Insights for Today: A Reuter’s Report from the Eelam War Front in Late February 2009

C. Bryson Hull, reporting for REUTERS on 23 February 2009 … with this title “Sri Lanka army measures end of 25 year-war in days” …with highlighting by The Editor, Thuppahi complemented by A SET of COMMENTS that is vital for debates today in 2019

After 25 years of war, Sri Lanka army Brigadier Shavendra Silva is measuring the last of the fighting in days. Standing not far from where he expects a final showdown with Tamil Tiger separatists in the Indian Ocean island’s northeast, the 58th Division commander ordered in his armoured units as Tiger mortar bombs exploded on the nearby frontline

Reuters PIX = recalcitrant = Three T-55 tanks and an armoured personnel carrier with a 30 mm cannon raced down the A-35 road, throwing up clouds of fine red dust, the thump of their 30 mm cannon heard within a minute.

Just a few hours earlier, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) peace secretariat had issued a letter addressed to the United Nations and others saying the separatist guerrilla group would accept a truce but not surrender. “We have a job to do. We are not bothered about any truce at the moment,” Silva told Reuters on Monday on a visit to a frontline usually closed to outside observers.

Sri Lanka’s military has cornered the LTTE in less than 60 sq km of palm-dotted coastal scrubland and expects to end one of Asia’s longest-running wars shortly. “How long it will take is not in weeks. I am talking in days,” Silva told Reuters earlier at his headquarters in Kilinochchi in the three-storey former LTTE Peace Secretariat where the Tigers once hosted diplomats and journalists.

Silva’s troops seized the northern half of Kilinochchi, which the Tigers had proclaimed as the capital of the separate state they wanted to create for Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils, on Jan 2.  Since then they have moved swiftly east more than 30 km along the A-35 road. Much of the road itself shows little sign of war save the soldiers, but there is plenty of destruction around it. Houses, shops and fences lie in disarray, felled by a wall of water loosed when the LTTE blew up the Kalmadakulam dam.

“The water was nine feet high. The brigade commander was on top of a tree,” Silva said near a bridge that had also been blown up by the LTTE during its retreat.

Further along is a refugee reception centre, where more than 25,000 people fleeing fighting were screened before being moved to camps outside the war zone. Witnesses who have escaped said the LTTE forced civilians to stay as conscripts or human shields, shooting those who tried to escape and firing artillery from areas thick with people.

The Tigers have in turn accused the government of indiscriminately shelling civilians, which the military denies and says is part of an old Tiger strategy to manufacture a crisis to create international pressure for a ceasefire.

They are firing a lot from the no-fire zone but we can’t help it. We don’t fire into the no-fire zone. We fire immediately to the front of our line,” Silva said. The civilian presence has forced the military to slow down its advance and take more of its own casualties, commanders say. “If it weren’t for the civilians, this would be a one-day job,” Major-General Jagath Jayasuriya, overall commander for the war zone, told Reuters from his headquarters in Vavuniya, 75 km south of Kilinochchi.

Aid agencies say there are 200,000 people stuck in the war zone, while the military puts the number at no more than 70,000. Nearly all of them are in the current no-fire zone, a narrow 12-km strip of mostly coconut groves bounded by the ocean on one side and a lagoon on the other.

Troops are to the north and south, and Silva’s soldiers were 6 km (4 miles) from the lagoon’s western shore on Monday. That is where Silva expects the final showdown. “We will have to see how the LTTE will react at the end of that area,” he said.

****

VITAL NOTES by Michael Roberts, 27 November 2019

1. I came across this file in my documentary collection — a file I have not referred to before (as far I can recall) and one that is highly significant for the debate today where uninformed, but high-powered, commentators in plush drawing rooms in the cumulus clouds essay definitive claims on death tolls and genocide.

2. In doing so let me commend Bryson Hull and his Reuters personnefor their balanced reportage on the war throughout 2009 contrasting sharply with the biased and ignorant tales conveyed by Ravi Nessman of the Associated Press and Charles de Haviland of BBC — with perhaps the most striking piece from the Reuters’ efforts being a report from Hull on 20 April 2009 entitled “Sri Lanka opens eye in the sky on war zone,” (http://mobile.reuters.com/article/idUSCOL450259)). In contrast, many Western reporters and/or their head-offices fell prey to the LTTE propaganda barrage and swallowed the magnified tales conveyed to them by Tamil medical doctors working under the LTTE diktat — causing the veteran Indian journalist in Colombo, PK Balachandran, to inquire derisively why these gullible personnel did not consider how the doctors and Tamil NGO officials had access to satellite phones within the tightly-controlled Tiger dispensation.

3. I note here that Shavendra Silva’s forecast of a relatively quick end to the war was misplaced. It took the Sri Lankan forces another 10-11 weeks to gain control of the remaining terrain held by the LTTE.

4. In presenting a picture of a SL Army tank as the ‘lead’ for this picture, Hull and Reuters underlined the seeming power of the SL Army in a misleading manner, Tanks and armoured vehicles were of limited value during Eelam War IV in 2008/09. This was because (a) the Tigers used extensive berm (ditch-and-bund) defences when on the retreat; (b) there were substantial expanses of waterlogged ground in the Mannar basin and at Nandhikadal Lagoon — exacerbated further during monsoon rains; and (c) as Shavendra Silva indicated to Hull when the Tigers blew up the Kalmadakulam dam in February 2009 to generate a minor flood and undermine the SL Army’s forward thrust. Thus, a study of Jagath Senaratne’s History of the Armoured Corps will indicate that only four of the SLAC personnel lost their lives in 2009.[1] To fully grasp this difficulty one should place oneself – or, preferably, some BBC and British Labour Party personnel  — in a large tank commanded by a brave SLAC officer and order that officer to cross the Muthurajawela swamp north of Colombo.

5. This report from the rear-frontline from Bryson Hull also confirms what any intelligent commentator of the war in 2009 would have comprehended: the presence of a mass of civilians enforced  restraints on the use of artillery and aerial bombardment by the GoSL forces – caution because they believed this would induce forceful foreign intervention.

6, As vitally, Hull refers to the tales conveyed by (Tamil) “witnesses who have escaped” — tales indicating that the LTTE forced civilians to stay as conscripts or human shields, shooting those who tried to escape and firing artillery from areas thick with people.” This strand in LTTE strategy was also comprehended by Narendran Rajendran and underlined in one of his email communications in 2012: the people were retained as a protective shield during the LTTE retreat and “exposed to death as a major part of their war strategy.”[2] These facets of the battle theatre are also underlined at several points in the review of the evidence by Major-General John Holmes (of Britain), in his report to the Paranagama Commission in 2015. To present just one of his conclusions: “This civilian melting pot also contained LTTE fighters in civilian clothes, civilians who were actively assisting the LTTE, as well as LTTE artillery and mortars” (para 70). As it happens, stills from captured LTTE video footage reveal some instances of fighting men in civilian attire. [3]

7. Likewise, the Reuter’s report happens to indicate to us – now in hindsight – that the Army and the SL government had underestimated the number of personnel (Tigers and civilians together) residing within the declining Vanni Pocket. This underestimate was huge. We can now say that the total of Tiger personnel and civilians in the remaining segment of the Vanni Pocket in late February 2009 was not 70,000, but around 270,000.[3] This is a contrast of some magnitude.

8. Hull’s account provides a chilling set of details: Witnesses who have escaped said the LTTE forced civilians to stay as conscripts or human shields, shooting those who tried to escape and firing artillery from areas thick with people.” These dimensions of the struggle have also been presented in the UTHR reports. We also know that a female suicide bomber mingled with the escapees and detonated her bomb at an “IDP rescue centre” in the rear of the frontline on 9th February 2009 – killing 29 and wounding 64 – inclusive of SL Army personnel (mostly female).[5]

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY

Coupland, R. & David R. Meddings 1999 “Mortality associated with use of weapons in armed conflicts, wartime atrocities, and civilian mass shootings: literature review.” British Medical Journalhttps://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.319.7207.407

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009b “The Battle for the Vanni Pocket,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, March 2009, Vol. 35/2, pp. 17-19. … and http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/aulimp/citations/gsa/ 2009157395/156554.html

Harrison, Frances 2011 Still counting the Dead, London: Portobello Books.

Harshula 2011a “When allegations becomes evidence,” 6 June 2011, http://groundviews.org/2011/06/06/when-allegations-become-evidence/

Holmes, Maj-General2018 “Maj-General Holmes deciphers the Eelam Wars,” 3 May 2018 https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2018/05/03/maj-genl-holmes-deciphers-the-eelam-wars/

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

Justice,” http://www.scribd.com/doc/132499266/The-Numbers-Game-Politics-of-Retributive-JusticeOR http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/shrilanka/document/TheNG.pdf.

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2009

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2011 “KP” speaks out: An Interview with former Tiger Chief, Vavuniya: Kum Pvt.

LTTE War Video  2013 LTTE war video recovered by the Government — revealing episodes,“ 13 February 2013,  https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/ltte-war-video-recovered-by-the-government-revealing-episodes/

Mango 2014 “Sri Lanka’s War In Its Last Phase: Where WIA Figures Defeat The Gross KIA Estimates,” 14 February 2014, https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/sri-lankas-war-in-its-last-phase-where-wia-figures-defeat-the-gross-kia-estimates/

Marga 2011 Truth and Accountability. The Last Stages of the War in Sri Lankahttp://www.margasrilanka.org/Truth-Accountability.pdf.

Prasad, Kanchan2011 “Two Indian Reporters’ Post-War Pictures at the LTTE’s Last Redoubt, May 14-19, 2009,” ed. by Roberts, June 2011, http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/blogs/southasiamasala/2011/06/10/two-indian-reporters%E2%80%99-post-war-pictures-at-the-ltte%E2%80%99s-last-redoubt-may-14-19-2009

[Nessman, Ravi] 2014 The War in Sri Lanka: Ravi Nessman’s Slanted Story for USA on the Tavis Smiley Show, 18 February 2009.”  31 January 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/the-war-in-sri-lanka-ravi-nessmans-slanted-story-for-usa-on-the-tavis-smiley-show-18-february-200/

Noble, Kath 2013 “Numbers Game reviewed by Kath Noble: The Full Monty,” 14 July 2013, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/numbers-game-reviewed-by-kath-noble-the-full-monty/

Rajasingham, Narendran2009 “Rise and Fall of the LTTE — An Overview,” Sri Lanka Guardian, 7 Feb. 2009, http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2009/02/rise-and-fall-of-ltte-overview.html.

Rajasingham, Narendran2010 “Pro-LTTE Diaspora pursue Eelam Agenda without Any Thought about Tamils living in Sri Lanka,” 26 May 2010, http://transcurrents.com/tc/2010/05/proltte_diaspora_pursue_eelam.html.

Rajasingham, Narendran, 2014 “Harsh Ground Realities in War: Decomposing Bodies and Missing Persons and Soldiers,” 28 January 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/11702/

Reddy, B. Muralidhar 2009 “An Escape from Hellhole,” http://www.hindu.com/ 2009/04/25/stories/2009042558390100.html.

Roberts, Michael  2013 “BBC-Blind: Misreading the Tamil Tiger Strategy of International Blackmail, 2008-13,” 8 December 2013, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2013/12/08/bbc-blind-misreading-the-tamil-tiger-strategy-of-international-blackmail-2008-13/#more-11221/

Roberts, Michael 2014 “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, Michael 2014  “Saving Talaivar Pirapāharan,” 6 April 2016,     ………… https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/saving-talaivar-pirapaharan/

Roberts, Michael 2014 Tamil Person and State. Essays, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.

Roberts, Michael2014 Tamil Person and State. Pictorial,Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.

Roberts,Michael 2015 “Targeting Sri Lanka by playing ball with Tamil Extremism,” 24 July 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/wpadmin/post.php?post=17127&action=edit&postpost=v2

UNPoE 2011 Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts report on Accountability in Sri Lanka, March 2011,  http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/Sri_Lanka/ POE_Report_Full.pdf

END NOTES

[1] See Jagath Senaratne Sri Lanka Armoured Corps. Sixty Years of History, 1955-2015, 2016.pp. 208-19.

[2 Narendran’s blog comment dated 23 September 2012 in the Groundviews article on the evidence of satellite imagery – see http://groundviews.org./2012//09.12/the-end-of-war-in-si-lanka-captured -for-poserity-by-google-earth/.

[3] See LTTE 2014 and Mango 2015.

[4] My estimate is based on the remarkable work of one “Citizen Silva”. While his web presentation (as IDAG) should be consulted, I came across a private email sent to me which gave the details on the numbers counted in the guarded ‘rehab- centres” (IDP camps) set up by GoSL working in tandem with INGOS and NGOs.  Citizen Silva is a techno-whiz and his professional position in UK would be in jeopardy if his name is divulged. I met him during one of m visits to my sister in Oxford and have no doubts about his honesty of purpose as well as his skills.

[5] Roberts, “Towards Citizenship in Thamililam: The Tamil People of the North.1983-2010,” in Roberts, Tamil Person and State. Essays, 2014, p. 157.

EMAIL COMMENT from Bryson Hull, 29 November 2019

Your comment about the tanks is correct in their limited value in the environment, but my choice to describe it early was only because it provided color – something we need to visualize the story for readers. It was very evident that tanks and APCs were essentially rear echelon units and the fighting was infantry.
Justin La Brooy (jlabrooy@adam.com.au)

3 Comments

Filed under accountability, authoritarian regimes, British imperialism, centre-periphery relations, governance, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, law of armed conflict, life stories, LTTE, mass conscription, military strategy, politIcal discourse, power politics, prabhakaran, Rajapaksa regime, security, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, slanted reportage, sri lankan society, suicide bombing, Tamil civilians, Tamil Tiger fighters, the imaginary and the real, truth as casualty of war, UN reports, vengeance, war reportage, world events & processes

3 responses to “Insights for Today: A Reuter’s Report from the Eelam War Front in Late February 2009

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