A Crunch Situation at Nandhikadal, April-May 2009: The Stark Realities of War

Michael Roberts, reprinting an article entitled “Realties of War” and drafted in late April or early May 2009  following an invitation from Muralidhar Reddy (the Frontline correspondent in Colombo). and now retrieved for me by my old schoolmate KK De Silva *** 

WITH the LTTE cornered and restricted to a tiny patch of isthmus beside Nanthi Kadal Lagoon ever since April 6 [2009], the world has witnessed a menagerie of world leaders playing the game throw egg on my face.

Tamil civilians who succeeded in fleeing their trapped situation at night are seen assembled by the SL Navy in safe territory

On April 22, Hillary Clinton told the world that a terrible humanitarian tragedy was taking place in Sri Lanka and demanded a halt in the fighting so that we could secure a safe passage for as many of the trapped civilians as possible.

Remarkably, for a superpower leader with access to up-to-date information Clinton appeared to have been some 48 hours behind breaking events: namely, the escape of some 107,000 Tamil civilians (doubtless including Tiger cadre who had given up the fight) from their hell-hole situation after a commando operation carried out by the Sri Lanka Army on the night of April 19-20. Alternatively, one must conclude that Clinton read this miraculous tale as something that spelt a humanitarian disaster hence the use of the egg metaphor.

She was not alone. Various world leaders, the United Nations and its agencies and some human rights organisations reiterated the call for a ceasefire that they had been parroting for months as a solution to the hard realities around the LTTEs endgame. It is this mantra that is challenged here.

As I arrived in Sri Lanka on April 17, I told Kumari Jayawardena that the ground situation facing the army was labyrinthine. I could not, I said, see how it could move forward without generating disastrous death rates. Yet, today, we know that the commando operation was one for the textbook: it resulted in relatively few non-combatant deaths and created a path for streams and streams of Tamils to cross the lagoon and the beach over the next 2-3 days, roughly 110,000 people making this little epic journey. This, for me, was better than the tale of Moses crossing the Red Sea. It was both elevating and saddening.

It was distressing because of the condition of some of these people, displayed so starkly on camera, bespeaking the privation they had undergone in the immediate past. Indeed, as one or two died of dehydration or starvation while being bussed or airlifted by the military to the nearest hospitals in Vavuniya, one knew, now, why the people of Tamil Eelam had turned their back on the Eelam demand and the LTTE.

Reports from journalists confirmed that this existential plight had been aggravated by the draconian measures taken by the LTTE during the past two months or so. Again, the facial expressions of those prepared to speak (in Sinhala) on camera constituted a message in itself: May a pox befall the house of Pirapaharan [Prabakaran] and the Tigers.

These outspoken Tamil individuals would surely be among those who would cast rotten eggs at Hillary Clinton. Perhaps we should not be surprised at Clintons insouciance. Nor am I surprised by the pantomime, a Dance of the Seven Veils, being performed on the electoral platforms in Tamil Nadu. In a similar fashion, Sri Lanka’s democratic process has often revealed how vote-gathering inflames ethnic passions. The LTTEs demise has sparked off an upsurge of pan-Dravidian sentiment (an issue demanding specialist treatment).

But how can Tamil dissidents who are fully aware of the character of the LTTE also fall into the same simpleton stance: namely, believing that ceasefires will help a trapped people? Take Nirmala Rajasingam’s passionate appeal in the British newspaper Independent on April 24. While denouncing the LTTE for its atrocities and asserting, validly, that the LTTEs exclusivist Tamil nationalism and extreme militarism have led the Tamil community to this political dead-end, Rajasingam also insisted that the government’s claim that there were few civilian casualties defy reason and spoke of huge civilian losses through indiscriminate fire.

Indeed, she began her essay with these words: “The world has watched aghast at the level of bloodshed and the horrific plight of the civilians who have now been under siege for months.” She seems to have been accepted as an authority by The Economist of April 23 (Anon 2009a) which has another anonymous article, “Dark victory,” which notes unequivocally that in its rush to exterminate the Tigers partly in justified fear of their skill at manipulating foreign opinion the army has shown a cruel disregard for Tamil civilians crowding the battlefield” (Anon 2009b).

But what exactly is the count of those civilians killed as against those who have fled the coop in the past 5-6 months? A U.N. report dated April 24 estimated the death toll among civilians at 6,432, with those injured being estimated at 13,946. These figures must be qualified by two sets of facts: (a) they include individuals who stepped on LTTE mines and those shot by Tigers (or killed by suicide bombers) as they fled; and (b) a few of these civilians would be new conscripts who had not been issued with uniforms.

Our adjectives must be relative. So, let us place these numbers in a comparative context beside the figure of 1,75,714 people who reached the government lines by April 24, with roughly 68,000 having escaped before April 20 and 107,000 in that remarkable moment between April 20 and 23.

The dead 6,432 make up roughly 4 per cent of those who have survived. Add the injured, some 13,000 according to the same U.N. report, and one has 20,000 casualties [caused by both sides] set against roughly 170,000 freed. While the figures are not to be laughed at, the death score is not huge while talk of extermination in Dark victory, displays mind-boggling bias and/or credulity.

So, what we see here from Rajasingam is an emotional outburst from a Tamil heart. That is understandable. But, here, the combination of inaccuracy (regarding the large number of deaths on April 20-23 not true according to B. Muralidhar Reddy) and stridency in her outburst suggest that it is a voice of someone who has been imprisoned in a medieval monastery for centuries and has no awareness of the devastating power of modern weaponry (or medieval crusades for that matter). If there had been no restraint at all in the army offensive during the past six months, I can assure her that we would have had a death toll in the 30,000-50,000 range. As caveat let me stress that this claim does not mean that there was no cavalier bombing and artillery fire on some occasions.

But the more immediate issue now is this: given that between 15,000 and 50,000 civilians are still trapped within the remnant LTTE patch of 5-6 square kilometres, is the demand for a humanitarian pause (that is, ceasefire in ethical clothes) presented by concerned agencies a pragmatic course that will aid the Tamil people in rump Eelam?

  Boxes of supplies  are delivered by a helicopter to the Menik Farm Vanni refugee camp near Chettekulam in northern Sri Lanka on April 29.-REUTERS

This is not a novel issue. Strident non-gover nmental organisations and human rights voices demanded a ceasefire from January 2009 onwards. It prompted my initial essay on “Dilemmas at Wars End: Thoughts on Hard Realities” in mid-February 2009. So, we have before us a conundrum that has been faced over 4-5 months. In addressing the dilemma now, we can benefit from the experiences in this period.

But to fully grasp the ramifications we must (a) understand the ultra-nationalist ideology of the LTTE and (b) undertake a brief historical summary that delineates previous peace-talk failures as well as the steps leading to this present Eelam War IV (see timeline on page 18).

Here I am in agreement with Rajasingam in her characterisation of the LTTE as militaristic and fascist. Fuller elaborations have been provided recently in cyber-space and a capsule version suffices here.

Every LTTE fighter takes an oath to sacrifice life and soul to the talaivar (leader) Pirapaharan and the cause of Tamils freedom. This gifting of life as weapon, or uyirayutam, secured widespread admiration among the Sri Lankan Tamil people from its inception in 1982/83 because it bespoke the quality of arppanippu (dedication). The LTTEs capacity to withstand the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (1987-89) and then the Sri Lankan government forces from 1990-2000 compounded this admiration. From then on, the LTTE was widely regarded by many Tamils as their best bulwark against Sinhala domination.

From late 1989, the LTTE took the innovative step of burying all its dead, the mavirar (great heroes), in tuyilam illam (resting places) sites considered holy. This martyr cult not only served to inspire and mobilise support, but also legitimised the LTTE. As one poem in a Tiger publication presented matters, “the martyr sacrifices himself for the whole by destroying the I” (Hellmann-Rajanayagam 2005; page 134).

Thus, the LTTE embodied the philosophy of ultra-nationalism, which has been such a pernicious force in the contemporary world, pernicious because it encourages wars in which human bodies are sacrificed in the name of perpetuating a magical entity, the body politic (Koenigsberg 2008; page 42).

Both Nazi Germany and imperial Japan were prime instances of this philosophy. The fascist Japanese regime of the 1930s and 1940s inculcate[d] in the minds of the people the idea that all the Japanese, but especially the soldiers-to-be, must sacrifice their lives for their country (Ohnuki-Tierney 2006; page xiii). “You are nothing, your nation is everything,” said Hitler on one occasion (Koenigsberg 2009; page 13). This leads Ecksteins to the conclusion that in Nazi thinking the individual was the nation. The nation had been telescoped into the dynamic individual (1989; page 195, emphasis his).

In encouraging and enforcing an exodus of people from the western half of the Jaffna peninsula in late 1995 and now, again in late 2008-09, in effecting a similar programme for the people of the northern Wanni, the LTTE was adhering to its self-conviction that Prabakaran, the Tigers and the people were one.

Before evaluating the recent dilemmas posed by this strategy, it is wise to consider the temporal steps that brought about this situation (see timeline). One of the lessons emanating from this process is the fact that whenever war resumed after a period of talks/ceasefire, at points B, F and Q/R in our timeline, it moved to a higher pitch of weaponry and death than previously. That is, escalation of death and destruction was the end result of each failed ceasefire.

As clearly, one significant development during Eelam War IV was the stage when the overwhelming superiority in manpower and weaponry available to the Government of Sri Lanka began pushing the LTTE into retreat at points U, V, W and X, that is, from roughly April 2008. Under extreme pressure, the LTTE repeated the strategy it had adopted in Jaffna in late 1995: in metaphoric terms one can say they became sharks who took the sea with them.

While some do-gooders and government spokesmen claim that this was a coercive step, that verdict is as uncertain as it is doubtful. As Muralidhar Reddy has noted, the Tamil people distrusted the government and looked up to the LTTE. In effect, there is strong support for my contention that a substantial proportion of the migrant body was attached to the Eelam cause and the Tigers at least initially.

This was an exodus of biblical proportions. However, no one knew the exact proportions. As the mass of people were squashed into smaller portions of Tigerland, the U.N., the NGOs, and human rights activists became understandably anxious about the prospect of large-scale deaths in the furnace of war. Agitated voices peddled figures ranging from 250,000 to 400,000 in a definitive tone. The compassionate goal of human care was not balanced by any care of caveat. Propagandist goal and frenzied voice ensured that their picture was a prophecy of doom with maximal figures for maximal impact. These figures were the platform for strident demands that both parties in this vicious war should agree to a ceasefire and do so immediately. The blame game usually pointed equally at both parties to the conflict.

The ethics promoting such claims without any qualifying caveats regarding the numbers quoted was one aspect that I questioned in my essay (Roberts 2009a). But that was a minor quibble. The main issue raised then in February 2009 was embodied in a simple question: How would a ceasefire [implicitly a bilateral one] help the body of civilians in the immediate future if they continued to remain in Tigerland by choice or under duress? My question was then backed up by the simple note that a resumption of war would find the civilians in similar danger. Or, one can add, in the light of past experience, in even greater danger.

Supporting this critical question was a clarification of the character of the LTTE state and its ideology together with a series of pictures that graphically revealed the LTTEs extensive programme of mass mobilisation and paramilitary training for its civilian population from the year 2007 at the very least.

One did not need to be a rocket scientist to conclude that an authoritarian command state such as the LTTE would value its civilian mass as a source of new conscripts and a labour pool, as well as a source of some food supplies (however inadequate) sent — what weird generosity — by the Sri Lankan government because the government considered them citizens and not Eelam Tamils. But as critical was the fact that the civilians on the one hand and the outsider prophecies of doom about their fate on the other together provided the LTTE with a large stack of bargaining chips. Always bold in their militarism, the Tigers hoped to gamble their way to a peace table with this body of people-chips. It is this bargaining power as much as the human shield they provided for Tiger fighters that I consider to be the main reason for this brilliant, if callous, policy of people-exodus.

None of these considerations was addressed by the bevy of voices directed against my original article by both Sinhalese human right activists and Tamils. The moral high ground of future political ends, and the doom awaiting the downtrodden Tamil mass in Tigerland, subsumed reasoned response to my central questions. Not one person indicated how they could persuade the LTTE to release the civilians. Instead, both my critics, the U.N. and its agencies, human rights activists and Tamil dissidents have continued to press for ceasefire as if it will save the Tamil civilians thosai for the days to come.

Even though two unilateral government ceasefires (of admittedly short duration) produced no beneficial results and only led to a military setback for the government of Sri Lanka in the first instance (circa January 31) ceasefire remains a mantra in many circles. No thought is given to the long-term and fundamental issues attached to a continued military stalemate. It is as if the shout of ceasefire will provide some form of Immaculate Salvation to the civilian mass within the LTTE fold. But I, for my part, do not have such faith in divine intervention.

No one has challenged subsequent articles where I explained my readings of LTTE ideology and why they would expect the civilian mass of Eelam Tamils to come die with us as one internally displaced persons who got away told a reporter some time back (Roberts 2009c). Thus guided, I even feared that the LTTE and the people would indulge in a devotional pact of mass suicide in the manner of the Japanese at Saipan and Okinawa. Thus far, thankfully, that conjectural fear has been shown to have no foundation. I am pleased that I was wrong. In the conditions of privation they have been forced to undergo in the past three months, the Tamil people of the exodus have revolted against the LTTE and voted with their feet (or boat in a few cases).

It would be far too harsh to say they have moved from frying pan to stove. Their conditions now are a distinct improvement of welfare from their state in the last few months. But internment camps and second, class status together do not comfort make. It remains to be seen whether the government will seize the moment and convert sullen Tamil citizens into normal complaining citizens of the variety one finds everywhere.

Michael Roberts is a Rhodes Scholar for Ceylon (1962) and has taught History at Peradeniya University and Anthropology at Adelaide University.


  1. Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Modris Ecksteins, Anchor Books, New York, 1989.
  2. “And Heroes Die: Poetry of the Tamil Liberation Movement in Northern Sri Lanka” by Dagmar Hellman-Rajanayagam, South Asia 28: 112-153, 2005.
  3. “Nations have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War” by Richard A. Koenigsberg, Library of Social Science, New York, 2009.
  4. Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections on Japanese Student Soldiers by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, University of Chicago Press, 2006.
  5. “The many faces of Eelam” by Michael Roberts, “Daily Mirror“, August 8, 2002.
  6. “LTTEs ideological retreat” by Michael Roberts, “Sunday Observer”, October 13, 2002.
  7. “LTTEs pragmatism: at two moments” by Michael Roberts,” Lanka Monthly Digest“, May 2003.
  8. “Dilemmas at Wars End: Clarifications & Counter-Offensive” by Michael Roberts, www. groundviews.org, February 17, 2009.

*** The highlighting of segments of the text are today’s interventions by Roberts as Editor, Thuppahi . The two photographs within the text are those inserted by Frontline. The photographs below are additional illustrations seeking to  present readers with some sense of the topography and the travails faced by the Tamil people., with the majority being pictures presented by Reuters.

In this photograph released by the Sri Lankan military April 20, 2009 shows what the army says is thousands of people fleeing an area held controlled by the Tamil Tiger separatists in northeastern Sri Lanka. REUTERS/Sri Lankan Government/Handout



A video grab shows thousands of people the military said fled an area held controlled by the Tamil Tiger separatists in northeastern Sri Lanka on April 20, 2009. REUTERS/SLRC via Reuters TV

In this photograph released by the Sri Lankan military April 20, 2009 shows what the army says are thousands of people fleeing an area held controlled by the Tamil Tiger separatists in northeastern Sri Lanka. REUTERS/Sri Lankan Government/Handout

A video grab shows thousands of people the military said fled an area held controlled by the Tamil Tiger separatists in northeastern Sri Lanka on April 20, 2009. REUTERS/SLRC via Reuters TV


Filed under accountability, atrocities, communal relations, Eelam, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, performance, photography, politIcal discourse, power politics, prabhakaran, Rajapaksa regime, security, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, tamil refugees, Tamil Tiger fighters, trauma, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, war reportage, world events & processes

3 responses to “A Crunch Situation at Nandhikadal, April-May 2009: The Stark Realities of War

  1. AN EMAIL COMMENT from ONE “KUMAR D” — 8 February 2022:
    “Hmm Michael Roberts at his almost 100% objective best.”‘ ……………
    Kumar D

  2. Chandra Maliyadde

    I do not know the definition of war. But there was a conflict. It was ended…. Who won and who lost and who benefited?

  3. sachisrikantha

    Michael, allow me to play a devil’s advocate for your views, because you have gloated “No one has challenged subsequent articles where I explained my readings of LTTE ideology and why they would expect the civilian…” I will challenge that your ‘readings of LTTE ideology’ is lopsided and biased.

    The problem of writing history is not easy, because historians and journalists turn a blind eye to their biases. I mention only one example. You seem to have a camaraderie with B. Muralidhar Reddy and the ‘Frontline’ group of ‘The House of Hindu’ (Chennai). Have you bothered to check their anti-Eelam bias, based on caste-based Tamil Brahmanist politics? Have you bothered to write about the nefarious deeds of India’s RAW folks in spreading fake messages among Jaffna and Batticaloa Tamils, and their deeds in splitting the Tamils and Muslims in the Eastern Province? Have either you or Muralidhar Reddy written anything about RAW’s creation of ill-fated Tamil National Army (TNA) in 1990?

    If you bother to comment about your biases in your historical jottings, of the sources you cite, I’m sure your writings will ‘live’ for decades!

Leave a Reply