Since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009 international media coverage of the endgame of Sri Lanka’s civil war often dwelled on real and supposed breaches of international humanitarian law, during the final months by the Sri Lankan military. Much of this coverage seems to have ignored or downplayed the numerous confirmed, deliberate and generally worse breaches in how the LTTE fought the war over several decades. However, there have as yet, been few objective attempts to thoroughly analyse the conflict’s last phases and deduce a more pragmatic and balanced understanding of what probably transpired.
While foreign militaries have taken an interest in studying Sri Lanka’s counter-insurgency campaign, commentary on Sri Lanka’s military success by the mainstream media in the West has often been ill-informed, superficial and devalued. Take for instance a statement made by American journalist Robert Kaplan in his article ‘To Catch a Tiger’ published in The Atlantic when illustrating Sri Lanka’s military achievement: “Clearly, then, the US Army and Marine Corps should be studying the Sri Lankan civil war for valuable lessons about how to win a counterinsurgency, right? Actually – no. In fact, there are no useful pointers to be gleaned from the Sri Lankan government’s victory.” Subsequently, in an interview with foreign correspondent Michael Totten, Kaplan reaffirmed: “They killed thousands of civilians in the course of winning this war. It acted in a way so brutal that there are no lessons for the West.” Similarly, a Small Wars Journal blog entitled ‘Sri Lanka’s disconcerting COIN strategy for defeating the LTTE’ refers to Sri Lanka’s success only as a “ruthless COIN approach.”
However, given such decidedly strong conclusions, little evidence has been produced to support such claims, especially concerning the complex ground-warfare situation in the first five months of 2009. Indeed, while militaries worldwide have a legal and moral responsibility to try and ensure the safety of civilians during operations, collateral damage even in the most ideal circumstances can seldom be avoided. For example, the findings from the highly contested 2006 Iraq casualty survey by the Lancet estimated that tens of thousands of people died from coalition air strikes alone since the 2003 invasion. Similarly, the situation in Afghanistan has seen heavy collateral damage with some estimates suggesting thousands of fatalities from coalition air strikes alone. However, whether civilian casualties are high or not, it would be simplistic to argue that no useful lessons could be drawn from any conflict. The reality is that there are numerous variables, such as political pressure, the fog of war, strategic objectives, training, tactics and equipment that are very real considerations, which often lead to the occurrence of civilian casualties in counter-insurgency campaigns. Sri Lanka is no exception to this and there was the additional politico-cultural aspect, that it was essentially an inter-communal separatist-civil war between Sri Lankans and not a counter-insurgency campaign in the third-world by a Western military coalition.
Unlike in the West, which has numerous military and counter-insurgency analysts providing regular and informed commentary on the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sri Lanka lacked such a capacity and few outside experts devoted much of a sustained interest Again in contrast to international interest in Iraq and Afghanistan, most Western commentary on the Sri Lankan conflict has been written by human rights lobbyists, pro-LTTE supporters and sympathetic journalists, often in coalition. This has led to lopsided media coverage. The late US terrorism expert, Michael Radu, has argued that the “pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora and the international ‘human rights’ lobbies – such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch…acted to prolong the conflict, [and] protect the LTTE. At no time is that deadly coalition’s impact more obvious than now, when the LTTE is on its deathbed.” Indeed, in mid 2009 it was this very coalition which actively lobbied for a permanent ceasefire and evacuation of the LTTE leadership abroad, and successfully lobbied the US and EU to put extraordinary pressure on Sri Lanka in a bid to halt its offensive. These same lobbies are now pushing for war crimes investigations against only the Sri Lankan government, but not against the LTTE.
In attempting to fathom Sri Lanka’s motives in not halting military operations, few Western observers demonstrated an understanding of the local, regional and historical factors that led Sri Lanka to pursue a military victory in order to achieve a political and indeed a politico-cultural solution to a secessionist-civil war by an ethnic minority. As Sri Lanka’s former UN Ambassador, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, stated in April 2009: “The Tigers have taken a heavy toll on our country and its prospects. They have done so even when other alternatives had presented themselves, starting with the Indo-Lanka accord of 1987. If the Tiger leadership surrenders to a non-Sri Lankan entity, the strength of the Tamil Diaspora will almost certainly secure their release and they will return to blight the future of another generation of Sri Lankans. If the No Fire Zone [the last LTTE bastion] (a misnomer inasmuch as it is a Zone from which and within which the Tigers fire at our troops, escaping or restive civilians) remains intact it will expand cancerously over time and become the beachhead of a future Tiger recovery. Therefore the Tiger leadership must be given no quarter and must be annihilated.”
Similarly, Western observers have noticeably overlooked India’s significant role in assisting Sri Lanka defeat the LTTE. In fact, support from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu itself was often voiced in criticism of the LTTE as seen by Cho Ramaswamy, the editor of Thuglak magazine and an influential political commentator, who told CNN-IBN in February 2009: “It is not the Sri Lankan military which is targeting civilians there, it is the Tigers who are keeping the civilians as a shield. They are not allowing them to evacuate the place and go to safer territories though the Sri Lankan military has been asking them to evacuate and marking safe zones for them. We must do everything that is possible within certain limits to help the Sri Lankan Army to finish off the LTTE. The LTTE will survive as a pure and simple terrorist group, but they must lose their military strength. It is in India’s interest also and it is in the interest of the Sri Lankan Tamils also.”
By early January 2009, the LTTE faced acute manpower shortages as it suffered increasingly heavier casualties in conventional combat. The Sri Lanka Army claimed to have killed over 1700 LTTE combatants in 2006, around 4800 in 2007 and over 8300 in 2008. Hence, the LTTE resorted to desperate measures as indicated by the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes: “The UN agencies, International Committee of the Red Cross and our staff and people, when they came out of the LTTE hold [stronghold] they made it absolutely clear that people were being held against their will. They had to flee and if they try to leave they are being fired upon. When they try to flee, huge pressure is put on them against their leaving like forced recruitment of the civilians including children against their will, to fight or work for the LTTE. There may be some immediate family members who may stay but the overwhelming majority would want to get out at least for safety reasons irrespective of political reasons.”
In addition, a senior LTTE official who surrendered to the Sri Lanka Army, Velayutham Dayanithi (alias Daya Master), stated: “People who were born after 1994, 1995 and even 1996 were forced to fight. They were recruited forcibly…They [the LTTE] did not even spare the families that had only one child. They did not spare even people who were sick and suffering from heart diseases…They recruited everyone and attacked people who refused to heed.” The situation faced by IDPs in the final months of the conflict was also reported by the BBC Tamil Service in June 2009 which quoted interviews with former LTTE child soldiers, one of whom said: “During my training a boy and a girl tried to escape. They were caught and shot before the others.” Similarly, another former child soldier affirmed: “I saw a father trying to stop his son being taken away by the LTTE cadres. But they shot him down and took his son away.” Cumulatively, the evidence presented not only indicates that the LTTE forcibly held civilians against their will, but involuntarily recruited them to augment its depleted ranks or use them for military labour, which reinforces the belief that they were hostages intended for use as human shields.
When the conflict ended in May 2009, the LTTE claimed that civilian fatalities were over 20,000, though the LTTE has yet to release its combat losses for the final five months of the conflict. Similarly, the UN estimated around 7000 civilian fatalities, but has yet to substantiate its methodology. In both estimates it was implied that the Sri Lankan military was responsible for the bulk of the casualties, which they allege was through the use of ‘indiscriminate’ artillery fire. Sri Lanka has steadfastly refuted both allegations and claimed civilian casualties were much lower and were due to a multiplicity of reasons. What is most noteworthy is that the allegations of indiscriminate artillery fire came initially from the LTTE, which communicated directly on satellite phone with numerous foreign journalists and human rights NGOs with known sympathies for the Tamil cause. The word of the LTTE was taken for granted and little or no consideration was given to whether these claims formed part of the LTTE information warfare strategy.
In relation to ‘civilian’ casualties in the final months of the conflict, the LTTE had a clear rationale to exaggerate figures, even though it never talked about its increasingly heavier frontline attrition rates. According to an interview in an earlier edition of APDR, the months following the end of the conflict, General Sarath Fonseka, the military architect of the Sri Lankan victory, stated: “The LTTE would have killed at least 300-400 civilians when they were trying to walk across onto the army side. When we were entering the No Fire Zone, we used only small arms. Then when we were pushing down to the south, after clearing the northern part, civilians usually stayed around 1 km away. We didn’t use heavy artillery, but infantry mortars. We had decided to continue when we had cornered [Velupillai] Prabhakaran [the LTTE leader]. After that it was very close-quarter fighting everyday, 24 hours of the day. Our only concern was zero casualties for the civilians. Due to the same reason, we had to take a little more casualties, because our firing was restricted. That’s why our casualties went up in the last month. I lost about over 100 soldiers in the last week, and over 150 killed a week before. In the last month about 500 soldiers were killed in action. After the civilians were vacating areas it was only the terrorists we were fighting. In the last month, April to May the LTTE would have lost at least over 3000 cadres. From January to May we would have killed at least about 8000 LTTE out of the 22,000 [LTTE] killed.”
Furthermore, it is likely that the incidence of civilian casualties would have been at its highest when thousands of civilians fled LTTE-controlled territory, mainly at night, in order to cross Sri Lanka Army lines. According to statistics in January 2010, Sri Lanka claims 3848 IDPs fled in this way. In February the number was 32,829 and in March it was 23,606. In April and May the numbers of IDPs fleeing LTTE-held territory or otherwise rescued were much larger. The problem posed by the influx of IDPs was that LTTE fighters were often dressed in civilian attire, and mingled with fleeing civilians to infiltrate the frontline. This tactic enabled the LTTE to launch a series of counterattacks against the Army, even in rear areas, which led to heavy fighting and at times compelled the Army to retreat several kilometres from its original positions. An account of combat operations by an embedded frontline journalist and historian, Dr. SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda, who wrote about operations of the Sri Lanka Army’s 55th Division in his paper Sri Lanka: A Last Phase in the Eelam War, confirmed: “Distinguishing between escaping civilian vessels and Sea Tiger squadrons was one of the challenges which faced the troops along the sea shore. The fact that it took place at night made this task even more difficult and dangerous. The lack of visibility, the uncertainty and the ever present threat of infiltration made the consequences of a wrong decision even more dire.” Similarly, the Sri Lanka Navy which facilitated the rescue thousands of trapped civilians, while blockading the coastline, also claimed: “We are facing difficulty to differentiate fleeing civilians and the LTTE cadres posing as civilians,” according to a senior naval official, quoted in the government-run newspaper the Daily News.
After the conflict, former LTTE doctors who surrendered claimed in a press conference that the LTTE deliberately exaggerated civilian casualty figures. For instance, Dr. Sathyamoorthy stated “The LTTE even quoted us in their websites even without our knowledge and approval to give exaggerated figures about civilian casualties.” Also, former LTTE doctor Dr. Shanmugaraja refuted claims that the Army shelled the hospital at Puthukurippu: “The hospital may have come under shelling after we vacated it on February 4, but not prior to that.” He further stated “The LTTE leaders gave us the telephone numbers of media personnel and media organisations sympathetic to them. The casualty figures we supplied to international media were those given to us by the LTTE. They also sourced to us the casualty figures and the pictures they had posted on their websites”. Given these accounts it appears that there is a strong probability that the LTTE may have included its heavy military casualties as civilian casualties with the intention of galvanising Western governments to take action, and to pressure events in Tamil Nadu, where Indian federal lower house elections were being held in March-April 2009. Furthermore, the LTTE also alleged that the Sri Lankan military was using cluster munitions and chemical weapons. Colonel R. Hariharan, a political commentator and retired senior official of India’s premier intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, disagreed and noted: “According to the photographs, which have been published by media, the injuries do not necessarily prove that chemical weapons were used. I don’t think the army has any compulsion to use such controversial ammunition when they are in the final stages of war. Actually, the LTTE needs such stories to fuel its propaganda.”
Clearly, the way in which casualties are reported makes a difference in perceptions of how any conflict is being fought and this was certainly the case in relation to Sri Lanka. Unlike pro-LTTE elements of the Tamil diaspora, Sri Lanka’s state media have been woefully outclassed when countering the LTTE lobby’s international media dominance, particularly in the West. This has often led to only one side of the story being told. As such, in the final months of the conflict, what constituted ‘civilian’ casualties varied dramatically depending on the source. Many seemingly valid stories went unreported by the Western media and international human rights lobbies. For example, Tamil politician Veerasingham Anandasangaree, the leader of the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), known for his criticism of both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, claimed that: “Hundreds [of IDPs in dense jungle areas] have been stung by snakes and many have died. The downpour of rain is so heavy that all areas are flooded and people have to move from place to place in search of highland to camp and to cook their food. Apart from the snake menace the other one is the mosquitoes with the threat of an outbreak of malaria and dengue.” Furthermore, former senior LTTE official, Velayutham Dayanithi also confirmed in interview on Sri Lankan television that the LTTE massacred nearly 200 Tamil civilians attempting to flee from the village of Suthanthirapuram. The independent Sri Lankan weekly Lakbima News reported in September 2009 that the head of the LTTE prison system confessed to Sri Lankan intelligence officials that around 600 Tamil political prisoners and 14 captured Sri Lankan military personnel were summarily executed in the final weeks of the conflict on the orders of the supreme LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Similarly, in a report published in April 2009 by the dissident Tamil activist and political commentator Dr. Rajan Hoole, who heads the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), and who is also known to be a strident critic of both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, summarised the experiences of numerous IDPs who fled to areas controlled by the Sri Lanka Army: “The overwhelming reports from IDPs indicate that more people attempting to flee have been killed by the LTTE than by army snipers”. He added, “there are many grateful testimonies from IDPs of how military personnel put themselves at great risk in checking and taking them in as they came in groups to the frontlines and surrendered to the military. There are reports of many instances where when the checking process had begun, a group of militants had appeared, and taking cover behind the trees, started shooting, and often killing some military personnel. The military have, by all reports, invariably taken cover, but avoided retaliating in order to protect the civilians from getting minced in the crossfire.”
It is clear that LTTE information warfare formed a vital linchpin in the way opinions and perceptions were formed and shaped particularly in the West ― and that at least some of this effort is being continued by pro-LTTE lobbies outside Sri Lanka. This has been the case even though the war has ended and most Sri Lankans of all ethnicities are devoting their efforts to post-conflict reconstruction. The broader lesson from the endgame of Sri Lanka’s secessionist insurgency is that military operations in such complex human terrain continue to present a major, but not insoluble, challenge to any military in the world. This is especially the case in minimising civilian casualties when a cornered adversary is prepared to misuse the civilian population as massed human shields, including involuntary conscription of civilians and children, in contravention of international humanitarian law. Robert Kaplan’s ill-informed statement that Sri Lanka’s counter-insurgency experiences have no relevance for other countries is clearly inaccurate and misleading. Such flawed conclusions should serve as a warning against making judgements without requisite analysis, especially when grappling with warfare in complex political, legal and cultural situations.