testimony for Mullaivaikakal and Vellamullivaikkal and the frenetic claims propagated by Tamilnet and other Tiger agencies will serve my purpose here. 24 a: On the 10th May the web outlet serving as the platform for the hip-hop artist M.I.A. (or Maya Arulpragasam) referred to the “current genocide that was underway in Sri Lanka” and then delivered this cluster of ‘bombs’:
“A massive artillery barrage by the Sri Lankan army last night killed at least 257 civilians and left another 814 wounded in the small strip of territory that remains under the control of Tamil Tiger rebels. A doctor working in the warzone described the assault as the bloodiest he had seen in the government’s offensive against the Tamil Tigers. Dr V Shanmugarajah said he feared many more may have been killed since some bodies were being buried on the spot without being brought to the makeshift hospital he runs. Shanmugarajah described seeing shells fly through the air, with some falling close to the hospital, forcing many to flee to bunkers for shelter. The rebel-linked TamilNet website said about 2,000 people were feared dead. It accused Sri Lankan forces of launching the attack, a charge the military denied.”
24b: In line with this thrust, TamilNet carried the following report on 10th May 2009 under a title which ran “2000 civilians feared slaughtered in same night.” The reference to the bombardment that had commenced from Saturday (9th May) night and the scattered bodies was attributed to doctors. 24c: It was backed up on the 11th May by a title that referred to “carnage” and described the “relentless barrage of shelling using all sorts of heavy weapons;” while quoting Lawrence Christy of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation to the effect that “more than 3,200 had been killed since Sunday evening up to Monday morning.” 24d: CBS News joined the chorus. It referred to the Tamilnet claim and then noted that Human Rights Watch “accus[ed] the military of repeatedly hitting hospitals in the war zone with artillery and aerial attacks that killed scores of people.” CBS then referred to “Dr. V. Shanmugarajah, a physician working in the war zone, [saying that] the bodies of 378 people had been brought to the makeshift hospital that he runs;” that “1,122 more people have been wounded;” and that he had used “the help of volunteers to dig graves for the bodies brought to the hospital.”
25. These series of sketches, therefore, bring us to the difficult arena of the civilian death toll in circumstances where it is difficult for outside and distant observers to separate those “truly civilian” from (i) “civilians in belligerent duty as auxiliaries” and (ii) Tiger personnel; and virtually impossible to work out the proportion of true civilians killed by the Tigers as they tried to escape or because they resisted conscription. Dr. Shanmugarajah’s affidavit adds two important jigsaw pieces for those addressing this crazy puzzle. He asserts that (a) “perhaps thirty per cent [of the people his medical staff attended to] would [have been] LTTE combatants, and the rest civilians” (10); and that (b) “Our computerised records were lost in the last days of the fighting but I would say that there were between 500-600 deaths in March 2009 and in all about 2,500 deaths up to the end of the crisis that I was aware of.”[xix]
26. Dr. Shanmugarajah undoubtedly worked hard and rendered a yeoman service to humankind, but he was not in every nook and cranny in the Vanni Pocket. As his caveat (viz. “I was aware of”) suggests, he would not have observed or even heard of many deaths from SL government shelling or infantry attack nor seen the killings of their own people by the LTTE as they attempted to flee or because they showed dissent in the face of conscription. His estimate of deaths in March-May is probably an underestimate. It is, nevertheless, a telling underestimate that places in perspective the gross figures presented by the Darusman Panel and Gordon Weiss in his second incarnation (2011a, 2011b) as well as the astronomical claims peddled by Frances Harrison and her informants (2012). It is helpful to have a Tamil at the coalface bringing all of us down to earth.
27. The stupendous figures for the number of civilian deaths that have been adopted worldwide, in tandem with such strident terms as “carnage,” “slaughter” and “genocide,” neglect one cardinal facet integral to any theatre of war. Where there are dead, there are also injured. The injured usually outnumber the dead. Thus, among the American forces the ratio of injured to dead in World War Two was one:1.7; in the Korean War one:2.8 and in the Vietnam War one:2.6. If one was to accept the fact that 40,000 civilians and Tiger personnel died, then one has to provide empirical evidence to indicate that there were, say, some 60,000 to 80,000 or thereabouts injured. That is, one has to indicate what happened to all these injured people (as IDAG has contended: 2013).
28. That such a monumental lapse and error (point 26 above) has been repeatedly obscured and glossed over in the assessments presented by respectable institutions is quite mind-boggling. It would seem that the professional personnel who were part of the Darusman Panel appointed by Ban Ki-Moon and those who staff such institutions as International Crisis Group, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accepted the emotion-charged claims of Tiger and/or Tamil spokesmen because they were hostile to the government of Sri Lanka[xx] and remain adamantine hostile in degrees and ways that have compromised (and still compromise) their intellectual sagacity.
29. This remains a monumental failure.
30. This huge shortcoming was compounded by a blinding insistence that this particular military struggle was “a war without witnesses,” This headline was trumpeted by Andrew Bunscombe of The Independent among others in February 2009 and became a standard refrain in the outcries of numerous reporters and human rights agencies: from Yolande Foster of AI to Reporters without Borders. After their visit to Sri Lanka in late April the British and French Foreign Ministers (David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner) asserted in the New York Times that “restrictions on journalism meant that there was a war without witness in Sri Lanka.” Miliband in the meanwhile told the House of Commons in Britain that “At present, the Sri Lankan Government are (sic) engaged in a war without witness in the north of the country. Civilians have fled the terror of the LTTE, but are afraid of what awaits them at the hands of the Government and unsure whether they will ever be allowed home” (see Hansard, 30 April 2009).
31. Several months prior to this, as the crunch situation was developing in October 2008, Ravi Nessman of Associated Press had stressed that “the government has barred independent observers and foreign journalists from the war zone” and “that last month it banned foreign aid groups as well, promising to make up for their absence by providing aid itself” (2008). The latter contention was partially correct, but needs qualification by reference to (a) the continued presence of Tamil aid workers attached to such UN agencies, the access to the Tamil civilian population granted to ICRC officials who entered the area by land convoy or SL Navy ship (the latter from early February). While it is true that there were constraints on journalists visiting the frontlines, clusters of reporters were airlifted to the rear areas every now and then. A full listing is now available and should be an eye-opener to those who remain blinded by the headline in neon lights (viz. “a war without witnesses”). Roland Buerk of the BBC was at the front on 21st September 2008, 4th October 2008, and 7th November 2008. Ravi Nessman himself was one of those provided this privilege on 14th September 2008 and 24th January 2009.[xxi]
Fig 19: some reporters emplaning for frontline– 24 Jan 2009
Fig. 20: Ravi Nessman interviewing an army officer [more Pics in http://thuppahis.com/2013/12/30/11504/
32. Luckily we now have access to Kanchan Prasad’s photographs of Nessman at work in January 2009 (Roberts 2013i), while David Gray has presented photo-images from the rear arena of the frontline in late April 2009 (Gray 2009). As with a great deal of war reportage by embedded (that is “accredited”) journalists, Gray’s footage relates to military hardware and technical aspects or images of Tamil refugees who had escaped to the rear. It is not about close-quarter combat or atrocities.[xxii] Kate Adie has told us, moreover, that images of captured POWs and dead bodies are edited out in the West. Placed within this empirical data demonstrating a modicum of access to the battle front in the Vanni by foreign reporters and a series of informative articles on the topic by Muralidhar Reddy in the reputable India magazine Frontline (see Bibliography), therefore, the hegemony exercised by the headline “war without witnesses” is something of a puzzle. When Nessman presented a report on the 13th May 2009 which echoed the themes pressed by Tamilnet and HRW on 10th May (point 24 above) by using the headline “Satellite shows shelling, says human rights group,” he also told readers that “reports of the fighting are difficult to verify because the government has barred journalists and aid workers from the war zone.” Here, then, we confront a barefaced lie. In sum, what one sees is a tale of duplicity, oversimplification, gullibility and sensationalism peddled by an array of reporters, politicians and moral crusaders.
33. As remarkably, the conviction that no reporters could enter the war zone remains a firm conviction today. Frances Harrison, ex-BBC, Ex-Amnesty International and a budding scholar, introduces her book and its raison d’etre thus: “nobody has told these tales because there simply were no international journalists or aid workers in the war zone in the final month to send harrowing accounts of civilian suffering” (2012: 8). Marketing goals are not the only reason for such a claim – underlined later by another statement to the effect that the “government had banned all journalists from the war zone” (2012: 143). She is a true believer parked in the Tamil Tiger realms, yet also Orientalist to the core[xxiii] in her disdain for the reports in the Frontline and The Hindu which appeared in the course of April-to-June 2009.
34. Located now within this context of misinformation, we can look towards Dr. Shanmugarajah and the other Tamil doctors who were on active duty within the Vanni Pocket to clarify the issue of the numbers injured, whether Tiger or civilian. They can, for instance, provide an indication of the numbers that were not transported out of the area by the ICRC and supply estimates of the likely number injured between the 9/10th and the 17/18/19th May. This will be one step towards a rough estimate of the total number of people INJURED during the period 1 January to 19 May 2009. That computation will enable one to generate estimates for people killed.
35. This tough series of questions generates a conundrum. The Tamil medical personnel, both the Ministry of Health personnel and the LTTE doctors/medics, were the principal source of information on the progress of the war for the foreign media in Colombo and beyond. Muralidhar Reddy in Colombo witnessed this daily during those tumultuous months in 2009: “The only source of information for western reporters based in Colombo, other than the Defence Ministry, was the LTTE cadre doctors and auxiliary staff. Amazingly all the doctors in the field were not only armed with satellite phones, but happily accessible to Colombo journalists. I had asked a couple of Colombo based journos if they ever wondered how doctors amid all the blood and gore could spare time to speak to journalists. It is their version of the battle zone which dominated the world space that time” (email to Roberts, December 2013). As we have seen, Dr. Shanmugarajah was among the most widely quoted informants in a variety of news reports. His affidavit says that this reportage was under duress. This is likely. But we also know that a significant proportion of the Tamil middle class in the northern reaches were sympathetic to the goal of Eelam and the LTTE’s role as its spearhead. Some of the Ministry of Health doctors may conceivably have been willing participants in Tiger propaganda; while it is probable that Drs. Ajanthan, Sujanthan and company, the Tiger doctors, were whole-hearted supporters of the LTTE strategy. The tall tales conveyed subsequently by “Dr. Niron” and retailed more or less verbatim by the journalist Frances Harrison in her book Still Counting the Dead (2012: 73-91) indicate the degree of duplicity[xxiv] which such commitment has encouraged.
36. It would be simple-minded for us to think that medical personnel never lie and do not spin stories in circumstances of life and death complicated by patriotism and hostility. The status and authority of medical doctors made them an ideal channel for the Tiger propaganda drive that was seeking to engineer a foreign intervention on humanitarian grounds. One-eyed Western moral crusaders, reporters seeking vengeance for the intimidation and killing of journalists in Sri Lanka (Roberts 2009b) and powerful media chains and powerful states with their own agendas complemented the process. Fabrication and gross exaggeration could thereby be inscribed in stone.
Adie, Kate 2014 “Kate Adie of BBC: Reporting on War and Women at War,” http://thuppahis.com/2014/01/02/kate-adie-of-bbc-reporting-on-war-women-at-war/#more-11523.
BBC 2009 “Outrage grows over Tamil Deaths,” 11 May 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/8044777.stm
Buncombe, Andrew 2009 “British envoy banned in war without witnesses,” 14 February 2009, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/british-envoy-banned-in-war-without-witnesses-1609188.html
CBS News 2009 “Doctor: Sri Lanka Artillery Kills Hundreds,” 10 May 2009, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/doctor-sri-lanka-artillery-kills-hundreds/
Government of Sri Lanka 2013 “The Last Phase,” http://tinyurl.com/q5ejlla AND http://youtu.be/GXzRbGyhAHI AND http://tinyurl.com/pq3pykg AND http://tinyurl.com/pxbrhgk with http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngNeF5WY64s carrying no sub-titles and being quite effective thereby.
Gray, David 2009 “A Day at the Front Line in Sri Lanka (Photographer’s Blog),” 27 April 2009, http://blogs.reuters.com/photographers-blog/2009/04/27/a-day-at-the-front-line-in-sri-lanka/
Harrison, Frances 2012 Still Counting the Dead, London: Portobello Books.
Human Rights Watch 2009 War on the Displaced. Sri Lankan Army and LTTE Abuses against the Civilians in the Vanni, New York, February 2009.
IDAG-S 2013 “SL ARMY Media Accreditation to War-Zone, 2007-2009,” http://www.scribd.com/doc/185693507/SL-ARMY-Media-Accreditation-to-War-Zone-2007-2009
Groundviews 2009 “Would killing 50,000 civilians to finish off the LTTE bring peace?” http://groundviews.org/2009/05/03/would-killing-50000-civilians-to-finish-off-the-ltte-bring-peace/
Nessman, Ravi 2008 “Sri Lanka’s civil war rages in the shadows,” 4 October 2008, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/2008-10-04-949219519_x.htm
Noble, Kath 2013 “Numbers Game reviewed by Kath Noble: The full monty,” 14 July 2013, http://thuppahis.com/2013/07/14/numbers-game-reviewed-by-kath-noble-the-full-monty/
Padraig Colman 2011 “Evaluating the ‘Churnalism’ from Channel 4 and the Moon Panel,” 17 August 2011, http://thuppahis.com/2011/08/17/a-credible-evaluation-of-%e2%80%9cchurnalism%e2%80%9d-from-channel-4-and-the-moon-panel/.
Padraig Colman 2011 “the Cage by Gordon Weiss,” Island, 13 May 2013, 2http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=78825
Prasad, Kanchan 2011a “Indian Reporter Pics at NFZ-14-to-18 May 2009,” http://www.flickr.com/photos/thuppahi/sets/72157626797805167/
Prasad, Kanchan 2011b “Mullivaikkal Hospital in NFZ Last Redoubt,” in http://www.flickr.com/photos/thuppahi/sets/72157626797848747/
Prasad, Kanchan 2011c “Two Indian Reporters’ Post-War Pictures at the LTTE’s Last Redoubt, May 14-19, 2009,” ed. by Roberts, June 2011, http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/blogs/southasiamasala/2011/06/10/two-indian-reporters%E2%80%99-post-war-pictures-at-the-ltte%E2%80%99s-last-redoubt-may-14-19-2009
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Reddy, Muralidhar 2009g “Multiple Displacements, Total Loss of Identity.” The Hindu, 27 May 2009, http://www.hindu.com/2009/05/27/stories/2009052755811500.htm
Roberts, Michael 2008 “Tamil Tigers: Sacrificial Symbolism and ‘Dead Body Politics’,” Anthropology Today, 24/3: 22-23.
Roberts, Michael 2009a “Dilemma’s at War’s End: Thoughts on Hard Realities,” http://www.groundviews.org, 10 Feb. 2009.
Roberts, Michael 2009b “The Rajapaksa Regime and the Fourth Estate,” 9 December 2009, www.groundviews.org.
Roberts, Michael 2010a “Realities of War,” Frontline, 9-22 May 2009, vol. 26, http://www.frontline.in/navigation/?type=static&page=archive … later reprinted with different title in Roberts, Fire and Storm, 2011.
Roberts, Michael 2010b “Self Annihilation for Political Cause: Cultural Premises in Tamil Tiger Selflessness,” in Roberts, Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics, Colombo: Yapa, pp. 161-201.
Roberts, Michael 2010 “Omanthai! Omanthai! Succour for the Tamil Thousands,” 9 August 2010, http://thuppahis.com/2010/08/09/omanthai-omanthai-succour-for-the-tamil-thousands/
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Roberts, Michael 2011e “Amnesty International reveals its Flawed Tunnel-Vision in Sri Lanka in 2009,” 10 Aug. 2011, http://thuppahis.com/2011/08/10/amnesty-international-reveals-its-flawed-tunnel-vision-on-sri-lanka-in-2009/
Roberts, Michael 2011f “The Tamil Death Toll in early 2009: Challenging Rohan Gunaratna,” 1 December 2011, http://thuppahis.com/2011/12/01/the -tamil-death-toll-in-early-2009-challenging-rohan-gunaratna/ and http://transcurrents.com/news-views/archives/6285
Roberts, Michael 2012 “Relief Work in Aid of Mothers and Babies among the IDPs in 2009: Myrna Setunga’s Reports to Her Donor Pals THEN in 2009,” 28 September 2012, http://thuppahis.com/2012/09/28/relief-work-in-aid-of-mothers-and-babies-among-the-idps-in-2009-myrna-setungas-reports-to-her-donor-pals-then-in-2009/
Roberts, Michael 2013a “Pragmatic Action and Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite of Commemoration,” http://thuppahis.com/2013/05/18/pragmatic-action-enchanted-worlds-a-black-tiger-rite-of-commemoration/…a reprint of an article in Social Analysis, 2006, 73–102.
Roberts, Michael 2013b “Introducing “Numbers Game” – A Detailed Study of the Last Stages of Eelam War IV,” http://thuppahis.com/2013/04/30/introducing-numbers-game-a-detailed-study-of-the-last-stages-of-eelam-war-iv/
Roberts, Michael 2013c “Towards Citizenship in Thāmilīlam: The Tamil People of the North, 1983-2010,” South Asia Research, vol. 33: 57-75.
Roberts, Michael 2013d “BBC-Blind: Misreading the Tamil Tiger Strategy of International Blackmail, 2008-13,” http://thuppahis.com/2013/12/08/bbc-blind-misreading-the-tamil-tiger-strategy-of-international-blackmail-2008-13/#more-11221
Roberts, Michael 2013e “Estimates of the Tamil Civilian Death Toll during the Last Phase of Eelam War IV in 2009: Appendix I for ‘BBC Blind’,” http://thuppahis.com/2013/12/08/estimates-of-the-tamil-civilian-death-toll-during-the-last-phase-of-eelam-war-iv-in-2009-appendix-i-for-bbc-blind/#more-11226
Roberts, Michael 2013f “Estimates of the Death Toll among the Fighting Forces of the LTTE and Government of Sri Lanka: Appendix II for ‘BBC Blind’,” http://thuppahis.com/2013/12/08/estimates-of-the-death-toll-among-the-fighting-forces-of-the-ltte-and-government-of-sri-lanka/#more-11234
Roberts, Michael 2013g “Wikileak Disclosures of Secret US Despatches on the Last Phase of Eelam War IV in 2009: Appendix III for ‘BBC Blind’,” http://thuppahis.com/2013/12/08/wikileak-disclosures-of-secret-us-despatches-on-the-last-phase-of-eelam-war-iv-in-2009-appendix-iii-for-bbc-blind/#more-11239
Roberts, Michael 2013g “Congestion in the “Vanni Pocket” January-May 2009: Appendix IV for “BBC Blind,” http://thuppahis.com/2013/12/09/congestion-in-the-vanni-pocket-january-may-2009-appendix-iv-for-bbc-blind/
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Roberts, Michael 2013k “Witnesses to the ‘War without Witnesses’;,,, Voiceless? Buried Foreign Reporters,” 30 December 2013, http://thuppahis.com/2013/12/30/11504/#more-11504
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Shanmugarajah, V. 2014 “Dr. Veerakanthipillai Shanmugarajah’s Affidavit Description of Conditions in the Vanni Pocket in Refutation of Channel Four,” 5 January 2014, http://thuppahis.com/2014/01/05/dr-veerakanthipillai-shanmugarajahs-affidavit-description-of-conditions-in-the-vanni-pocket-in-refutation-of-channel-four/
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[i] Born on 1 June 1984 at Nelliyadi in the Jaffna Peninsula Thamilvani moved to Britain in 1994 and became a biomedical technician. She came to Jaffna on 28 March 2008 and arrived in the Wanni on 20 June 2008. She survived the war in the Vanni Pocket and was among those who moved out in the second large exodus in May. She was thereafter housed at the Ananda Coomaraswamy detention centre till released(?) on 29 September 2009.
[ii] This figure is a post-war estimate that works backwards from the number of civilians and LTTE cadre who survived and approximate computations of those that died (see IDAG 2013). A significant aspect of this war was that few had a precise or definitive figure of the number of people who were corralled by the LTTE. Thus, in October 2008 Ravi Nessman referred to 220,000 people (2008). This uncertainty even in UN quarters within Si Lanka was because of LTTE manipulations of numbers and the suspicions on this score in UN circles. Bishop Rayappu was (and remains) among those who contributed to this process by an outlandish act of chicanery when he said that the total population amounted to 436,000(?).
[iii] Also see Roberts, “Blackmail,” 2012a. It is significant that (as far as I am aware) few analysts, journalists or bloggers have challenged the argument pressed in this article since it appeared in April 2012.
[iv] Information from a young Tamil who was in Jaffna in the 1980s and 1990s.
[v] The first three survived and slipped out of the Manik Farm detention centres to locations abroad; but Malaravan, Sivamokan and Sathiyaa are believed to have died (information from a Tamil friend who has lived in the north throughout his life). One “Dr Siva,” a psychiatrist, is reported to have been killed by a bomb in Harrison 2012: 82).
[vi] Email from Dr. T. Sathiyamoorthy, 30 December 2013. He added that “some of them died and a few are still in Sri Lanka.” The doctor called “Niron” who provided Frances Harrison with a tale in line with the threads perpetuated by Tamilnet is probably one of these medics and he managed to slip away from the detention centres.
[vii] See Clause 6 in Affidavit One by Dr. Shanmugarajah, dated 19 September 2011 in Engage Sri Lanka 2013: 202-03. It is not clear whether this process of movement across borders was possible in, say, 2008 or even 2007.
[viii] My interview with Sarasi Wijeratne of the ICRC in Colombo, 15 June 2013.
[ix] The moral crusaders of Amnesty International, HRW, ICG, CPA and other such agencies continue to adhere to this imposition. On this score they are on the same imperial plane as the government of Sri Lanka for the period 1995-2009.
[x] As Muralidhar Reddy told me (in April 2009), when Eelam War IV started in 2006 these people had no reason to regard GSL with any empathy or loyalty. I agree (also see Roberts,
[xi] Gordon Weiss summed up this type of assessment in 2009 quite neatly in his subsequent review: “the presence of civilians served multiple purposes for the Tiger command. Primarily a civilian population was a buffer against all out assault by the army. Too many pictures of dead children transmitted around the world … might limit [the government’s] resolve nd weaken its support from foreign governments” (2012: 108).
[xii] UNOCHA and Ministry of Defence figures show that 3,484 deemed “civilian” escaped in January and 31,694 in February making 35,178 in total. 24, 613 left the embrace of the LTTE in March. Citizen Silva estimates that there was a total population (including Tiger personnel) of 298,00 on 1st March 2009 and 272,000 on 1st April ( email comunication, but see IDAG 2013 for details).
[xiii] As I have argued, the assembling of people along the coastal stretch was intended to prevent an amphibious landing by the forces of GSL and also to leave open the option of sea escape with international aid (Roberts, “BBC Blind,”2013).
[xiv] See the images in Roberts, “Congestion,” 2013g.
[xv] A pungent comment by an ex-Tamil militant who, together with his family, was part of the populace till May 2009 (my interview in November 2009 in the north).
[xvi] A few of the patients queuing for medical attention dropped dead in the line-up during the early days in April-May (interview 13 Nov. 2010, with Dr. Donnie Woodyard who was part of the team seeing about 5000 patients per day at the outset). Also see graph of the death toll — above 5 per day from mid-May to mid-July, but declining always and then becoming less than five from mid-July (graph from the Ministry of Health).
[xvii] Interview with Dr. Hemantha Herath, Ministry of Health, 16 May 2010. Herath was in overall charge of the medical programme at Manik Farm.
[xviii] Professor Wickremagamage is the current Head of Geography and an expert on GIS and remote sensing.
[xix] In contrast, a Tiger doctor, the 47-year old bearing the pseudonym “Niron,” presents a death toll of “at least 27,000 in five months” – a figure he has now (in 2012/13) revised “upwards” (Harrison 2012: 88).
[xx] One can add: on good grounds arising from the killing and intimidation of journalists as well as the undermining of the rule of law. See also Roberts, “The Rajapaksa Regime and the Fourth Estate,” 9 December 2009, www.groundviews.org.
[xxi] I have yet to locate any reports or images that Nessman circulated in January, though his earlier news item is in my briefcase.
[xxii] Intrepid reporters occasionally do gain access to the side of the “enemy” or fighting action (one being the Sindhi photo-journalist Shyam Tekwani — see Ross 2010). But this usually occurs where there are no war fronts manned by entrenched armies and where fluid battle lines prevail. These are the battle terrains where journalists like Marie Colvin die – for example in the Balkans in the 1990s, in Libya recently and in Syria and Sudan now in 2013/14.
[xxiii] For the benefit of the uninitiated, the concept “Orientalism” refers to the range of beliefs in European circles during the expansionist imperial era which held “the East” to be stagnant and effete. It is inspired by the path-breaking writings of the Egyptian scholar, Edward Said.
[xxiv] Note some of his dubious claims: [A] about 2000 shells landed near Uddayarkartu hospital in the last ten days of January” (Harrison 2012: 76); [B] “The doctors reported many cases of children starved to death” (2012: 79); [C] “they hadn’t a single bottle of intravenous fluid, antibiotic or anaesthetic to do life-saving surgery” (2012: 80); [D] “he believed [the bomblet he saw] belonged to a cluster bomb – a weapon he and others saw several times …” (2012: 81); [E] he believes “the SL government was using white phosphorous …” (2012: 83) and, finally, after he was captured, the most revealing LIE of the whole lot: as an ordinary IDP he had only got a drink of water when he reached Manik Farm (2012: 86). Since he was in the last big batch of some 80,000 or more IDPS to be taken from the warfront to Vavuniya in mid-May, they would have been among those who reached the staging post at Omanthai where a massive feeding operation involving WFP, Sewalanka and the SL Army saw some 550,000 food parcels cooked by teams of cooks working on roster for 24 hours for distribution to the IDPS (Roberts, “Omanthai,” 2010c)
21 responses to “Dedicated Medical Work Amidst the Heat of War, Death and Propaganda: In the Vanni Pocket, 2009”
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sujanthan doctor was the backbone of health structure in ltte control area.he is the master of the health situation of that area and dr sanmugarajah also did great job. we didnot know about thamilvanee , niron
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