Reporters struggling with Eelam War IV: Some Recollections and Reports

 Michael Roberts

In addressing the serious issues raised by some of the Western media reportage of the events unfolding during the last phase of Eelam War IV and several seemingly deliberate obfuscations, I recently sent a short set of questions to some Indian journalists who were in Sri Lanka then and also to a few Sri Lankan reporters/cameramen who had been taken to the war front – guided here by an official list available. I have only received responses from a few, but it is enough to set the reflections rolling.

  Journalists in plane en route to war front, circa 27 January —Pic by Kanchan Prasad

These responses throw light on the difficulties faced by journalists in reporting the war and I see them as important appendages to an analytical review that I have already penned in draft form (in progress). Those studying Eelam War IV should pay heed to these recollections, while also visiting the Al Jazeera You-Tube presentations provided by Tony Birtley & David Chater and marveling at the capacities revealed by Sergei de Silva Ranasinghe in deciphering the ups-and-downs of the SL Army progress from distant shores far better than Birtley or those in Colombo who visited the front on conducted tours on some occasions.

 Situation Map – 6 January 2009

I present these NOTES with my Qs in purple font and the answers received from specific reporters in blue  font.

REPORTAGE ON LAST PHASE OF EELAM WAR IV

I am exploring the enormous differences in capacity & veracity in the reportage.

  1. Some reporters clearly received more info and more access than others …. WHO were they?
  2. How is that DBS Jeyaraj had striking details on some battles –for e. g, at Aanandapuram in early April that matched or bettered the reports of say Ferdinando? Did he have access to key Tiger officials in the LTTE heartland?
  3. BIRTLEY for AL JAZEERA sent some good video reports up to January BUT I have not seen any after that? Have I missed them …or …?

A:1:  Mike  R –Namini Wijedasa, 14 Oct 2017

DEAR NAMINI, When you were ferried to the rear battle areas in the north east Vanni on the 19th April 2009 at about the time of the SL Army penetration of the LAST REDOUBT, where precisely on the western banks of the Nandhikadal Lagoon did you gain access to? … and do you have copies of your reportage please? Any PICS?…………….Michael Roberts

A-2: Reply  from Namini

Dear Michael, I can remember going up to Puthumathalan. There was a water body in front of us and Puthumathalan in front. I had photos but my last laptop and an external hard drive both crashed so I lost a lot of photos, including those of the children.

All best, Namini

A-3: Further Note

I don’t remember going in April. I think I went much earlier.

Best, Namini

A-4: Further Note

Michael, I really can’t remember much of those visits. I think I went on just two and they basically just ferried us there by air and took us to the front and brought us back for lunch and flew us to Colombo. I remember a lot of helpless civilians lying about waiting to be taken somewhere. And I remember at one time civilians fleeing the front and being offered cream crackers and water. That’s all.

B: 5 – Mike R-PK Balachandran, 14 October 2017

DEAR BALA, Whom were you working for in 2008/09?

Can you send me your best reports on the last stages of the war in 2009?

Some reporters clearly received more info and more access than others …. WHO were they?

How did JEYARAJ access penetrating info from afar?

BIRTLEY for AL JAZEERA sent some good video reports up to January BUT I have not seen any after that? Have I missed them …or …?

B: 6 —  Dear Michael,
In 2008-2009 I was in the New Indian Express. By 2008, the Govt had become the only source of information for us in SL because of the following reasons:
a) There was no independent access to the war zone.
b) The LTTE became less and less credible over time as its reports were exaggerated and were a tissue of lies given the fact that it was becoming increasingly clear that the SL forces were winning and that the LTTE was hiding that. Indian diplomatic sources kept confirming that and they were in the know.
c) The LTTE’s sources were available through satellite phone, But this was being used by Reuters and AP only.
d) Agencies and journos like DBS had access to LTTE sources in the West. Video footage were also obtained from them.
e) Lastly there was an informal censorship in SL which local and Indian journos accepted by AP and Reuters defied.

My reports were based on government press conferences and www.defense.lk and were not therefore unique.

B: 7 – MikeR-PK Balachandran, 16 October 2017

DEAR BALA

When you were ferried to the rear battle areas in the north east Vanni on the 24th January 2009, where precisely on the western banks of the Nandhikadal Lagoon did you gain access to? … and do you have copies of your reportage please? Any PICS?

Would it be valid to say that reporters taken to such arenas for a short spell did not learn much about the fighting or witness any battles?

B: 8– PK Balachandran, 16 October 2017

Dear Michael, I cant’ trace the reports now. All I remember is that we went after the fighting was over and only mopping up operations by small groups of troops were going in in Nandikadal/Mulliwaikkal area.

Our group did not see any fighting, but saw a hell of a lot of destruction in Pudukudiyiruppu.

However, we saw a steady stream of people walking  over the fair weather bridge linking Mulliwaikkal with the land across the Nandikadal lagoon. The people I spoke to said that they fled from Mulliwaikkal because of shelling. “Appo! shelling bhayankara shelling,” said a lady clutching a plastic bag and a puppy (!).

But they were greeted by the troops very cordially and taken in buses to camps located in various schools in the area.

In the makeshift camps, the detainees said they were greatly suffering because of overcrowding and extreme heat. There were no  toilet facilities for so many people. And they were not allowed to leave the camp premises to ease themselves.

Many pleaded with us to tell the army to notify them about the whereabouts of their family members. Families were broken up and people were wondering whether their relations were lost, killed or alive and put up in different camps. There was utter confusion with the men and women yelling at the media persons. The scene was heartrending and at times terrifying.

Maj.Gen. Shavendra Silva who took the press party showed us buildings with the roof intact and said that they were proof that shelling was not indiscriminate. He also said that Mulliwaikkal was captured by foot soldiers who went in small groups to pick and eliminate the Tigers.

There was a mismatch between what the people said and what the General said. Only thorough interviews with the people who lived there will reveal the truth.

What was intriguing was the cordoning off of the Mullaiwaikkal area for months after the war with no one, including the.media, being allowed to visit it. Whatever evidence of mass destruction there was, had been removed by the time the place was opened up to the public and for resettlement of people. But even now  you can see bones, household goods, hospital equipment in shallow pits in several places in Mulliwaikkal..

Bala

C:9 Mike R–Kanchan Prasad & Murali, 16 October 2017

A= Do these items jog your memory? Was the SLAF show on Monday 20th or Wednesday 22nd April? Can you remember WHO else among foreign reporters were present – see one Reuters image

B =Your pics from the visit in January are INVALUABLE …. BUT wd it be fair to say that reporters taken on these short visits did not get to observe much in depth about the fighting –in contrast with your mid May experience?

Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara (2nd L) points to a diagram that he says shows the progress of the Sri Lankan army against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during a news conference at the media centre for national security in central Colombo April 22, 2009. REUTERS/David Gray

C:10 Reply from KANCHAN PRASAD, 16 October 2017

Dear Robert, Dates of my photo collection tells me that we were on the location in the North on 24th of April 2009. Going by that, we should have seen the SLAF show on 22nd April.

Regarding your query at B – Yes, we did get a glimpse of the areas which were taken by the SLA but could not get in depth observation.

Even in May, we were mostly given a controlled access to the Front. Also because of the concern for our safety as small pockets of fierce resistance were still there.

If you read Gen Kamal Gunaratne’s book, you will have an idea of what the ground situation was. But of course, we did get a good feel of the ground situation especially where the IDPs were concerned. But not of actual fighting

You can ask Murali to corroborate the dates and my views on the access to ground zero

Hope you are doing well Michael, Regards and best wishes

Murali in the heart of the former battlefield along the coastal belt at Vellimullivaikkal in mid May 2009–Pic by Kaachan Prasad

C:11 Reply from Muralidhar Reddy

Dear Michael, To add to what Kanchan has written, technically speaking reporters of the most of the Lankan media and representatives of foreign news agencies had access to war impacted areas in the north since the government began settling the displaced in temporary camps.

However, the situation changed dramatically once Kilinochchi fell in the last week of December 2008. A group of us including representatives of foreign news agencies were flown to Kilinochchi town in less than 48 hours it was captured.

After that we were taken on conducted tour 2/3 times more. These areas were as good as war zones as they were the areas which had just been captured by the sri lankan military and there were tell tale signs of fighting. All this has been captured by journalists.

Kanchan and me had access to “actual” or “real” zone in the last days of war in May . As I had stated earlier, Kanchan largely agrees with my views, that there was no evidence of any bloodshed or killings in the war zone.

Best

Birtley    Chater

ADDENDUM: The Al Jazeera Footage and Tony Birtley’s Commentary, 1 February 2009

I have just viewed (again) the footage shown by Tony Birtley for Al Jazeera on 1st February 2009. Wearing a helmet and flak jacket, he was smack bang in the SL Army’s combat zone near Dharmapuram. So, he was relatively privileged unlike Namini Wijedasa, Reddy, Nessman and others taken to the rear areas of the war zone in small batches in January 2009 and later.

His commentary is carefully phrased. The footage begins with a display of 120mm mortars being fired and he states that the SL Army has “a huge number of heavy weapons.” He indicates that the SL Army’s artillery fire is said to be “defensive fire” responding to calibrations of LTTE fire which a soldier showed him on a map. He adds the caution: “it is impossible to check this out” and spices this note with an aside: “outgoing force, but incoming criticism’ [in an explicit reference to the HR criticisms]

The SL Army officers, he says, have indicated that they were killing 15 Tiger fighters every day and advancing about 600 metres daily. They anticipated a victorious outcome in four days if the civilians came out of the LTTE arena (or what I would call “the Tiger embrace as a defensive formation”).

A soldier clarifies a point in Sinhala and Birtley indicates that at that moment they are 300 metres from the LTTE who are “very much in retreat.” The footage then takes viewers to a couple of buildings [undamaged buildings one should note] which apparently housed an LTTE propaganda unit with its news-printing machine and coloured blurbs; while one building included a bed with food parcels lying on a bed – thereby marking hurried withdrawal.

Birtley says that “time seems to be running out” for the Tigers and interviews a SL Army officer who tells him: “the next four days will be crucial. If the civilians come out, it will be a matter of a few days before the total defeat of the LTTE.”

Birtley concludes the footage by saying “maybe – but for now there seems to be no solution for the civilians trapped between two sides, one desperate for victory, one desperate for survival.”

The SL Army officer was sorely mistaken. As we know today, the Sri Lankan forces took another 15 weeks to overwhelm the LTTE. In fact, a day or so after this assertion. the LTTE took advantage of the GSL’s unilateral ceasefire period to launch the first of a series of counter attacks. Let Sergie de Silva-Ranasinghe’s account, entitled “The Battle for the Vanni Pocket” provide the details

 “Commencing from February 1-4, the LTTE launched major counterattacks against Task Force 4 and the 59th Division, which lay siege to the outer southern approaches of the LTTE frontline. The ambitious LTTE counterattack had the objective of recapturing Mullaitivu town in time for Sri Lanka’s Independence Day, on February 4, and forced the SLA to retreat as far south as Oddusudan, some 10 kilometres away. Initially, the LTTE achieved almost total surprise by infiltrating among groups of fleeing civilians crossing the frontline and also using the Nandikadal Lagoon near PTK and Mullaitivu town. In the initial attack the LTTE used several Vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) to breach SLA defences followed by frontal counterattacks with over 500 guerrillas using a captured T-55 Main Battle Tank and a T85 Armoured Personnel Carrier (later knocked out by infantry). The LTTE made immediate territorial gains forcing Task Force 4 and the 59th Division to hastily fall back on their flanks between 1.5-3 kilometres. It took four days of heavy fighting to reduce the LTTE salient with reserves from the Air Mobile Brigade, Commando Regiment and the Special Forces Regiment.

Towards late February the LTTE shifted the focus of its major operations against the 55th Division laying siege to its northern frontage. As such, from February 27 to March 8, an estimated 250 guerrillas launched up to 13 local counterattacks and overran seven bunkers along the 55th Divisions’ front. However, the division rallied within hours and counterattacked to recapture lost positions and blunted the LTTE offensive in its sector.

Ominously, while diversionary thrusts were launched against the 55th Division, a simultaneous and larger counterattack was launched against the neighbouring 58th Division where groups of guerrillas infiltrated and succeeded in pushing back its forward elements up to 1.5 kilometres. The fighting was heavy as exemplified by the 20th Gemunu Watch which destroyed two VBIEDs and fought off three local LTTE counterattacks. However, large groups of LTTE infiltrators were engaged in pitched skirmish actions with rear echelon troops, which made the situation serious enough to warrant Lieutenant General Saratha Fonseka, the commander of the SLA, to personally take command over the battle. Strategic reserves consisting of four squadrons of e lite Special Forces and the 2nd Commando Regiment were immediately thrown into battle which saw heavy fighting last for over 48 hours before the 58th Division stabilized its front. (Asia Pacific Defence Reporter, March 2009, vol. 38/2, p. 18)

 Remarkably, de Silva-Ranasinghe gathered these details from an office desk at Perth and presented them in March [in the quality journaal Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter which may not have been accessible to either journalists of the average reader or even the journalists] outshining all the journalists in the island and abroad. How he attained these details  has yet to be revealed, but his account should disabuse those moralists and innocents abroad who thought the LTTE had limited artillery power and considered the Tamil civilians to be mere hostages rather than an element in a defensive formation which could also serve as cover for infiltration tactics. In brief, the civilians were a military asset. Their greatest value, of course, is in the way their presence inspired powerful Western governments and agencies and many, many, many well-meaning people to exert enormous pressure on the Sri Lankan government and military forces to temper their fighting methods and even to demand that they cease warfare altogether.

A POSTSCRIPT

Let me add to this picture of contemporaneous studies of Eelam War Iv by referring to the remarkable manner in which an aeronautical engineer in UK (wholly British-educated) kept track of satellite imagery and the TamilNet reportage and then compiled a detailed study of considerable length entitled “The Numbers Game” that was available on internet subsequently. This was presented anonymously in an Indian web site and I have given him the pseudonym “Citizen Silva” because his professional status would be otherwise compromised. The British scholar, Kath Noble, has also provided a summary. Not one UN agency or reputed Western institution has bothered to consult this document. While I understand how reporters tasked with news-chasing have no time for such serious documents, the failure of other institutions, from the UN Panel of Experts to the Law and Advocacy Trust in Sydney, to take serious note of this document has to be criticised as an act of gross neglect.

This is just one of the six sets of Appendices in that study., but I am not certain it will reproduce …. Appendix_Pic_3

AN INVITATION: This essay is also an invitation to all the reporters, camerapersons and analysts who had the opportunity to observe the fighting forces to provide me with their recollections, contemporaneous reports and reflections on  the last phase of the war and the commentary within this essay, Please dispatch to michael.roberts01@adelaide.edu.au — with a copy to mrober137@mail.com

   ** ***

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY

Al-Jazeera 2008 “SL Army closes in on Tamil Tigers,” 7 October 2008,https://thuppahi. wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=14022&action=edit&message=6&postpost=v2

Al-Jazeera 2009a “SL army claims control of rebel territory, 26 Jan 2009,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brMeGyyt8ow

Al-Jazeera 2009b “SL army closes in on Tamil Tigers,” 1 February 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZc_Am5HUSs

Birtley, Tony …see Al-Jazeera

Chater, David 2009 “Sri Lankan civilians ‘escape’ rebel stronghold,” 22 April 2009, https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=David+chater+of+AL+JAZEERA+on+Sri+Lanka+War+2009&&view=detail&mid=A1893420EC90212A3A3DA1893420EC90212A3A3D&&FORM=VDRVRV

Citizen Silva 2013 “The Numbers Game: Politics of Retributive Justice,” http://www.scribd.com/doc/132499266/The-Numbers-Game-Politics-of-Retributive-Justice OR http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/shrilanka/document/TheNG.pdf

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009a “Political and Security Implications of Sri Lanka’s Armed Conflict,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, Feb. 2009, Vol. 35/1, pp. 20, 22-24.

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009b “The Battle for the Vanni Pocket,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, March 2009, Vol. 35/2, pp. 17-19 — http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/aulimp/citations/gsa/2009_157395/ 156554.html

Ferdinando, Shamindra 2009 “Tiger force annihilated near Mullaitivu civilian safe zone,” Island, 6 April 2009, http://www.island.lk/2009/04/06/news1.html

Hull, C. Bryson 2009 “Sri Lanka opens eye in the sky on war zone,” 20 April 2009, http://mobile.reuters.com/article/idUSCOL450259

Hull, C. Bryson & Ranga Sirilal 2009a “Sri Lankan War in Endgame, 100,000 escape rebel zone,” 23 April 2009, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-srilanka-war-idUSTRE53J0IZ20090422

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2009a “Theepan of the LTTE: Heroic Saga of a Northern Warrior,” 4 April 2009, http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/5381

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2009b “Anatomy of the LTTE Military Debacle at Aananthapuram,” Sunday Leader, 8 April 2012 —http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2012/04/08/anatomy-of-the-ltte-military-debacle-at-aananthapuram/

Noble, Kath 2013b “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/

Prasad, Kanchan 2011a “Indian Reporter Pics at NFZ-14-to-18 May 2009,” http://www.flickr.com/photos/thuppahi/sets/72157626797805167/

Prasad, Kanchan 2011b “Mullivaikkal Hospital in NFZ Last Redoubt,” in http://www.flickr.com/photos/thuppahi/sets/72157626797848747/

Prasad, Kanchan 2011c “Two Indian Reporters’ Post-War Pictures at the LTTE’s Last Redoubt, May 14-19, 2009,” ed. by Roberts, June 2011,

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

Reddy, Muralidhar 2009c “A first-hand account of the war and the civilians’ plight as Eelam War almost comes to a close,” Frontline, 26/11, May 23-June 5, 2009

Roberts, Michael 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/

Roberts, Michael “Introducing “Numbers Game” – A Detailed Study of the Last Stages of Eelam War IV,“ …. See http://www.scribd.com/doc/132499266/The-Numbers-Game-Politics-of-Retributive-Justice  OR http://www.margasrilanka.org/ [right panel at top—then click]

Shashikumar, V. K. 2014  “Lessons from Sri Lanka’s War,” Indian Defence Review. 19 November 2014,http://www.indiandefencereview.com/spotlights/lessons-from-the-war-in-sri-lanka/

Sriyananda, Shanika 2009 “At long last they are free!” Sunday Observer, 17 May 2009.

Tammita-Delgoda, S. 2014b “Reading Between the Lines in April 2009: Tammita-Delgoda takes apart Marie Colvin’s jaundiced propaganda article in British newspaper,” 26 September 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/09/26/rading-between-the-lines-in-april-2009-tammita-delgoda-takes-apart-marie-colvins-jaundiced-propanda-article-in-british-newspaper/

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

UN Panel of Experts 2011 “Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka, ”http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/Sri_Lanka/POE_Report

 

8 Comments

Filed under accountability, doctoring evidence, Eelam, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, law of armed conflict, legal issues, life stories, LTTE, mass conscription, military strategy, news fabrication, politIcal discourse, power politics, prabhakaran, security, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, slanted reportage, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, Tamil Tiger fighters, the imaginary and the real, trauma, truth as casualty of war, war reportage, world events & processes

8 responses to “Reporters struggling with Eelam War IV: Some Recollections and Reports

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