Revisiting Jaffna and the LTTE in mid-1999 guided by Mark Corcoran and the ABC

Michael Roberts


In mid-year 1999 during the ongoing Eelam War III, Mark Corcoran of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) visited Sri Lanka and composed three film documentaries of fascinating breadth. They were

Sri Lanka. A Close Encounter with Arthur C. Clarke …. 6 June 1999

Sri Lanka Tigers at the Gate …… 29 June 1999

Sri Lanka. Extreme Surfing ……… 13 July 1999

I have yet to see the first and third of these film documentaries, but find the topics chosen very much in my line of interest. It so happened that I watched TIGERS AT THE GATE in Adelaide then.[1]    I then had the temerity to send a Letter to the ABC and Corcoran with some criticisms of the coveragedeploying an University of Adelaide letterhead so as to secure attention. This exercise had completely slipped my mind till I came across my typescript and Mark Corcoran’s reply (dated 5th July) among my manuscripts when indulging in some archival sorting. In reproducing my Memo and placing this exchange within the inter-net ‘bar,’ I stress that my memories of the documentary NOW are zilch and that I have not been able to study it again. However, I suspect that it would be very useful for analysts to revisit this documentary.

Pirapaharan in India in the 1980s–Pic from Colombo Telegraph

 Pirapāharan , Anton Balasingham, and Shankar with KP seated –probably circa 2001

My criticisms of the documentary were qualified charges and mostly directed towards sins of omission relating to the recent past within the general charge that news reports on Sri Lankan politics ware overly “presentist” — that is, focusing on the here and now in ways that obscured the immediate historical processes moulding the here and now. My memorandum is reproduced below so that readers can assess it themselves,

Standing now in 2017, let me stress that I was profoundly wrong on some issues; for instance, in stating that the LTTE had little chance of recapturing the Jaffna Peninsula. In fact, the Tigers came close to achieving that feat in April-May 2000 [typo-correction here in 2018] and the Army Generals Sarath Fonseka and Janaka Perera even advocated the evacuation of troops from that arena.[2] This error of judgement was a measure of my office-desk background and my ignorance of military affairs THEN.[3]

The greater error on my part, however, was in reading Pirapāharan and the LTTE. In contrast, Corcoran had resided in the Peninsula for a few weeks, met Tamil people and deciphered the Tiger philosophy and objectives. This is made explicit in the blurb which introduces the film SRI LANKA: TIGERS AT THE GATE: “The truth is a political solution is as impossible as a military breakthrough because for the (Tamil) Tigers it’s all or nothing — a homeland or glorious death.” …. Mark Corcoran.


Corcoran was on the mark here (pun intended). Michael Roberts and the well-meaning peacenik” moderate commentators in Colombo and elsewhere were in cloud-cuckoo land.[4] They had not grasped the steely-determination of the Tiger talaivar (supremo), his confidence in victory and the degree of ruthlessness with which he was proceeding to pursue his quest.

With the advantage of hindsight, we know NOW that Pirapāharan was continuing his programme of eliminating Tamil moderate leaders with an eye on undermining the programme of constitutional reform initiated by President Chandrika Kumaratunga with Neelan Tiruchelvam as key advisor and mediator. Thus, Tiruchelvam was assassinated on 30th July 1999, a month after the ABC film – adding yet another to the list of recent killings of moderate Tamil politicians.[5]

  Neelan’s car and corpse at Rosmead Place-Kynsey junction 30 July 1999

 An evocative memorial for Neelan at the spot of his assassination

When the Presidential Elections occurred later that year, Pirapāharan was, again, true to form. A suicide killer targeted Chandrika Kumaratunga in late December 1999 (ironically a leader whose accession to power in 1994 had been facilitated by the assassination of Gamini Dissanayake on 24th October 1994)[6] and injured her severely in the process of decimating others around her at a rally.[7]

These measures turned the moderate Tamil politicians into the lap-dogs of the LTTE. The TULF became the Tamil National Alliance and the Pongu Thamil pageants of the early 2000s — with their Hitleresque salute — revealed their adoption of the LTTE’s fascist theology.

Tamil politicians at the Pongu Thamil gathering at Trincomalee 

 ... with mass support

When Pirapāharan and the LTTE accepted a ceasefire in 2001/02, it was a political move towards building up their international standing and a respite intended to recuperate their military resources. Assisted by the well-meaning but politically naïve Norwegians, they secured recognition as de facto state between 2002 and 2005, while yet being described as “terrorists” in some quarters.

When I visited Kilinochchi with some Tamil friends in late November 2004 and attended the annual Maaveerar Nal homage-cum-celebration of 27th November, I found three of the local officials, including Thiru Master,[8] complaining about the GSL violations” and spoiling for war. The crunch point came when I received reliable information[9] in December 2004 that Ramesh, the Tiger propaganda chief to whom I had been introduced,[10] was in the process of gearing the LTTE for the resumption of war.[11] The impact of the tsunami on 26th December merely dented that goal — delaying the LTTE’s return to war by an year or so.

  Bodies that fight on– an epitaph  commemorating the heroic sacrifice of Tiger personnel who lost their lives in capturing Kilinochchi–Pic by Ravi Vaitheespara taken in late Nov 2004

 LTTE tuyilam illam or resting place for maaveerar at Kopay–Pic by Roberts, November 2004

 Dead Tigresses commemorated in shed at VVT, surrounded by tropes of abundancePic by Roberts

 Shankar was the first Tiger fighter to die for the cause –on 27 November 1982 … hence the choice of that day for the hero rites

 Kin folk pay their respects at a Tuyilam illam [no date or place noted]

It was from that point that I abandoned my naïve peacenik view of the political circumstances facing us Sri Lankans. It dawned on me then that we faced a situation that was a Hobson’s Choice. Devolution was not feasible. At some point in the early 2000s, moreover, Dayan Jayatilleka had made the simple, but acute, point that one cannot have a federal system where one of the devolved units has an army, navy and air force. Now, in late 2004 and thereafter, that appraisal took firm root in my mind.

But it took much longer for me to comprehend the battle theatre situation and to overcome, albeit partially, my bourgeois drawing room background in deciphering the “lineaments” of the ongoing warfare. That is another story. Here, I eat humble pie and bow to Corcoran’s deep insight on a major issue. As the ABC prospectus asserted: “for the (Tamil) Tigers it’s all or nothing — a homeland or glorious death.”

So, I present here the following items (with highlighting emphasis

  1. “Sri Lanka. Tigers at the Gate” –the ABC Prospectus
  2. Michael Roberts to ABC, 1 July 1999
  3. Mark Corcoran to Roberts, 5 July 1999 []

Please read. Enjoy. Reflect. Deploy retrospective advantage to comment.


SERIES 8 – 29.6.99

Synopsis: “The truth is a political solution is as impossible as a military breakthrough because for the (Tamil) Tigers it’s all or nothing – a homeland or glorious death.” …..Mark Corcoran

It’s the focal point of Sri Lanka’s epic civil war – the city of Jaffna on the island nation’s northern tip. For the Sri Lankan government it’s a glittering prize – the capital of the Tamil heartland captured from the rebel Tigers. Government forces proffer Jaffna as a model of their ascendancy in the north. In reality, it’s a hellhole starved of vital medicines and services and offering little at all for locals “except destitution and danger”. The army claims it’s cleansed Jaffna of insurgents but 600 Tigers operate underground and an awesome guerilla force has the city surrounded and cut off from the rest of the country. Foreign Correspondent’s Mark Corcoran makes the perilous journey into Jaffna aboard a Red Cross hospital ship “lit up like a Christmas tree” to avoid mistaken identity and attack. Mark finds an army demoralised by heavy losses in a recent routing in Tiger territory and top brass desperately applying spin to their hopeless cause. He meets battle weary Tamils making their way back to Jaffna from Tiger strongholds and uncovers startling evidence of atrocities – breaking army lines to film at two mass graves outside town.

 Commander Balraj and Tiger fighters celebrate the capture of a battle tank around the time that the LTTE captured Elephant Pass  — Pic from TamilNet

B = ROBERTS to Director, ABC …  1 July 1999 

Director, Foreign Correspondent, ABC Television

Dear Madam/Sir,

I am taking the liberty of commenting on your coverage of “Jaffna” in the programme on Tuesday 29th June under Jennifer Byrne’s (?) and Mark Corcoran’s direction. I note here that I am Sri Lankan, albeit not Tamil or Sinhalese. And also send a text, a kind of personal statement and protest I drafted in the 1980s as one indication of my position on the ethnic conflict.

I found the programme instructive and was especially pleased that you had a map at the outset though I think it would have been wise to dwell on the map for longer. The principal defects in the presentation were (1) inadequate attention to the time-dimensions; and (2) sins of omission rather than commission, shortcomings that had a bearing on what was shown and said in ways that meant the presentation became lopsided IN SOME MEASURE. In other words despite the appearance of even-handedness, there was, no doubt unintentionally, a leaning towards the LTTE side. This effect would have been compounded in the reception of the story by less perceptive viewers who did not trouble to read between your lines-plus-pictures and re-evaluate your weightages.

Let me elaborate by noting some of the shortcomings.

  1. The impression was created that some Tamil “collaborators” had been killed by land mines. In fact, one of them, the lady mayor of Jaffna, was gunned down as an assassination job. That the LTTE see her as a “collaborator” is undoubted, but she was a member of the TULF. And most TULF are Eelamists and Tamil nationalists. Like your presenters I never use government labels for the LTTE and avoid the term “terrorists”, so I must also not use the LTTE propaganda labels. You did. Double standards.
  2. No attempt was made to indicate the division in the Tamil political (and fighting ranks). No reference to the `TELO, PLOTE and ENDP forces. Nor that they were “collaborators” now because they were decimated by the Tigers between 1986 and 1991 — the time dimension.
  3. No indication of LTTE killings and “atrocities,” from killings of Sinhalese and Muslim villagers in the border areas to that of about 700 to 900 policemen who surrendered on orders when fighting was renewed in 1991 (and the State’s army did commit wholesale atrocities — in retaliation one presumes — after that in the Eastern Province).
  4. It is true that about 20,000 state soldiers — give or take 5000 either way — have deserted. But that figure is over a period of 10 to 12 years. Time dimension missing once again. Still a very significant figure of course. AND both sides are facing severe manpower problems now according to a Tamil speaking Indian journalist I met in Colombo last month. The latest news (how reliable?) is that the LTTE are instituting 100 percent conscription in the Vanni. And if I was in their position I too would have to do so.
  5. Pictures of young boys, said to be 12 year olds, fetching and carrying people across the lagoon —in ways that implied terrible pressures on the Tamil people of the peninsula. Latter yes, but the illustration is a poor one. Have you been to fishing villages down south? And villages in general? Youthful labour is not uncommon. And seated comfortably in our lounges can we deny parents/single parents (Tamil or Sinhalese) with several kids the right to send their eldest into the work force to add to the pot?
  6. And if the pressures on the people in the Jaffna Peninsula are terrible-terrible, why are the forced migrants (and it is to your credit that you indicated the forced shift in 1996) coming back in a steady trickle? Worse situation in the LTTE controlled Vanni areas presumably. But that is the price of liberation struggle. Ask the Kurds: they will tell you what it takes. And they know one cannot have it both ways.

Enough, I trust, to argue my case against ABC. One of the strengths of reportage of the type your programme presented is its “being there,” talking to the guys-on-the-spot, and the details thus elicited. There were, nevertheless, clear contradictions in the claims presented by Dixon, the UN chap; together with some excess, because] the danger of the LTTE sweeping back into Jaffna town (as distinct from disrupting “normalcy”) is remote at present.

One of the shortcomings in such programmes is that the makers flit from subject to subject as part of their career. There is some background research to make up for this, but is it enough? I suspect the inadequacy of the latter is what enforces a “presentist” emphasis on such programmes. The here-and-now is what counts. The time dimension, as well as the shifts in the cut-and-thrust of hostile action by contending parties, are not sorted out. Have your researchers read the monthly Tamil Times over the past years? and the UTHR reviews of events, inclusive of atrocities, on all sides? And asked why Hoole, Sritharan and Company are targets for the LTTE?

Yours Sincerely, Michael Roberts

 C = MARK CORCORAN to ROBERTS, 5 July 1999

Subject: Comments re; Foreign Correspondent.

Date: Mon., 05 Jul 1999 15:55:25 +1000

From: <>


Dear Mr. Roberts,

Thank you for your interesting comments regarding our report “Tigers at the Gate”.

We are in the business of making current affairs television. I’m sure if we were producing a five part documentary series or were writing a thesis we may have been able to include some of the detail mentioned in your letter.

Omission does not equate to ignorance. We were well aware of the points you have raised and by virtue of the medium had to par down the detail. However I do not accept your assertion that this led to distortions or inaccuracies.

Perhaps you missed the point. The program was not intended as a geopolitical analysis of the entire Sri Lanka conflict, but as an observation of life in Jaffna during the time of our visit in late April 1999.

We received dozens of phone calls, faxes and e-mails following the broadcast of this report – from all ethnic groups involved, aid groups and former diplomats – many of them with a specialised knowledge of this conflict. All were complimentary of the report.

Mark Corcoran

Reporter/Producer,  Foreign Correspondent, ABC-TV.

***   ***


BBC 1991 “Suicide Killers,” Documentary series.

Barbara Crossette, “Latest Killing of a Sri Lanka Politician Fits a Familiar Pattern,” 25 October 1994,

Citizen Silva see IDAG

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

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009 “Tiger Trail. Strategic Defeat of the LTTE and its Implications,” Force, April 2009, pp. 50-54.

Fish, Tim 2009 “Sri Lanka learns to counter Sea Tigers’ swarm tactics,” Jane’s Navy International March 2009, pp. 20-25.

Dugger, Celia W. 1999 Ä Leading Sri Lankan Moderate Is Killed,” 30 July 1999.

Jenkins, Simon 2011 “Simon Jenkins pulverized Miliband’s assinine foreign interventions in 2009,”

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2006 “No Public Speech Ceremony for LTTE Chief This Year?” 26 November 2006,

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2007 “Succession Stakes in LTTE: After Prabha Who?” www., 22 December 2007.

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2008 “Liberation Tigers at Thirty-Two: Whither the LTTE,”, 6 May 2008.

Jeyaraj, DBS 2015 “How the LTTE Captured Elephant Pass Army Camp 15 Years ago Through an ‘Encircle and Enfeeble’ war Strategy,” 27 April 2015,

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

Iqbal Athas 2000 “Rise of LTTE and Fall of Elephant Pass,” 3 April 2000,

Narayan Swamy, M. R.2003 Inside an Elusive MindPrabhakaran, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications

Narendran, Rajasingham, 2009 “Rise and Fall of the LTTE — An Overview,” Sri Lanka Guardian, 7 Feb. 2009.

Natali, Christiana 2008 “Building Cemeteries, Constructing Identities: Funerary Practices and Nationalist Discourse among the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka,” Contemporary South Asia, 16: 287- 301.

Prasad, Kanchan 2011a “Indian Reporter Pics at NFZ-14-to-18 May 2009,”

Prasad, Kanchan 2011b “Mullivaikkal Hospital in NFZ Last Redoubt,” in

Prasad, Kanchan 2011c “ Two Indian Reporters’ Post-War Pictures at the LTTE’s Last Redoubt, May 14-19, 2009,” ed. by Roberts, June 2011,

Ragavan 2009 “Interview with Ragavan on Tamil Militancy (Early Years),” /2009/02/16/interview-with-ragavan-on-tamil-militancy-part-i/

Reddy, B. Muralidhar 2009a “An Escape from Hellhole,” 2009042558390100.html.

Reddy, B. Muralidhar 2009b “Multiple Displacements, Total Loss of Identity,” 2009/05/27/stories/2009052755811500.htm

Reddy, Muralidhar 2009c “A first-hand account of the war and the civilians’ plight as Eelam War almost comes to a close,” Frontline, 26/11, May 23-June 5, 2009

Ross, Amanda 2010 “Sleeping with the Enemy, Tekwani lived with the Tigers,” UPI Next, 16 Nov. 2010,

Sarvananthan, Muttukrishna 2007 “In Pursuit of a Mythical state of Tamil Eelam: A Rejoinder to Kristian Stokke,” Third World Quarterly 28/6: 1185-1195

Schalk, Peter 2003 “Beyond Hindu Festivals: The Celebration of Great Heroes’ Day by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Europe.” in Martin Baumann et al. (eds.) Tempel und Tamilien in Zweiter Heimat. Wurzburg: Ergon Verlag, pp. 391-411.

Senaratne, Kalana 2011 “Killing Fields: Problems and Prospects, “The Island, 24 June 2011, rep. in prospects/].

Subramanian, T. S. 2002 “Prabhakaran in First Person.” Frontline, 19/9.

Sunday Times 2002 “Militarism, Personality Cult at Trinco Rally,” /020324/frontm.html.

Swami, Praveen 2013 “From Sri Lanka – questions about wars,” November 2013,

Tekwani, Shyam 2009 ‘The Man who destroyed Eelam,”  /20090523/default.asp.

Udagampola, P.  2010 “Wherever in This World I Live, Achieving Tamil Eelam is My Conviction”. Long Distance Nationalism among Second Generation Sri Lankan Tamils in Toronto,” History Dissertation, Columbia University.

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

Wije Dias, “Sri Lankan President Kumaratunga narrowly escapes assassination by suicide bomber”, 21 December 1999,

Yatawara, Dhaneshi 2009 “Entrapped Civilians seek salvation in Force,” Sunday Observer, 17 May 2009,


  • 2008 “Tamil Tigers: Sacrificial Symbolism and ‘Dead Body Politics’,” Anthropology Today, 24/3: 22-23.
  • 2009 “Dilemma’s at War’s End: Thoughts on Hard Realities,”, 10 Feb. 2009.


[1] Way back in the 1950s I used to surf –Sri Lankan style with wooden boards – at Closenburg in Galle bay…. And by the age of 16 could body-surf without a board in the face of medium size waves [not big rollers]. I have dabbled in surfing in Australia till recent times.

[2] See Iqbal Athas 2000; Jeyaraj 2015 and Roberts 2016.

[3] This shortcoming has only been partially redressed. The process –inevitably a vicarious one –began when I was in Sri Lank in May-June 2009 and saw footage of battles and had discussions with Muralidhar Reddy. It grew after I reacted strongly to Rohan Gunaratna’s British Council talk in 2011 which presented a gross underestimate of Tamil civilian casualties. Citizen Silva’s treatise on the “Numbers Game”(2013) helped me greatly and I have used maps and photographs as means of deepening my awareness

[4] It would be useful for some scholars to study the output of local journalists and academics in 1998-2000 to assess their readings of the political cum military situation then.

[5] For one list –covering all shades — see

[6] The assassination by suicide strike from female assassin was at an election rally and over 5 people died (see

[7] “The blast claimed the lives of 36 people, including Kumaratunga’s driver, two bodyguards, the senior Deputy Inspector General of Police and the bomber. Over a hundred were injured including three cabinet ministers—G.L. Peiris, Kingsley Wickramaratna and Alavi Moulana,” ….…………………..………………..[Wije Dias in].

[8] Thiru Master was an English teacher who had joined the exodus to the Vanni in 1995 –no doubt because he was among the circle of people whom Pirapaharan consulted. In any event he was important enough to be one of the several speakers at the inauguration of the LTTE’s media centre on 26th January 2004 (with Thamil Chelvam as chief speaker). A Tamil beside me indicated that Thiru Master referred to the Japanese kamikaze during his talk. For that reason, I decided to visit him that Friday afternoon and was cordially received by him and his wife.

[9] I cannot divulge the name of this Tamil friend.

[10] I had a half-hour chat with Ramesh on the verandah of his office-house on Sunday 28th November. Among other gains, I received a large poster with images and bio-data on all the pre-1983 Tigers who were viewed as maaveerar. This is reproduced in Roberts, Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, (2014).

[11] The ravages of the tsunami on 26th December 2004, especially on the Sea Tigers, delayed the Tiger programme. If not for the tsunami, the LTTE would have launched their war at some point in 2005.


Filed under accountability, anton balasingham, atrocities, australian media, authoritarian regimes, devolution, ethnicity, Fascism, fundamentalism, governance, historical interpretation, human rights, Indian Ocean politics, landscape wondrous, life stories, LTTE, martyrdom, military strategy, politIcal discourse, power politics, prabhakaran, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, slanted reportage, sri lankan society, suicide bombing, Tamil civilians, Tamil Tiger fighters, terrorism, the imaginary and the real, TNA, trauma, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, vengeance, war reportage, world events & processes

8 responses to “Revisiting Jaffna and the LTTE in mid-1999 guided by Mark Corcoran and the ABC

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  2. THE ORIGINAL ABOVE contains a typing error of some importane which [most readers seem to have adjusted for] .. i have hit the wrong KEY and Äpril May 2009″ appears instead of äpril May 2000. …. But I was clearly referring to the situation after the ELEPHANT PASS debacle as evidence of Corooran’s misjudgement on this speciifc issue.

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