Facing Charles Sarvan: Mark His Obliteration of Context

Michael Roberts

Charles Sarvan’s recent essay in Colombo Telegraph “On ‘Reading’ A Picture” presents reflections with a dispassionate air that conveys an impression of philosophical weight above the tumult of a propaganda war in which all of us are willy-nilly involved.[1] He distances himself at the outset from the identities of the victors in the picture as Sinhalese and the vanquished as Tamil by terming that differentiation “accidental”. But, in concentrating on the horrendous assaults on women perpetrated by men, he proceeds to a presentation of the contemporary Tamil litany about the horrendous acts inflicted on the Tamils in the last stages of Eelam War IV. He does this without any historical, political and cartographic contextualization of the events that unfolded from mid-2006 to May 2009.

 Map I = The Situation in late December 2008

Rape is a frequent corollary in war and, in alluding to this phenomenon, Sarvan moves on to refer to instances where captured females had their vaginas ruptured by weaponry before their execution.  While he does not provide chapter and verse, I had no reason to doubt the existence of such instances and find that this is one of crimes detailed in the Report of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) presented in 2015. Deploying this type of example, Sarvan moves subtly towards an indictment of the Sinhala man’s inhumanity towards the Tamil personnel rendered captive at the end of the war.

His essay is warfare — a movement in stealth invoking some of charges wielded by the pro-Tiger pro-Tamil cause since the LTTE was defeated in April-May 2009. How better to present this story via philosophical lines linked to a graphic picture?

In fact, Sarvan is retracing a powerful European tradition associated with its best painters. Take the Mona Lisa painted in Florence by Da Vinci at some point between 1503 and 1510: her “mysterious smile and her unproven identity have made the painting a source of ongoing investigation and fascination.”[2] Then again, there is the painting of the God Zeus taking the form of a swan and penetrating “the mortal woman Leda.”[3] Thus, with one stroke of his pen, Sarvan is casting himself among the erudite commentators of the modern world.

  Pic A

Decontextualization: What is not Presented

Sarvan’s focus on just one photograph from the series in which that snap emanated[4] exposes the decontextualization that he foists on his readers. By chance I have the whole series of pictures deployed by Tamil activists in the web essay: White Flag – snapshots that I have presented in my previous articles.  I can also back it up with at least one other example of the execution of a senior LTTE officer named Ramesh aka Thambirasa Thurairjasingham– courtesy of an article by Gordon Weiss.[5]

In all these sources the context is clear: the LTTE and its defeat in war.

Ah! Yes! The LTTE is one part of the context quietly elided by Sarvan.  From early 2008 they enticed, persuaded and pushed the civilian population in their territory to retreat ahead of their own back-peddling retreat and then to serve as so many hostages for their political campaign directed towards inducing Western intervention by raising the cry of “an impending humanitarian catastrophe.” In the event, the Western powers and HR agencies bought wholeheartedly into this ‘alliance.’ They became de facto allies of the LTTE and were thereby complicit in the hostage situation. That is a broader issue which I have presented in other essays. So, its reiteration here is brief and serves as a necessary contextualization for any commentary on Sarvan’s exploration.

Let me initially move beyond his chosen photograph to other related pictures before amplifying the context that is concealed by Sarvan’s philosophical pas de deux. His chosen snap is the twin of another which must be absorbed first because the LTTE lass – whom I shall call “Subhi” — who is being picked out from a row of Tigers is in the first snap, albeit obscured by young Tigers in front of her. But it is the third snap that is critical: it reveals the same lass beside Isaipriya, who was a relatively high-ranking LTTE ‘official’ in the propaganda branch of their war machine.

Pics B & C

Pic D

 Pic E

Isaipriya aka Shobana Dharmaraja is clearly distraught and so too XYZ. I go further: I challenge Sarvan’s reading and suggest that his picture indicates that the lass “Subhi” is not only exhausted, but also frightened, albeit in a resigned manner. This reading is supported by the second picture where she is next to an extremely distraught Isaipriya.

THEN there is another photograph: showing both women dead. Executed. There are fuller details of the execution scenario in the OHCHR Report of 2015.[6] So, yes, an issue for war crimes investigation.

 Pic F

But Sarvan’s readings of just one picture (with his wife as co-reader) are my focus: he also dwells on the semi-nakedness of the young men in the photograph and the senior man (identified in the OHCHR report as “Col. Vasanthan”)[7] who had been drawn aside and had his hands tied. He tells us that all this is part of power-play: the humiliation of a defeated enemy.

This is gross ignorance compounded by a bourgeois drawing room perspective. The LTTE had proved themselves to be masters of suicide attacks and the ingenious fashioning of suicide belts, suicide bodices, et cetera.[8] Again, all their recruits were enjoined to carry cyanide pills so that they could avoid being captured alive.[9] At this point of the war, the LTTE was probably bereft of cyanide pills and suicide belts.  But it would be a foolish SL army trooper who neglected this possibility. The first principle of security would have been orders for prisoners of war to strip (though they seem to have drawn a distinction and allowed Isaipriya and “Subhi” to remain fully clothed).

To complete our interpretations, we should address the location of these photographs. That spot is clearly one of the bund-and-water ditches, a type of “berm,”[10] which the LTTE deployed from early 2008 onwards to constrain the SL Army in its advances. Since the major SLA thrusts were from west to the east, the Tiger berms were built on a north/south alignment. However, I surmise that the berm that is central to this photograph ran from west-to-east and was built within what I have termed the “Last Redoubt” – the coastal strip of roughly 24 sq. kilometres to which the LTTE was restricted from early-mid April 2009. In further surmise, I suggest that this berm had been built after the SL Army commandoes penetrated the defences of the Last Redoubt on the banks of the Nandhikadal Lagoon via a thrust on the 19th-20th April. That attack enabled the SLA to seize the northern segment of the Last Redoubt (see Map I – the Daily Mirror graphic map).



  Map II – 7-15 May 2009

Even in their dire circumstances in that stage of warfare, the LTTE apparently had the capacity and the heavy machinery to build berms on their frontline facing north and perhaps even to the south. They also continued the distribution of supplies and medical care for those elements in the Tamil civilian population who chose to move south and stay with them – though the larger mass of over 100.000 people deserted in droves between the 20th and 31st April (as the figures within Map I indicate). Such capacities induce admiration for the LTTE in my mind – yet another indication of a formidable organisation.

Pics G & H from Tamilnet 27 April & 9 May 2009 –food distribution & med/care continue

Finally, one must take in another set of photographs taken about the same time:[11]  these reveal rows and rows of bodies being studied by senior military officers as well as other ranks.


As with the other photographs displayed above, my conjecture is that the scenarios under scrutiny occurred at the end of the war, say between the 17th and 21st May 2009 with the final act being the discovery of Pirapāharan’s body in a swamp in the early hours of the 18th (??) May.[12]

Yes, these Sri Lankan soldiers are basking in triumph and the satisfaction of war completed. But this type of act is also a standard military practice: armies always count the number of the enemy killed and if one visited the SLArmy website in its heyday, one would have seen bodies in rows after previous battles at Chalai and other spots in 2009. However, there is an additional purpose on this occasion after the war had ended — as indeed embodied in the pointed fingers and the faces of the officers: they were intent on identifying key leaders among the Tiger dead.

And what about the cameraman in the last two examples? A trophy for future display? Yes, maybe, but also a source of a cash when sold to independent or pro-Tamil personnel – a hypothesis that Sarvan does not present when his wife raised this issue. And why does he not entertain this thought? Well, maybe such a suggestion would besmirch his philosophical and neutral non-partisan air? THAT, after all, is the powerful current in his propaganda message timed to coincide with the UNHRC session in Geneva in March 2019.

Broadening the Immediate Context

If I were to conclude my review at this point, I would be risking imprisonment within the Sarvan, Tamil and UNHRC programme of insidious and partisan recrimination: that is, vengeance. At roughly the same time as the events captured in these photographs, and in the weeks commencing with the penetration of the Last Redoubt on the 19/20th April, literally thousands of entrapped Tamil civilians and deserting Tiger personnel trekked across land and/or water to the safety of government territory. In the 4-5 days of April 19th-to-22nd April there were as many as 103,000 (see Figures in Map 1). When added to those who had been shipped out by the ICRC in agreements with the LTTE (roughly 13,000), those who escaped earlier in 2009, those who trickled out by sea or land after the 22nd April and  those who survived the battles in mid-May, the GoSL was left with 295, 873 displaced persons (called IDPs) by late May 2009 – of whom roughly 12,000 were deemed to be Tiger personnel and sequestered in rehabilitation camps that were demi-prisons.

These survivors/escapees presented an enormous logistical and security problem to the SL Army which seems to have done its best to sort them out, to weed out those deemed Tiger personnel for placement in special camps, and to provide temporary succour till they could be moved to the temporary facilities at Omanthai[13] and thereafter to the IDP camps set up at Manik Farm.  The Manik Farm enterprise had commenced in late 2008 and became an enormous and complex humanitarian relief operation with at least 42 UN organisations, NGOs and NGOs assisting GoSL in this complex task.[14]

Some pictures present one with a glimpse of the massive tasks faced by the SL Army and other organisations coping with this internal refugee problem. These photographs do not capture the whole picture nor convey the difficulties, the failures and successes of the various humanitarian operations. That is a topic demanding a book-length studies built on the foundation of thematic essays on specific topics.

But let me highlight a singular feel-good story presented from the SL government side in a manner which serves to boost the government’s merciful work. I have a vivid recollection of this story on film which elaborated on the recuperation of a young Tamil mother with an infant who was severely injured as she crossed the embankment in April 2009 with her infant — an infant from whom she was separated in that moment of turmoil. She was discovered, treated by the Army and then helicoptered out to hospitals, ending up at the Lady Ridgeway in Colombo where she was ‘restored’ as person – but without one eye.

But she had lost her infant – or so she thought. Lo and behold: there were three motherless infants in government hospitals who ended up at Lady Ridgeway. DNA confirmed that one was hers. Mother and child became one.[15]

So: what kind of generalization can we essay on the platform provided by this Good Samaritan story? We surely cannot work like Charles Sarvan contemplating one photograph as a foundation for suggestive generalizations and comparisons of a targeted kind. That feel-good tale must necessarily be qualified by other tales, inclusive of incidents of rape and execution.

Is there such a thing as a balance sheet? I doubt that. But weighted one-sided tales –however philosophical – do not enable balanced REFLECTIONS. Especially when they are presented in the month of March where the Western diplomatic barrage was holding court over Sri Lanka with the Tamil diaspora and former LTTE elements as active informants. This does not mean that their accusations are all manufactured lies. But they are one-sided and weighted. More vitally, they are decontextualized.

This distortion is taken to extreme lengths when a Sri Lankan Tamil intellectual residing in Germany adopts a philosophical hat and insinuates Nazi comparisons at a tactical point in a worldwide campaign of Tamil vengeance.

We must remain grateful that the surviving Nazi Germans in Latin America and elsewhere never had such diasporic clout and the benefit of worldwide power struggles that facilitated Nazi campaigns of vengeance.


Sarvan, Charles 2019 “On ‘Reading’ A Picture”,” Colombo Telegraph, 19 March 2019, https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/on-reading-a-picture/

Sarvan, Charles 2019 Inhumane: Ruminations from A Pictorial Tale,” 27 March 2019, https://thuppahis.com/2019/03/27/inhumane-ruminations-from-a-pictorial-tale/

OHCHR 2014 “OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka,” 25 June 2014, https://www.ohchr.org/en/hrbodies/hrc/pages/oisl.aspx

OHCHR 2015 Report of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL). https://cpj.org/2011/06/tamil-journalist-bound-shot-during-sri-lankan-civi.php


Abeysekera, Lakshi 2012 [2010] “The last lot of IDPs from the Nandikadal area, The Omanthai feeding operation,” August 2010, https://thuppahis.com/2012/09/22/the-last-lot-of-idps-from-nandhikadal-area-may-2009-the-omanthai-feeding-operation/

Banu, Dilshy 2012 Operation Manik Farm, Colombo, Stamford Lake.

BBC 1991 “Suicide Killers,” Documentary series.

Engage Sri Lanka 2013 Corrupted Journalism. Channel 4 and Sri Lanka. A Collective Work by Engage Sri Lanka, http://www.corruptedjournalism.com/book/Corrupted%20Journalism.pdf

Herath, Hemantha 2011, “Q and A, “From Tsunami Medical Logistics to IDP Camp Medical Aid, 2004-09; Q and A with Dr Herath,” 14 September2011, https://thuppahis.com/2011/09/14/from-tsunami-medical-logistics-to-idp-camp-medical-aid-2004-09-q-and-a-with-dr-herath/

Khan, Steven et al 2009 “Female suicide bombers: Tamil Tiger teenage girl led the way,” 2 June 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/jun/11/female-suicide-bombers-iraq-sri-lanka

Mahindapala, H. L. D. 2009 “How Prabhakaran went down in Nanthi Kadal – the last battleground,” 10 July 2009, http://lrrp.wordpress.com/2009/07/10/how-prabhakaran-went-down-in-nanthi-kadal-%E2%80%93-the-last-battleground-by-h-l-d-mahindapala

Pape, Robert 2009 “Tamil Tigers: Suicide Bombing Innovators,” 21 May 2009 https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104391493

Reuter, Christoph 2002 My Life Is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Roberts, Michael 2006 “Pragmatic Action & Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite Of Commemoration,” Social Analysis 50: 73-102.

Roberts, Michael 2010 “Omanthai! Omanthai! Succour for the Tamil Thousands,” 12 August 2010, http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/blogs/southasiamasala/2010/08/12/omanthai-omanthai-succour-for-the-tamil-thousands/

Roberts, Michael 2013 “BBC-Blind: Misreading the Tamil Tiger Strategy of International Blackmail, 2008-13,” https://thuppahis.com/2013/12/08/bbc-blind-misreading-the-tamil-tiger-strategy-of-international-blackmail-2008-13/#more-11221

Roberts, M.  2013 “Pictorial Illustrations of the Mass Exodus from the Last Redoubt, 20-22 April and mid-May 2009: Appendix V for “BBC Blind”, https://thuppahis.com/2013/12/11/exodus-from-the-last-redoubt-late-april-mid-may-2009-appendix-v-for-bbc-blind

Roberts, M. 2014a “Dedicated Medical Work Amidst the Heat of War, Death and Propaganda: In the Vanni Pocket, 2009,”https://thuppahis.com/2012/04/12/blackmail-during-the-endgame-in-eelam-war-iv/

Roberts, M. 2014b “Generating Calamity, 2008-2014: An Overview of Tamil Nationalist Operations and Their Marvels,” 10 April 2014, http://groundviews.org/2014/04/10/generating-calamity-2008-2014-an-overview-of-tamil-nationalist-operations-and-their-marvels/

Roberts, M. 2014 Tamil Person and State. Essays, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publishers.

Roberts, M. 2014 Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publishers

Setunga, Myrna 2009   “An Overview: Setunga V,” 22 July 2009, 22 July 2009, http://thuppahis.com/2012/10/01/an-overview-setunga-v-22-july-2009/

Shanmugarajah, V. 2014 “Dr. Veerakanthipillai Shanmugarajah’s Affidavit Description of Conditions in the Vanni Pocket in Refutation of Channel Four,” 5 January 2014, https://thuppahis.com/2014/01/05/drveerakanthipillai-shanmugarajahs-affidavit-description-of-conditionsin-the-vanni-pocket-in-refutation-of-channel-four/

Thangavelu, Velupillai 2013 “LTTE Cadres Who Surrendered to The Army: Where Are They?” Colombo Telegraph, 18 August 2013, http://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/ltte-cadres-who-surrendered-to-the-army-where-are-they/.

Times 2011 “TIMES Aerial Images, NFZ Last Redoubt, 23 May 2009,” http://www.flickr.com/ photos/thuppahi/sets/72157626922360092/

UTHR 2009a A Marred Victory and a Defeat Pregnant with Meaning, Special Report No. 32. http://www.uthr.org/SpecialReports/spreport32.htm

UTHR 2009b Let Them Speak: Truth about Sri Lanka’s Victims of War. Special Report No. 34, http://www.uthr.org/SpecialReports/Special%20rep34/Uthr-sp.rp34.htm.

Video Image [GSL] 2014 “A balanced insight into the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict – “Common Differences” (HD),” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_L8QfZw0XUo.

Vidura 2009 “The Great Escapes,” Sunday Leader, 17 May 2009.

You Tube Video [GSL] 2013 “The Last Phase,” http://www.youtube.com/embed/RQmn4ubPy5A.

Weerasekera, Susiri 2012  “Fitting Artificial Limbs for the IDPs and ex-Tigers, July 2009 to March 2010 —FINS at the frontline,” 23 September 2012, http://thuppahis.com/2012/09/23/7108/2009

Weiss, Gordon 2012 New Evidence — The Death of Colonel Ramesh,” 21 March 2012, https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/newevidencethe-death-of-colonel-ramesh-warning-disturbing-images/

[White Flag] 2014 5 Years On: The White Flag Incident, http://white-flags.org/

Yatawara, Dhaneshi 2009 “Entrapped Civilians seek salvation in Force,” Sunday Observer, 17 May 2009, http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2009/05/17/fea05.asp


[1] See https://thuppahis.com/2019/03/27/inhumane-ruminations-from-a-pictorial-tale/ for its presentation again.

[2] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mona-Lisa-painting

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leda_and_the_Swan And  ………………………………………………………… https://thuppahis.com/2018/11/23/ledas-seduction-by-a-swan-erotica-from-pompeii-79ad-and-beyond/

[4] Sarvan indicates that he has taken the picture from an article in Colombo Telegraph. But are we to believe that a Tamil activist in the European circuit such as Sarvan was/is not aware of the article by Thangavelu (2013) and 5 years On: The White Flag Incident, http://white-flags.org/ (2014)?

[5] See White Flag 2014 and Weiss 2012 and OHCHR 2015: paras 306-10.

[6] OHCHR 2015: paras 314-16 and 323-25.

[7] OHCHR 2015, para 321.

[8] See Reuter 2002; Pape 2009 and Khan et al 2009. Also note Roberts 2006.

[9] A viewing of the BBC documentary “Suicide Killers” – made in 1991 with LTTE cooperation – is a must for those unfamiliar with the sacrificial devotion of the LTTE soldiers. Also see Roberts 2006.

[10] A flat strip of land, raised bank, or terrace bordering a river or canal.

[11] Also circulated by the Tamil propaganda machine: see White Flag [2014].

[12] Details of this incident inclusive of pictures depicting the terrain can be found in Mahindapala 2009. In my conjecture the troops platoon which killed Pirapaharan would not have known that they were firing at the talaivar. In jungle and swamp terrain it would be difficult to recognise persons and even to differentiate officers from ordinary ranks.

[13] This facility seems to have been set up for the last big batch of IDPs in mid-May: see Abeysekera 2012 and Roberts 2010 for accounts of this remarkable feeding and sustenance operation run by Sewalanka with SL Army and WHO aid.

[14] See App. 3 in Roberts, TPS. Pictorial, 2014, App3. Pp 266-70.

[15] I am still in search of this video documentary. The Yahapaalana government seems to have decimated the old GoSL historical records, including that of the Ministry of Defence.

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