American Action and Inaction on Sri Lanka, 2008/09: A Critical Evaluation

Michael Roberts

A. Preamble

Robert Blake reached Sri Lanka in early September 2006[1] and served in that capacity till he succeeded Richard Boucher as the Assistant Secretary for Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs in Washington on May 26, 2009.[2] He was therefore directing USA’s programmes in the island during the crucial last phases of Eelam War IV. The Wikileaks disclosures have opened the official correspondence to the world (Wikileaks 2014). My initial studies of this material will result in at least two scathing commentaries (one is already in the public realm). My survey indicates that Blake and the US Embassy were at the centre of continuous and unrelenting pressure on the Rajapaksa government in a number of arenas relating to the ongoing war and its by-products (including the detention and welfare of IDPs). This was, I stress, coordinated activity, often involving ambassadors from several Western nations as well as the UN agencies in Colombo and/or New York.

bLAKE AT us-iNDIA Robert Blake

A cautionary caveat is called for here. Guided by SWR de Samarasinghe, “Sam’ to his friends,[3] I note that Blake’s thinking does not constitute the sum total of American policies towards Sri Lanka. The US governmental structure is multi-faceted and labyrinthine. The US Congress, the State Department, the Pentagon, and CIA do not always work in unison. Indeed, it is arguable that at times they run with both the hares and the hounds and even occasionally work at cross-purposes.

However, these dimensions of the American dispensation were not necessarily self-evident to the Sri Lankan Ministers and officials. As revealed by the Wikileaks revelations, the active interventions of Blake and his officials were as powerful as mind-boggling. Several lines of intervention were also flawed. I have already presented a severe criticism of Blake’s evaluations of the ongoing war in January 2009 (Roberts, “Never-Never Land,” 2015b) and will be mounting another criticism of these misguided ideas in an essay which takes these failures beyond Blake to their roots: namely, (a) US liberal arts philosophies[4] which failed to chart the radical transformation of Tamil nationalism in most of its branches in the course of the LTTE’s consolidation of power; and (b) the drawing room and salon backgrounds of American (and other) personnel who did not have the wherewithal and mental flexibility to read battle theatres (Roberts 2015c in process).

As I embarked on this evaluative exercise I came across other documents that revealed Blake’s thinking. Both are public presentations. One took place AFTER Blake had moved up the hierarchy to the position of Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs: when he was interviewed on 28th January 2011 by Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, for “The Campbell Conversations.” Here, Robert Blake provided a retrospective review of the Sri Lankan scenario. The second, BEFORE the final phases of the war, is a public interview session at the University of Madras in Chennai in late October 2008 (made available through the enterprise of DBS Jeyaraj).[5]

These two presentations enable one to triangulate[6] Blake’s readings of the Sri Lankan military and political scene during the crucial five months of 2009, a crucible that saw the LTTE military machine and its state of Thamilīlam sliding to defeat. They provide a temporal framing: before and after the critical phase of the war. Since the first of these public pronouncements, that in Chennai, occurred in India and because the central government of India also intervened actively in late April 2009 and joined the Western power-bloc in insisting that the SL government should adopt a ceasefire,[7] it has, by happenchance, generated a tangential benefit. I was encouraged to seek information from PK Balachandran, a Tamil journalist of long-standing in Colombo and to then pursue the matter further by seeking more information on the Indian central government’s policies towards Sri Lanka in the crucial period 2006-May 2009. So, this tertiary path on another vital dimension of the geo-political scene will lead to posts on the topic in the near-future — together constituting a set of interrelated documents for historians of Eelam War IV in the context of international geo-politics.

B. The Immediate Context in Sri Lanka

In assessing Blake’s address in late October 2008 we must heed two contextual conditions.

  1. Two months previously, in early August, his immediate superior Richard A. Boucher had addressed a media gathering on the 3rd August 2008 in Colombo and fielded questions (Boucher 2008).
  2. The ongoing military battle against the LTTE on land, air and sea … and its daily/weekly/monthly flow.

I stress here that no politics, including public presentations, could be pursued, or should have been pursued, without a realistic reading of this progressive and changing war situation. That assertion is central to my commentary.

By October 2008 the Sri Lankan Army was threatening the LTTE’s hold on Kilinochchi via advances from the west and the south (Al Jazeeera 2008). The LTTE was outgunned and outmanned, but remained a formidable force and was mounting a remarkable resistance. One aspect of this defensive retreat in the months of 2008 was the construction of long lines of berms (bund and ditch) barriers aligned south/north as part of the LTTE’s defensive line (see Fig. 1and then Figs. 2-4).

FIG 2-Situ Map Oct 2008Fig. 1 = Situation Map, October 2008 74- EMBANKMENT DITCH DEFENCE SYSTEM -vIDATH 73b-bund-water at SINNA PARANTHAN 73a-EMBANKMENT FOXHOLE Figs, 2, 3 & 4

Students of the war can also get some impression of the battle field by studying (a) the images of the Tiger positions after they were captured by the SL Army– as displayed in the Ministry of Defense web site; (b) trawling through Tamilnet and, (c) and, above all, by viewing the video report on the war at this point of time provided by Al Jazeera with Tony Birtley as its point man embedded with the SL Army — albeit behind the actual frontlines and its machinations.

C. Blake in October 2008: An Evaluation

Welfare Aid: Blake’s presentation recapitulated several of the motifs stressed earlier by Richard Boucher. Among them was the monetary and other aid in support of humanitarian relief endeavours in Sri Lanka. Scepticism is not called for here. USA’s aid on several fronts was as substantial as laudable. Boucher had referred to tsunami relief aid in 2007 amounting to $135 million and Blake spoke of $1.63 billion worth of aid since 1948. It is noteworthy that Blake also chose to stress the specific efforts directed towards “stabili[zing] and develop[ing] eastern Sri Lanka” as well as the provision of “humanitarian assistance to those displaced in northern Sri Lanka by fighting.”

Blake was obviously guided by his Tamil audience in Chennai when selecting the latter illustrations. One cannot belittle this emphasis. It was not just a front. The despatches exposed by Wikileaks indicate that humanitarian programmes were a continuous issue in the US Embassy’s interventions with the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL).[8]

As it is, Blake may not have quite known in October 2008 that the welfare of displaced people – IDPs as they are termed – would become a major arena of governmental intervention in the first five months of 2009 as more and more Tamil civilians held as a massive defensive formation abandoned their fealty to the LTTE state and escaped on foot or boat.

Both the Sri Lankan government and the international organisations had underestimated the size of this corralled population from the beginning.[9] However, GSL had initiated a Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance (CCHA) in October 2006 with Mahinda Samarasinghe (Minister for Disaster Management & Human Rights) as chair, which included representatives from UNHCR, UNOCHA, WFP, et cetera and the ambassadors of USA, Germany, Japan and EU (LLRC 2011: 83). This body had five sub-committees and seems to have been the collective that coordinated the ongoing process of sending food and medical supplies to the people of during the period of warfare.

A Profound Paradox: This is one of the ironies of the Sri Lankan conflict that few Western reporters or media chains have alluded to in meaningful fashion.[10] The Eelam Wars II, III and IV saw one party to a deadly battle, the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) supplying the other party, viz., the de facto state of Thamilīlam, with food and medicine and a restricted list of other supplies.

Let me underline this contention in point form.

  1. Thamilīlam was an insurgent state that was, to all intents and purposes, a de facto state.
  2. From mid-1990 Sri Lanka witnessed a deadly war at various moments between two states, with Eelam War IV being initiated by Thamilīlam’s aggression at Mavil Aru in July 2006 pursuing the “classic riparian gambit [of seeking] control over the entire Mahaveli Delta” (Peiris 2009: 217).

3. Because GSL wished to deny Thamilīlam any legitimacy, it continued to treat the people residing therein as citizens and therefore paid the administrative functionaries within that state and sent pensions to its retired administrative officials. It also sent food and essential supplies, though refusing material that could be turned into military devices. Indeed, Rajesh Venugopal indicated to me that GSL salaries, pensions and supplies were one pillar in the Thamilīlam economy in the 1990s and 2000s.[11]

4. Several UN agencies (WHO, UNHCR, UNOCHA, et cetera) and INGOs located in the island (such as ICRC, IOM, ZOA, Welthungerhilfe) seem to have been the major conduits for the food, medical aid and other vital supplies that were conveyed to the declining space of Thamilīlam in the midst of fighting. These periodic land convoys went on till late January 2009

5. Thereafter the ICRC chartered ships which, with SL Navy cooperation, took these supplies to the north-eastern coastal belt still under Tiger control. These ships also served as “medivac” convoys and evacuated sick, injured and elderly persons from the war zone (presumably selected by the LTTE). At least 31 voyages occurred between early February and 9th May 2009, often in the midst of warring. A total of 13,794 people were evacuated and an incomplete breakdown for 23 of these voyages reveals that there were 1,789 injured/sick males, 1,537 injured/sick females and 3471 children, with the rest being “accompanying caregivers” or “bystanders.”[12]

96-02_04_09_supplies_02 97b--SLnavy and escape by sea 02Fig.s 5 & 6: One Medivac operation & SL Navy land escapees by boat at Pulmoddai
While USA was not a direct participant in the medivac operations, its considerable monetary inputs and diplomatic pressures were a vital cog in the monumental task of catering to the welfare of the Tamil civilians who fled their trapped situation, only 2025 persons in late 2008, but in considerable volume in 2009: 3,484 in January, 31,694 in February, 24,613 in March and 126,918 in April – with the latter figure including Tiger fighters and other personnel.[13] To his credit Blake consistently nagged the government on this issue and the US Embassy kept an eye on the efforts to coordinate the treatment of these people, IDPs as they were called, in the detention-cum-welfare centres that were being hastily set up,[14] north of Vavuniya for the most part and in the Jaffna Peninsula for a smaller proportion.

L 142a --manik Farm tents L 146 - Dlshy -025=communal kitchne - CopyFigs. 7 & 8: Tents in a Manik Farm detention centre and Communal Kitchen at another –last pic by Dilshy Banu,a Muslim NGO worker

A Frontal Show: Attacking LTTE ‘”Terrorism” Abroad: The September 11 attacks in USA, as one knows, energized USA to extend its battle against the phenomenon deemed “terrorism.” As Jeffrey Lunstead indicated in a review in early 2007, in 1997 USA had already designated the LTTE as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” (or FTO) and its policy for Sri Lanka was directed towards “ensuring that a terrorist organization [did] not obtain its goals through the use of terror” (Lunstead 2007).[15] Predictably, Blake touched on this measure and indicated that it was a felony in USA for anyone to provide “material support” to the LTTE; while adding that the FBI had arrested nine people on this count in 2006/07 and eventually frozen the assets of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization. He went on to allude briefly to the assistance given by USA to the Sri Lankan Army and Navy.

The degree and limits of US military assistance on these fronts requires a full-length study by an expert with the resources that enable him or her to penetrate classified arenas. This in turn will enable scholars to assess the degree to which such aid counted in tipping the balance in favour of GSL’s eventual military triumphs – an issue that has to be set comparatively alongside the military aid received from Pakistan, India, Malaysia and China.

USA’s aid was perhaps most critical in an arena that Blake identified during his Chennai address: that of naval warfare. Admiral Wasantha Karanagoda clearly valued Blake’s interventions in securing specific weaponry (e.g. Bushmaster cannons) and radar equipment for the SL Navy (interview in early June 2015). It is widely believed that intelligence provided by American and SE Asian sources as well as data emanating from USA’s satellite technology enabled the SL Navy to intercept and sink the LTTE’s rogue warehouse ships in 2007. However, my confidential chats with a family friend, Travis Sinniah,[16] supported by incidental information, suggest that the skill and initiative displayed by Lankan naval personnel was the central element in these triumphs. The Indian Ocean is vast and the sea-traffic crisscrossing the area is as complex as, say, metropolitan motor traffic in Delhi or Paris. The LTTE’s logistical supply chain by sea was canny and deployed several transfer points and trawlers (including some from India). The SL Navy discerned this practice in 2006 and then took a major innovative leap in venturing far into the Indian Ocean to hit the warehouse ship “Kyoi” on the 28th February 2007.[17] This action was questioned by the Indian naval authorities as an intrusion on ‘their space’ – an imperialistic challenge that was apparently overcome.[18]

The interdiction of an LTTE trawler “Sri Krishna” by the Maldivians (Perera 2007) and information gleaned from captured Sea Tigers seem to have been facets of the preliminary work that went into the identification and location of the rendezvous spots where the LTTE warehouse ships transferred their munitions and military goods to smaller trawlers. The assembly points, as often as not, were along the calmer equatorial line. But that line is itself a considerable belt in length so that deciphering WHEN such rendezvous were scheduled was yet another knot for the SL Navy to crack. The operational venture that led to the sinking of the “Kyoi” on 28th February 2007 was a major leap taken after hesitancy and internal debate within the SL Navy officer class because they would be operating so far afield without a safety net. This strike, the destruction of “Kyoi,” then served up another breakthrough because it was only thereafter that US satellite information was made available to the Sri Lankan authorities (while the kudos so freely given to assistance from the Indian aerial and naval surveillance units is simply not true for any stage of the SL Navy activities[19]).

While giving weight, therefore, to the various lines of military aid, including the training of special force personnel, provided by the US government, the degree to which Blake and the other State Department officials puffed up their cheeks whenever they addressed their role in the battle “terrorism” directed against Sri Lanka was exaggerated self-aggrandisement.

One does not need to be a rocket scientist to assert that the LTTE was not Al Qaida. The leaders of Al Qaida were driven by the Salafi ideology associated with such ideologues as Said Qutb and saw USA and the Western world as embodiments of jahiliyya (degeneration).[20] Despite such degeneracy USA and the West were at the pinnacle of the world order and the Islamic states were of secondary status – aggravating the discontent of the Salafitsts. For the LTTE, incontrast, the American dispensation was neither ogre nor political enemy.

USA would have been a fully alive to this fact. The interdiction of the TRO and arms-buying activities, including the arrests of LTTE operatives in Guam and New York (Solomon 7 Tan 2007: 18), was in step with USA’s generalized rules against terror-operations of this kind tout court. Such restrictions do not seem to have dented the LTTE’s access to arms in a major way. The arms and weapons trade worldwide seems to have been a lucrative business for a potpourri of underworld figures. The Tiger operatives slotted into these activities. It appears that a good part of their military hardware was purchased from North Korea, Ukraine and Bulgaria (Defence Seminar, Lanka 2011), while merchant vessels were purchased from Japan and other boats built through front companies in Indonesia and Philippines.[21] Sinniah thought that the munitions on the LTTE warehouse ships were perhaps of Chinese make and purchased in Korea, while diving gear, underwater scooters etc had been purchased commercially.[22]

By the 2000s, moreover, several Sri Lankan Tamil immigrants to America over many generations dating from the 1960s had respectable occupations and manifold connections in American society. Several Tamils in the medical, teaching, accounting and business circles were influential and even powerful in specific quarters. Several of these SL Tamil families and personnel were also staunch patriots attached to their Tamilness and thus in support of the Tamil cause — moved as they were by the discrimination suffered in the third quarter of the 20th century and the impact of the 1983 pogrom. Some of these embittered and patriotic SL Tamils were also keen LTTE supporters.[23]

52-Chicago_Maaveerar_Naal_USA1_21081_435 Fig. 9 –Maaveerar Nal in Chicago, November 2004

Recent findings by Daya Gamage in USA have indicated that the key Tiger supporters Dr. Elias Jeyarajah and Visuvanathan Rudrakumaran[24] invested 120,000$ over the five quarters of 2008/09 for the Washington lobby firm CJR to press their interests among policy makers and state officials (Gamage 2014; also see Gamage 2009). This is just one wisp of evidence supporting the grapevine tales that refer to the efforts made by de facto LTTE personnel to influence US Congressmen/women and key officials. In any event patriotic Tamil Americans were not reticent in making their views known to key US officials. Blake indicated to Neville Ladduwahetty that the embassy in Colombo was simply besieged by emails from concerned Tamils.[25]

ELIAS JEYARAJAHDr. Elias JeyarajahPrabhakaran_with_RudrakumaranRudrakumaran with the talaivar

The specific lines of pressure and the degree of leverage exercised by these SL Tamil personnel are, of course, impossible to chart. One must not too readily embrace a conspiracy theory on this score. As a Tamil academic in USA indicated, the State Department was only too “ready to talk to [such lobbyists] because they were a source of intelligence.”[26] Again, one must heed John Rogers’ contention that the State Department bent their ears only “as a matter of courtesy” and that “nothing that the diaspora reps. said would have changed anything” (email, 7 September 2015).

While the conjecture presented with such certitude by Rogers is a distinct possibility, one has to identify those Congressmen who seem to have attentive to the Tamil lobby and investigate the implications of their interventions if any. One has also to give room to the possibility that the constant lobbying had a drip-drip effect; and if so, when and how. Such research can only be undertaken by a scholar with experience of the board rooms and cellars of the US political dispensation.

However, one can attend to what was not done. How is that American citizens, such as Rudrakumaran, who had been actively working in LTTE front organisations were not interdicted? Such a course may well have been a legal minefield. But the American government’s considered inaction on such issues should be set alongside the proud list of anti-LTTE measures within USA which they paraded whenever they addressed a South Asian audience.

The sum-total of my explorations, therefore, leads to the conjecture that US interventions against the so-called “terrorist” activities of the LTTE in the international circuit were miniscule. Indeed, on this issue they seem to have run with both the hare (Tigers) and the hounds (GSL). Moreover, as we move along the temporal track from late October 2008 to May 2009 and study the indicators etched within Blake’s Chennai Address as well as his despatches, we will find that USA was peddling a far softer line towards the LTTE and taking a more strident line towards the GSL. These partialities bought into a LTTE strategy directed towards securing active international interventions geared to avoiding a “humanitarian catastrophe” (Roberts, “Calamity,” 2014a & “Targeting,” 2015a).

This stark imbalance in the US State Department’s policy – its favouring of the LTTE, its self-conviction about its own fairness notwithstanding – arose in part from the drawing room background of its officials and their failures in deciphering the fast-evolving battlefield situation between April 2008 and May 2009.

The shortcoming was also due to a gross misreading of the character of Tamil nationalism under the heel of the LTTE and its dictator-chief Pirapāharan. That is, they were stuck in the 1970s and 1980s and attached to a view of the SL Tamil cause as a downtrodden underdog-people. In this reading, the situation could be saved by a “political solution” of the type discussed in the 1970s and 1980s (and still in the ‘airy stratosphere’ of discussions within the All-Parties Conference in Sri Lanka during the 2000s).

They failed to comprehend four inter-related facts: (1) that Pirapāharan and the Tiger command thought they would win the war when they re-activated the project in July 2006; (2) that the Tigers would not settle for a federal form of government on any count because Eelam was their steadfast goal; (3) that Thamilīlam was a fascist state[27] that regarded its people as instruments of state – instruments that should demonstrate the same devotion to the goal of Eelam as its maaveerar-dead and its fighters … and (4) thereby continue to serve as so many sandbags in a defensive formation meant to thwart SL Army advances on the one hand and, on the other, to draw compassionate international intervention (Roberts, “Calamity,” 2014a).

The prospect of such international intervention, as it happens, drew sustenance from the gullibility and idiocy of such powerful personnel as Robert Blake and Hilary Clinton (Roberts 2009 & 2015b). To what degree this failure emanated from (A) the liberal arts and drawing room background which both Clinton and Blake shared and (B) unknown behind the-scenes US strategic plans for Sri Lanka in the context of India-China relations is a matter for further study.

D. The Main Message: A Political Solution not the Military Path

Predictably, Robert Blake’s public message in Chennai stressed the USA’s desire for a political resolution of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict and the ongoing military struggle. This was a standard line from way back and seems to have hinged on the belief that the LTTE could never be defeated – the latter a perspective, I stress, that was also held widely in Sri Lankan circles.[28] Thus, in reviewing US policy over the previous five years in 2007 Jeffrey Lunstead referred to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s “belief that Sri Lanka was engaged in a process which, if successful, would resolve a conflict marked by terrorism through peaceful political means” (Lunstead 2007).

At about the same time in early 2007 Steven Mann told the assembled press that “the entire LTTE issue rest[ed] on pressing towards a peaceful political solution.” In this view fighting an insurgency was a “hearts and minds” issue. Mann conceded that there was, “of course, a powerful military element to fighting the war on this island,” but insisted that “the conflict [could not] be solved without an effective political answer” (Mann 2015a).

Here then we see (A) a total assimilation of the political situation of the SL Tamils with that of the LTTE-dominated state of Thamilīlam; and (B) muddled and ill-informed thinking within the command centres of a powerful nation, one that had made itself into the world’s moral policeman and (C) a remarkable ignorance of the transformations taking place in the fighting services of the Sri Lankan government as they spoke in the years 2006-to-09. The LTTE was not an insurgency (say, like the JVP of the 1980s, the Karens and others on the Burma-Thailand border or even the Moros in the Philippines). Its Thamilīlam was an insurgent state. Thamilīlam had even sent official delegations abroad and its grand media event in Kilinochchi on 10th April 2002 was an international media event that launched Thamilīlam onto the world stage.

61a--Press-Conference-at-Killinochi 61b-Kili Figs. 10 & 11Thamil Chelvam, Anton Balasingham and Pirapaharan at podium fielding questions at state Gathering, 10th  April  2002

59- VP signs peace accord 2002-BBC  Fig. 12 –Pirapaharan signs ceasefire agreement, 21 February 2002

Again, while the average person-on-street (and this writer himself) was unaware of the major overhauls that had been carried out within both the SL Navy[29] and the SL Army,[30] one would have thought that the US government had monitored these developments – the more since some of the Army’s SIOT training probably involved US inputs. In any event, by mid-2007 it should have been clear to the nations monitoring the war in Lanka that (C1) the GSL forces had the upper hand in the Eastern Province and were proceeding to squeeze the Tigers out of that considerable space; and (C2) that the defection of the Tiger commander Karuna had weakened the LTTE’s military capacity considerably.

From his seat in the hills of Kandy the well-informed scholar Gerald Peiris had deciphered these military trends by mid-2008.[31] While noting that the SL Army in the Jaffna Peninsula had been effectively held at bay and suffered considerable losses in their campaigns in the Thenmarachchi and Muhamalai areas (2009: 220), Peiris concluded that the “reinvigorated” SL Army’s “well-planned and effectively executed [campaign] under an efficient command structure” had enabled the government to gain control of the Vakarai, Batticaloa and Amparai regions by mid-2007 (2009: 224-26).

By early 2008 this trend in the military balance, namely the declining capacity of the LTTE in circumstances where (1) they had lost their seven warehouse ships and much of their supply chain; (2) the degree to which they were outgunned and outmanned by a Sri Lankan Army that had been vigorously expanded in number by enlisting as many as 36,021 and 33,457 new personnel in 2007 and 2008 respectively, aided in part by the innovative Api Wenuwen Api campaign designed by the up-market firm Triad,[32] should have been crystal clear to any well-heeled nation keeping a watch on the military situation. The Indian government was fully alive to these developments and their embassy personnel conveyed this opinion to disbelieving Indian journalists in Colombo (whose drawing room background served as a basis for skeptical — and incorrect — reservations[33]).

If the Pentagon and CIA were aware of these significant developments and trends in the several theatres of war, the US Department of State does not seem to have been on the same wave-length. Just two months before Blake’s benign utterances, his immediate superior Richard Boucher told a bunch of reporters in Colombo[34] that USA

  • “want[ed] to see the benefits of democracy extended to all the people on the island [because] that [was] the right thing … for the people of all the communities [on the island]”
  • “Whatever space can be opened up militarily, there also needs to be space opened up politically for a political solution……
  • “We believe that Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils all need to have a future of hope and a future of respect for their dignity and their rights on the island. People need to see and understand the future prospects for autonomy within a united Sri Lanka.”

So, what we see in Chennai two months later is Robert Blake beating the same drum. He told his audience that “America’s experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere ha[d] taught us that terrorism cannot be defeated by law enforcement and military measures alone.” Then, using an aphorism from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu as his gambit, he essays this advice: “Sri Lanka’s is a country of great promise and opportunity if the fighting can stop and a political solution can be agreed on that satisfies Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim aspirations” (Blake 2015).

Standing as he was in the third quarter of 2008, Blake’s continued adherence to the hoary American policy of a “political solution” in relation to the ongoing military struggle between two armed states within the island was deeply flawed. That some sort of modus vivendi was and is required to sort out the deep ethnic divisions in the island is undeniable – both then in 2008 and now in 2015. From 1990, however, the divide had become an entrenched armed struggle, a deadly war, between two states.

Such a war had begun in the confused guerilla struggles in both north and east in the 1980s. However, standing now in late 2008, it was only because the GSL forces had triumphed and secured total control of its territories in the east by July/August 2007 that USA had been able to mark its goodness with the several striking humanitarian welfare activities that Blake spelt out in the same speech (as Gamage has pointed out: 2014). So, in the eastern parts of the island a military solution had been the precursor and essential foundation for good works. Ergo, the same necessity applied to the northern reaches. To this manifest logic the US Department of State’s collective mind appears to have been closed.

What we see deeply etched in Blake and US State Department thinking is a liberal arts mantra: “a political solution.” Terrorism could not be defeated by might alone. That is why “President Bush has made the promotion of democracy one of the centerpieces of American foreign policy” (Blake’s opening gambit). Thus, the “economic growth program [in the Eastern Province spelt out by Blake sought] to establish growth and livelihoods to reduce the chance of the East sliding back to terrorism and violence.”

Here, then, we also witness the political evangelism that threads US policy and programmes in many parts of the world. This evangelism is not “religious.” The morality is civil libertarian-cum-humanitarian. It is threaded by the same lines of “secular fundamentalism” displayed by the Jewish Australian journalist and activist, Gordon Weiss, as well as the agitation of personnel in such agencies as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.[35] The secular morality guiding these thrusts do not veil the self-righteous tones that alienate sceptics like this author – sceptics who will also point to states, such as Saudi Arabia, China and the Gulf States, where USA does not insist upon the same principles.

From a purely local self-centred Sri Lankan viewpoint, however, that set of double standards is not the principal issue. It is the application of differing standards towards the two states engaged in war within Sri Lanka, GSL and Thamilīlam, that sticks out like a festering sore to observers of American policy in Sri Lanka during the period 2006 to 2009.

 E. Double Standards: Favouring the LTTE and Thamilīlam

This imbalance in US policy was voiced in the response a challenging question from a reporter (unnamed) to Richard Boucher in Colombo on the 3rd August 2008. “While appreciating the fact that you are talking about the democratization, disarming the paramilitary groups and about human rights, there may be a question raised to the western countries, in particular the U.S., as to why sometimes the west is not concerned about human rights violations done due to terrorist activities, especially in this part of the world, with relation to Sri Lanka and especially to India and Pakistan. May I ask you why the west is not talking about the human rights violations done by the terrorists, particularly in Sri Lanka? There are so many, irrespective of race, religion or culture, that the terrorist bombings have hurt in this entire country for the last twenty years.”

Richard_BoucherBoucher met the charge foursquare: he rejected “the premise” and asserted that USA had listed the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization and condemned the blowing up of “buses full of people” and the recruitment of child soldiers. But Boucher then let the cat (and tiger) out of the bag: unfortunately, the problems of the Tamil Tigers are more difficult to fix right now. They do not seem to have any desire to correct their human rights abuses” (Boucher 2008).

At Chennai Robert Blake did not face such questions from his audience. But he did refer to the military situation at one point: “The U.S. shares the concern of India and other countries about the plight of civilians who are caught in the middle of hostilities in the Vanni.  …. We have also urged both sides to exercise maximum restraint to ensure civilians are not injured in the fighting.  We have also urged the LTTE to allow freedom of movement so the IDPs can move away from the fighting, including into areas controlled by the Government should the IDPs wish to do so” (Blake 2008)

Thus, Boucher’s and Blake’s media event presage the stark contrast in the diplomatic pressures exerted by USA and its allies on the Government of Sri Lanka in comparison with those exercised against the LTTE (whether in Sri Lanka or abroad) during the last phases of the war. Any reading of Blake’s despatches will provide consistent evidence about this difference (also see Roberts, “another Planet,” 2015c). The incessant demand was for GSL to arrest their military advances and to institute a ceasefire.

GSL responded to the unrelenting diplomatic pressure by taking an unilateral step and declaring short-term ceasefires on several occasions.[36] The ceasefire for 1-3 February seems to have enabled an LTTE counterattack that pushed the SL Army back four miles (de Silva-Ranasinghe, ”Downfall,” 2010b: 12). Ceasefires made no military sense. Indeed, the symbolic ceasefire declared unilaterally by GSL for the ritual Hindu/Buddhist New Year on 13/14th April 2009 did not see a single Tamil civilian escaping from bondage.

FIG 10=Analytic Fig. 13– Graphic Map illustrating the military operation–19-22 April 2009 –by Daily Mirror

In contrast a commando operation over the period 19-22nd April enabled approximately 103,000 Tamils to escape despite sporadic LTTE killings – in part aided by the fact that Tiger fighters themselves discarded their weapons and joined the stream of people trudging across and shallow waters to safety.[37] Fig 6 This was a miraculous outcome which many people in Sri Lanka (including myself in Colombo then) were privileged to watch on pro-government TV. Estimating casualty figures throughout the war is a minefield, but Citizen Silva’s efforts are among the best and it seems that the price of release for approximately 103,000 people was the death of roughly 2000 Tamil civilians and fighters over those four days (Citizen Silva 2013: xzzzxx). In proportionate terms this was a marvelous outcome in the circumstances.

103a revd -exodus+ Fig.14/15–The exodus of Tamil civilians and fighters — April 2009  102 revd-IDPs across N-lagoon

Despite such remarkable consequences the response of USA, its UN handmaidens and its other Western allies can be summed up two words: uproar and fulmination. No less a person than the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, directed a broadside at Sri Lanka: “I think that the Sri Lankan government knows that the entire world is very disappointed that in its efforts to end what it sees as 25 years of conflict, it is causing such untold suffering.” (Roberts 2010: 290)

This is but one example among many instances during the months January to May 2009 where the USA and Western world supported the LTTE strategy that sought survival by manipulating the spectre of an impending “humanitarian calamity.”[38] Detailing those US-led measures over the course of January-May 2009 requires a separate paper (in process[39]).

That there was ground for compassionate humanitarian concern is undeniable. But the foundation for this problem lay in the LTTE design. That the US political establishment chose to ignore this design is quite palpable. That was not all. To the best of my knowledge, there was limited international condemnation of the LTTE. Nor do they seem to have taken any action either in Sri Lanka or at the international level to pressurize well-known LTTE representatives (e.g. Bishop Emmanuel, V. Rudrakumaran) to permit the civilians to leave the declining space of Thamilīlam

Silences speak volumes.

Again, there is a resigned air in a statement from John Holmes of the UN[40] to the New York Times on 26th March 2009: “the civilians trapped … they are not being allowed to leave by the LTTE” (Robert, TPS. Pictorial, 2014: 215). This comment replicates the attitude of Richard Boucher that I have quoted above

The puzzle before us is to comprehend the thinking of the US Department of State (as distinct from the Pentagon) on these issues. The degree to which Sri Lanka’s increasing comradeship with China in the years 2006-09 informed this partisanship is one consideration to take into account. But perhaps the greatest weight in our speculations should be attached to the American desire to install a “political solution” within Sri Lanka based on a federal structure of devolution with the LTTE retained as a political entity so as to further this set up. One can reasonably conclude that USA’s insistence on a “political solution” arose from an unwavering scheme to further its interests via a federal set-up in Sri Lanka. The platitudes presented by Boucher and Blake in 2008 were par for this course.

***  ***

  • I thank PK Balachandran, Retd Major-General Lalin Fernando, Daya Gamage, Retd Brigadier Hiran Halangode, Neville Ladduwahety, Gerald Peiris, John Rogers and SWR de Samarasinghe for information or comments conveyed. They are, of course, not responsible for any errors of judgment or fact within this article.
  • The  images illustrating this article are mostly drawn from my book TAMIL PERSON AND STATE. PICTORIAL (Colombo,Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2014, 293 pp, where a pictorial history of the Sinhala/Tamil conflict is presented. fuller clarifications of the pictures reproduced in the article above can be found therein – visit …… for ISBN 978-955-665-231-4 … 231 pages incl of 164 pp of images


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Blake, Robert 2008 “U.S. Perspectives on Sri Lanka,” Remarks at an University of Madras event, 24(?) October 2008, as reported in The Hindu and the US embassy web site, now available at

Boucher, Richard A. 2008 “U.S.-Sri Lanka Relations,” 3 August 2008,

Brewster, David 2014 India’s Ocean, The Story of India’s Bid for Regional Leadership, Routledge.

Chalk, Peter 1999. “LTTE’s International Organization and Operations–A Preliminary Analysis.” Commentary. A Canadian Security Intelligence Service Publicationon internet Winter 1999 and as No. 77 on 17 March 2000.

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[Citizen Silva] or IDAG 2013 “The Numbers Game: Politics of Retributive Justice,” OR

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De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009b “The Battle for the Vanni Pocket,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, March 2009, Vol. 35/2, pp. 17-19. .and 2009157395/156554.html

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009d “Sri Lanka’s Experience in Counter-Insurgency Warfare,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, October 2009, pp. 40-46.

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009e “Good Education. Sri Lankan Military learns Insurgency Lessons,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, December 2009, pp. 2-7.

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009f “Maritime Counter-Terrorism and the Sri Lanka Navy,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, November 2009, 35: 32-33.

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009g “Lessons in Maritime Counter-Insurgency,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, January 2010, 36: 50-53.

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2010b “Information Warfare and the Endgame of the Civil War,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, May 2010 30/4: 35-37, and http://www articles/40/Sri-Lanka.

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Jane’s Naval Intelligence 2009 “Sri Lanka learns to counter Sea Tigers’ Swarm Tactics,” March 2009, pp. 20-26.

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Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2009c “Wretched of the Earth break Free of Bondage,” Daily Mirror, 25 April 2009,  

Gamage, Daya 2008 “Barack Obama & Civil War in Sri Lanka; Robert Blake’s Mind-Set; Negating R2P Psychology Build-Up,” 2 November 2008,

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Gamage, Daya 2011a “Tamil Issue in Sri Lanka: US Policy Development 1981-1995,” 5 June 2011,

Gamage, Daya 2011b “International Humanitarian Law – at all times – applicable to LTTE atrocities: Why was the West silent?” 6 July 2011,

Gamage, Daya 2014 “The American Agenda for Sri Lanka’s National Issues, 1970s-2014,” 5 July 2014,

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Mann, Steven 2015a “USA-Lanka, 2007, ONE: Steven Mann’s Press Engagement in Colombo, March 2007,” 8 September 2008, usa-lanka-2007-one-steven-manns-press-engagement-in-colombo-march-2007/

Mann Steven 2015b “USA-Lanka, 2007, TWO: Steven Mann’s Review of the Sri Lankan Political Situation in August 2007,” 8 September 2015,

Noble, Kath 2013 “Numbers Game reviewed by Kath Noble: The Full Monty,” 14 July 2013,

Palihakkara 2009 “Sri Lanka engages UN Security Council Members at an Informal Meeting,” 27 March 2009,

Peiris, Gerald H. 2009 Twilight of the Tigers. Peace Efforts and Power Struggles in Sri Lanka, OUO India and Vijitha Yapa Publications.

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Presidential Task Force 2011 Sri Lanka’s Humanitarian Effort, pdf/20110829_SRILANKAS_HE.pdf

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Roberts, Michael 2010 “Simpletons at the World’s Peak: Sri Lankan Situation Stumps the World,” in Roberts, Fire and Storm, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, pp. 289-302.… originally in Frontline under a different title in May 2009

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Roberts, Michael 2011b “IDP Camps 2009 — Humanitarian Work in Midst of Propaganda War,”

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[1] He replaced Jeffrey Lunstead.

[2] This means that he left Sri Lanka at some point early in May and was not as central a figure in the Colombo activities of the US Embassy during the final two weeks of the LTTE’s military debacle. He was succeeded by Patricia Butenis.

[3] Skype chat with “Sam” early September 2015. As a Lecturer in Economics at Peradeniya University in the early 1970s Samarasinghe was closely associated with me in the work of the Ceylon Studies Seminar. He moved to American University in at Washington DC in 1990 and is presently an Adjunct Professor at the Payson Center and Chairman and Executive Director of Global Vision, an independent think tank in Kandy. He has retained strong links with Sri Lanka via the ICES Kandy and a range of activities in the Kandy area, furthered still further by regular sojourns in Lanka during the American long vacation. He also met Ambassador Blake in Lanka as one member of an activists’ group in mid-2008 for a discussion relating to the ongoing conflict.

[4] Robert Blake himself completed his B. A. at Harvard in 1980.

[5] Also available at and also in an embassy release at

[6] A detailed review of Blake’s “Campbell Conversation” in 2011 can only be presented after I have covered Blake’s role in the 2009 events in Sri Lanka.

[7] See US Ambassador’s Despatch No. 459 of 24th April 2009 in Wikileaks Collection.

[8] I have only studied those from January to May 2009 thus far, but that work is sufficient to indicate the weight attached to this dimension of the ongoing crisis in northern Sri Lanka.

[9] Note that Blake estimates that 200,000 people were “displaced by the fighting in northern Sri Lanka.” This is an idiosyncratic way of phrasing the situation. If it refers to the civilian populace in the Vanni Pocket, it is a considerable underestimate. All computations for the numbers in the Vanni Pocket in, say January 2009 are guesstimates. My estimate is roughly 320 -330,000 people inclusive of Tiger personnel. The final government count for survivors in May 2009 was 295,873 inclusive of 12,000 deemed Tigers and sent to special rehabilitation camps.

[10] Note the following claim by Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe at the UN in New York in 2008: “The Government of Sri Lanka has, throughout the duration of the conflict, sent food, medicine, educational supplies and other essential items into the affected areas. This sustained commitment, over such a prolonged period is, perhaps unparalleled in similar situations elsewhere” (quoted in Gamage 2008).  Note that one media personality who did acknowledge this aspect of the war subsequently was Gordon Weiss in his The Cage: “[The government] “had continued to exercise its writ over Tiger-controlled territory by supplying a full range of government health and education services” (quoted by Shenali Waduge 2015).

[11] Personal communication based on archival research as well as visits to Thamilīlam during the ceasefire period 2001-06.

[12] Roberts, Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, 2014b: 139, 140.

[13] Of those in April 103,000 were released by the SL Army’s commando operation between the 19th and 23rd April – see Roberts, TPS. Pictorial, 2014b: 146-48. The figure for those who were detained in May was 104,593, while there is also another strange category for the whole period: viz., “arrived by other means” accounting for 2,546 persons.

[14] GSL and the international agencies actually began setting up one of the Camps in the Manik Farm area as early as September 2008. However, GSL consistently, and perhaps deliberately, underestimated the number of people trapped in the Vanni Pocket. Here even Blake and the other international organisations were below the mark. In the result they were as amazed as swamped by the number of IDPs who streamed out of the rump domain of Thamililam in April and May 2009. For a review of the Manik Farm relief operation in power-point, see Roberts, “IDP Camps,” 2011b.

[15] Lunstead’s reference to “the absence of significant U.S. strategic interests in Sri Lanka” within this same document must be treated as pure diplomatic blarney.

[16] Travis Sinniah’s father served in the SL Navy as a doctor and Travis himself was educated at Trinity College Kandy. His wife, nee Thiruni Ramanaden, is the daughter of a longtime friend and even spent some time at our house with one of our daughters when she (Thiruni) was studying at Adelaide University. Travis was the sea-going operational commander of all the long-distance strikes that sank the seven LTTE warehouse ships in 2007. Travis Sinniah retired from the Navy as Commodore in 2011.

[17] This paragraph and the next is largely based on an Interview with Commodore Travis Sinniah in Colombo in November 2011 and a telephone chat on 8 September 2015. On this topic I have also been guided by Jane’s Naval Intelligence 2009; de Silva-Ranasinghe 2009f and 2009g and my conversation with Admiral Karanagoda (early June 2015). The weight attached to the help from Indian naval sources in Brewster 2014: chap 3 seems misplaced.

[18] In my giant leap of conjecture this was due to the close cooperation of triumvirates in the Indian Foreign Ministry and that centred on Gotabaya and Basil Rajapaksa for GSL –here guided by email memoranda from PK Balachandan which will soon be placed in the public realm.

[19] It appears that the SL Navy officers did not demur when the Indian naval commanders assumed that their information had been useful. This was politeness.

[20] See Euben 1999: 56-57, 67-69, 73-76.

[21] For earlier writings on LTTE sources of arms in the 1990s and the early 2000s, see Peter Chalk 1999; Solomon & Tan 2007 and Shanaka Jayasekera 2007.

[22] Information from Travis Sinniah, 8 Sept. 2015.

[23] A poignant example of this devotion I was seen indirectly at Marie Colvin’s funeral at St Dominic Church in New York in 2012. “Outside the church, a group of Tamil people, an ethnic minority of Sri Lanka, stood vigil. Some carried posters with Ms. Colvin’s picture — featuring a black eye patch over her left eye, worn since she was injured by a grenade in Sri Lanka in 2001 — and the slogan: “Uncrowned queen of intrepid journalists.” “We lost our friend,” said Pat Pathmakumar, a member of the group, adding: “I never met her, I never talked to her. But when I heard she died, I cried” – from New York Times at For Colvin’s partialities from an influential position in The Times of London, see Roberts, “Truth Journalism,” 2014c.

[24] Rudrakumaran is an attorney in New York who has been one of the mastheads for LTTE fronts and been part of LTTE delegations in the 1990s and 2000s. Dr. Elias Jeyarajah is a graduate from Jaffna University and an eminent biochemist at North Carolina State University.

[25] Email note from Neville Ladduwahetty (7 September 2015).

[26] Email dated 6 September – name withheld by my choice.

[27] For specific data as well as judgments on these lines, see Ben Bavinck’s regular diary entries during his stay in the Jaffna Peninsula in the period 1994-2004 (Bavinck 2014) and note Nirmala Rajasingam’s forthright characterisation of the LTTE as “fascist” in Anonymous 2009.

[28] Based on my recollections of conversations with friends in Lanka during regular research visits in the 2000s. For my part too I had no knowledge then – in the years 2003-09 — of the transformations in the GSL forces. However, my visit to Jaffna and Kilinochchi in November 2004 had provided me with conclusive evidence that the LTTE was set on the renewal of war (delayed eventually by the impact of the tsunami). Godfrey Gunatilleka (Skype Chat, 10 Sept. 2015) told me recently that Kingsley Rodrigo of PAFREL had even organized demonstrations against the GSL’s engagement in Eelam War IV.

[29] See Malaka Chandradasa, “Learning from Our Enemies;” Jane’s Naval Intelligence, “Sri Lanka learns to counter Sea Tigers’ Swarm Tactics,” March 2009, pp. 20-26 and de Silva-Ranasinghe, “Maritime Counter-Terrorism,” 2009f.

[30] De Silva-Ranasinghe, “Counter-Insurgency Warfare,” 2009d and “Good Education,” 2009e.

[31] Though appearing in print in 2009, the initial draft of Twilight of the Tigers was sent to the publishers on 26 June 2008 (email note from Gerald Peiris, 11 Sept. 2015)

[32] See de Silva-Ranasinghe, “Good Education,” 2009g: 5 and Roberts, “Api Wenuwen Api,” 2014.

[33] “Indian journos were told by their embassy here that “SL is winning and LTTE is losing” from 2008 onwards. But it took us sometime to believe it” (email note from PK Balachandran to Roberts, September 2015). I thank Bala, here, for his openness in correspondence that will soon be presented in the public realm because so very useful.

[34] As Under Secretary of State, Boucher was visiting Colombo for the meetings of SAARC, namely, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

[35] Note my previous charge: “This Machiavellian strategy on the part of the LTTE was predicated on the presence of three sets of (overlapping) forces whom, the Tigers felt, would come to their aid and save their bacon: namely, (A) the Western states (Canada, Australia, Britain, USA and EU) directed by their own specific agendas, including constituency pressures in some places; (B) people of righteousness both within agencies in Sri Lanka and abroad and (C) those for whom human rights is a professional business. In other words, the people of righteousness, whether White, Weiss, Brown or Black, were seen as allies by the LTTE. Allies they became during that crucial stage of the war January to May. Allies they remain for Tiger branches abroad, embittered Tamil migrants as well as Tamils and Sinhalese of humane disposition. The war of manoeuvre in word and thrust continues” (Roberts, “People of Righteousness,” 2011).

[36] Short-term ceasefires were declared on 1 October 2008, 2 January 2009, 3 February 2009 and 15/16 April 2009.

[37] Study Jeyaraj’s review (2009c) in the context of his detailed account of the preceding battle at Aanandapuram in early April and his caustic assessment of the “No Fire Zone” concept ( 2009a and 2009b).

[38] Roberts, “Generating Calamity,” 2014a and “Targeting,” 2015a.

[39] Also see Roberts, “Never Never,” 2015b.

[40] Holmes was then Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordination.


Filed under accountability, american imperialism, authoritarian regimes, devolution, governance, historical interpretation, human rights, Indian Ocean politics, life stories, LTTE, nationalism, politIcal discourse, power politics, prabhakaran, Rajapaksa regime, security, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, slanted reportage, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, Tamil migration, Tamil Tiger fighters, terrorism, truth as casualty of war, world events & processes

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