Lilliputs in a World of Giants: Marga and CHA bat for Lanka in the Propaganda War, 2009-14

Michael Roberts

gullivers lilliput

From 2008 as most of us are aware, Sri Lanka was not only at war with a separatist insurgency, but engaged in a world-wide propaganda war. The LTTE’s international network and migrant Tamils in many lands, especially in the West and South Africa, served as efficient agents in the Tiger strategy of garnering support for Western interventions to save the Tamil civilian population whom the latter had corralled in their declining terrain to serve as “a spectre of a humanitarian catastrophe” (Roberts 2012; 2014). As the Tamil political chief Pulidevan told a supporter in Europe: “just as in Kosovo if enough civilians die, the world would be forced to step in” (quoted in Harrison 2012: 63).

Quite a few Tamils were not only embittered by their experiences in Sri Lanka in the 20th century, but also well-placed in their adopted countries. Their circuits of influence reaped rewards. The rewards were most pronounced among those of compassionate heart who were susceptible to the horror stories about happenings in Sri Lanka that mixed part-truth with outright fabrications. Victimhood was a field of interest among several agencies devoted to human rights and civil liberties. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were among the vocal agencies that pitched in with criticism of both sides in the war, while yet leaning towards sharper diatribes against GSL. International Crisis Group, with Alan Keenan as its knowledgeable Sri Lankan specialist,[1] was among this cluster of watch-dog agencies. Its particular interest, however, was the programme of R2P initiated in the 1990s by such African internationalists as Kofi Annan and the scholar Francis Deng (1996) and advocated by the Canada-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty and the former Australian politician Gareth Evans[2] (head of ICG) among others. This policy advocated the need, in fact the “mandatory duty,” for the international community to intervene in sovereign states where ethnic cleansing and severe human rights violations were taking place (GH Peiris 2010). Here, then, were people of righteousness dabbling in regime change – and thus becoming people of slam-dunk power.

Needless to say, the intimidation and killing of journalists in Sri Lanka during the underground dirty war that was an adjunct of the main theatres of war added fuel to the evaluation of the Sri Lankan state and the Rajapaksas that took root in the Western capitals in late-2008 and thereafter. These prejudices & assessments came to a head with the assassination of the well-known Editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickramatunga, in early January 2009.[3] In the result, several media networks in Britain, Canada, USA and Europe seem to have leaned heavily towards the Tamil and Tiger cause. In several instances these partialities were due to their liberal, radical or Leftist leanings; while such senior reporters as Marie Colvin (The Times) and Frances Harrison (ex-BBC) had developed partialities to the LTTE/Tamil interests in the course of their experiences in Sri Lanka.

The Tamil networks and constituency politics in Canada and Britain also enabled LTTE networks to win considerable support in the governing parties of those two countries, assisted at times by the Left-liberal leanings of such individuals as the Miliband brothers (who are of Jewish ancestry and Marxist ideological lineage). It also seems that USA was unhappy with the degree to which the government of that period leaned on China for finances and supplies. Rajiva Wijesinha contends that it was the election of Barack Obama as President and his choice of Hilary Clinton for the powerful position of U. S. Secretary of State that swung USA towards a more hostile attitude towards Sri Lanka.[4]

Whatever its success in defeating the LTTE on the battlefields at sea and land, the Rajapaksa government’s capacities in the field of foreign relations were deeply flawed. Its public relations in the West from 2008 to 2014 were, for the most part, a dismal flop. This tale is a complex one and calls for an article or book in depth, a task thatcannot be attended to here. While Dayan Jayatilleke as Ambassador/Permanent Representative in Geneva for a short while was able to cobble together a coalition at the UNCHR sessions in Geneva at one point that protected GSL a mite from the assaults that were being mounted (note Jeyaraj 2012), internal jealousies saw him and Tamara Kunanayakam being rudely displaced;[5] and thereafter the GSL’s representations and foreign policies were in a shambolic mode.


Dayan Jayatilleke and Mahinda Samarasinghe at Geneva

It is against this background that one must view the efforts made by two independent local NGOS, the Marga Institute and the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) to participate in the war of manoeuvre during the period 2009-2014 in independent and studious ways.

Their first step was a serious and grounded study of the report presented by the United Nation Panel of Experts (also called the Darusman Panel), one which Marga presented to the world in 2011 under the title An Analysis and Evaluation of The Report of the Advisory Panel to the UNSG in the Final Stages of the War in Sri Lanka.

Thereafter they built on this foundation in 2014 by composing a dissection of the main narratives on the war provided by key players, including the United Nations. This review was initially presented at a seminar held at the BMICH and then printed as a booklet of manageable size: viz., Issues of Truth and Accountability. The Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka (2014). Both the local exposure via a public seminar and the printing costs were made possible by funds from the private sector gleaned by CHA.

However, one can ask: to what end? cui bono? who studies such reports? can little outfits in little Lanka reach powerful bodies and agents in the international circuit? The impact of such efforts seems to be miniscule. Yes, a number of ambassadors or their representatives attended the BMICH session and/or listened to their summary verbal presentations graciously and keenly.[6] Yes, a reporter from Reuters Foundation’s AlertNet (a wire service for the NGO community) in Delhi, one Nita Bhalla (2014), placed a comment on The Third Narrative in its circuit (reproduced below), but I reiterate my skepticism and use this post to ask readers/students to explore this question, indulge in google explorations and provide me with evidence that significant political players in the UN world and/or international world read and digested these memoranda from Marga/CHA.

In brief, I suggest tentatively that Marga and CHA are mere Lilliputs. Their voices reach limited audiences, limited in statistical terms and limited in degree of clout. I rhetorically ask whether powerful world governments are even aware of their existence? Did the Western ambassadors in Colombo report favourably on the Marga commentary in ways that carried punch in their home capitals? Even if it was not wholly a tale of pissing into the wind, is there any evidence that Issues of Truth and Accountability was taken seriously in agencies that had clout in the chambers and corridors of international politics?

With this caveat at the end of my PREFACE, I present readers with a summary note sent by Godfrey Gunatilleka to me personally explaining HOW and WHY these two important documents came into fruition.

Important documents? Yes. Significance does not rest on international clout. It is content, cogency and clarity that matters.

It is for the reader to judge.

Michael Roberts

gullivers travels

Marga 2011 An Analysis and Evaluation of The Report of the Advisory Panel to the UNSG nn the Final Stages of the War in Sri Lanka,

Marga 2014 Issues of Truth and Accountability. The Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka,

****   ****

Reviewing the UNPoE Report: 

Michael — There was no team put together to study the report. The process leading to the Marga seminar was as follows. When the UNPoE report was published many civil society organisations welcomed the report. I was then a member of the Friday Forum and I received a draft statement on the report which I felt was uncritically supportive of the report and entirely overlooked its flaws.[7] The Forum dropped the words “welcomed the report,” but did not make any substantive changes in their assessment. I did not subscribe to the statement and later withdrew from the Forum. Thereafter, I decided to make a detailed appraisal of the report. These were the circumstances that resulted in my critique of the report. My paper on the UNPoE Report [also called the “Darusman Report”] was then presented at a seminar, the proceedings of which were published in “Accountability Restorative Justice and Reconciliation.” The team which contributed to this document included David Blacker and Arjuna  Gunawardene on the  military aspects, Gehan Gunatilleke, Lakshman Marasinghe & Neville Laduwahetty  on the legal aspects and issues of distinction and proportionality, Jeevan Thiagrajah  on humanitarian assistance  and Somapala Gunadheera,  Fr. Noel Dias Vinya Ariyaratna, Javed Yusuf and Joe Williams on  restorative justice. Asoka Gunawardene was the rapporteur and editor of the document.

The Third Narrative: In March 2014 when the UNHRC was proposing an international investigation into war crimes in the last stages of the war the Marga Institute took the initiative to present an alternative. Our main theme was that the discourse on the war crimes was based on two conflicting narratives of the war — the Darusman report and the government version, neither of whom had access to the evidence available to the other party. We argued therefore the UNHRC should first establish an intergovernmental group of experts to evaluate all the reports and all the information already available and encourage the government of Sri Lanka to constitute a Truth Commission which could be in the nature of a second LLRC to undertake the unfinished agenda of the LLRC. Dayan Jayatilleke, Jeevan Thiagarajah, Asoka Gunawardene and I met all the important foreign missions in Sri Lanka. They received us well. The Third Narrative was the logical sequel to this initiative. You would recall that I prepared and circulated a conceptual framework and table of contents and provided the overall guidance for the writing of the report. I wrote the introduction and first chapter on the narrative of the war and the second chapter on the accountability of the LTTE. Asoka wrote the third chapter on the accountability of government and the Sri Lankan Armed Forces. The sections on humanitarian assistance were written by Jeevan and I used your writings[i] for writing the part on the role of foreign governments. …………………………………………………………Godfrey Gunatilleke 

[i] The reference here is to the essays written by Michael Roberts, Editor of Thuppahi, usually in that web site, but also in Groundviews and/or Colombo Telegraph. See bibliography in “The Realities of Eelam War IV,” 27 October 2015,

Note that the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies via Jeevan Thiagarajah provided some of the financial wherewithal for these meetings and for the printing of the The Third Narrative; and was particularly useful in enabling the visit of a three-person team to Geneva in 2014 to press the views contained in the documents before an UN audience and other interested parties – a significant venture that will be clarified in separate items in Thuppahi. Asoka Gunawardena and Jeevan Thiagarajah thereafter visited New York to lobby UN personnel at that centre with s GSL facilitating the latter tasks. Michael Roberts

***   ****

Nita Bhalla:[9] “U.N. failed to protect civilians during Sri Lanka’s bloody war end, says report,”  … 5 September 2014[10] ……… srilanka-civil-war-idINKBN0H01NT20140905

A Tamil demonstrator holds up a hand as they wear a glove covered with fake blood during a protest near the Commonwealth Secretariat in London November 15, 2013. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth/Files

A Tamil demonstrator holds up a hand as they wear a glove covered with fake blood during a protest near the Commonwealth Secretariat in London November 15, 2013. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth/Files

The United Nations failed in its mandate to protect Sri Lankan civilians caught up in the final phases of the Indian Ocean island’s bloody war, a new report has said. Sri Lanka’s civil conflict ended in May 2009 in cataclysmic final battle in which government forces surrounded Tamil rebels on a tiny strip of coastal land, where the separatists kept hundreds of thousands of civilians as human shields.

A 2011 U.N. probe estimates about 40,000 people were killed in the final phases of the war, mostly by army shelling and bombardments. Sri Lanka has rejected the allegation and claims in its own investigation that around 7,000 people died.

Written by two Sri Lankan charities, the report said despite signs of escalating violence, U.N. staff “consistently preferred to err on the side of caution in responding to the crisis.”

“The UN system as a whole made little effort to prevent the humanitarian tragedy that ensued,” said the Narratives III report.

“They failed to diagnose the nature of the problem at the early stages and were incapable of designing a coordinated strategy to separate the civilians from the LTTE (rebels) and enable them to move into the government controlled areas.”

The report — by the Marga Institute and the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies — contradicts earlier reports by the U.N. and human rights groups which puts the blame for civilian deaths largely on government forces.

Instead, it holds the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) primarily responsible due to its strategy of holding civilians captive and using them as shields. It said it was necessary to question whether the U.N.’s surveillance of the actions of the LTTE was adequate and whether more decisive action could have been taken to prevent civilians being used in this manner.

The U.N. office in Colombo declined to comment on the report’s findings.

U.N. lacked Responsibility: The report questions various actions taken by the U.N. such the almost immediate relocation of all its staff out of the war zone, saying that even though the government advised the U.N. to leave due to safety risks, the organisation should have negotiated to stay.

“In the context of both the lack of contestation of the government’s request and the absence of any negotiation for further time to be provided, the report concludes that the U.N. failed in its protection mandate by relocating,” it states.

The report said the U.N. lacked a strategic approach to minimising the death toll. It said the U.N. should have encouraged civilians who were fleeing with the rebels to cross over to government controlled area, adding that this would have avoided people being used as human shields.

It attributed some of the failures to staff on the ground which it said had little or no expertise in analysing military operations in terms of their humanitarian risks or in protecting civilians.

The report also said the U.N.’s complex bureaucracy and decision-making processes prevented vital information from being channelled to senior officials with expertise.

For example, during a 10-month window of opportunity for the U.N. to roll out a comprehensive plan for civilian evacuation, no information on the potential risks that civilians would eventually face was transmitted to U.N. headquarters, it said.

“The U.N. bureaucracy and parochial decision-making processes at the time prevented such a plan – a plan that could have significantly reduced the number of civilian casualties during the latter states of the war,” it said.

The U.N. human rights office in July embarked on a controversial probe into alleged war crimes. The move has angered President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government which says it will not cooperate with U.N. investigators………………………………editing by Ros

   ***   ***


Al-Jazeera 2008 SL Army closes in on Tamil Tigers,” 7 October 2008,https://thuppahi.

Blacker, David 2015 The War Situation in a Nutshell, 12th April 2009, as David Blacker destroys Arundhati Roy’s Emotional Fantasies,” a reprint of an essay presented in April 2009, now in

Colman, Padraig 2013 “Deadly Accountancy. Part II,”

Deng, Francis 1996 Sovereignty as Responsibility: Conflict Management in Africa, New York: Brookings Institution.

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

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009d “Sri Lanka’s Experience in Counter-Insurgency Warfare,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, Oct. 2009, Vol. 35/8, pp. 40-46.

Govt Film Unit [SL] 2014 “Last Days at Nandikadal,” OR

Gunatilleke, Godfrey 2015 International Pressures & Island Fissures: Gunatilleke faces Ratnawalli. Q and A: Godfrey Gunatilleke meets Darshanie Ratnawalli,” 5 November 2015,

Harshula 2011a “When allegations becomes evidence,” 6 June 2011, 2011/06/06/when-allegations-become-evidence/

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

Jeyaraj, DBS 2009 “Wretched of the Wanni Earth break Free of Bondage,” and Daily Mirror, 25 April 2009.

Jeyaraj, DBS 2011 “KP” Speaks Out, Vavuniya: NERDO.

[Jeyaraj, DBS] 2012 “The high stakes in Geneva in 2009 and 2012: Dayan Jayatilleka recalls,” 29 February 2012,

[LTTE] 2014 “LTTE War Video recovered by the Government–Revealing Episode,”

Mango 2014 “Sri Lanka’s War In Its Last Phase: Where WIA Figures Defeat The Gross KIA Estimates,” 14 February 2014,

Narendran, Rajasingham 2014 Harsh Ground Realities in War: Decomposing Bodies and Missing Persons and Soldiers,” 28 January 2014,

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

Peiris, Gerald H. 2010 “The Doctrine of Responsibility to Protect: Impulses, Implications and Impact,” 30 June 2010,

Prasad, Kanchan [2009] “Mullivaikkal Hospital in NFZ Last Redoubt,”

Reddy, Muralidhar  2009f “Final Hours. An eye-witness account of the last 70 hours of Eelam War IV,” Frontline, 26/12, 6-19 June 2009,

Roberts, Michael 2012 Blackmail during the Endgame in Eelam War IV,” 12 April 2012

Roberts, Michael 2013 BBC-Blind: Misreading the Tamil Tiger Strategy of International Blackmail, 2008-13,”

Roberts, Michael 2014 “Generating Calamity, 2008-2014: An Overview of Tamil Nationalist Operations and Their Marvels,” 10 April 2014,

Roberts, Michael 2014 Truth Journalism? Marie Colvin hoist on her own Petard,” 5 November 2014,

Roberts, Michael 2014 Tamil Person and State. Essays, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications

Roberts, Michael 2014 Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications

Roberts, Michael 2015 “Targeting Sri Lanka by playing ball with Tamil Extremism,” 24 July 2015,

Shanmugarajah, V. 2014 Dr. Veerakanthipillai Shanmugarajah’s Affidavit Description of Conditions in the Vanni Pocket in Refutation of Channel Four,” 5 January 2014,

Times 2011 “TIMES Aerial Images, NFZ Last Redoubt, 23 May 2009,” photos/thuppahi/sets/72157626922360092/

Tammita-Delgoda, S. 2009 “Sri Lanka: The Last Phase in Eelam War IV. From Chundikulam to Pudukulam,” New Delhi: Centre for Land Warfare, Manekshaw Paper No. 13,

UN PoE 2011 Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts report on Accountability in Sri Lanka, March 2011…. POE_Report_Full.pdf.

UTHR 2009 A Marred Victory and a Defeat Pregnant with Meaning, Special Report No. 32.

UTHR 2009 Let Them Speak: Truth about Sri Lanka’s Victims of War. Special Report No. 34,

Video Image [GSL] 2014 “A balanced insight into the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict – “Common Differences” (HD),”

Weiss, Gordon 2011a The Cage, Sydney: Picador..

***   ***


[1] Keenan has visited Sri Lanka on many occasions and I have interacted with him at times. I was first introduced to him by Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, one of my pals from the 1990s.

[2] Evans was President and CEO of the conflict prevention and resolution organisation, the International Crisis Group which was based in Brussels from 2000-09. During his tenure grew in staff from 25 to over 130, in budget from $US2 million to over $15 million, and in operating area from a handful of countries in the Balkans and Central Africa to over 60 across four continents, and published 784 worldwide-distributed reports.

[3] See Zacky Jabbar, in The Island, 29 Janauary 2013,

[4] I am guided here by Rajiva Wijesinha (tel-chat, 15 November 2015).

[5] I am afraid that I have not had the time to work out the temporal sequence and Dayan has been ill and less than helpful.

[6] Information from Godfrey Gunatilleke (Skype chat, Nov 2015).

[7] The Friday Forum usually assembled at the Marga building so this rupture is momentous. It has been vocal and outspoken on issues of civil rights in Sri Lanka – well, good and necessary Among its leading signatories are Savithri Gunasekere (nee Obeyesekere), Chandra Jayarane, Jayantha Dhanapala and Deepika Udagama, every one of them known to me. Their reading of the UNPoE document suggests a desk-bound analytical capacity, visceral hatred of the Rajapaksas and/or a reluctance to criticize intellectuals in their human rights club. If these conjectures are valid, I view their reasoning as reprehensible.

[8] The reference here is to the essays written by Michael Roberts, Editor of Thuppahi –usually in that web site, but also in Groundviews and/or Colombo Telegraph. See bibliography in “The Realities of Eelam War IV,” 27 October 2015,

[9] Nita Bhalla is identified as a representative of Thomson Reuters Foundation in New Delhi.

[10] The same article also appears in at


Filed under accountability, atrocities, historical interpretation, human rights, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, patriotism, politIcal discourse, power politics, prabhakaran, propaganda, Rajapaksa regime, security, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, Tamil migration, truth as casualty of war, UN reports, vengeance, war crimes, war reportage, world events & processes

59 responses to “Lilliputs in a World of Giants: Marga and CHA bat for Lanka in the Propaganda War, 2009-14

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  44. Michael,

    Historians are not journalists: we/they are looking at the long term to determine facts, evidence and historical “truth”. Even ancient history is revised and re-revised in the light of modern experience and cultural change. So although these reports from ‘Lilliputian’ NGO’s in Sri Lanka may have been brushed aside by INGO’s and governments of the day, in the longer term they will oust the views of ignorant stereotypists while also illuminating the actions of LTTE (and other) propagandists. best wishes Jane

    • Precisely the LINE i would take in response to THOSE who tell me Roberts that what happened in 2009 E-WAR final phase is over and done with and not toweaste my time on that topic becasue there is no interest in it

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