New Book: Fire & Storm

by Michael Roberts

Mohottivatte Gunananda at “Panadura Debate” as painted in Kotahena temple, courtesy of Richard Young

(January 06, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) This anthology is a companion piece for Confrontations in Sri Lanka: Sinhalese, LTTE and Others (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2009). That collection reproduced essays that had been printed previously in refereed academic journals. In contrast this cluster reproduces articles presented in popular journals, newspapers and web-sites. As such, they are mostly shorter articles. There are two exceptions embodying articles intended for an academic journal:

* “Self-annihilation — Tamil Tigers & beyond: cultural premises inspiring sacrificial suicidal acts.
* “The Tamil movement for Eelam.”

There is another longish essay, entitled “Suicide for political cause,” which is an amalgamation of four short articles presented initially in As such, this effort, like the majority of articles within these covers, falls within the ambit of “productions for popular consumption.”

young Pirapaharan, from notebook in my possession
Each article was composed to stand on its own. For readers of this anthology this facet generates problems: the same arguments, same empirical foundations and even the same quotations may keep cropping up. This is the cross one has to bear for the convenience provided by an anthology.

All these essays were written between 2000 and 2009. The moment and site of initial presentation are specified at the head of each chapter so that readers can take those circumstances into account in assessing the arguments therein. Some outstanding errors in my evaluations will become immediately evident: some articles (chapters 10-13 below) were informed by my belief in the early 2000s that the government of Sri Lanka did not have the capacity to defeat the LTTE. I was not alone in this mistaken assumption. Several Indian and Western military analysts are known to have held a similar view.

Thus guided, several of my articles in the years 2002-05 pressed for a modus vivendi through political compromise on the lines of internal self-determination for the north and east. The stance can be described as “pragmatic realism.” But this contention had a fatal flaw within its own realist realm: as Dayan Jayatilleka has pointed out elsewhere,[1] there has been no federal state ever where the two units of federation had separate armies and navies. Internal self-determination on such foundations would not have lasted long.

Again, my readings clearly misread Pirapāharan’s readiness to compromise. He was not prepared to accept what I have called “Pragmatic Eelam” as distinct from “Wholesale Eelam.” Indeed, during the past year many moderate Tamils have lamented this short-sightedness and have sharply criticized the LTTE and its hardline migrant arms for the obduracy that has heaped such disaster upon the Tamil nationalist project.[2] Just yesterday, so to speak, Narayan Swamy was quite scathing in his repetition of this evaluation: “I would give Prabhakaran the maximum credit for the LTTE’s destruction. While he is the one who gave birth to the LTTE and built it brick by brick, his non-compromising attitude led to his own demise with terrible, long-term consequences for the Tamil community…. If Prabhakaran had really wanted peace, he could have achieved a lot. Privately, even the Norwegians complain today that they had handed a federal solution on a platter to him, but he trashed it.”[3]

Pragmatic realism also directed my conviction that the emergence of a sovereign state of Eelam, a separation into two nation-states in other words, would be disastrous and involve serial moments of warfare in subsequent years. The suggestion that a divorce would settle the problem[4] seemed to me –both in the 1990s and 2000s – quite ludicrous. That conviction remains, but has been rendered irrelevant by the Rajapakse regime’s convincing military victory.

The government’s march towards the defeat of the LTTE as a military force within the island could be said to have commenced around April 2008, though previous triumphs in the Eastern Province laid the foundations for this stage of battle. By January 2009 the government forces were at the vestibule of a comprehensive military victory. But the LTTE had corralled their very own Tamil people and was using them as bargaining chip, labour pool, conscript pool and protective bund. To borrow a phrase coined by a perceptive Muslim blogger named Mohamed Hamid in transcurrents, this situation meant that “we were all [going to be] losers.”[5] The “we” here referred to all those concerned about the Sri Lankan scenario at that point of time.

We were therefore confronted with a stark choice involving a decision for one or other of two evils: prop up the fascist state created by the LTTE or lean towards a victory for the populist authoritarian regime around the Rajapakses. In pragmatic realist terms, I opted for the latter.

Ostensibly there was a third choice presented by human rights advocates and organisations at home and abroad who were concerned about the fate of Tamil civilians within LTTE space: insert/impose a ceasefire and get the civilians out. But such a path called for agreement from both warring sides – a unilateral one-sided ceasefire was meaningless. My studies of LTTE ideology convinced me that they would accept this course only if they could bargain their way out of the dungeon they had built for themselves. That is, the “poor starving civilians” were to be their escape route and a means of living to fight another day.

Fighting another day meant Eelam War V, yet another stage of war at a higher pitch. It also meant yet another round of deaths for Sri Lankan Tamils. The thinking of the moral crusaders and Western politicians who wished to intervene, it seemed to me, was quite befuddled. To me, the choice posed by this proposal in January was civilian deaths now or another round of civilian deaths later when war resumed a few months down the track.

It is to the credit of the Centre for Policy Alternatives web-site, groundviews, run by Sanjana Hattotuwa, that it raised this Catch-22 situation in full-frontal style on 3 May 2009: “Would killing 50,000 civilians to finish off the LTTE bring peace?” When, predictably, this question was misunderstood, the groundviews editors clarified the issue thus: “This post intends to interrogate extremism. The numbers in the quote are really peripheral to the argument, which exists today, that to finish off the LTTE, collateral damage is not just unavoidable, it is even a prerequisite. What do you feel about that?” It is to the credit of some measured voices who spoke up at this point, among them several Tamils (with pseudonyms, but speaking as Tamils), that the defeat of the LTTE was a vital goal and that “we” should be ready to accept civilian casualties of even 50,000, though hopefully somewhat less. This debate, suitably edited, is worth reproduction in print as an outstanding example of citizen debate and citizen journalism that beats the Sri Lankan newspapers by a proverbial mile.

I note that I did not have a major voice in the discussion or come up with the figure of 50,000 dead as a notionally acceptable, albeit awful, price to pay for the defeat of the LTTE. I feared even greater losses though my evaluation was clouded then by uncertainty as to how many people were trapped in the rump Tiger territory. I also feared that the LTTE would encourage the civilians to follow them into orgies of mass suicide (see chapter 23 below) – a surmise that was, for the most part anyway, and thankfully, proven wrong.

I was aware of the fact that around thirty percent of the Russia hostages held captive by Chechen rebels at a school in Beslan within Russia had been killed in the course of the Russian army’s rescue operation.[6] The physical circumstances and demographic composition in Beslan were different from those prevailing around PTK, Mullaitivu and Nanthikadal in the north-east corner of the island. Indeed, it was more difficult because the Russians did not have satellite eyes or UAVs that could see inside school buildings. But, allowing for differences in context, I fully expected high death rates. I saw no alternative. “Dilemmas at war’s end” was informed by this hardheaded realism (see chapters 25 and 26 below).

It immediately drew a barrage of hostile fire within groundviews from a number of liberals, besides Tiger proxies such as Vasantharaja and one “Martin White.”[7] The liberal moderates who exclaimed in consternation included friends and acquaintances such as Lionel Bopage, Kumar David, Jayantha Dhanapala and Devanesan Nesiah. This was disconcerting. But it was a kind of millstone-on-neck that had to be accepted as the price of realism.

The debate also underlined the fact that Sri Lanka was not only caught between Tamil extremism and Sinhala chauvinism. There were “human rights extremists” muddying the waters with their good intentions, some of the impractical variety. In parenthesis, one can now add, after reflecting on the events of April-May 2009, that there were several international governments and agents, from Hilary Clinton[8] to Marie Colvin to others, who misled the LTTE leadership by overestimating their powers of intervention. There was simply no place for the US cavalry with bugles blowing to display its power in a sphere of Indian and Chinese oversight.

I have not altered my view in the course of the year that has followed. The Special Report No. 34 of the UTHR(J) has not surprised me. To those who declare that Eelam War IV was “brutal,” my retort is: “are any wars not brutal?” Having had considerable vicarious exposure as a teenager to the details of World War Two, I did not anticipate anything else.

Let me stress here that if I was Tamil I would probably have joined the liberation struggle after July 1983.[9] But, in hard-headed realist terms I would have anticipated great suffering not only for the fighters, but for the people—that is “my Tamil people” if I was Tamil. For me to turn round and complain that this necessary armed struggle had brought immeasurable misery upon the people would be disingenuous. Wars, especially Naxalite and liberation wars, are not pursued only by the fighting elements.

In any event, in January-March 2009 it was the LTTE that was holding the Tamil people within their bounds. As such, they were the principal architects of death from the shellfire and bombs delivered by the war machine of the Sri Lankan state. Set within the context of four Eelam wars over 25 years, there was simply no alternative for the Sri Lankan regime. Those who had recently pitched their tents outside Sri Lanka’s borders, that is, the Johnnies-come-lately, whether a David Miliband or a Hilary Clinton, were outside this subjective dimension. They were recent entrants without an iota of experiential engagement with the Sri Lankan situation. It was this experiential background that directed a few commentators within groundviews in May 2009 — among them some Tamils — to accept the inevitability of substantial civilian casualties.

The political evaluation presented here is also a form of extremism, one dominated by hard-headed realism. As matters stood in early 2009, alas, those with a Sri Lankan experiential background were caught between several rocks and several hard places. There was not one single easy route out.


[1] Jayatilleka has made presented this contention on several occasions over the years, but for a recent reiteration within the context of a lucid review of the present geo-political circumstances facing Sri Lanka, see “No one will be on our side if India is against us,” Lakbima News, Sunday, 13 June 2010.

[2] Such comments have appeared intermittently in such web sites as groundviews and transcurrents over the months January 2009 to June 2010. A consistent critic of the LTTE in recent times has been Dr. Rajasingham Narendran (for e. g. see “Rise and Fall of the LTTE — An Overview,” Sri Lanka Guardian, 7 Feb. 2009.

[3] Narayan Swamy was interviewed at the aunch of his new book, The Tiger Vanquished.

[4] This was a view presented often by such LTTE spokespersons as Bishop Emmanuel at international gatherings I attended: for instance, at a conference dominated by Tamil spokesperson in Bangar Malaysia (in 2003 or so) and again at Zurich in April 2006 during gatherings of Sri Lankan peaceniks and Tamil personnel organised by the Berghhof Foundation and Geneva Call. Those not LTTE included such personnel as Jehan Perera (on both occasions), Willie Senanayake, Victor Ivan and P. Saravanamuttu.

[5] “Dear DBSJ, it is true that civialians (sic) are traped by ltte and sl armed forces, but we have to realise the tamil population in these traped (sic) areas has to make the only choise (sic) possible (sic) that is to come to the liberated areas, and the gosl has to take care of the liberated people with the aid of foreign countries and give a political package, the tamil diaspora can help in a big way by working with the gosl, this is not a thing where you look for winneres (sic) because we are all loseres (sic) in this war” – Mohamed Hamid, in, 29 April 2009, at 12.55am.

[6] “Five years ago today, Chechen jihadists attacked a school and took more than 1,100 hostages. 334 adults and 186 young students died in the siege” ( Whether this figure includes the Chechen terrorist commando and the army assault team is not clear. Other figures point to around 340 civilian dead and many more injured (a few of whom died subsequently). Thus about 35-45 percent of those held to ransom seem to have died.

[7] White, “The poverty of Michael Roberts’s enlightened humanitarianism,” www., May 12, 2009 at 12:32 pm. The urge to respond to this crafty document was obviated by the intervention of one “Nicolai,” who dissected White’s arguments in ways that revealed its faulty grounding (groundviews, May 13, 2009, 11.48 am). This exercise gains in force not only from the fact that Nicolai has no connection with me, but from his background as a Tamil nourished in Canada who had chosen to return to Sri Lanka to work (information provided by Nicolai elsewhere in other groundviews comments).

[8] Note Roberts, “Realities of war,” Frontline, 26/10, 9-22 May 2009. Also printed in the Island and now reprinted here under a different title as chapter 27.

[9] See Roberts, “The agony and ecstasy of a pogrom: southern Lanka, July 1983,” in Roberts, Exploring confrontation, Reading: Harwood Academic Publications and Roberts, “July 83: Looking Back in anger and despair 25 Years On,”

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