The Gash Files II: LTTE’s Strategic Design

Michael Roberts

In Despatch COL/2/08 of12 March 2009 Lt. Col Anton Gash has this summary appraisal for his superiors: The LTTE has been forcing the civilian population to move in accordance with their tactical requirements. The NFZ is rigorously policed and patrolled by LTTE cadres, who control access to food and medical facilities, ensuring that their own needs are met before any capacity is allowed for civilians.”

This is a critical observation pointing in the right direction. Nevertheless, it falls short of the mark. The mass of Tamil civilians was not merely a tactical element. They were a central pillar in the LTTE’s grand strategy. For one, they constituted a defensive formation: just so many sandbags restraining the full deployment of the government forces’ military weaponry. While the standard description of the civilians as “hostages” in HR and Western circles does point in this direction, the terminology is “weak” and does not fully capture the overarching strategic purpose of the corralled civilian mass. In addition to serving as a restrictive ‘bund’, the civilian mass provided an active incentive for Western intervention in favour of a ceasefire and some sort of “political solution.

 a tent citty in the Tigers’ last redoubt –-Pic from UNPoE circa February 2009

an HRW pic taken from en.wikipedia.org -sse Roberts, TPS. Pictorial  figs  80-82 for further details

Around April 2008, while successfully resisting SL Army advances southwards in the Jaffna Peninsula, the LTTE in the Vanni were forced into a retreat from west to east and south to north because they were outgunned and outnumbered. At this point they ordered and cajoled the civilian population to move eastwards or northwards ahead of the SL Army advance. As Muralidhar Reddy informed me, “the three lakhs or so of people who were citizens of Thamilīlam had been ready to adhere to the LTTE’s enforced movement eastwards because they had little faith in the government of Sri Lanka.” So, they acquiesced readily (initially) in this exodus despite all its discomforts and rigours.[1] From mid-2008 therefore the LTTE and its migrant arms began developing a picture of “an impending humanitarian catastrophe” and highlighting the prospect of “genocide” (a dire picture of Armageddon that was in the air in some Tamil circles from the 1990s if not earlier).[2]

So, to repeat, the mass of civilians was a central pillar in the LTTE’s war strategy. They were to (A) function as a defensive fortress of ‘sandbags’ (i.e. victims, casualties) restraining the offensive weaponry of the GSL forces and (B) serve as an incentive for forceful intervention by Norway, USA and other Western governments – intervention primed by the outcries of HR organisations and concerned peoples (including Tamil organisations) in the West.

 Scene on main road running north-south at Ampalavanpokkani in “Lsst Redoubt” 29 March 2009-Pic from TamilNet

The strategy was eminently successful, albeit only up to a point. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group et al raised outcries and demanded ceasefires and restraint from the government of Sri Lanka. Take one example. On the 19th February 2009 Human Rights Watch released an illustrated document with this demand: “The Sri Lankan government should immediately cease its indiscriminate artillery attacks on civilians in the northern Vanni region and its policy of detaining displaced persons in internment camps.”

Again, on the 8th March 2009, Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, the head of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, presented a case for restraint in the use of artillery: “the GOSL has yet to convincingly rebut the charges that its artillery has hit medical facilities, civilians within and outside the no fire zone and that its strategy in the face of the humanitarian catastrophe in the Wanni is driven by military considerations to the point that it is better described as one of elimination of the LTTE and its support base, rather than one of containment which accords civilian protection the priority it deserves and demands in these and all other circumstances” (2009). In other words, to present matters metaphorically, the government forces were asked to participate in a deadly boxing match with one arm tied behind its back.

Saravanamuttu was reiterating a position that was quite forcefully voiced by the US Ambassador Robert Blake in Colombo throughout this period of war in 2009. At a meeting with Basil Rajapaksa on aid issues on the 4th March 2009, Blake caned the government for firing into the “Safe Zone”: in majestic disdain he dismissed Rajapaksa’s statement that these acts were in reply to LTTE artillery fire as a lame excuse.[3] Again, on the 8th March he “urged” the Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa “to do everything he [could] to minimize civilian casualties in the North by stopping shelling into the no-fire zone, even when fired upon by LTTE positions there.”[4] In brief, only one of the warring parties was expected to muzzle its guns.[5]

Reading the despatches made public by Wikileaks, therefore, what we see is the creation and treatment of the category “safe zone” as an inviolable bureaucratic concept – even though that designated area hosted the LTTE artillery, its Sea Tigers and its command HQ. This was not merely bureaucratic inertia linked to hocus-pocus. Behind this position was the US State Department’s firm commitment to sustaining the LTTE as an entity and a pillar in its search for “a political solution” in Sri Lanka.

Norway was a key player in this US-led Western enterprise. The Norwegian ambassador in Lanka, Hattrem, and two senior Norwegian representatives from Oslo assembled with Rudrakumaran and Jay Maheswaran[6] at a meeting in Kuala Lumpur in February organised by KP Pathmanathan (the date is not specified by Salter or anyone) in order to chart steps towards this goal by rescuing the LTTE leadership and whisking them to safety in Eritrea or some such spot.[7] The overarching, pie-in-the-sky intentions behind this plot were (inadvertently?) revealed by Mike Owens, one of the State Department’s senior officials in Washington, on the 6th May 2009.[8]

This line of policy was adhered to the Western consortium even though John Holmes of the UN, following  a visit to Sri Lanka, had told the New York Times on the 26rh March 2009, that “[the trapped civilians] are not being allowed to leave by the LTTE”;[9] and even though Blake’s despatches indicate that he was fully alive to the fact that the LTTE would not agree to any ceasefire. Blake’s consistent demand was for the Government of Sri Lanka to cease military action so that the United Nations could send an emissary[10] to the rump Tiger territory so as to persuade the LTTE leaders to release the people.

Blake, then, was nothing other than an imperial satrap. USA and its Western allies were pressing Sri Lanka to discard its goal of defeating the LTTE. Such vociferous and forceful interventions confirm my contention: the LTTE’s overarching strategic purpose in corralling the civilian mass was directed towards gather international pressures that would restrain the GSL military options in substantial ways.

As it transpired, the LTTE were assembling forces for a counter-attack in early April 2009 when their preparations were identified by an UAV commanded by the SL Brigade HQ at the front. Various Army units proceeded to encircle them, while concentrated aerial and artillery bombardment was directed on the arena of assembly (the area known as Aanandapuram west of the Nandikadal Lagoon and a space that happened to be clear of civilians). A total of 625 fighters, including several experienced commanders, died at Aanandapuram.[11] No less a person than General Shavendra Silva, the overall SLA field commander, sees this event as the third “turning point” in the GSL’s military campaign during the last stages of the war.[12] 

This debacle made it clear that the LTTE war machine was on its last legs. Blake, the US Ambassador, immediately raised the ante. At a meeting with Foreign Minister Bogollagama on 11 April 2009 he suggested a humanitarian pause so that an UN envoy could be sent to the safe zone to negotiate a rescue of the civilians and an LTTE surrender.[13] This was followed by a meeting with Defence Minister Rajapaksa where he “pressed Rajapaksa to have the military exercise restraint and not enter the safe zone by force” (Blake’s words in despatch). Blake may have been speaking in genial style as “Bob” to “Gota,”[14] but there was US steel behind the order. In my reading, “desist or else” was the message.

So, we see that the Sword of Damocles had been raised over the heads of the Government of Sri Lanka in April 2009. The LTTE grand strategy was panning out. The West had become its solid allies. The rushed visit of Miliband and Kouchner in stern face and threatening voice to meet President Rajapaksa in late April was yet further proof of this concrete  partiality.[15]

In brief, the HR agencies, the Western governments and their UN emissaries fell in with the LTTE strategy (induced in part, as it seems outwardly, by humanitarian concerns). They were not mere bystanders. They were active participants in the warring context.

Gotha appears to have said “yes,” to “Bob,” but subsequent events indicate that he and his brothers had no intention of kow-towing to this impossible demand from the mighty West. They proceeded with the difficult military operations[16] devoted to the capture of the remaining LTTE territory. And their military forces succeeded in an intricate infantry operation between the 18/19th April and 19th May 2009.

Graphic Map in Daily Mirror, 24 April 2009 – a super distillation that also reveals the number of Tamil civilians and deserting Tiger fighters who fled their entrapment

 escaping Tamils — see Roberts, TPS. Pictorial, 2014

Robert Blake in the Clouds

My readings of the US ambassadorial despatches in previous studies led to the conclusion that Robert Blake was in “Never-Never Land”. This interpretation has been confirmed today during a Skype chat with former SL Navy commander Admiral Travis Sinniah.[17] In his reading, Blake[18] was not only an ambitious Foreign Service officer with influential connections in Washington;[19] he was also opinionated and not on the same page as Lawrence Smith, the Military Charge DÁffaires (?) at the US  embassy in  Colombo in 2009. Blake, says Sinniah, was out of touch with the battlefield situation and convinced that the SL military forces could not defeat the LTTE.

The Price

The GSL military victory, therefore, generated thunder and lightning from the West. Since May 2009, the Sword of Damocles has been wielded in all its force by the Western dispensation. Since then the Darusman Panel Report, the Petrie Report and the UNHCR investigations and a battery of resolutions from Geneva[20] have been punishments heaped on that little minnow Sri Lanka – a tiny state that had defied the imperatives proclaimed by the Western powers.

No one in the corridors of power in the world today seems to perceive the injustice associated with active parties within a specific conflict – parties drawn in by the moral imperatives arising from the success of the LTTE’s grand strategy directed towards building up a picture of “a humanitarian catastrophe” — becoming the prosecutor and dispenser of justice relating to that conflict’s outcomes. The Western media chains have also been complicit in this programme.

C’est la vie in the corridors of power.

***   ***

SELECT REFERENCES

Balachandran, P. K. 2015 “PK Balachandran on Overt & Covert Paths in Indian and American Policies towards Sri Lanka, 2008-09,”26 September 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/09/16/pk-balachandran-on-overt-and-covert-faces-in-indian-and-american-policies-towards-the-sri-lankan-war-2008-09/

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2010a “Information Warfare and the Endgame of the Civil War,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, May 2010, 30/4: 35-37, http://wwwasiapacificdefencereporter. com/articles/40/Sri-Lanka.

Fernando, Manjula 2018  “Looking Down a Ship’s Cannon: Vice Admiral Travis Sinniah in Q and A,”  3 April 2018, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2018/04/03/looking-down-a-ships-cannon-vice-admiral-travis-sinniah-in-q-and-a/

Gamage, Daya 2014 “The American Agenda for Sri Lanka’s National Issues, 1970s-2014,” 5 July 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/the-american-agenda-for-sri-lankas-national-issues-1970s-2014/

Gamage, Daya 2015 “U.S. clears Sri Lanka of Civilian Deaths: Faults Tiger Human Shield,” 14 August 2015, http://www.asiantribune.com/node/87659.

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-Justice OR http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/shrilanka/document/TheNG.pdf.

Jeyaraj D. B. S. 2012 [2009]Theepan of the LTTE: Heroic Saga of a Northern Warrior,” orig, 4 April 2009, http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/5381

Jeyaraj D. B. S. 2012 [2009] “Anatomy of the LTTE military debacle at Aanandapuram,” 10 April 2009, http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/315

Jeyaraj D. B. S. 2011 “KP” Speaks Out,” Vavuniya: NERDO, Mum Pvt. Ltsd.

Marga 2011 An Analysis and Evaluation of The Report of the Advisory Panel to the UNSG nn the Final Stages of the War in Sri Lanka, https://www.dropbox.com/s/0eybj1ynej6spaa/The%20Darusman%20Report-%20Final%20doc-2.doc

Marga 2014 Issues of Truth and Accountability. The Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka, https://www.dropbox.com/s/tdxwntf7wu5andq/The%20Last%20Stages%20of%20the%20war%20in%20Sri%20Lanka.pdf?n=66191473.

Nessman, Ravi 2009 “Interview with Associated Press Writer Ravi Nessman: AP Sri Lanka Bureau Chief,” 18 February 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2ZqLlpuLBE.

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

Reddy, Muralidhar 2009b “Multiple Displacements, Total Loss of Identity.”The Hindu, 27 May 2009,  http://www.hindu.com/2009/05/27/stories/2009052755811500.htm

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-1122

Roberts, Michael 2013 Witnesses to “the War without Witnesses” … Voiceless? Buried Foreign Reporters?” 30 December 2013, 2013 https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2013/12/30/11504/

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

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

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 “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 2014 “Ball-by-Ball through Wikileaks: Us Embassy Despatahes from Colombo, 2009: ONE,” 27 August 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/08/27/ball-by-ball-through-wikileaks-us-embassy-despatches-from-colombo-2009-one/#more-13481

Roberts, Michael 2015 “Targeting Sri Lanka by playing ball with Tamil Extremism,” 24 July 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/07/24/targeting-lanka-by-playing-ball-with-tamil-extremism-2008-14/

Roberts, Michael 2015  “Lilliputs in a World of Giants: Marga and CHA bat for Lanka in the Propaganda War, 2009-14,” 18 November 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/11/18/lilliputs-in-a-world-of-giants-marga-and-cha-bat-for-lanka-in-the-propaganda-war-2009-14/#more-18467

Roberts, Michael 2015 “Loopholes: How Tamil Advocacy Penetrates US Foreign Policy Making,” 9 December 2015, https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/loopholes-how-tamil-advocacy-penetrates-us-foreign-policy-making/

Roberts, Michael 2016 “Speaking to Gotabaya, I: Plans afoot to rescue Tiger Leadership,” 8 March 2016, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2016/03/08/speaking-to-gotabaya-i-plans-afoot-in-2009-to-rescue-the-tiger-leadership/#more-20092

Roberts, Michael 2016 David Miliband’s Imperious Intervention in Lanka left in Tatters,” 5 July 2016, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2016/07/05/david-milibands-imperious-intervention-in-lanka-left-in-tatters/

Roberts, Michael 2017 Reporters struggling with Eelam War IV: Some Recollections and Reports,” 21 October 2017, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/reporters-struggling-with-eelam-war-iv-some-recollections-and-reports/

Salter, Mark 2015 To End a Civil War. Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka, London: Hurst & Company.

Tammita-Delgoda, S. 2014Reading 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/

Thiagarajah, Jeevan 2015 Confronting the OCHR Investigation in Geneva, September 2014: Memorandum from Jeevan Thiagarajah,” 19 November 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/confronting-the-ochr-investigation-in-geneva-september-2014-memorandum-from-jeevan-thiagarajah/#more-18481

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.

UN Internal Panel Report 2012 Ïnternal Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka,” 20 November 2012,http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/Sri_Lanka/The_Internal_Review_Panel_report_on_Sri_Lanka.pdf

END NOTES

[1] Roberts, TPS. Pictorial, p. 121. Reddy presented these views to me during lengthy chats in Colombo in April-June 2009. Reddy was the Correspondent for The Hindu and Frontline.  We had met earlier in Delhi in 1995 and on this occasion in mid-2009, he contracted me to write for Frontline. Also see Reddy “Multiple Displacements,” 2009. A conjectural assessment of the sentiments of the Tamil populace in LTTE space in 2004-08 – guided in particular by the opinions of the late Rajasinghsm Narendran, Rajesh Venugopal and Anoma Rajakaruna — can be found in Roberts, TPS. Essays, 2014: 146-55.

[2] In October 2014 I summarized this reading thus in Groundviews: “During the last phase of Eelam War IV in 2008/09 the LTTE attempted an international heist that is unprecedented in world history: they used some 320,000 of their own people to manufacture a picture of an “impending humanitarian disaster” so that concerned international forces would intervene and impose a ceasefire or effect a rescue operation. These entrapped Tamil people were not only so many sandbags and a source of labour and/or conscripts. Their primary purpose was to constitute a spectre of impending horror.” I was roundly slashed by several internet assassins, but chose not to meet the critics in such disadvantageous terrain (a tactical decision).

[3] Blake to Washington, 09COLOMBO252 dated 5 March 2009 (Wikileaks).

[4] Blake to Washington, 09COLOMBO283 dated 12 March 2009 (Wikileaks).

[5] Note: “Ambassador reiterated that once the GSL takes control of PTK it is important that the military not enter the safe zone. Rajapaksa repeated his pledge to not enter the safe zone and stated that the Army would take a passive stance on its boundary once the other areas were secured.” (Wikileaks, Blake to Washington, 09COLOMBO283= 12 March 2009). A little later, on the 18th March 2009, Blake told the Foreign Minister Bogollagama that Sri Lanka would be “likely subject … to war crimes charges” if it continued its battlefield advances (Blake to Washington, Despatch No. 308 of 19th March 2009 (also see Despatch No. 307 of same date)

[6] Rudrakumaran is a lawyer in New York who has served as the one of the LTTE”s front men for decades and Jay Maheswaran resides in Sydney.

[7] See Jeyaraj 2011: 29-35 and Salter 2015: 348-39. Note that Salter does not provide a precise date for this “secret meeting” in Kuala Lumpur; but indicates that Basil Rajapaksa was privy to its occurrence.

[8]Why did [the LTTE] have a following in the beginning? And I think it’s because some in the Tamil community do have legitimate grievances, and we need to find — I think it’s imperative for Sri Lankans to find a way to give everyone in the community, all Sri Lankans a legitimate voice in their government. And so we want to support the government of Sri Lanka as they move forward in an effort to do exactly that” — see Gamage 2014.

[9] Roberts, TPS. Pictorial, 2014: 215.

[10] Thus, such UN emissaries who visited Sri Lanka during 2009, for e. g. Holmes and Nambiar, were agents pf Washington. One can argue that The UNHCR is Geneva is of the same order. So, the UN Security Council had little say here.

[11] These details are derived largely from DBS Jeyaraj’s two remarkable articles on the topic in early April 2009 (namely, “Theepan” and “Anatomy,”) supplemented by my interview with General Shavendra Silva on 19th August 2017.  Theepan, Vidusha, Durga, Gadhapi, Gopith, Nagesh,were the Tiger commanders among the dead according to Jeyaraj (“Theepan,” 2009).  Gash’s despatch of 7 April has this account: “A bitter battle for the last area of Puthukkuddiruppu (PTK) East concluded on 5 April 09. The LTTE were penned into a small area centred on Grid 918575 then encircled and destroyed in detail. No prisoners were taken.”

[12] Author’s Interview with General Silva, (19 August 2017). He marked the capture of Pooneyn and Paranthan in 2008 as the first and second turning points. The General also indicated that the military did not use artillery without guidance from UAV footage (usually steered by the SLAF, but at this stage aided by a new innovation =– letting the SL Brigade HQ command its own UAV).

[13] I have to locate this file in my computer but have the paraphrased summary indicated in Roberts “Speaking to Gotabaya I,” 2016.

[14] In our telephone chat Gotabaya Rajapaksa indicated that he was on friendly first name terms with Blake (Roberts: “Speaking to Gotabaya I,” 2016).

[15] See Roberts, “David Miliband’s Imperious Intervention in Lanka left in Tatters,” 2016.

[16] In my amateur military assessment, the penetration of the LTTE defence system in that north-western pocket of the Vanni beside Nandhikadal Lagoon on the 19th-22nd April 2009 by SL Army commando forces led by Ralph Nugara and Athula Kodippilly, should rank close to the battle of Dien Bien Phu in recent world history. It will, of course, never gain such status: the achievements of little minnows receive limited weight in world military history.

[17] This conversation was on Wednesday 4 April. Travis Sinniah is from Trinity College Kandy and his wife Thiruni (nee Ramanaden) is a teenage mate of my daughters and stayed with us at Adelaide when she was studying at Adelaide University.

[18] Note that his father Robert O’Blake Snr had retired as retired U.S. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary and that young Blake entered the US Foreign Service in 1985 and had been Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Delhi from 2003-06 before being moved up the ladder to Sri Lanka

[19] In fact, Blake left Sri Lanka in mid-May 2009 to replace Robert Boucher on 26th May 2009 as  Assistant Secretary for Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs on May 26, 2009.

[20] See UNPoE 2011 and UN Internal Panel Report {Petrie Report] 2012. For a critical review of the former see Marga 2011 & 2014; and for the UNHCR scenario, see Thiagarajah 2015.

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Filed under accountability, american imperialism, authoritarian regimes, discrimination, governance, historical interpretation, human rights, Indian Ocean politics, law of armed conflict, legal issues, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, politIcal discourse, power politics, Rajapaksa regime, refugees, Responsibility to Protect or R2P, security, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, tamil refugees, Tamil Tiger fighters, terrorism, truth as casualty of war, UN reports, unusual people, war crimes, war reportage, wikileaks, world events & processes

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