PK Balachandran on Overt and Covert Paths in Indian and American Policies towards the Sri Lankan War, 2008-09

P.K.Balachandran, Correspondent, The New Indian Express

I. Preamble:

I have met PK Balachandran on a couple of occasions in Sri Lanka in connection with its political developments at specific points of time. I have always found him a straightforward and earnest person. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and a Masters in Sociology, both from the University of Delhi.  He has resided in Sri Lanka since 1997, working initially for The Hindustan Times before moving to the Indo-Asian News Service for a short while and then joining The New Indian Express. He therefore brings a depth of local experience that few foreign reporters will match. When I came across US Ambassador Robert Blake’s Address in Chennai in late October 2008 and decided to present a critical essay on its implications as one facet of a critique of Blake’s readings of the ongoing war in early 2009 that was already in the public realm (with a caustic title “Blake in Never-Neverland”), I sent that article as well as Blake’s Address to Bala. Typically and efficiently, Bala replied at once. The outcome has been a series of short and long ‘notes’ of immense value.

I reproduce them in full in temporal order, with my inquiries included where requisite, because of the empirical data in the form of Bala’s recollection of events and, last but not least, Bala’s assessment of the overarching political and foreign policy scenario. Indeed, they bring into question some facets of my own interpretation I conveyed in an article that appeared yesterday.

Bala’s views are, of course, not the last word on the topic, but they are, in my view, of vital importance. Indeed, they are in some senses TNT … reminding us that the LTTE began its journey as an outfit called the “Tamil New Tigers” or TNT for short. I have taken the liberty of adding emphases in the text via purple colouring in two shades . Michael Roberts

II = A Note from Bala in Response to My Initial Query re Blake’s Chennai Speech, 30 August 2015

Dear Michael: I don’t have any extra material on Blake’s Chennai talk. But I do agree he was off the mark about the war situ. However 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. We were thinking that TN and West will intervene to get the SL army’s grip loosened. But the GOI did all it could to help SL and managed DMK well. Fortunately AIADMK did not take up the LTTE cause. Reportedly, Jaya even said at that time: “casualties can’t be avoided in war!” With that Prabhakaran’s fate was sealed…. Bala

III = Michael to Bala, 30 August 2015

Hai Bala: Your note is very useful –will incorporate some of it in a piece I am now working on re the Chennai Speech by Blake. However, note the segment below from one of Blake’s despatches in April. The Indian govt seems to have changed its tune THEN. How Come? Due to impending General Election perhaps? ……Michael

Extract from Despatch No.459, dated 24 APRIL: …   “Charge called the Foreign Minister to support the UN Secretary General’s request to allow a working-level UN team access into the “no-fire zone” (NFZ) to negotiate an LTTE surrender. The Minister was non-committal. The Sri Lankan military pressed on in its pursuit of remaining LTTE fighters in the NFZ, stating it expected to complete the operation within several days or maximum 1-2 weeks. Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon and National Security Advisor M. K. Narayanan arrived in Colombo to discuss the situation with the GSL, after a strong statement from Indian Foreign Minister Mukherjee calling for an immediate halt to all hostilities.

The ICRC continued its sea evacuations of wounded civilians and family members from NFZ on April 24. The ICRC plans the nextmedevac for April 27. The WFP food shipment has still not gone in because of concerns about security. An unofficial UN document estimating about 6,500 killed and 14,000 wounded in the NFZ from January 20 – April 20 was leaked to the Associated Press. The UN told us the population of IDP camps would soon reach 225,000 IDPs, far outstripping capacity. End summary.”

INDIA SENDS HIGH LEVEL PAIR TO COLOMBO……4. (SBU) Following the release of a strong statement from Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the Indian Government sent Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon and National Security Advisor M. K. Narayanan to Colombo on April 24 for talks with GSL, presumably including the President. The statement by the Indian Foreign Minister, released on April 23, was as follows: 5. (SBU) “The Government of India has been monitoring with deep concern and anxiety the evolving situation in Sri Lanka, in particular the conditions of the Tamil civilians in the conflict zones. We understand that over 100,000 civilians have emerged from the No Fire Zone into areas under Government control in the past three days but the lives of several thousands of innocent civilians remain threatened. We are very unhappy at the continued killing in Sri Lanka. All killing must stop. There must be an immediate cessation of all hostilities.”

SHIV S -dbbs Shiv Shankar Menon –Pic fr.  MK-Narayanan MK Narayanan –Pic fr.

IV = Bala to Michael, 31 August 2015, Memorandum A

The April 2009 statement by the Indian Foreign Minister Mukherjee was made in the context of the Indian parliamentary elections in Tamil Nadu in in May in which the war in Lankan was presumed to be a key issue for the electorate.  The GOI had to be seen to be taking strong action in that context. Hence the visit of Narayanan and Menon to Colombo and the statement from Delhi.

At that time, the ruling Congress in Delhi was in an electoral alliance with the ruling DMK in Tamil Nadu, and they were fighting the parliamentary election along with a pro-LTTE party Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) led by Thirumavalavan.

The AIADMK, which was in the opposition, was fighting with two pro-LTTE parties, Pattali Makkal Katchi led by Dr.Ramadoss and Marumalarchi DMK led by Vaiko.

Almost right from the beginning of Eelam War IV, all activities related to the war were discussed by a troika from Sri Lanka  and a troika from India. These consisted of Gotabaya, Basil and Lalith Weeratunga from SL, and Narayanan, Menon and the Defense Secretary from India. 

All statements including the one released by Mukherjee were released with the prior consent of the Lankan troika. Colombo understood that New Delhi had to be seen doing certain things to be in power or capture power. The Congress govt in Delhi was fully with the Lankan objective of annihilating the LTTE and Colombo recognized this (Although it strongly felt that in return for this support, Colombo should implement the 13A and go beyond that to settle the Tamil question once for all. This issue is still alive).

Colombo obliged Delhi with a pause in artillery shelling but not ground operations. Delhi was satisfied with it. Later, nearer polling day, Delhi again “demanded” a ceasefire and Colombo obliged by suspending artillery shelling. But ground operations continued. Towards the end of the war, when civilians were massed into a very small place, no shelling was resorted to but ground operations were going on day and night mopping up the remnants of the LTTE.

In the event, the DMK-Congress-VCK alliance won 27 of the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu and the lone seat in Pondicherry. Clearly the war was not that much of an issue for the electorate. It was just that the no party wanted to take chances and postured appropriately.

Every leader in Colombo from Mahinda downwards understood Delhi’s needs and predicament and cooperated. As Gota kept saying: “The only country which could have stopped the war was India, and it did not.”

The US too gave a lot of covert support to SL which the top brass in SL know, but cannot openly acknowledge. The US too had political reasons to posture in the open and do an entirely different thing under cover. It could very well have intervened if it wanted to, to satisfy its ego or the Diaspora. But then there was a tacit understanding with Delhi that it was best to let the Lankans finish the LTTE, an organization banned in both the US and India…..Bala 

V = Balachandran: Memorandum B — On the Indian and US Stand on Eelam War IV, 3 September 2015

Dear Michael,

A senior Sri Lankan war reporter told me that there was no artillery or aerial bombardment from about a month before the end of the hostilities. But this cannot be true because refugees who came out of the last Safe Zone through Pudumattalan a few days before the end of the hostilities, told me that they had to flee because of heavy shelling. If there was no shelling, GOI would not have asked for their suspension. I believe shelling was resorted to in order to silence the LTTE guns and also to get the population out so that Prabhakaran and his men could be isolated and targeted. The number of amputations conducted on civilians also show the use of area weapons like mortars and artillery if not aerial bombardment. Yes, hospitals were shelled, but that was because the LTTE was using the hospitals as cover. At least [some] hospital compounds were hit. But then there were patients and relatives there.

The doctors who spoke to international news agencies had given statistics of dead and wounded under pressure from the LTTE. The Western agencies swallowed the LTTE-inspired stories hook, line and sinker because they were exciting from the news point of view. Western agencies had the monopoly of news from the LTTE occupied areas because of the facilities they had. They had satellite phones. Also, Western governments were following a dual policy of exploiting the Tamils’ grievances and also helping the government of Sri Lanka fight the LTTE.

Here is a Wikipedia account on Darusman Report: “A UN document estimated that 7,721 civilians were killed between August 2008 and 13 May 2009.[45] The panel found that this figure was probably too low because it only included deaths recorded by UN observers whereas many deaths may not have been observed, and because the figures only go up to 13 May 2009 whereas the number of deaths would have increased sharply after this date to the intensifying of shelling.[45] Many civilians were left where they died, their deaths never registered and their bodies never brought to hospital or buried.[45] The panel concluded that the number of civilian deaths “could easily be several times” that in the UN document.”

The panel detailed a couple of techniques that could be used to estimate the death toll. It is estimated that there were 40,000 surgical procedures and 5,000 amputations performed during the final months of the civil war. Using deaths to injuries ratios of 1:2 or 1:3, it is estimated that there were between 15,000 and 22,500 civilian deaths. Another technique subtracted the number of civilians who ended up in the IDP camps (290,000) from the number of civilians in the Safe Zone (330,000) plus those who escaped the conflict zone before the establishment of the Safe Zone (35,000), giving a civilian death total of 75,000.

Sources in the Wanni, which I would consider to be neutral,l told me that the death toll was about 10,000.A government survey put it at about 8,000. During the war both the government and the LTTE had tried to fudge figures to suit their interests. For example, Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona kept insisting that there were only 100,000 people trapped in the war zone, while in Vavuniya the Government Agent Mrs.PSM Charles said that government was preparing to receive over 200,000. Eventually 290,000 came to the camps.

As far as New Delhi’s policy is concerned, it was dual. On the one hand it wanted the Tamil question to be settled politically through devolution as per the existing 13 th.Amendment (by implementing it in full). On the other hand, it wanted the LTTE to be marginalized or annihilated. The second option had, as expected, led to mass displacement and loss of lives which were creating problems for New Delhi in Tamil Nadu. The problem became acute in May 2009, when the Congress party at the Center was fighting the parliamentary elections in Tamil Nadu in alliance with the DMK. The DMK’s Tamil constituency had to be safeguarded for mutual benefit, and for this, the military operations in Sri Lanka had to be minimized at least temporarily. Colombo willingly obliged by suspending artillery shelling for limited periods to help the Congress-DMK alliance win the elections.Colombo and New Delhi had a cooperative relationship during the war with a troika of high officials from both sides being in constant touch with each other. .India was kept constantly informed about the progress of the military operations. New Delhi is believed to have given valuable intelligence inputs and an ocean going vessel to take on LTTE floating armories . At any rate New Delhi’s ‘neutrality’ in the war helped Colombo greatly. As Gotabaya Rajapaksa said time and again, the only country which could have stopped the war was India and it did not stop it. 

The US too had a dual policy of helping Colombo fight the LTTE militarily (though in a marginal way) and at the same time seeing that no mass killings of Tamils took place.The US  and the West are after all, the world’s moral policemen. Like India, the US too, could have intervened militarily to stop the war it if wanted to, but clearly it did not want to. All that the US and the West did was to voice concerns and ask for an end to hostilities.And when Colombo refused to oblige, they did nothing to enforce their demand.If the US really wanted to rescue Prabhakaran they could have attempted it as they entered Pakistan to kidnap or kill Osama bin Laden in a daring violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. There was a lot of bluff and bluster but little action by the US in Sri Lanka.Though I don’t believe Ambassador Blake determined US policy on Sri Lanka, his speech in Chennai gives the duality of US policy.I believe that if Colombo had co-opted Washington during its military operations, there would have been no overt objections to the operations. Colombo too would have been more mindful about causing civilian casualties and displacement. 

New Delhi too could have advised Colombo to devise means to rescue civilians as the operations went on, to prevent them from getting trapped in a small place in the last few days of the war. But apparently nothing of this sort was done except on specific occasions when there was a dire need to meet a particular political situation in Tamil Nadu. Bala

 ADDENDUM, 15 September 2015: “In my view Blake’s inputs (interesting by themselves) were among many inputs which went into US decision making on Lanka at that time and that he did not influence US policy singly. Bala


Filed under accountability, american imperialism, devolution, gordon weiss, governance, historical interpretation, human rights, Indian General Elections, Indian Ocean politics, LTTE, military strategy, politIcal discourse, power politics, power sharing, prabhakaran, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, Tamil Tiger fighters, the imaginary and the real, truth as casualty of war, war reportage, world events & processes

28 responses to “PK Balachandran on Overt and Covert Paths in Indian and American Policies towards the Sri Lankan War, 2008-09

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  27. email cmment from Professor GERALD PEIRIS of Peradeniya University, 19 January 2022: ……………………………….
    “Michael, ………..The Tamil links with Buddhism have never been brushed under the carpet in Sri Lanka. It has all aongg been prominently displayed in Buddhist devotional ritual. At a scholarly plane Sunil Ariyaratne has been prominent among those who have researched on this subject. What Balachandran is attempting here is highlighting a non-existent issue…………
    Best regards, …………..Gerry

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