Saving Tamil Civilians by Sea: More on the ICRC-cum-SL Navy Operations: Admiral Travis Sinniah Speaks

Michael Roberts

I sent my article “Gash Files III” to Admiral (Retired) Travis Sinniah as soon as it was placed on web and was able to conduct an extended Skype-Chat with him on 12th April.[1] He had no major quarrels with the gist of that article. However, he stressed that the whole exercise was an extremely difficult one – involving difficulties that words cannot quite capture.

For one: the sea-transfer operation described by Lt Col. Gash was preceded by (A) a round of extremely difficult negotiations at the LTTE end with the head of ICRC as the point-man[2] and (B) considerable planning and interaction called for between the SL Navy, the local police and local government authorities in the coastal spots north of Trincomalee where the Tamil civilians (“Internally Displaced People” now in bureaucratic vocabulary) were landed. The released civilians could not be taken to Trincomalee naval base because a suicide bomber among them could pose a threat to the essential services housed therein.

This choice of location north of Trincomalee meant additional issues. The north east monsoon was in full-swing and the eastern seas were not calm. So the transfer of people from ship to shore at night was a tricky process [a facet which Gash does capture]. It was also a time-consuming task. The difficulties did not end there: considerable administrative effort and coordination was demanded between the SL Navy and several administrative authorities including the Medical Department.  

Again, Gash’s brief visit meant that he could note encompass the ongoing administrative problems.[3]  Over the course of several weeks beginning on the 12th February the hospitals from Trincomalee to Habarana reached saturation point. The placement of an Indian Field Hospital near the shores at Pulmoddai provided much-needed relief and was especially useful because it was located near the landing points.

Many released civilian patients had accompanying carers/relatives and/or accompanying children, so the SL Navy and local authorities also had to organise accommodation and meals for them.

In brief, the complexities were numerous.

In response to my query about the government agencies keeping track of those who were released from hospital care, Travis Sinniah indicated that where IDPs were aged and infirm, there was little cause for monitoring. They could be released to move to wherever they wished.

I then turned to the dining occasion at his home in Trinco in early February 2009 where Admiral Sinniah had invited his British and American guests to be observers of the landing process. I inquired if Col Lawrence Smith had been one of the Americans and Sinniah said “yes he was.” Another American was an officer from the US PAC [Pacific Command].  They were visiting Trincomalee for other purposes and the opportunity afforded to them by Admiral Sinniah was not part of their programme. When Travis Sinniah informed Commodore Karannagoda {in Colombo] of this on-the-spot decision, the latter had accepted Sinniah’s initiative: “ehanan aran yanna.”

Moving On

I then went ‘fishing’ and presented Travis with a surmise: Col Lawrence Smith and Ambassador Robert Blake, I said, were not on the same page though they worked in the same building. That is, Blake did not tap Smith’s military expertise for his reading of ongoing events on the war front. Sinniah thought this was “highly probable.” Blake was opiniated and not listening to specialists. He may even have had connections with the LTTE [meaning sources of information].

It was widely known in SL government and military circles that Blake held a conviction that “[Sri Lanka’s armed forces] will never defeat the LTTE;”[4] and would probably be confirmed by a study of his despatches. Since the armed forces of the SL Government had proved him comprehensively wrong in the course of  2009, he has, said Sinniah, been quiet since on this front.

Lawrence Smith at the Galle Dialogue

Blake with Admiral Willard and Gotabhaya Rajapakse in January 2009


Roberts, Michael 2018  “The Gash files III: Trapped Tamils out by Sea in 2009,” 9 April 2009,

Sri Lanka Guardian 2017 “Lanka-US Defence Relations: Rear Admiral Travis’s Visit to SWOS,” 1 February 2017,

Sri Lanka Guardian 2017 “Sri Lanka: Fair winds and following seas — Galle Dialogue 2017,” 9 October 2017,

Sri Lanka Guardian 2017 “Sri Lanka: Defence Ministry kicking off the Tamil origins Navy Commander?”, 24 October 2017,

You Tube 2017 “Vice Admiral Travis Sinniah Assumes Duties as the 21 st Commander of the Navy on 22nd August 2017,”

Unambuwe, Manori 2009,“The Fallacy of Concentration Camps,” The Island, 3 May 2009,

Roberts, Michael 2012 “Relief Work in Aid of Mothers and Babies among the IDPs in 2009: Myrna Setunga’s Reports to Her Donor Pals THEN in 2009,” 28 September 2012,

Roberts, Michael 2010 “Omanthai! Omanthai! Succour for the Tamil Thousands,” 9 August 2010,

 IMG_8182 Thiruni & Travis Sinniah at the occasion of his appointment as Commander, SL Navy


[1] Insofar as his wife Thiruni calls me “Uncle Mike,” Travis adheres to old-fashioned Sri Lankan manners and calls me “Uncle Mike.”

[2] Travis could not recall his name, but indicated that he had a letter of appreciation (to the Sinniah and the SL Navy) written by this ICRC official somewhere in his files.

[3] Gash’s observations were at a coastal spot called Sandy Bay outside Trincomalee harbour — a spot close to a hospital (additional information conveyed by Travis Sinniah on 15th April 2018).  What we are referring to here indicates on a small-scale, the gargantuan issues already being encountered by the combination of GSL organisations (local, central and military) and the INGOs and NGOs who were setting up the IDP camps in the Manik Farm area of Vavuniya and the smaller camps in the Jaffna Peninsula. See the Bibliography above for some accounts by two volunteer workers who injected themselves into the process, namely Myrna Setunge and Manori Unambuwe.

[4] The sentence is a correction inserted on the 15th April after Travis phoned me to indicate that Robert Blake had not presented this opinion directly but that it was widely known in high circles … and would probably be confirmed by a study of his despatches.


Filed under charitable outreach, disaster relief team, governance, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, LTTE, politIcal discourse, Rajapaksa regime, refugees, rehabilitation, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, the imaginary and the real, transport and communications, trauma, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, war reportage, welfare & philanthophy, world events & processes

8 responses to “Saving Tamil Civilians by Sea: More on the ICRC-cum-SL Navy Operations: Admiral Travis Sinniah Speaks

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  7. Hugh

    Admiral Karannagoda has stated that He had ben falsely implicated in a case of missing Tamil civilians on the basis of information provided by Sinniah to the present govt.I wonder whether you had the opportunity to discuss that matter with him. Is the allegation true according to Sinniak?

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