The Landscape of the LTTE’s Last Redoubt, May 2009

Michael Roberts, 7 June 2011

Pic by Eranga Jayawardena

In May 2011 we have seen different forms of commemoration of the coup de grace delivered to the LTTE as a fighting force in Sri Lankaas a result of the combined operations of the army, navy and air force. The government of Sri Lankahas organised their own versions of the type of celebratory commemoration that marked VE Day every 7th of May after World War Two ended. Pro-Tiger and Tamil nationalist elements in migrant circles abroad have marked it as day of reflection and protest. Gordon Weiss has chosen this moment to launch The Cage, a scathing attack on human rights violations by both sides during the Eelam War IV, as one part of a concerted movement targeting the Sri Lankan government as candidates for war crimes procedures (a campaign that carefully refrains from charging Rudrakumaran and others who were part of the LTTE’s official arms abroad in the 2000s).

  Since the events of May 2009 loom prominently now, it is pertinent to dwell pictorially on the locale of the final battle and the denouement of the LTTE. That locale was the strip of coast abutting Nandikadal Lagoon, to which the LTTE retreated by mid-April. It was an area decreed as a “No-Fire Zone” by the government on 12 February. I shall depict this territory as “the Last Redoubt.” This was an area that was approximately 13 by 4 kilometres in length and breadth. From February if not earlier this area had drawn a large proportion of the fleeing Tamil people whom the LTTE had corralled as a bargaining chip, labour pool and protective ‘sandbags’. Though no less a person than DBS Jeyaraj has described their situation as one of bondage under the LTTE,[1] in my conjecture a segment of those held ‘hostage’ were staunch Tiger supporters and willing ‘hostages’ right to the end. [2]

Figures 1 & 2. UAV photos of tent city in the Last Redoubt, probably late March before the battle entered this area. Phtotos supplied by Victor Ivan of Ravaya.From the evidence provided by Vidura, Muraliyar Reddy and Rajasingham Narendran I am aware that, from January 2009 after Kilinochchi fell, the LTTE regime grew harsher and a good proportion of ‘their Tamil people’ became totally disillusioned and disaffected.[3] However, there are indications that even in April-May 2009 some of these Tamil people were taken in by the LTTE’s self-conviction that the “international community” would rescue them,[4] while Aryanathan’s public testimony as spokesperson for the last batch of IDPs (as recorded by Reddy) indicates that there was a significant number of Tamils firmly attached to the LTTE.[5] In Reddy’s summing-up, this stance was  “founded on the view that (a) military could not afford to launch an all-out offensive with so many thousands of civilians present; (b) that the international community in general and the Tamil Nadu leaders in particular would come to their rescue sooner than later and (c) that the DMK would be swept out of power in the 2009 May general election in India and AIADMK, which for the first time had pledged support for Eelam, would influence the Government of India to intervene in favour of Lanka Tamils.”[6]

While my conjecture that a significant segment of the trapped Tamil people remained staunch Tiger supporters may be debated, there is little doubt that the population within the Last Redoubt swelled rapidly between, say, February and May, with a tent city growing by the day amidst the coconut trees, scrubs and houses that had been built (see Figures 1 and 2) after the area was decimated by the 2004 tsunami. This growth may have been accelerated by the government’s declaration of the area as a “No Fire Zone” – a highly problematic concept in my view within the context of a volatile war with shifting boundaries. In any event, once the LTTE high command shifted its command centres to the locality it could not remain an area free from bombardment.

What interests me, however, from the disadvantaged viewpoint of someone in a cloistered lounge far away, is the character of the landscape in this Last Redoubt and the degree of bombing to which this patch of territory was subjected between mid-April and mid-May. Since some comments have referred to “carpet-bombing” during Eelam War IV and since Ban Ki-Moon spoke of “complete devastation”[7]  after his aerial survey of the Vanni and this area on 23 May 2009,[8] I am attempting to ascertain the degree of destruction in an approximate manner, while being informed by the testimonies of numerous Tamils who escaped from the area in April-May in noting that there was some bombardment of the area by the army and air force.[9] Even aside from the evidence provided by these people and the persons evacuated by the ICRC by sea, one would logically expect casualties among the Tiger personnel as well as those “truly civilian.”

Figure 3. Militia being schooled, 2007 — Pic from unknown cyber net benefactor

Parenthetically, let me clarify the distinction identified by the phrase “truly civilian.” Firstly, everyone must attend to the organisational capacities of the LTTE and the manner in which they initiated a peoples’ militia known as Mākkal Padai from circa 2006 if not earlier (Figures 3-6). Secondly, we must recognise the fact that in 2008 and throughout 2009 most of the Tiger cadres did not wear uniform and fought in shorts, trousers and sarongs (Figures 7, 8). Thirdly, throughout Eelam War IV the LTTE employed large numbers of ordinary men, women and children in support services at the battlefront. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan sums up the information and opinions gleaned by many observers when he states that “the young and old were randomly conscripted to work for them; either to fight or do subsidiary duties such as manning sentry points, carrying arms, ammunition and cargo.”[10]

Figure 4. Militia in training in early 2009 —  part of batch rec’d then from unknown original source                                

 In brief, the category “civilian” is a nebulous label. The manner in which it has been used by so-called experts (as well as government functionaries operating in mechanical fashion within the terminology imposed upon them) defies belief. In other words, I highlight the fact that I myself have created a ghost category – in the sense that it is difficult for observers to identify those “truly civilian.” The Tamils subject to the crunch situation would have had some idea. But, as hypothetical instance, take an able-bodied 55 year old male conscripted to build trenches who was wounded while engaged in this task. He would probably present himself as “civilian” at the hospital or to the ICRC; but in my categorization, whatever his own perceptions,[11] he was a conscript in the engineering corps of the LTTE.

Figure 6. also in late 2008

Central to any understanding of the several battles pursued by the army for control of the Last Redoubt is a comprehension of the intricate ground operations involved in the process, beginning with the initial penetration of the eastern lagoon defences on the 19th-20th April. Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda’s perceptive analysis in his Manekshaw Paper No. 13 must be a key part of this work.[12] What was called for was close quarter yard-by-yard advance by infantry and engineers coping with booby-traps amidst fire fights. On several occasions the LTTE used vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDS); and in one classic innovation deployed an explosive-laden speed boat to hit an army bunker on the edge of the waterline. It is for this reason that it took the government forces four weeks to secure this 52 square kilometre arena. It is for this reason that it is not pockmarked everywhere with craters everywhere and why so many houses are, as we shall see, still standing.

 In the course of addressing Ban Ki-Moon’s remarks[13] with the aid of six aerial photographs taken by a Times media-man from the UN helicopter (see “Pictorial Images” in http://thuppahi. wordpress.com/pictorial-images), I approached the two Indian reporters, Muraliyar Reddy and Kanchan Prasad,[14] who had been present at the front line with the 58th Division. Having reached Kilinochchi on the 13th May they travelled to the Last Redoubt every day from the 14th to 18th inclusive, returning to Kilinochchi each evening because they could only access internet at that location. Prasad, the Special Correspondent for Prasar Bharati, was the photo journalist. She has provided the majority of the photographs that are deployed among the Pictorial Images in my Thuppahi Web Site (Pics 7-20) in order to give readers a sense of the landscape in the Last Redoubt, both its broad sandy, waterfront strip (Pics 7-9 in that site) and the interior areas of patchy scrub, trees and intermittent buildings (Pics 10-20).

Figure 9.Hospital ward in bunker. Photo by Kanchan Prasad (no. 038), mid-May 2009

Figure 10. Room in building used as hospital. Photo by Kanchan Prasad (no. 046), mid-May 2009

Figure 11. Part of makeshift hospital. Photo by Kanchan Prasad (no. 054), mid-May 2009

Figure 12. Makeshift hospital building. Photo by Kanchan Prasad (no. 065), mid-May 2009

These images of sections of the Last Redoubt AFTER the Sri Lankan army had secured control of these areas, that is AFTER the battle was over, are highly significant because they are ground level photographs, not rarified satellite images. Among the photographs, too, are pictures of a makeshift hospital building and associated bunkers at a spot (Figure 9-12) identified by map-coordinates (Figure 13) sent to the army by the ICRC. This focus on the part of these two investigative reporters developed from LTTE claims that the hospital had been hit by bombs.[15]

Figure 13. Map co-ordinates of hospital sent to Army by ICRC. Photo by Kanchan Prasad (no. 055), mid-May 2009

The photographs therefore provide us with some glimpses of the varying character of the terrain in this flat coastal strip. They have to be supplemented by attention to the swampland on the western edge of the Nandikadal Lagoon, the type of terrain (Figure 14) where the last remnants of the LTTE, including the talaivar Velupillai Pirapāharan, were cornered and killed on the 17th/18h/19th May.

Figure 14. Soldiers recovering weapons from the lagoon. Photo by Thilak Perera, Sunday Times, 24 May 2009

Two characteristics stand out when one dwells on this corpus of photographs, particularly those snapped by Reddy’s colleague. They reveal that many buildings and huts were intact or only partially damaged. Secondly, they – especially the bunker-as-hospital (Figure 9) – confirm what we already know from the history of the LTTE: namely, the Tigers’ capacity for improvisation in difficult circumstances.

Taken in conjunction with the series of aerial pictures captured by the Times cameraman, these images also negate any suggestion that there was carpet bombing in this locality. Such data, however, has to be deciphered in conjunction with the testimonies from many of the Tamils who survived the ordeal over the between January and May 2009 when they recount their experiences to the UTHR investigators,[16] to the Tamil moderates of the diaspora led by Noel Nadesan and Rajasingham Narendran [17] and to such analysts as Vidura of the Sunday Leader and Rohan Gunaratna of Nanyang Technological University.[18]

That there were a significant number of deaths and casualties among those truly civilian cannot be doubted. By “significant” I refer to deaths among those “truly civilian” that could be anywhere between the figures of 1400 and 9,000, a wide span that marks the difficulties attending the subject, one that is further qualified by provisos indicated later on in the article regarding the unreliability of all estimates (and obviously any computation over 9,000 would also be “significant”). The issue is further muddied by the overwhelming evidence from numerous quarters in support of Cho Ramaswamy’s statement early in February 2009 that “it is not the Sri Lankan military that is targeting the civilians there but it is the Tigers who are keeping the civilians as a shield. They are not allowing them to evacuate the plains and go to safer territories though the Sri Lankan military has been … marking safe territories [i. e. corridors] for them.”[19]

Some sense of the mayhem and the complexities of a battle situation where advancing infantrymen could not decipher who was civilian and who was inside some bunker or foxhole can be grasped in the measured review by a Tamil scientist and civilian who has no direct experience of war, but possesses common sense and moderation. I refer here to Rajasingham Narendran’s note to me in the course of a discussion about blatant propaganda photographs displayed in TamilNet: “definitely there was a carnage, inflicted by the armed forces and the LTTE.  This was confirmed by the IDPs I met towards the end of the war and thereafter. They had to step over the dead and the dying while escaping. Once they escaped the firing zone, the soldiers were of immense help. Soldiers carried the sick, the weak and the elderly, across lagoon waters at great risk to themselves. Some cadres of the LTTE had been helpful too. They had defied orders to shoot and permitted many to escape.  Charles Anthony — Prabaharan’s eldest son — was specifically accused by many IDPs of shooting into the crowds trying to escape. The armed forces also lobbed grenades into bunkers, when they entered the final war area — especially in the periphery, and were less combative once they felt assured there were not in danger. This was to be expected, in view of the manner in which the LTTE fought.”[20] (see Figures 15, 16).

Figure 15. Navy lass assists a Tamil family. Photo from Sunday Observer, 10 May 2009.

 Figure 16. Soldier helps IDPs land on western shores of Nandikadal Lagoon – SL newspaper details lost.

It was quite imbecile for General Shanendra Silva in his new capacity at Sri Lanka’s UN Representative to assert recent ly that the figure for civilian deaths was zero. Rohan Gunaratna has explicitly questioned President Rajapaksa’s assertion on the same lines. Having visited the Last Redoubt immediately after the conflict and having the privilege in 2009 of interviewing many IDP personnel as well as captured Tiger fighters, Gunaratna contends that the civilian deaths numbered 1,400.[21]

This estimate must be set against the figures of 15,000 to 40,000 retailed by some Tamil spokespersons and human rights crusaders in recent months, statistics that seem to be plucked from the air and are apparently multiplications of the approximate guesses presented in April-May 2009 by some UN agencies with branches in Colombo. While Gunaratna’s sum is based on a (select) body of testimony that seems better credentialed than those utilised by the Moon-Darusman report or the agencies referred to above, it is also a gross generalization and a leap of quantitative faith. In comparison I received a computation of 3,000-3,500 civilian dead from a senior military officer who is a family friend (a figure that cannot, of course, differentiate identify the proportion killed by the LTTE).

In remarking that the figure of civilian dead retailed by many non-government sources in mid-2009 ranged from 5000 to 7000, Dharmalingam Siddharthan of the PLOTE organisation was quite scathing: “I don’t take any of these figures seriously.”[22] General Jayasuriya has made much the same comment in his questioning of Rohan Gunaratna’s estimate.[23]

We are dwelling in an era captivated by the magical wand of statistics and the impression of precision generated by the imprint of number. The persuasive power of enumeration in the modern world is an illusion of our own making, a form of false consciousness. It is against this backdrop of a propaganda war around a topic bedeviled by ambiguity and confusion that I have focused on a body of pictorial evidence depicting the landscape of the Nandikadal coastal strip that served as the LTTE’s last stronghold. They serve as one part, and one part only, of any investigation of the issues surrounding the last phase of the war. Unlike the imagery of death and misery, whether real, stage-managed or computer-fabricated as weapons in the propaganda tools of war, the pictures deployed here introduce the terrain that served as context for the final stages of misery and war. They provide what can be called “a backdrop.” We should be thankful that some buildings and some 180-200,000 Tamils survived the last eight weeks of this furnace situation; and that a few survivors (Figures 17; cf. 18) had the resilience to smile immediately afterwards.

Figure 17. A Tamil lady and child after surviving ordeal. Photo by Kanchan Prasad (no. 107), mid-May 2009

Figure 18. Other Tamil survivors. Photo by Kanchan Prasad (no. 105), mid-May 2009


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

[2] Note Aryanathan’s exposition in Muralidhar Reddy, 2009 “Multiple Displacements, Total Loss of Identity.” The Hindu, 27 May 2009. D. Siddharthan also opined that a good half of the IDPs in the Vavuniya camps remained pro-LTTE; but this claim is contradicted by other Tamil moderates interviewed by Sergei De Silva-Ranasinghe: for instance by M. Sarvananthan and T. Sridharan.

[3] Personal conversations with Reddy in late April and May 2009 and Vidura, “The Great Escapes,” Sunday Leader, 17 May 2009.

[4] “Civilian Casualties, IDP Camps and Asylum Seekers,” Interview with Fr. Rohan Silva, by Sergei-de Silva-Ranasinghe, Sunday Leader, 28 Nov. 2010.

[5] Reddy, “2009 “Multiple Displacements, Total Loss of Identity.” The Hindu, 27 May 2009.

[6] Email, Reddy to Roberts, 3 June 2011.

[7] Shehan Karunatilaka, “How cricket saved Sri Lanka,” The Guardian, 13 March 2011, (http:/ /www. guardian.co.uk/world/ 2011/mar/13/how-cricket-saved-sri-lanka). It is safe to presume that he is distilling the information garnered from a number of media representations, especially those espoused within liberal moderate circles inSri Lanka and beyond.

[9] This position is vigorously contested by Gerald Peiris: “After the declaration of the Nandikadal “no fire zone” there was no long-range artillery attack or aerial bombardment or strafing by the armed forces of Sri Lanka targeting that area, whatever the pundits say. …. The second no-fire zone along the relatively open coastal strip which you have referred to was declared on 12 February 2009 by which time the SL army had taken Mullaitivu town. Since then, the government did fire artillery shells on Tiger artillery emplacements located along the outer periphery of that area from which the army was being sporadically fired at. On at least two occasions the larger Tiger encampments (clusters of bunkers) along that periphery were also bombed by the air force. These, in fact, represented all the long-range attacks by the security forces on the no-fire zone from mid-February.”

[10] Sergei De Silva Ranasinghe “Sri Lanka after the Civil War: Interview with Dr. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan,” http://transcurrents.com/tc/2010/11/sri_lanka_after_the_civil_war.html.

[11] So, here, I override subjectivity.

[12] S. Tammita-Delgoda, Sri Lanka. The Last Phase of Eelam War IV. From Chundikulam to Pudumattalan,New Delhi, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, 2009.

[13] This is in another essay in draft form that is entitled “Reading ‘devastation’: Botham and Ban Ki-Moon in the Dock.”

 

[14] I met Reddy in April-May 2009 after he commissioned me to write some articles for Frontline. I later dined with Reddy and Prasad in June 2010. They both responded readily when I sought specific details by email in May 2011 (Reddy to Roberts, 26 May 2011 and Prasad to Roberts, 24 May 2011 et seq.).

 

[15] Note SLA shells hospital again, several killed including doctor, ICRC worker,” TamilNet, 13 May 2009 and “SLA attacks hospital, 47 massacred,” TamilNet, 12 May 2009, 05:51 GMT. From abroad, and citing “several independent sources,” the INGO, Human Rights Watch, chipped in as well: “Patients, medical staff, aid workers, and other witnesses have provided Human Rights Watch with information about at least 30 attacks on permanent and makeshift hospitals in the combat area since December 2008. One of the deadliest took place on May 2, when artillery shells struck Mullaivaikal hospital in the government-declared ‘no-fire zone’ killing 68 persons and wounding 87.”

[16] UTHR, “Let Them Speak. Truth aboutSri Lanka’s Victims of War,” Special Report No. 34 (http://www.uthr.org/SpecialReports/Special%20rep34/Uthr-sp.rp34.htm).

[17] Rajasingham Narendran, “Internally displaced persons: The new front of an old war in Sri Lanka,” http://transcurrents.com/tc/2009/08/post_415.html.

[18] Vidura, “The Great Escapes,” Sunday Leader, 17 May 2009 and Gunaratna, Video of his presentation at the Defence Symposium, Galadari Hotel], Colombo, 31 May 2011, http://www. youtube.com/defseminar/#p/a/u/1/F1K9f_x8AEo.

[19] Ramaswamy, “India must supportSri Lanka against LTTE,” http://ibnlive.in.com/news /india-must-support-sl-against-ltte-cho-ramaswamy/83830-3.html?from=rssfeed.

[20] Rajasingham Narendran to Roberts, email, 1 June 2011. Note that Narendran met IDPs at the Gamini Vidyalaya transit camp and at the first detention centre at Manik Farm [probably Ananda Coomaraswamy Camp] in March 2009; and was a member of a small diasporic delegation that visited the camps in July 2009. Dr Narendran was accompanied on these visits by Dr. Noel Nadesan, M. Sooriyasekeram (UK), Rajaratnam Sivanathan (Australia), Rajeswary Balasubramaniam (UK) and Manoranjan Selliah (Canada).

 

[21] Gunaratna, Video of his presentation at the Defence Symposium, Galadari Hotel, Colombo, 31 May 2011, http://www. youtube.com/defseminar/#p/a/u/1/F1K9f_x8AEo

 

[22] Sergei De Silva-Ranasinghe, “The 13th Amendment to the Constitution must be properly implemented”: Dharmalingam Siddharthan, 22 Dec. 2010,  http:// transcurrents.com/tc/2010/ 12/the_13th_amendment_to_the_cons.html

[23] R. K. Radhakrishnan, “No clarity on Sri Lankan civilian casualties,” The Hindu, 2 June 2011.

8 Comments

Filed under historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, suicide bombing, Tamil migration, terrorism, world events & processes

8 responses to “The Landscape of the LTTE’s Last Redoubt, May 2009

  1. Mango

    Dear Michael,
    Your excellent piece captures what has been missing in this vicious debate; pictures and credible accounts – so thanks for that. You might be aware of this famous LTTE combat video, (recovered by the SLA), which neatly demonstrates everything you’ve been talking about.

    Outgoing fire (to the SLA lines) from within the NFZ,

    Tamil civilians working, building defences (willingly or unwillingly, we’ll never know),

    LTTE cadres fighting in civvies,

    Unnecessary cruelty to animals.

  2. Much appreciated MANGO

    I had not seen this thanks
    Michael R = galle.mike@hotmail.com

  3. S.Nadarajah

    It is a good coverage of the last stages of the war. However, we are none the wiser about exactly what happened in the last few days. Suffice to say that all reports of mass killings by armed forces is a gross distortion of facts. No doubt atrocities were commited by both sides as shown in a recent eye witness account in the Sydney Morning Herald about 3 weeks ago. Also it is evident that LTTE were largely responsible for such atrocities by 1) creating human shields of civilians for good aprt of the war and 2) shooting at those who tried to escape the war zone.
    When you look at this situation and compare with well documented war crimes in the Balkans and Africa, it is evident that such atrocities are blown completly out of proportion by the Tamil Diaspora who are stirring the pot with the UN and western countries, which in turn can rebound on the poor Tamils living in Sri Lanka.

  4. your thoughts are much appreciated NADA. However your LINE “we are none the wiser about exactly what happened in the last few days.” is contradicted by what you say immediatelky afterwards [which is spot on]. also it implies that my esay throws absolutley no light on the topic. i am not sure if THAT was intended.
    Michael or MIKe as in Peradeniya days with Anton and others

  5. Mango

    Actually there is one source of info which may be able to shed light on who was where, movements, numbers, genuine combatants vs conscripted civilians etc. This would be the operational orders and after action reports of the front line units of the SLA. However, I doubt whether we’ll be seeing them being released to the general public.

  6. Pingback: South Asia Masala » ‘People of righteousness’ march on for Sri Lanka

  7. Pingback: Ban Ki-Moon faces Thalif Deen on Eve of Sri Lankan Visit | Thuppahi's Blog

  8. Pingback: Infantry Warfare and the Final Phase of Eelam War IV: Where Laymen Blunder into Infantile Assessments | Thuppahi's Blog

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