Vanni death toll: numbers game continues

By Shamindra Ferdinando


The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), on April 05, 2019, ahead of the final vote on the 2019 budget, estimated that the number of Tamil civilians killed on the Vanni east front during the final phase of the offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in January 2009, could be as many as 60,000 to 110,000.


This claim was made by TNA leader attorney-at-law Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, MP. Declaring that everything couldn’t be swept under the carpet, Sampanthan explained how he made his assertion.


Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion on the morning of May 19, 2009 on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. Let me reproduce the relevant section verbatim for the benefit of our readers. “The reason why I am reminding the House of these matters is that you cannot sweep everything under the carpet. Your current approach can do immense harm to this country. Much has been said about the fact that there is a complaint that 40,000 people have been killed and as to how that can be accepted. There were at least 350,000 people in this area, probably around 400,000 based on our own investigations, only 290,000 people came out. What happened to the balance? Your estimate was that there were only 60,000 to 70,000 people who lived in this area at this point of time. You sent food, medicine and other supplies only for that number – 60,000 or 70,000. When the number was as large as 350,000 why did you restrict the number to only 60,000 or 70,000? We conducted our own investigation in regard to this matter and we were satisfied that there were at least 350,000 to 400,000 people in that part of Mullaitivu at that point of time.”


The Office of MP Sampanthan released the full transcript of his statement on April 08, 2019. The Island carried the entire statement the following day. The 86-year-old veteran politician conveniently forgot some critically important matters though he warned the House that its approach could cause much harm to the country.


Sampanthan’s warning should be examined against the backdrop of Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, PC, challenging the UNSG Panel of Experts’ (PoE) claim of as many as 40,000 civilians killed during the final assault on the Vanni east front (PoE report. Section 137).


Marapana contradicted the PoE claim on March 20, 2019 at the Geneva based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The former Attorney General based his assertion on wartime British High Commission dispatches. MP Sampanthan, however, not only reiterated his faith in the UN claim as regards civilian deaths but asserted the actual figure could be as many as 110,000.


The TNA Chief called for (1) the full implementation of Geneva Resolution 30/1 and (2) introduction of a new Constitution as unanimously decided by a resolution in parliament in early 2016. MP Sampanthan, in respect of (1) declared that the Geneva Resolution was based on two investigations – the POE report, released in March 2011, and the UN Human Rights Council report later.


At the onset of his long speech, Sampanthan recalled what he said in parliament on January 21, 2009. Referring to constant aerial bombings and heavy artillery fire directed at civilians trapped in the Mullaitivu district, the Tamil leader asked: “Is this happening in any part of the world?”


A disappointed Sampanthan was addressing the parliament about three weeks after the armed forces liberated Kilinochchi, which the LTTE considered as its ‘capital.’ The LTTE used to receive those loyal to the group as well as various foreign emissaries. Until the fall of Kilinochchi, the likes of Sampanthan believed the LTTE could somehow thwart the armed forces offensive and launch its own successful counter attack to regain lost territory.


Obviously, MP Sampanthan has forgotten his ‘honeymoon’ with LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in the run up to the Eelam War IV. The Eelam War IV began with simultaneous LTTE assaults in both the northern and eastern theaters in the second week of August 2006. The Norway-led Scandinavian truce monitoring mission blamed the LTTE for the resumption of large scale hostilities. The mission asserted that the LTTE offensive seemed to have been a well prepared initiative (SLMM blames LTTE for Jaffna battle, The Island, September 08, 2006).


Sampanthan didn’t find fault with the LTTE, under any circumstances, until the group capitulated to the massive military pressure.


Sampanthan, while raising the military onslaught on the LTTE, quite conveniently forgot his own role in the LTTE project that compelled the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa to crush it militarily.


The group, proscribed in India in the wake of one-time Premier Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination by a Tiger suicide cadre, and also the US and the UK, accepted the TNA’s recognition as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people. This was in late 2001 following the LTTE taking the upper hand in the northern theatre with the dramatic capture of the strategic Elephant Pass base from the army. The TNA, obviously believed in the LTTE’s capacity to overwhelm the armed forces thus the LTTE-TNA alliance. Overnight, the LTTE had its representatives in parliament. Imagine, a proscribed organization having its own political outfit in parliament.


The European Union Election Observation Mission in June 2004 accused the TNA of securing the Northern and Eastern electorates with the direct support of the LTTE. The EU report, on the April 2004 parliamentary election, sent shock waves through the international community. But, Sampanthan was jubilant having the northern and eastern electorates under his command even with the murderous LTTE stuffing ballot boxes to ensure TNA victory. TULF leader Veerasingham Anandasangaree was the only politician to appreciate the EU report that alleged the LTTE engaged in violence in support of the TNA. Thanks to the LTTE, the TNA secured 22 seats in parliament. So far, it’s the TNA’s best performance at a general election (TULF leader applauds EU for unmasking LTTE proxy-The Island, June 23, 2004).


In a brief interview with the writer, Anandasangaree faulted both foreign and local monitors, CMEV and PAFFREL, for not calling for a fresh poll in the wake of EU report (Monitors should have called for fresh poll in North and East-TULF, The Island, June 25, 2004).


Except The Island, both print and electronic media, including Colombo-based wire services, refrained from reporting the EU revelation. The same lot did not report the Norwegian led truce monitors blaming the LTTE for resumption of the Eelam War IV.


Having relinquished ‘political authority’ to the LTTE, Sampanthan, on behalf of Velupillai Prabhakaran, prohibited the Tamil electorate from exercising its franchise at the Nov 2005 presidential election. The move was meant to ensure Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory because the LTTE-TNA grouping felt confident President Rajapaksa lacked the will to face a massive conventional military challenge. The LTTE-TNA move led to the defeat of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Many were of the opinion that Wickremesinghe would have definitely won the Nov 2005 contest.


Sampanthan speaks to The Island on


the eve of 2005 prez poll


MPs Sampanthan and Joseph Pararajasingham, on the night Wednesday (Nov 15, 2005), confirmed the decision to boycott the Nov 17, 2005 presidential poll by Tamils at their behest. TNA MP Sivajiilingham, appearing on state-run ITN a few days before strongly dismissed assertion that Rajapaksa’s victory would cause imminent resumption of war. Sampanthan, speaking to the writer on the night of Nov 15, from Trincomalee, said: “Nothing worthwhile would be achieved by either of the two leading candidates.” Pararajasingham told the writer that the polls boycott decision was taken in Kilinochchi on the previous Wednesday following talks with the LTTE (TNA refuses to change polls boycott stance, The Island, Nov 16, 2005).


The TNA must realize that it cannot sweep everything under the carpet. Sampanthan certainly owed an explanation to his people as regards his relationship with Velupillai Prabhakaran. Sampanthan cannot wish the people to forget how he faithfully cooperated with the LTTE throughout the war until the very end. Can the TNA explain why it remained mum while the LTTE forced the entire Vanni population, living both west and the east of the Kandy-Jaffna A9, road to accompany retreating LTTE fighting units. By late 2008, a substantial portion of the Vanni population had been displaced and by March-April 2009 ended up in the Mullaitivu district. Did Sampanthan, who now speaks of 350,000 to 400,000 trapped in the war zone, ever issue a public statement requesting the LTTE to (1) Release them (2) Did Sampanthan pressure Western powers to demand the LTTE to give up ‘human shields’ and lastly (3) Did Sampanthan at least once, following the fall of Kilinochchi, request Prabhakaran to accept the government offer to surrender.


It would be interesting to know whether Sampanthan ever discussed with Norway ways and means to secure the release of the people held by the LTTE against their will. Sampanthan, at that time directly dealt with the international community as M.A. Sumanthiran was yet to enter parliamentary politics. Sumanthiran, now the key TNA negotiator, even responsible for a tripartite agreement on foreign judges, worked out in 2015, entered parliament in April 2010.


In the absence of a TNA effort to save the Vanni population, some of those countries involved with the LTTE sought an understanding with the LTTE. The former President’s Office made available a copy of a brief missive sent by war time Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo, Tore Hattrem, to the then National List MP and presidential adviser Basil Rajapaksa. The letter dealt with Norwegian bid to secure the release of civilians held by the LTTE. The following is the text of the letter headlined Offer/proposal to the LTTE dated Feb. 16, 2009: “I refer to our telephone conversation today. The proposal to the LTTE on how to release the civilian population now trapped in the area it controlled has been transmitted to the LTTE through several channels. So far there has been regrettably no response from the LTTE and it does not seem to be likely that the LTTE will agree to this in the near future.” Norway never pushed the influential Tamil Diaspora, in Norway, to pressure the LTTE leadership to give up its meaningless resistance. Thanks to WikiLeaks, the world knows the ICRC believed the Army could have finished off the LTTE much faster if it didn’t take the civilian factor into consideration on the Vanni east front.


As Ambassador Hattrem predicted, the LTTE refused to release civilians in spite of repeated appeals. Interestingly, the Tamil National Alliance never urged the LTTE to give up ‘human shields.’ The TNA remained steadfastly committed to Velupillai Prabhakaran macabre cause until the very end.


For how long Sampanthan can continue to deny his outfit’s honeymoon with the terror group? Can Sampanthan play politics with the issue regardless of the consequences, blaming all except his group for the predicament of the Tamil community.


Relevance of Wikileaks revelations


Thanks to WikiLeaks, the world knows some important aspects of Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE. Sri Lanka benefited immensely due to unprecedented leakage of diplomatic cables from US missions in Colombo, London and New Delhi in 2010. It would be pertinent to examine the relevance of WikiLeaks disclosure in respect of Sri Lanka against the backdrop of 47-year-old Julian Assange’s arrest in the UK last week. The British police arrested the WikiLeaks co-founder Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Australian national Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012.


Assange has been accused of conspiring with US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to download classified databases.


Assange established WikiLeaks in 2006 with a view to securing and publishing confidential documents and images exposing grave wrongs committed by the West.


WikiLeaks hit the headlines four years later when it released footage of US soldiers killing civilians from a helicopter gunship in Iraq, including two Reuters correspondents.


Former US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning was arrested in 2010 for disclosing more than 700,000 confidential documents, videos and diplomatic cables to the website.


The Rajapaksa government did absolutely nothing to exploit WikiLeaks revelations. Both Defence and Foreign Ministries turned a blind eye disclosures in spite of a section of the media underscoring their relevance. Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka, 1997-2009, in Sept 2011 acknowledged the importance of WikiLeaks. Those responsible for the Norwegian report examined WikiLeaks though they couldn’t take all relevant documents into consideration for obvious reasons. The authors said: “As the report was being published, new material of relevance for assessing Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka was released by WikiLeaks. Unfortunately, it came too late for the evaluation.”


Sampanthan’s accusations regarding massive artillery and aerial assaults on the Vanni should be discussed taking into consideration the following US diplomatic dispatch now in public domain, thanks to WikiLeaks.


The then US Ambassador in Geneva, Clint Williamson, following a meeting with Jacques de Maio, ICRC head of South Asia Operations on July 09, 2009, two months after the conclusion of the conflict, sent the following dispatch dated July 15, 2009 to Washington: “The army was determined not to let the LTTE escape from its shrinking territory, even though this meant the civilians being kept hostage by the LTTE were at increasing risk. So, de Maio said, while one could safely say that there were ‘serious, widespread violations of IHL (International Humanitarian Law),’ by the Sri Lankan forces, it did not amount to genocide. He could site examples of where the army had stopped shelling when ICRC informed them it was killing civilians. In fact, the army actually could have won the military battle faster with higher civilian casualties, yet chose a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths. He concluded, however, by asserting that the GSL failed to recognize its obligation to protect civilians despite the approach leading to higher military casualties. From his standpoint, a soldier at war should be more likely to die than a civilian.”


Sri Lanka should be grateful to Assange and Manning for that particular diplomatic cable from Geneva. That cable proved the heavy price paid by Sri Lanka for adopting a strategy, taking civilian factor into consideration. The Army lost 2,400 officers and men during the 2009 battles (the war ended on May 19, 2009) whereas 2,500 personnel laid down their lives between Aug 2006 to Dec 2008).


In fact, the war-winning Rajapaksa administration owed the country, especially the bereaved families, an explanation as to why the fighting formations were deprived of maximum possible firepower on the Vanni east front. Sri Lanka had the wherewithal to finish off the LTTE, trapped in a part of the Mullaitivu district, though it choose not to do so.


Did TNA leaders come across this particular US dispatch? Sampanthan’s Office should at least now take all available matters into consideration including US diplomatic dispatches, Lord Naseby’s disclosure, based on British dispatches during the same period and US Defence Attache Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith’s revelation at the inaugural Defence Seminar in May-June 2011 in Colombo.


Ambassador Williamson’s dispatch made a specific comment on Sampanthan’s sole representative of Tamil speaking people. “On the LTTE, de Maio said that it had tried to keep civilians in the middle of a permanent state of violence. It saw the civilian population as a ‘protective asset’ and kept its fighters embedded amongst them. De Maio said that the LTTE commanders, objective was to keep the distinction between civilian and military assets blurred. They would often respond positively when ICRC complained to the LTTE about stationing weapons at a hospital, for example. The LTTE would move the assets away, but as they were constantly shifting these assets, they might just show up in another unacceptable place shortly thereafter.”


Williamson quoted Maio as having said it would be hard to state that there was a systematic order to LTTE fighters to stick with civilians in order to draw fire. Civilians were indeed under ‘physical coercion not to go here or there. Thus, the dynamics of the conflict were that civilians were present all the time. This makes it very difficult to determine though at what point such a situation becomes a case of ‘human shields.’


Sampanthan is also silent on a special report prepared by the United Nations Country Team that placed the number of dead (civilians and LTTE cadres) at 7,721 and wounded at 18,479 during Aug 2008 to May 13, 2009. The war ended a week later. The report, based on information obtained from UN national staff, NGOs inside the Vanni, the ICRC, religious leaders and other Vanni-based ‘sources’, contradicted the both unsubstantiated UNSG PoE report as well as Sampanthan’s recent claims.


The TNA cannot expect to deceive the public by mere rhetoric in and outside parliament. Had the armed forces failed on the Vanni east front, Prabhakaran would have devoured the TNA by now. The writer is sure the TNA now realized that it paved the way for Eelam War IV by backing the LTTE decision to quit the negotiating table in April 2003. That was the TNA’s second major mistake, the first being recognition of the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil-speaking people. The move ruined the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe’s efforts to reach consensus at the negotiating table even at the expense of him and that of his party. But, eventually, the LTTE-TNA combine facilitated the election of a President who had the political strength to sustain the nearly three-year war until Prabhakaran found his maker on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon.

(To be continued on April 24, 2019)

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