A Critical Appraisal of Michael Roberts’s Writings on Eelam War IV

Gerald Peiris …. where the original title was Michael Roberts’ Writings” [1]

Unlike the reports compiled by the ‘UNSG PoE’ and the UTHR-J, the writings by Professor Roberts (hereafter, ‘Michael’ as ’Gerry’ has I have known him during the past 66 years) demonstrates the possibilities and the limitations of the ‘Sporadic Information Method’ in its application to situations such as that of the Vanni war-zone, and how a committed scholar with no axe to grind and no personalised political cause to promote could weigh a mass of information gathered from a miscellany of sources, and arrive at reasonably plausible findings (not that I agree with all such conclusions) without being judgemental and obdurate. His application of this method (in combination other methods of research) in many of his writings has two features worthy of special mention – one, his avid use of photographic records as both embellishments attractive to the reader, as well as evidence meant for reinforcement of what he wishes to convey in the text; and the other, an extraordinarily wide range of personal contact in his sources of information some of which have been conveyed to him orally. Adding to this comment that ‘graphics’ and orally conveyed information have both been prominent ingredients in documentation of information from time immemorial sounds almost banal.

 Analytic Map composed by the Daily Mirror on 24 April 2009 [depicting the battle situation at atime when Tamil civilians were fleeing in droves after the SL army penetrated the last stronghold on 19/20th April 2009]

Among the sources used by Michael for suggesting a numerical estimate of the deaths of ‘non-combatants’ in the final phase of the Eelam War, he has placed priority on the information conveyed by three persons who had provided curative health services to the Tiger cadres and to the others entrapped in the contracting LTTE stronghold in the eastern parts of the Vanni plains, almost until its final capitulation in mid-May, 2009. He also finds corroboration of that information in the estimate derived by the IDAG through the ‘Injury-to-Death Ratio Method’. In placing his own estimate within a wide range of values – 10,000 and 18,000, i.e. with a deviation of ±28.25% from the median value – he has correctly implied that, in any quantification of this type, the margin of error is necessarily hazy. There is no distinction made between Tiger cadres and ‘civilians’ because, as he has stressed, it is impossible to do so.[i]

Some among the eyewitnesses cited by Michael had access even to the ‘battlefront’, thus exposing the fallacy that military operations of the government aimed at regaining control over that part of the country were conducted in secrecy. More significantly, such eyewitness testimonies make it possible for an unbiased reader to gauge the authenticity of the various estimates referred to in Table 7.1, above. He has neither ignored nor concealed evidence that does not conform to his own perceptions as, for instance, the UNSG Panel had so often done in its report. He is conscious of the ‘Rashomon Effect’ on cognition of events and incidents by eyewitnesses, and readily admits that even the most reliable witness could gain only glimpses of the ‘battlefront’ realities. Moreover, Michael, unlike those in the general run of expert commentators on Sri Lanka, has an incisive understanding of the country’s grassroots realities acquired through long years of personal experience and research.

Michael’s references to such eye-witness accounts are of very special relevance from two other specific but interrelated perspectives as well, one of which is the exposure of pernicious claims made in hundreds of post-war propaganda writings by those who have continued to provide both unconcealed support for the ‘Eelam project’, seemingly impelled  by an irrepressible sense of vengeance for the success achieved by the armed forces of the government in defeating the LTTE, while maintaining an almost unique level of success in prioritising the need to safeguard the lives of non-combatants in the venue of that effort.

Apart from that, he has highlighted the arrogant display of duplicity in the more formalised indictments of Sri Lanka with charges of ‘War Crimes’.  In a critique of such indictments (Roberts, 2020) Michael, having referred commendably to several fair and well balanced accounts of the ‘War Zone’ such as those of David Gray, Bryson Hull (both attached to the Reuter news agency) and Muralidhar Reddy (whose reports have been published in The Hindu and Frontline), has presented his conclusion in that segment of his article the form of a suggestion made to his readership which reads as follows:

“Then, ask yourself the vital question: did the New York Times, the JCG, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Chatham House, the Darusman Panel (i.e. UNPoE) and the Geneva HQ personnel of the UNHCR dwell of these reports. The answer: There is no evidence that they did so. Thus, the prima facie conclusion is that they chose to avoid reportage that did not abide by their desired path of retribution directed at Sri Lanka”.

In the media coverage of the final stages of the Eelam War and its aftermath, photographs (including YouTube and Film clips) have continued to be the most vivid, if not the most voluminous, form of diffusion of information. Yet, there is a glaring imbalance in its overall content in the sense that while the general panels of ‘Internet imagery’ are inundated with items intended to convey the impression of distress and anguish suffered by Tamils in the war zone for which, presumably, the government ought to be held accountable, there is only a thin scatter of those that record either the benevolence and compassion bestowed by the military personnel towards not only the escapees from Tiger bondage, but also the orphaned and debilitated civilian population in the war-affected parts of the country. The latter feature, it ought to be stressed, has all long been an integral aspect of governance in Sri Lanka, especially in the hazardous fulfilment of the government’s obligation to cater to the basic needs of all people of or the country, while safeguarding the overarching rights of the nation.

It is against the backdrop of considerations sketched above that Michael’s use (and his advocacy of use by others) of photographic and cartographic imagery ought to be examined. In his research writings (with which I could claim considerable familiarity), it is certainly possible to observe a reasonable level of scholarly objectivity. There is, however, nothing absolute in ‘objectivity’. The best, I think, which anyone could achieve in reaching the ideals of objectivity in the context of information flows in diverse forms – oral, written, broadcast, and conveyed through the entire range of creative arts ‒ blended with existential life experiences, is confined to his/her own, essentially subjective, ethical paradigms.

To return to the issue of imagery as ‘evidence’, I reproduce below two fake photographs, both done with only elementary skills in computer graphics. The [first, set in USA,] was probably meant as an amusing prank although it went viral in the context of the brief but intense controversy over an original release by the White House; and the [second], a crude implantation of a press photograph of President Rajapaksa (embracing his brother who had escaped an LTTE launched bomb-attack) on an image of the leader of Bodu Bala Sēna, broadcast with the scurrilous political objective of enhancing the eroding support for the President from the non-Buddhist segment of the Sri Lankan electorate in 2015.

Figure 7.2  – Simple implants over existing photographs

 Bin Laden in the ‘Operations Room’ of White House watching his being assassinated superimposed on a newspaper image of the US high  command President Barak Obama  and several others  who had  planned and ordered his execution..   


 A press image of President      Mahinda Rajapaksa Venerable Galagodaathé  Gnanasara Thero and broadcast in a ‘civil society’ TV channel.


There is no need for me to reproduce here examples of flawless and undetectable photographic fakes because so many products of digital photoimage forgery are there in the Internet for anyone to access. With cinematic films deception in the form of manufacturing evidence presents an even wider range of possibilities (especially in the form of sound reproduction) as demonstrated, for example, by Nick Broomfield’s Battle of Haditha in which there is a re-enactment of a gruesome event involving a battalion of US troops that culminated in the slaughter of an entire ‘extended family’ in the village of Haditha.

A cinema crew on location could (and, in fact do) such simulations even with the most basic equipment. So, it is really not essential for professional cameramen like David Gray (commended by Michael) to produce evidence on any exemplification of criminalised conflict such as, say, the ‘Massacres in My Lai’ or the bombardment of the Serbian peasantry.

The foregoing rigmarole is intended to serve as a preface to the set of images (only one of which is reproduced here) presented by Michael (Roberts, 2020) as extracts from several sources. The original source from which Gordon Weiss (UN representative stationed in Colombo during the last stages of the Eelam War) like many other self-seeking pro-LTTE propagandists had extracted those images, I believe, is the widely circulated document titled Five Years on: 2009-2014.

The opening declaration with which ‘White Flag: 2009-2014’ reads as:

This is the story of the killing or disappearance of several groups of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who surrendered to the Sri Lankan army on or about 18 May 2009 at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war. They were told by the government if they carried a white flag they would be safe crossing the frontline. But when they surrendered it became apparent they had been lured into a trap”.

Nowhere in the entire document do we find an indication of its authorship. But there is enough reason to suggest that it has been compiled by (or with the sponsorship of) the ‘Global Tamil Forum’ (GTF) which, along with the ‘Transitional Government of Tamil Eelam’ (TGTE), appear to be among the most vibrant and probably best financed among the LTTE-aligned expatriate Sri Lankan Tamils organisations remaining in the ‘West’.

According to the detailed information furnished in a report titled Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora after the LTTE published by the ‘International Crisis Group’ (ICG), during the Eelam War, many such LTTE-linked enterprises had government-imposed restrictions (even perfunctorily imposed proscription as ‘Terrorist Organisations’) in their countries of domicile. With the end of the ‘War’ the key personnel who had controlled some of those enterprises distanced themselves from the secessionist project; in certain instances, decamping with the LTTE assets that had been under their control. This, as the aforesaid ICG report explains, were causes for grave concern to the transnational umbrella organisations such as the GTF and the TGTE. Soon after the collapse of the Tiger military power in Sri Lanka, the leaders of these organisations changed their previous institutional identities, made tactical modifications in their declared commitments and aspirations, while conveniently exonerating themselves for their earlier sponsorship and support for the heinous crimes committed against humanity by the LTTE in its heyday.

However, their goal of establishing an autonomous political entity for the Tamils in the island of Sri Lanka remains unchanged. The intensity of their campaign against Sri Lanka has also remained almost undiminished and, indeed, has drawn strength from the partial success of the US-led ‘regime change’ project  in 2015. In the more recent past, the GTF conveyed its endorsement and support for the Galle Face ‘Gota Go’ puppetry. Accordingly, what needs to be stressed is that there is certainly no biblical Soul to Paul conversion epitomised by these resurrected LTTE outfits.

The ‘War Crimes’ accusation is the most potent weapon which the GTF, TGTE and similar hardline organisations possess. The specific crime which the ‘White Flag: 2009-2014’ post-war images are intended to portray is a collective crime, most heinous of its kind, with all the elements of cruelty for pleasure – murder, torture, rape, humiliation ‒ inflicted on the defeated enemy in the rapturous euphoria of victory. It has no extenuating circumstances. But are these images in its concluding stretch of exhibits authentic?




There are several questions that must receive credible answers before we say that the authors and publishers of ‘White Flag: 2009-2014’ could be trusted. Do their past records as known to us (Peiris. 2001) warrant trust? And then, there is a series of questions such as ‘who made those high-quality photographs, and for what purpose’? Were the photographs meant to be kept as souvenirs of victory, or to publicise a unique achievement, or to be sold to the ‘yellow press’? How did they end up with the authors of the ‘White Flag’ fiction?  And, even more to the point, are they fakes? In fake-making with digital implanting, shadows are often a giveaway. There are indications even in the one copied above that the shadows are from more than one original photoimage. Look also at the man manhandling the young woman, and at Colonel Wasanthan. If you were to look carefully, you will, as in any research, find what you are looking for. And, as Jesus said, “The truth will set you free” (St. John, Chapter 18: 33).


[i] Research published in Thuppahis, Professor Roberts’ personal blog on the Eelam War – consisting his own, and those by others invariably with his editorial additions ‒ is truly amazing in its unparalleled breadth and depth of coverage. My present sketch is no more than an attempt to furnish the essence of those among his works that relate specifically to the intensely controversial ‘Death-Count’, which also contains information on several eyewitness accounts on the venues of conflict by Bryson Hull, David Gray, Tammita-Delgoda, Muralidhar Reddy, along with certain analytical writings rich in content authored by the prolific freelance scribe, Shenali Waduge. (These are listed in my, ‘References’ at the end of this volume).


A NOTE: the Daily Mirror Schematic Map has been added to this article by Michael Roberts


Filed under accountability, atrocities, authoritarian regimes, communal relations, doctoring evidence, fundamentalism, governance, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, LTTE, NGOs, patriotism, performance, photography, politIcal discourse, power politics, prabhakaran, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, Tamil Tiger fighters, the imaginary and the real, trauma, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, vengeance, war crimes, war reportage, world events & processes, zealotry

3 responses to “A Critical Appraisal of Michael Roberts’s Writings on Eelam War IV

  1. “an extraordinarily wide range of personal contact in his sources of information”

    Dear Michael, that is your special gift! As WB Yeats wrote, “my glory was that I had such friends.”

  2. Sachi Sri Kantha

    I did check my copy of the Bible. That particular citation from the New Testament in the last sentence by the learned Gerald Peiris is somewhat inaccurate. The previous line has also to be noted. The complete citation is as follows:

    “Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” [John 8: 31-32]
    (source: The Bible, American Bible Society, New York, 1973, p. 931)

    One of my favorite quotations from the Bible also appears, a little ahead of the above citation. It is this.

    “And as they continued to ask him [i.e. Jesus], he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” [John 8:7]

    I ask Michael, what do you think about this citation?

  3. chandre+DW

    broadcast with the scurrilous political objective of enhancing the eroding support for the President from the non-Buddhist segment of the Sri Lankan electorate in 2015″

    Here the author probably meant “enhancing the erosion of support”.

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