Where USA sought to arm-wrestle Sri Lanka in March-April-May 2009

Michael Roberts

The ethnographic ‘nugget’ from Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama recorded by Professor Chandre Dharma-wardana in 2013 has set off a hornet’s nest.[1] In pursuing further inquiries, I have reached the tentative conclusion that Bogollagama has not presented a total fib.[2] He is probably referring to the entry of an US recce team rather than a commando force from America’s Pacific Air Command (PACOM in short) at some point during the last phase of the war – probably in February/March.. This would have been around the time the Western conglomerate in Sri Lanka known officially as the “Co-Chairs” had mooted the idea of “a sea-directed civilian rescue mission” in February.[3]

C-130J Super Hercules assigned to the 36th Airlift Squadron prepare to land at Yokota Air Base, Japan, May 4, 2018, during the 374th Airlift Wing Generation Exercise. The formation flight enabled the pilots to perform training necessary for them to remain current on their skillsets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Juan Torres) — a snap which has nought to do with Sri Lanka but, like the second one below, serves to illustrate the power and reach of the US forces in general and those in the Pacific in particular

This prospect must surely have featured at the meeting in Kuala Lumpur in late February organised by Norway and KP Pathmanathan — a gathering which involved Tore Hattrem (the Norwegian ambassador in Lanka), two other Norwegian diplomats from back home, and Rudrakumaran and Maheswaran from the LTTE international wing.[4] While Salter tells us that Basil Rajapaksa and Bogollagama had been informed about this meeting,[5] it is unlikely that KP’s project of saving the Tiger leadership and whisking them away to a neutral land[6] was divulged in the Norwegian summary of this meeting – a conspiracy if ever there was one – conveyed to the government of Sri Lanka.

 KP with Prabbha and Bala in the Vanni in those halcyon days for the LTTE circa 2001

A commando squad is a strike force, whereas a recce team of military officers assessing the war theatre is on a preliminary scouting mission. However, both mark intent. When KP Pathmanathan told Jeyaraj later that “there was even an offer by the Americans to transport them by sea to Trincomalee (sic),” we know that the scheme was seeking to resurrect the LTTE as a political body located in either Eritrea, South Africa or Timor.[7] This cat was also let out of the bag by Under Secy-of-State Michael Owens at a media briefing on the 6th May 2009.[8]

Salter tells us that “a high-level team from the United States Pacific Command (PACCOM) headquarters in Hawaii visited the country in late February to evaluate the logistics of a sea-directed civilian rescue mission.[9] This is a devastating admission for those alive to the US-Norwegian-KP scheme to transport a coterie of LTTE leaders and their families to Eritrea, South Africa or Timor – an ‘adjunct’ pillar in what was touted to the world as a humanitarian interventionist scheme. This pillar in the scheme contained far-reaching imperialist and manipulative potentialities.

So, the advent of a PACOM recce team is of considerable significance in marking the nature of US policy towards Sri Lanka at this stage of the war – particularly when we link it with the forthright messages conveyed by Robert Blake to Sri Lanka’s senior Ministers Bogollagama and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (revealed to the world courtesy of Wikileaks) in the course of March and April 2009. As it happens, Salter indicates that Blake spoke bluntly to the Foreign Minister in March.[10] While Salter is casting Blake, Solheim, Hattrem and others as humanitarian crusaders, a more rounded overview and Blake’s position as point-man for the Western coalition leads to the conclusion that Blake was organising an imperialist noose around the Sri Lankan throat.

Balachandran contends that the recce team was an instrument in USA’s “small scale bullying tactics” (see below) rather than a precursor for a massive thrust. But these plans and the bullying work, as Balachandran recognises, included the goal of whisking the LTTE leadership away to another country as tools in the USA’s great game.

Though Salter says that the assessment team came to Sri Lanka in February, my old exchanges with the foreign media personnel indicated an April date — when they were stirred to visit the US embassy to ferret out details – though my informant could not recall precisely when.[11]

This piece of information leaves one with a major question. When did such a scouting mission turn up? According to the Salter story this was in late February; while in a subsequent memo [undated] referring to “the US led rescue plan,” Blake affirms: “I brought the Pacific Command in to send “a whole team out to look at it [and] they had detailed conversations with the military.”[12]

In revision of my previous assumptions it seems now that this recce mission arrived in late February or early March.  Even at that stage the Embassy personnel held the view — no doubt guided by the recce team — that  the battle situation was “a non-permissive environment.” This summarizing capsule indicates that it had been decided that an US intervention could turn out disastrous a manner similar to the Black Hawk catastrophe in Somalia (see http://www.bbc.com/news/av/magazine-38808175/black-hawk-down-the-somali-battle-that-changed-us-policy-in-africa).

That the recce team’s intent did not escalate into a full-scale intervention – directed ostensibly to “save the Tamil civilians” — during the next few month or so may also have been due to the success of a remarkable SL Army operation beginning on the 19th April, namely, the penetration of the “Last Redoubt” of the LTTE in a manner that released some 110-125,000 trapped personnel.[13] That Hillary Clinton responded in fury to this set of events with a hailstorm of words directed at the government of Sri Lanka[14] indicates the domineering character of the American programme for Sri Lanka.[15]

SAM 5a--24_April_2009_dailymirror.lk

aa=tmail IDPs 2

aa clinton

However, as both Balachandran and a Sri Lankan diplomat emphasize (see below), another factor probably undermined the schemes of the US-led Western bloc: namely, India’s firm hostility to any such intervention. With the Indian General Election around the corner in May 2009, this position was not overt and public. Indian policy was two-faced: up-front in public they catered to electoral necessities in the south of the republic and remonstrated with the Sri Lankan government through messages and high-level delegations.[16] But behind the scene understandings between key officials and ministers on both sides actually sustained the Sri Lankan drive to squash the Tigers completely on the military front. Balachandran has made this clear in an incisive article earlier and reiterates this view now … while our Sri Lankan diplomat makes the same point independently (see below).

Remarkable Dimensions: Pudhuma Siddhiyak

This is a preliminary review of the issues arising from the Chandre Dharma-wardana essay and may foreshadow a lengthier examination of the issues on the back of responses to this initial piece. But let me end with a sideline note of a cultural kind.

To those familiar with world politics such events and processes as those outlined above will probably not come as a surprise. But a major puzzle remains: how did the government of Sri Lanka muzzle the fact that an American recce team had arrived in order to work out a forceful US military intervention? Why were there no serious leaks on this point then in 2009? How have the air force, army and navy officers and Ministry officials in the know kept the arrival of a PACOM recce team secret? How is it that only one Reuters journalist picked up a rumour to this effect, while few others in journalist circles did?

Sri Lankans and Sri Lanka thrive on opa dupa and gossip, often malicious and concocted. What ailed Sri Lanka on this issue and at this time? Pudhumai neydha!

***  ***


I = The SET OF QUESTIONS that I sent to 18 individuals deemed to be knowledgeable on the events taking place then in early 2009.

II = The ANSWERS provided by five of these personnel.

III = Brief Bio-Data on these five.


Dear Friends,  I append two related items. I wd appreciate your thoughts and whatever info you have –with particular attention to the three FUNDAMENTAL questions raised in the essay BOGOLLAGAMA GEM ..… viz

1 = Has Bogollagama spun a yarn?

2 = My Question E: if notwhen precisely in April did such a commando force turn up?”

3 = My Question G:  if true, how on earth did no whisper of this event enter the Sri Lankan circuits of gossip?



II = ANSWERS from Five Individuals

A1.1 – A LANKAN DIPLOMAT, 8 May 2018

That there was a US commando unit at Katunayaka is highly unlikely. India would have blocked any such attempt.

A1.2 — A LANKAN DIPLOMAT, 8 May 2018

India’s major concern was Tamil Nadu and the looming General Election. India implicitly and Sri Lanka explicitly wanted to finish off the LTTE before the dust settled on the Indian election. India also did not want the US meddling in what it considered to be its backyard. Sri Lanka and India had come to recognise the mutual benefit of eliminating the LTTE. Another yet unacknowledged successful aspect of the Rajapaksa foreign policy.B — P. K. BALACHANDRAN, 9 May 2018


Dear Michael

As I told you when we met last, the US’ plan was a half-hearted effort to weaken Prabhakaran and take him under its charge rather than helping him to win the war.

Like India did in the 1980s, the US wanted the LTTE to be just strong enough to browbeat Colombo but not to get an independent Eelam.

When India’s project failed thanks to Prabhakaran and President Premadasa, the US took over the management of the nefarious project.

It helped the SL government with vital intelligence to destroy the LTTE’s floating armouries and then, just when the SL forces were about to crush the LTTE, the US stepped in on “humanitarian grounds” to secure an “orderly surrender”. This reminds one of India’s intervention during the Vadamarachchi offensive in 1987 followed by the India-Sri Lanka Accord, under which both SL and VP would be its clients. But this project also failed.

Of course, I still believe that the US was not sufficiently serious about the project, for, if it was, its Seventh Fleet would have done the real thing. But the 7th.fleet was nowhere in the picture. In the event, what the US did was to apply a little pressure, negotiate with SL and attempt to take VP and a small coterie around him away to safety to be used as tool in its hands.

Sending a larger force would have been impossible without India’s consent and active involvement. It was because this was not forthcoming that the US tried a small-scale bullying tactic which did not work thanks to Mahinda and Gota.


I knew about the US plane landing at the airport with US nationals but never knew that they were US soldiers… Imperialists love to keep a open wound, so that they interfere in little countries affairs.

Unfortunately, our foreign service and foreign ministers are puppets to western demands. Look at the foreign minister (Mangala) who signed the UN resolution against all SL’s interests: he should have impeached for that blunder. This guy went to UK to get higher education and came home as a failure having failed all exams … and became a clothing tailor.


NO US Commando force here in April 2009. Certainly not.

E1FOREIGN JOURNALIST in Colombo, 8 May 2018

Interesting – I never heard about the commando team at all, and I can’t imagine the government wouldn’t leak it at the time because that was the MO [modus operandi]. Bogols wasn’t what I consider reliable….


Hi Michael,

I am still OK on background for this material. But I never did hear of it – it is not impossible that American military advisors were brought in, but remember, the SL govt leaked the US plan about bringing in Marines to help evacuate the refugees and it was not even cleared by Pacific Command.

PS… I wasn’t summoned to the embassy in April. I asked to come in and I met with a diplomatic, not military, contact.



A is a senior diplomat who has to remain incognito.

B = PK Balachandran has been a correspondent for Indian newspapers in Sri Lanka for several decades and represented the Indian Express in 2009 as he does now. I stress here that I have interacted with Bala since the 1990s and have found him to be scrupulously direct and honest in his observations.

C = Ferdinando is News Editor, The Island. Colombo and a senior journalist who also appears on TV Panels.

D = Siri Hewawitharana was Chief Technology Officer and a Director at Huawei China at that time in 2009 and based in Sydney. He had informal technical advisory links with the SL government at that time. He subsequently dissected the Channel Four video concoctions in web articles and I have interacted with him since then. He does not mince words.

E –“Foreign Journalist” =  a Correspondent in Colombo in 2009


BBC  “US Black Hawk Down military disaster remembered,” by Frank Gardner,  hhttp://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-africa-24388113/us-black-hawk-down-military-disaster-remembered

Balachandran, P. K. 2015 “PK Balachandran on Overt and Covert Paths in Indian and American Policies towards the Sri Lankan War, 2008-09,” 16 September 2015, https://thuppahis.com/2015/09/16/pk-balachandran-on-overt-and-covert-faces-in-indian-and-american-policies-towards-the-sri-lankan-war-2008-09/

[Clinton, Hillary] 2009 “Hillary Clinton castigates Sri Lanka,” 22 April 2009,http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/23/world/asia/23lanka.html?_r=0

Dharma-wardana, Chandre 2018 An US Commando Force was at Katunayake in April 2009 prepared for a So-Called ‘Humanitarian ‘Intervention’,” 7 May 2018, https://thuppahis.com/2018/05/07/an-us-commando-force-was-at-katunayake-in-april- 2009-prepared-for-a-so-called-humanitarian-intervention/#more-30266

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2010b “Downfall of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,” South Asia Defence and Strategic Review, May-June 2010, pp. 10-15.

Gamage, Daya 2014 “The American Agenda for Sri Lanka’s National Issues, 1970s-2014,” 5 July 2014, https://thuppahis.com/2014/07/05/the-american-agenda-for-sri-lankas-national-issues-1970s-2014/

Hull, C. Bryson 2009 “Sri Lanka opens eye in the sky on war zone,” 20 April 2009, http://mobile.reuters.com/article/idUSCOL450259

Hull, C. Bryson & Ranga Sirilal 2009 “Sri Lankan War in Endgame, 100,000 escape rebel zone,” 23 April 2009, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-srilanka-war-idUSTRE53J0IZ20090422

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2009d “Wretched of the Earth break Free of Bondage,” Daily Mirror, 25 April 2009, http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/380.  

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2011 “KP’ Speaks Out. An Interview with Former Tiger Chief, Vavuniya: NERDO.

Mohan, Sulochana Ramiah 2015 “US ready to take Prabhakaran,” Naval ship was 8 November 2015, https://www.ceylontoday.lk/90-108791-news-detail-us-naval-ship-was-ready-to-take-prabhakaran.html

Peiris, Gerald H. 2010, “The Doctrine of Responsibility to Protect: Impulses, Implications and Impact,” 30 June 2010, http://www.slguardian.org/2010/06/the-doctrine-of-responsibility-to-protect-impulses-implications-and-impact/  

RFI 2009 “Government ignores French and British calls for ceasefire,” http://www1.rfi.fr/actuen/articles/112/article_3624.asp

Roberts, Michael 2009 “Realities of War,” Frontline May 2009, vol 26/10 … see 2018 re-presentation at  https://thuppahis.com/2018/04/27/a-slashing-critique-of-hillary-clinton-and-the-hr-lobby-in-april-may-2009-realities-of-war/

Roberts, Michael 2014 “Ball-by-Ball through Wikileaks: US Embassy Despatches from Colombo, 2009: ONE,” 27 August 2014, https://thuppahis.com/2014/08/27/ball-by-ball-through-wikileaks-us-embassy-despatches-from-colombo-2009-one/

Roberts, Michael 2015 “Ambassador Blake in Never-Never-Land: Misreading LTTE Capacity in Early 2009,” 26 August 2015, https://thuppahis.com/2015/08/26/ambassador-blake-in-never-never-land-misreading-ltte-capacity-in-early-2009/

Roberts, Michael 2016 “Reuters in Word and Image: Depicting the Penetration of the LTTE’s Last Redoubt, 19-22 April 2009,” 19 March 2016, https://thuppahis.com/2016/03/19/reuters-in-word-and-image-depicting-the-penetration-of-the-lttes-last-redoubt-19-22-april-2009/#more-20190

Roberts, Michael 2016 Speaking to Gotabaya-I: Plans Afoot in 2009 to Rescue the Tiger Leadership,”  8 March 2016, https://thuppahis.com/2016/03/08/speaking-to-gotabaya-i-plans-afoot-in-2009-to-rescue-the-tiger-leadership/#more-20092

Roberts, Michael 2016 “Saving Talaivar Pirapāharan,” 5 April 2016, https://thuppahis.com/2016/04/06/saving-talaivar-pirapaharan/

Salter, Mark 2015 To End a Civil War. Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka, London: Hurst & Company.

Sengupta, Somini 2009 “U.S. Faults Sri Lanka on Civilian Woes,” 22 April 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/23/world/asia/23lanka.html?_r=0US Embassy 2014 “Ball-by-Ball through Wikileaks: US Embassy Despatches from Colombo, 2009: ONE,” 27 August 2014, https://thuppahis.com/2014/08/27/ball-by-ball-through-wikileaks-us-embassy-despatches-from-colombo-2009-one/#more-13481


[1] This particular item received an unprecedented number of HITS for my Thuppahi website: 442 out of a total of 1089 on 9th May; and 239 out of 637 (still counting today 10th May.

[2] I did contact Bogollagama on the telephone indicating that I was calling from Australia. He asked me to set up an Interview –so that was that.

[3] Salter 2015: 354.

[4] Salter 2015: 348.

[5] These details are found in Salter 2015: 348-49.

[6] These hopes and plans were ferreted out by David Jeyaraj in an article on web which has since appeared in print as his KP Speaks Out (2011).

[7] The quotation is from Jeyaraj 2011: 30 and should be modified by a subsequent note on page 31 which indicates that “tentatively about 25 t0 50 top leaders with their families were to be transported to a foreign country if necessary” (p. 31). See Gamage “The American Agenda,” 2014 and Roberts, “Saving Pirapaharan,” 2016 for further details.

[8] See Gamage 2014 and Roberts, “Saving,” 2016. May 06, 2009 media briefing at the State Department in Washington Mike Owens, D

[9] Salter 2015: 354.

[10] Salter 2015: 354. From the Wikileaks Mss on the American despatches we see that in Des. No 304 of 18th March contains this note “Ambassador impressed upon the Foreign Minister the need for the GSL to exercise patience to allow diplomacy to work.  A GSL attack on the safe zone would result in thousands of civilian casualties and would potentially subject the GSL to war crimes charges. “

[11] In my personal experience, memories tend to conflate events — so this imprecision is not unexpected. For further background, also see Roberts, Speaking to Gotabaya-I: Plans Afoot in 2009 to Rescue the Tiger Leadership,”  8 March 2016,https://thuppahis.com/2016/03/08/speaking-to-gotabaya-i-plans-afoot-in-2009-to-rescue-the-tiger-leadership/#more-20092.

[12] This memo is undated and unsourced and presented in Salter 2015:  355-56. Also see Mohan 2015 for part of this text.

[13] See Jeyaraj “Wretched of the Earth break Free of Bondage,” 2009 and Hull & Sirilal, “Sri Lankan War in Endgame, 100,000 escape rebel zone,” 23 April 2009.

[14] See Clinton 2009 and Sengupta 2009.

[15] For my part I (obviously as a frog in a little pond) criticised Clinton sharply for her position in Frontline then in its next issue (May 2009). See

[16] Following the release of a strong statement from the 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 the government.


Filed under accountability, american imperialism, authoritarian regimes, centre-periphery relations, conspiracies, Eelam, governance, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, landscape wondrous, law of armed conflict, legal issues, life stories, LTTE, nationalism, politIcal discourse, power politics, Rajiv Gandhi, security, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, Tamil Tiger fighters, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, war reportage, world events & processes

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