Infantry Warfare and the Final Phase of Eelam War IV: Where Laymen Blunder into Infantile Assessments

Michael Roberts

 In his typically feisty style Mark Salter has taken issue with the characterization of a statement in his To End a Civil War as “infantile”  (within an article based on the Lt Col Gash files[1]). [This protest is now reproduced at the end of this essay as well]. Salter’s assertion is from an UTHR report which in turn is based on appraisals provided by Tamil civilians who survived the last stages of the war. Here I address both Salter and Rajan Hoole, a friend of mine and the central figure behind the exhaustive 2009 UTHR reports.

Sri Lankan Tamil civilians arrive to a government-controlled area after fleeing territory controlled by the LTTE separatist rebels in Puthukkudiyirippu…Sri Lankan Tamil civilians arrive to a government-controlled area after fleeing territory controlled by the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) separatist rebels in Puthukkudiyirippu, northeast Sri Lanka, March 26, 2009. Pictures taken March 26, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer (SRI LANKA POLITICS CONFLICT IMAGE OF THE DAY TOP PICTURE)

A = Neither Hoole nor Salter attend to four critical facets in the conditions bearing on the specific claims from Tamil civilians. A1. Through the last five/six months of Eelam War IV many Tiger fighters were not wearing uniforms so that advancing SLA infantryman had to consider every able-bodied person[2] within sight as a potential enemy – in conditions of partial sightings amongst shrub and debris and the awareness that the Tigers deployed individuals in fearless suicide attacks.[3] A2. Thus, the civilians who raised this complaint in Hoole’s presence did not consider an overarching issue: namely, the powerful shadow of occluded identity, compounded as it was by the trees, shrubs and buildings in the specific landscape features of the “Last Redoubt.[4] How could any SL Army identify him or her as civilian?[5] A3. While the civilian witnesses may perhaps be excused for neglecting this fact, how is it that Rajan Hoole and Mr. Salter did not apply elementary common sense in assessing this allegation? Did they attend to the manner in which landscape and time of day/night condition warring activity on the ground? Note my partial  elaborations on this aspect in an Appendix. A4. The basic duty of an infantryman is to his colleagues around him; he is not expected to peep into a bunker and inquire “kavuda mehey innay” and have his head blown off if an enemy fighter is hiding therein. His fundamental duty is to remain alive and fighting

B.  Rajan Hoole cannot be accused of sympathies towards the LTTE and there is plenty of data within the UTHR reports as well as his The Arrogance of Power to demonstrate that fact. It is not an issue of bias, but the application of common infantry battle sense. Rajan’s acceptance of the civilian’s claims on this specific point is childish and displays a lack of common sense on this front. This failure highlights a more general problem that has bedevilled the appraisals of Eelam War IV tout court. Intelligent personnel with no battle theatre experience become members of “A Panel of Experts” and are dumb enough to essay judgments on complex battle-theatre issues for which they simply lack the competence.

C.  The detail derived from the UTHR document utilised by Salter is attributed to the 13th May and therefore relates to the conditions faced by SL Army infantrymen in the period 19th April–18/19th May 2009. They relate to the arena that I have called “the Last Redoubt” and what the American ambassador Blake kept calling the “Safe Zone.” Here one must attend to the variation in the landscape within the northern Vanni districts of Mannar, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. Such specificity is vital because the advancing SLA infantry did not face a mass of civilians in the immediate vicinity of the frontlines till they assaulted the Last Redoubt. About 20,000 people from the Mullaitivu area had been induced to move to this coastal strip between Vellamullivaikkal and Puttumattalan in December 2008.[6] By the end of February 2009, it appears that virtually the whole civilian mass of about 250,000 had taken up residence there; and that there were no civilians around PTK during the battles there in March.[7] This area is said to cover 16 sq. kilometres in Lt. Col. Gash’s reckoning, though elsewhere I have seen 24 sq kilometres estimated.

D. There, in the Last Redoubt on the coast, the civilians constituted the LTTE’s strategic asset: becoming (D1) a defensive formation of so many sandbags and (D2) the wherewithal for a picture of an “impending humanitarian catastrophe” – which scenario was intended to promote forcible Western intervention. If many civilians died, that was grist to the LTTE’s strategic scheme: “Just as in Kosovo if enough civilians died in Sri Lanka the world would be forced to step in” were Pulidevan’s words to a pal in Europe in early 2009[8] (quoted in Harrison 2012: 63).

E. In their various interventions or manoeuvres directed towards such intervention, Ambassador Blake, Ambassador Hattrem, other Norwegian diplomats and all the humanitarian agencies that sought a ceasefire from the GoSL, while fully attuned to the fact that the LTTE would not abide by that condition, became partners of the LTTE in their war strategy. … not mere partners but active partners.

F.Stark evidence of the success of the LTTE and this partisan engagement was seen when P Saravanamuttu, head of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, stepped forward on the 8th March 2009 in this style: “the argument that the forces have to respond to LTTE firing surely does not hold when it is known that such a response will result in civilian deaths and injuries, given the space and the number of people trapped within it.”[9] In effect, given the intransigence of the LTTE, he accepted that the Tigers would be firing heavy weaponry from that area, but the SLA had to treat that arena as sacred ground.

G. As it is, the commando units that penetrated the western bunds of the Last Redoubt on the 19th April and the infantry troops that fought to take control of that terrain over the next 30 days would not have deployed artillery much because such fire could hit one’s own troops. Even mortar fire may have been limited because of that possibility, so that RPGs and grenades would have been the “aids” supporting automatic weapons. Clearly, I am speculating here.

H. The initial operation was a remarkable success because it was preceded by leaflet drops and megaphone calls over a period of time that prepared the Tamil civilians and Tigers about what to expect.[10] In the result, some Tiger fighters deserted. Moreover, some 103-110,000 persons (including Tiger personnel who had shed weapons) streamed westwards across Nandhikadal Lagoon in four days — thereby securing freedom/relief.[11] That marvelous outcome was beamed to the world by television footage. Reporters and ambassadors were provided real time UAV footage of this process at SLAF HQ in Slave Island, Colombo on the 20th April. Reuters immediately alerted the world to this process.

I.  Despite this corpus of evidence, (Ia) Hillary Clinton went on air on the 22nd April 2009 and slashed the government of Sri Lanka because “a terrible humanitarian tragedy” was taking place and demanded a halt in the fighting so that “we could secure a safe passage for as many of the trapped civilians as possible;” and (Ib) the Foreign Ministers of Britain and France, David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner, flew to the island at the end of April and confronted President Rajapaksa in imperious style on the 31st April demanding a secession of hostilities. But Rajapaksa had chosen the setting for that meeting away from urban surroundings and firmly put the visitors in their place. Their imperial bombast was comprehensively deflated.

J. While we cannot lightly dismiss the humane concerns that seemed to guide such interventions,[12] we know from KP Pathmanathan’s revelations[13] as well as the disclosures from US Under Secy of State Michael Owens on the 6th of May 2009 that one of the central planks in these Western exertions was an ambitious scheme seeking to spirit a segment of the LTTE leadership to Eritrea, South Africa or East Timor. Ahaa! So … what sort of scenario did USA envisage for the benefit of American power in Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean from having the re-formulated LTTE directorate[14] in their shirt-pocket?

K. On a priori grounds I suggest that a party or parties within any dispute should not become adjudicators in the aftermath of that dispute. To my mind the participation of USA, Britain, France and Norway in subsequent judicial inquiries is a travesty of natural justice. But I am no legal luminary and can only postulate common sense as the foundation supporting this contention.


I have no active military experience in any form. My commentary is only too aware of this shortcoming. However, there is a vicarious dimension that does inform my commentary, As a young lad and teenager at St. Aloysius College in the 1950s, I used to pout over the Illustrated London News in the college library during the lunch break. I was an avid student of World World War Two and invariably saw films with Audie Murphy and others in starring roles as war heroes.

I still retain memories of the Illustrated London News pictorial series depicting the Allied invasion imprinted by the scenes which and advances in Sicily and Italy in 1944. After their landing at Salerno the Allies had to battle through or along the Pennines which straddle the centre of Peninsular Italy in a north south formation. When my wife and I visited Tuscany and Sicily in 2007 and drove hire cars during our touring, the difficulties that would have been encountered by the Allied troops were vividly driven home. Many Italian villages and towns in these localities are perched on the spurs of low hills or “mountains” overlooking rolling plains and valleys with vines and orchards. Roads are a narrow and winding up to and along the hills. Since the German and Italian forces were ensconced in fortified spots on the spurs and in the towns/villages overlooking the plains/valleys, I could now comprehend why the military advances of the Allied Forces in their armoured might in 1944 had been as devilish as slow. This was not ideal Sherman tank terrain.

The northern Vanni terrain, needles to say, is quite different ( and I have traveled there briefly in the past few years, sometimes enroute to Jaffna). The low lying plains in Mannar hinterland are quite different to the jungle scrub elsewhere, while the thick jungle around Mullaitivu is something else again. The lands to the east and west of Nandhikadal Lagoon are yet different — with interspersed trees, scrub and onlypatches of  thicker vegetation here and there; while the coastal arena is featured by sand, scrub and dotted with newly built houses [post tsunami] separated from each other in preferred mode. But the space of the Last Redoubt became a veritable swarm of tents and improvised sheds sheds when some two lakhs of people (or more) took up residence there.

Scenes from TamilNet, circa 1 May 2009 in LTTE space

Making do: in survival mode under the LTTE

two snaps by Kanchan Prasad in mid-May when visiitng the northern segment of the Last Redoubt

The snaps taken by the cameraman stringer on Ban Ki-Moon’s helicopter when it flew over a few days after the war ended gives some impression of the arena –now with debris and flotsam-jetsam from collapsed tents and damaged tin-sheds etc


Al-Jazeera 2009a “SL army claims control of rebel territory, 26 Jan 2009,”

Al-Jazeera 2009b “SL army closes in on Tamil Tigers,” 1 February 2009.

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009a “Political and Security Implications of Sri Lanka’s Armed Conflict,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, Feb. 2009, Vol. 35/1, pp. 20, 22-24.

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

Dharma-wardana, Chandre 2018 “An US Commando Force was at Katunayake in April 2009 prepared for a So-called ‘Humanitarian Intervention’,” 7 May 2018,

Diplomatic Editor 2009 “Plans to evacuate civilians. Donor Co-Chairs working out “coalition humanitarian task force,” 22 February 2009,

Gamage, Daya 2014 “The American agenda for Sri Lanka’s National Issues,” 5 July 2014,

Gray, David 2009 “A Day at the Front Line in Sri Lanka (Photographer’s Blog),” 27 April 2009,

Harrison, Frances 2012 Still Counting the Dead, London: Portobello.

Hull, C. Bryson 2009 “Sri Lanka opens eye in the sky on war zone,” 20 April 2009,

Hull, C. Bryson & Ranga Sirilal 2009a “Sri Lankan War in Endgame, 100,000 escape rebel zone,” 23 April 2009,

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

Jeyaraj D. B. S. 2009 “Wretched of the earth break free of bondage.” Daily Mirror, 25 April 2009.     

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2009 “Fraudulent concept of a “fire-free, no-fire, safe zone,” 18 April 2009,

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

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

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

Roberts, Michael 2011 “Amnesty International reveals its Flawed Tunnel-Vision in Sri Lanka in 2009,” 10 Aug. 2011,

Roberts, Michael 2011 “The Landscape of the LTTE’s Last Redoubt, May 2009,” 7 June 2011,

Roberts, Michael 2013 “Pictorial Illustrations of the Mass Exodus from the Last Redoubt, 20-22 April and mid-May 2009,” Appendix V for “BBC Blind”,

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

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

Roberts, Michael 2014b “The Induction Oath of Tamil Tiger Fighters at Their Passing-Out Ceremony,” 23 June 2014,

Roberts, Michael 2018  “The Bogollagama Gem: Thoughts on the Threatening US Spectre in March-May 2009,” 7 May 2018,

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

Saravanamuttu, P. 2009 “Unending End Game,” 9 March 2009,

Tammita-Delgoda, S. 2009 “The Casualties of Sri Lanka’s Brutal Civil War,” 16 April 2009,

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,

Tammita-Delgoda, S. 2014a “Crossing the Lines: Tamils Escapees from the Last Redoubt meet the Army,” 21 September 2014, php?post=13751&action  =edit&message=6&postpost=v2

Tammita-Delgoda, S. 2014b “Reading Between the Lines in April 2009: Tammita-Delgoda takes apart Marie Colvin’s jaundiced propaganda article in British newspaper,” 26 September 2014,

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

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,


[1] Michael Roberts: “The Gash Files: about Lt. Col Gash,” 31 March 2018,

[2] “Able-bodied person” in this situation should include boys and girls aged 12 -16 because some of the most fearless suicide charges were sometimes undertaken by these juveniles.

[3] In fact. the LTTE unleashed suicide attacks on occasions among the fleeing civilians in order to deter them (as recorded both in the UTHR studies and in some of Serge de Silva Ranasinghe’s essays). There were several instances when SL Army troops were subject to such attacks on the 19/20th April as well as subsequently (see de Silva-Ranasinghe, “Downfall,” 2010).

[4] That is why I fashioned an article on “The Landscape of the LTTE’s Last Redoubt, May 2009,” (Roberts 2011) – deploying Kanchan Prasad’s  shots when she visited the rear battle arena of the Last Redoubt from the 14-18th May with Muralidhar Reddy. Also see “Times Aerial Images,” 2009.

[5] Note, too, that a significant number had also been trained in basic military action in the makkal padai (civilian auxiliary force) in the years 2005-08 (see Figs. 62-64 in Roberts, Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, 2014, pp. 106-08).

[6] See Jeyaraj, “Fraudulent Concept,” 2009. In my surmise this specific move was designed to thwart any amphibious landing by the GoSL forces.

[7] See Tammita-Delgoda’s description of the aftermath of battles at PTK with photographs as supplements: “Reading Between the Lines in April 2009: Tammita-Delgoda takes apart Marie Colvin’s jaundiced propaganda article in British newspaper,” 26 September 2014,

[8] Quoted in Harrison 2012: 63 … Pulidevan was the Chief Political Commissars in 2009.

[9] See Saravanamuttu 2009.  This sentence is followed by references to the statements of the visiting luminary Sir John Holmes of the UN. In retrospect, it is abundantly clear that Holmes and other UN emissaries, such as Vijay Nambiar, were virtually USA’s handmaidens. Note that earlier on the 19th February Human Rights Watch had released an illustrated document with this demand: “The Sri Lankan government should immediately cease its indiscriminate artillery attacks on civilians in the northern Vanni region and its policy of detaining displaced persons in internment camps.”

[10] It is my suspicion that a few SL Army Tamil -speakers or Karuna’s men had been infiltrated into the civilian populace to plant seeds of possible courses of action.

[11] See Jeyaraj, “Wretched,” 2009 and Hull “Eye in Sky,” 2009. Also note Roberts, “Pictorial Illustrations …,” 2013.

[12] Foreign policy formulations within the Western states (and most states) are fields that are difficult to penetrate. The degree to which humanitarian concerns shaped USA’s policy towards Sri Lanka is a debating ground.

[13] See Jeyaraj, KP Speaks Out, 2011. KP’s efforts saw an assembly of Norwegian diplomats and LTTE emissaries from their global network meet in Kuala Lumpur in February 2009; while a PACOM team of US military specialists visited Sri Lanka to assess possibilities of intervention (see Salter 2015: 348-49 and Roberts, “Bogollagam Gem,” 2018). The latter was kept hush-hush …and still is.

[14] References with Ambassador Blake’s despatches indicate that USA was ready to hand Pirapaharan and Pottu Amman over to India [to face punishment for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi]. Thus it is logical to surmise that they would have settled on the political wing of the LTTE as carriers of the flag and point men in the US strategy of securing “a negotiated settlement” (Owens’s words) in Sri Lanka between its Tamil people and the Sinhala-led government.

***  ***

MARK SALTER: A COMMENT on a passing remark in Michael Roberts in Gash Files I, 14 June 2018, …

My attention to this broadside has just been drawn by a Twitter follower – of mine, and perhaps of yours. The reason being your reference to me here. On inspection I discover you have done so in customarily slapdash style.

You state that Lt. Col. Gash “would certainly not be found guilty of the crass assessments of the type essayed by Mark Salter in his condemnation of the SL Army.”

I was not aware of having ever issued a blanket “condemnation” of the Sri Lankan Army. But no matter. In the accompanying note you state that “Salter provides this example of the SL Army’s “brutality”: “from 13 May advancing [SLA] soldiers fired or threw grenades into civilian bunkers as a ‘precaution’ against the possibility of the LTTE using them to launch attacks” (Salter 2015: 371)”, describing this as “highlighting’ my ‘(and Solheim’s) infantile military intelligence.’

First, it should be noted that this ‘infantile’ claim is not mine. As you would have discovered if you had bothered to check the endnotes, it is drawn from one of a series of detailed report produced by University Teachers for Human Rights – Jaffna (UTHR-J), a courageous human rights group that early on in the war defined its aims as “to challenge the external and internal terror engulfing the Tamil community as a whole through making the perpetrators accountable, and to create space for humanizing the social and political spheres relating to the life of our community.”

No LTTE stooges here, in other words. And while theirs, like any reports, should be viewed with a critical eye, UTHR-J’s unparalleled access to eyewitness accounts of what was going on inside the battle zone makes their reports from the war’s final stages a uniquely valuable resource to the researcher – not least regarding the LTTE’s increasingly desperate, murderous attempts to prevent Tamil civilians from escaping the shrinking area under their control.

Interestingly, you don’t actually contest the report of soldiers throwing grenades into bunkers likely to be populated with civilians, instead throwing up your hands in a kind of ‘what can you do in war?’ on behalf of those involved. If and when a war crimes tribunal was to hear this argument, I submit it would be unlikely to impress the prosecution as a solid line of defence.

That aside and for the record – and wider consumption – allow me to reproduce in full the context from which the sentence you wrenched is taken (sentence itself highlighted):

“With the Tigers and the trapped civilians pushed back into an ever-shrinking patch of territory, reports of LTTE cadres firing on people who were attempting to escape continued to emerge from the combat zone. In several instances the Tigers even resorted to shelling, with heavy casualties the predictable consequence. Further reports from the combat zone indicated that the Tigers were continuing to direct mortar and gunfire at government forces from among the mass of civilians, provoking murderous retaliation. Chillingly, reports also surfaced of LTTE cadres going to bunkers where civilians were sheltering, and asking ‘So you want to run away to the Army do you?’ before opening fire.

The Army proved itself more than capable of equal brutality. Eyewitness reports indicate that from 13 May onwards, advancing soldiers regularly fired or threw grenades into civilian bunkers as a ‘precaution’ against the LTTE using them to launch attacks. The frequency with which this occurred, it was suggested, was directly related to the size of the casualties that government forces were sustaining. In all probability it was also related to their experiences during the earlier battle for PTK, during which wounded Black Tiger cadres allegedly hid themselves in bunkers until an Army unit passed by, whereupon they simply blew themselves up. There were eyewitness reports of heavy Army vehicles flattening bunkers that contained civilians.” …. [a quotation from UTHR-J Special Report No. 32, “A Marred Victory and a Defeat Pregnant with Foreboding”, available at that is located on page 371 of my book].

If, after reading this, readers concur with you that I (and Erik Solheim) are guilty of a display of ‘infantile military intelligence’ – well, so be it.

Let me finish by noting that I had forgotten your writings for a while, having been assured some months back that you would be returning with a substantive response to my detailed critiques of your work. This, it would seem, has yet to materialize.

I await it with interest.

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