Michael Roberts, Courtesy of Colombo Telegraph, 2 December 2019, where the title is “Excess! Tamil Death Toll Magnified In The Course Of British Interventions In The Sri Lankan Presidential Election”
“just as in Kosovo if enough civilians died … the world would be forced to step in” (Pulidevan, the LTTE Political Commissar, message in early 2009 to friends in Europe (quoted in Harrison: Still Counting the Dead, 2012: 63)
The assessments of the last stages of Eelam War IV embracing 2008/09 have been bedevilled by the verdicts of intellectuals and officials encased in drawing rooms located within an ivory tower. The hoary verdicts in the past have resurfaced today in the vociferous campaign aimed at influencing events in Sri Lanka – with the Shadow Chancellor of the Labour Party and such HR activists as Alan Keenan,[ii] Fred Carver and Richard Gowing[iii] participating in this grandstanding work. Possessing no experience of modern warfare, mostly unfamiliar with the landscape of the pertinent battle theatre within the northern Vanni and animated by human rights fervour, they have bought into the clever LTTE strategy that built up a picture of an ”impending humanitarian catastrophe” – a picture generated from mid-2008 and involving Tamil advocates within the diaspora as well.
Towards this end, the LTTE persuaded and pushed the civilians in their territory to move eastwards and northwards in the face of SL Army advances in 2008 – till these hapless people found themselves hemmed in within what has been termed “the Vanni Pocket” and eventually within constantly decreasing territorial space in 2009.
Behind this strategy, of course, was the determined dictator Velupillai Pirapāharan and his commanders. His regime was fascist in character[iv] and his cadre were committed to sacrificial devotion[v] to their cause. As the ABC filmmaker Paul Corcoran noted when he spent time in the territories of Thamilīlam in 1999 and composed the film SRI LANKA. TIGERS AT THE GATE: “The truth is a political solution is as impossible as a military breakthrough because for the (Tamil) Tigers it’s all or nothing – a homeland or glorious death.”[vi]
In consequence, the Tamil civilians became (a) one element in the Tiger defensive formations – that is, metaphorically speaking, just so many sandbags; while (b) providing ancillary services in carrying and fetching at the warfront or its rear … in a battlefield context where many Tiger soldiers did not wear uniforms.[vii] However, their prime purpose was in serving as a raison d étre for the Western international powers and the UN to step in and enforce a ceasefire or a ”rescue” of the people and the LTTE leadership.[viii] Towards this grand strategic end, they deployed their Tamil medical doctors and Tamil officials in the INGOs within Thamililam to feed bloated casualty figures and horrific scenarios of disaster to select Western personnel in Colombo (UN and reporters) – personnel who did not raise questions about the access to satellite phones reposing in the hands of their informants.[ix]
That there was death and horror there can be no doubt. However, the issues are: (A) to what degree and (B) under whose fashioning.
Central to any assessment of the death toll is an awareness of a basic fact of war: in virtually all battles in modern times the wounded soldiers outnumber the dead – sometimes as high as 13 to one,[x] but generally at about 4:1 or 5:1 …. though for the Australians in the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915 the ratio of WIA to KIA was 2.23.[xi] In other words, if 40,000 Tamil “civilians” perished in 2008/09, there had to be at least 80,000 wounded in the hospitals and IDP camps of April-June 2009.[xii]
That this fundamental fact has not been considered by the UN Panel of Experts headed by Darusman and by subsequent ‘verdicts’ from powerful offices as well as Rajan Hoole of the UTHR[xiii] indicates how idiotic and/or prejudiced these personnel have been. That is why I have depicted them as individuals reposing within a drawing room in some ivory tower. That is a mild characterization. More lurid metaphors would be on the mark.
A further illustration of this amateurish approach to a serious issue was when the UNHCR offices in Geneva, viz., the Office Investigating Sri Lanka (OISL in short) invited submissions after they proceeded to investigate the war. Memoranda were sought from far and wide. But their specifications decreed that no photographs, videos etc could be deployed.[xiv]
That proviso was further proof that powerful agencies in the West were not only encased in an ivory tower: they were also colour blind and thus doubly idiotic. Photographic evidence, satellite imagery and mapwork should have been critical tools of investigation. They remain vital to any historical work on Eelam War IV in its last stages.
I have kept this ESSAY brief. It is, therefore, less comprehensive and wide-ranging than it should be – given the complexity of the war situation in the Vanni as well as its ramifications around Colombo and within the propaganda currents in the media waves of the world then in 2008/09.
Brevity impinges on thoroughness and clarity. Alas, it seems that the pressmen and presswomen in today’s world demand brevity. Hence this partial review is fashioned in relatively succinct form. Readers who are not thus hidebound are directed to the items in my bibliography.
Michael Roberts, 30 November 2019