Colombo, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance


With an uncertain number of Tamil ‘civilians’ trapped within the beleaguered and shrinking LTTE territory, Sri Lankan Tamils in the island as well as across the globe are understandably concerned about the fate of their brethren. Even those who are hostile to the LTTE have responded emotionally to this situation. The issue I raise is whether emotion and humanitarian concern have eclipsed realism and factuality.

Humanitarian concern, tinged with some emotion too, has led non-partisan Western observers and statesmen to intervene as well with requests for a ceasefire and end of warring. Two questions develop from such requests: (A) would a delay in defeating the LTTE necessarily reduce civilian casualties if (and when) the war resumes in, say, a month’s time after some (imposed) ceasefire; (B) will the desired ceasefire give the LTTE a reprieve and enable it to be a party to any settlement thereafter? That is, will it provide a lifeline to the existing leaders of an organisation deemed “terrorist” by powerful world players and whose semi-juridical status in the recent past rested on (A) the support of many – but not all – Sri Lankan Tamils; (B) control over territory and (C) the possession of de facto state institutions, a status that is now no longer in place after the loss of powers B and C.

Given their relative distance from the emotions of context, one would have thought these Western personnel would ask some hard questions about the pragmatics of the situation and the realities of war, a war, one should note, that the LTTE has deemed to be not only necessary, but also their only pathway in the context of SL Tamil grievances.

The hard questions require a detour: namely, sensitizing reflections on the problems of war at its moment of “end-game,” that is, where it is nearing termination as conventional warfare. I move here to two comparative moments during World War Two, with my desultory knowledge being bolstered by information from a colleague, the military historian Professor Trevor Wilson.

World War II: Comparative Insights
The first occasion was in the year 1940 after Germany’s armed forces had swept across the plains and conquered the Low Countries as well as France. USA was still isolationist and neutral though leaning towards Britain and its allies. Operations on both sides of the divide were directed by the concept of total war, involving economic blockades vis a vis the enemy side. This meant that the people of German-occupied territory had to cope as best they could without succour from Britain or the Free French under de Gaulle (other than covert aid to the resistance forces). USA (with Edgar Hoover as one adamant spokesman) pressed Britain to permit basic medical and food goods to flow into occupied Europe. Britain did not relent throughout 1940 and 1941.

As a footnote to this issue one can note that once USA entered the war after the Pearl Harbour attack in December 1941 and then began to roll the Japanese forces back on the Asia-Pacific Front in 1944/45, there was no question of augmenting medical and other supplies to the Pacific and Asian peoples under the Japanese imperial regime – unless it was in coordination with specific military and/or resistance operations.

The more strictly comparative moment is when the Allied forces pushed the German armies back across the western parts of Europe and entered German territory in 1944/45. This process had involved carpet bombing of German cities for several years. Now, at this end-point, few concessions were granted to the German civilian population from the advancing Allied battalions even while the main targets were the military capacities of the Nazi forces.

Wilson informed me that the situation was complicated by the fanaticism of the Hitler Youth forces, units created in their besieged situation by the Nazi regime with the express purpose of bolstering unrelenting resistance. The Hitler Youth ‘brigades’ killed Germans who were disposed to surrender. Let me emphasise here that in 1945 at war’s end-game the Allies demanded an unconditional surrender from the German regime. This was formally accepted by representatives of the rump state at Rheims on 7/8 May 1945 after Hitler had committed suicide in his bunker on 30 April. There was never any question of a ceasefire in order to protect German citizens, though there may well have been sporadic instances of military restraint when it was clear that the war was won.

The present demands of Western spokespersons in the Sri Lankan context appear to have conveniently forgotten this past example from within their ‘space’. They will have an answer to this challenge of course. It can be argued that the world has moved on since 1945 and has ethical criteria dictating military operations that were not in place then. Napalm is no longer permissible for instance.

This is a convenient retort that will be directed by the emotive partisanship of an empathetic heart. Be that as it may, I am unaware of any rule that says that a participant in a war – whether civil war, or war betweens nation states – is bound to supply the civilians on the enemy side with medical supplies and essential food items. Yet Sri Lanka’s government has been doing this for years (maybe insufficiently, but yet as policy).

Picture 1 

Most people in Western countries are completely ignorant of the peculiar specifics of the Sri Lankan civil war. In this context of limited knowledge I enter some essential clarifications in this essay. But, in making this move, let me stress that the NGO representatives in Sri Lanka, whether, say, Westerners such as Gordon Weiss and Paul Castella or a Sri Lankan such as Jehan Perera, are fully aware of these circumstances. It says a great deal about their total commitment to humanitarian welfare that they ignore the peculiarities of the SL context and fail to insert significant caveats within their critical press releases. For the fact is that the degree of aid (whatever the shortfall) that has reached the ‘civilians’ within LTTE territory during the many, many years of war, has been extraordinary in circumstances of wartime hostility. What is more, the remarkable degree of aid flow across the battlefield has been so normalized that the concerned humanitarians take it for granted. In the process they unintentionally mislead those who are not-in-the-know.

To understand the ambiguities of this war one has to comprehend the character of the LTTE regime and the constitutional complexities of what is a civil war.

A Command State and Command Economy
When, in the early 1970s,  some youth in the north decided on a insurrectionary path as the only route available to them and castigated their Colombo-based Tamil leaders, they also insisted that “as far they were concerned the Tamils residing in Colombo could die” (information from Jane Russell, 1973). This was an extreme position expressed with determination.

That determined attitude was taken up by the LTTE and was institutionalised from the 1980s by the oath taken by all its trained fighters as they were about to receive a kuppi (cyanide vial) at the ceremony marking the completion of their training. The further development of the concept of māvÄ«rar (great heroes) and massive exercises of commemoration leading up to Heroes Day on 27 November each year at their several “resting places” (tuyilam illam) – sites that are regarded as “holy temples” – consolidated this inspirational determination from circa 1990-92 (Natali 2008; Roberts 2006 and 2008a).

These institutional developments reached their fullest fruition after the LTTE set up a de facto state from mid-1990 onwards. Though segments of the Tamil population still remained outside this realm in parts of the Jaffna Peninsula and in the Vavuniya locality and were ruled by what many Tamils regard as an “occupation army,” from 1990 to 2008 the LTTE controlled a substantial swathe of territory and governed a considerable population who were mostly loyal to its goals.

Though receiving considerable popular support, the LTTE regime was (is) a command state. It has always been a military outfit and the insurrectionary war situation hardly encouraged anything other than dictatorship, but Pirapāharan’s personal proclivities and the veneration he received as a demi-god would have accentuated this characteristic (O’Duffy 2006).

Command state meant (means) command economy. State enterprises in transport, restaurants, etc augmented the returns from taxation and import duties. A critical dimension of its local resources was the supply of monies from the SL government in Colombo, namely, salaries and pensions paid to a wide range of Tamil-speaking administrators, including health officials, who were employees of the central state. That is, one major pillar of the LTTE economy, salaried people, was sustained by Colombo (opinion conveyed by Rajesh Venugopal).

Indeed, the LTTE currency was the Sri Lankan rupee. Both government and private banks in Tigerland serviced the population and transmitted pensions and remittances to individuals therein. One can surmise that some pensions went to long-deceased pensioners because it was both in individual and LTTE interest to boost the flows into their region.

This bizarre situation has prevailed from mid-1990 to 2008/09; even the hawkish Rajapakse regime has not altered these ‘rules’. It has hardly rated a mention in Western media-circles and seems to be taken for granted by NGO personnel (of all nationalities) in Lanka. This peculiar political paradox arises, of course, from the Sri Lankan government’s insistence that the SL Tamils are citizens of one country, in effect denying the latter’s ‘nation-ness’ as “Eelam Tamils”. Thus, constitutional claims demand a modification of enmity and a denial of tactics associated with the normal pragmatics of war, which is to deny supplies to the enemy side if possible.

It is constitutional claim and thus a constitutional façade that has enabled the Tamils in Tigerland to have the ‘best’ of both worlds. Thus, today, a staunch LTTE supporter in Puthukuduyiruppu – who, as such, must be an Eelam Tamil who denies being a Sri Lankan citizen – can protest because s/he is not provided with medical and basic food supplies. S/he can also protest at being subject to artillery or aerial bombing.

Note, too, that the Eelam Tamils had been subject to all manner of privations in the last two decades. When the army advanced into Jaffna town in late 1995, the LTTE ordered all the people to leave and head for safe territory. A massive exodus was enforced (alienating some of the Tamil people according to some accounts). As a former EPRLF fighter told me, “the sharks took the sea with them.”

Among the privations, of course, has been the indiscriminate aerial bombing that the people of Tigerland have had to face, notably in the 1990s during what are known as Eelam Wars II and III.. That was from the enemy side, that of the SL government. But, they also had to put up with LTTE taxation and forced conscription of one able-bodied member from each family.

Over the last two years, as the SL government began to besiege Tiger territory in the north, the Tiger screws of conscription have expanded and tightened. All young people seem to have been inducted as auxiliaries (see Pictures). As they lost territory, the LTTE also used heavy machinery and marshalled labour to build ditches and embankments of the sort associated with medieval warfare – a task that clearly involved massive logistical operations. In effect, over the last year or so many able-bodied people in the LTTE command state have been rendered into an integral part of their logistical support for war, being more or less part of the frontline. In such circumstances, of course, the category ‘civilian’ is an ambiguous category.

Picture 2

This characteristic, the nebulous border between Tiger war-personnel and ‘civilian’ has been sharpened yet further by the fact that the Tiger leadership seduced, persuaded or coerced most of its non-combatants, whether ‘civilian’ auxiliary, ordinary civilian, aged, infirm or child, to move into LTTE-held territory as it lost ground in 2008/09 and withdrew into areas that have continuously shrunk in size. It is probable that a significant proportion of these people are loyal-faithful, but one would need to have an army of flies on many walls to estimate how many were happy to do so and how many hostile to such demands. Given the history of the LTTE state one can note here that the Tigers did not need to create the equivalent of Hitler-youth to ensure that its diktat was adhered to.

Among the civilians are the Tamil-speaking administrators who receive pay (and some orders) from Colombo, but are mostly bound by the instructions of the LTTE. As I have noted in my review of Bill Clarance’s book, these Tamils are the unsung heroes of Sri Lanka’s ethnic war (Roberts 2008b). They are personnel sandwiched in the middle between two demanding forces, having to mediate conflicting demands. In the early years of conflict, in the 1980s, around 50-60 of these men were killed, mostly by the LTTE (Peiris 2000). Since then one can assume that those who accepted such jobs have been pro-Tiger or have learnt to abide by the commands of the command state.

Among the tasks enjoined upon these administrators were the provision of demographic statistics to Colombo and the distribution of basic food supplies and medical aid sent for the civilian people of Tigerland. Since such supplies reduced the burdens of the LTTE, one does not need to be a rocket scientist to assume that any intelligent organisation would ask the GA’s and other administrators to boost these figures.

Statistics, ah!! As the LTTE retreated and the remnant ‘civilian’ population of SL Tamils was increasingly in danger of being engulfed by troop fire-fights and artillery projectiles, aid agencies in Sri Lanka have trotted out figures to underline the potential disaster awaiting the Tamil people. During January 2009 figures of 250,000 trapped were quoted by both Lankans and foreigners situated in Colombo; while sometimes the figure rose to 400,000. These statistics have been duly parroted in global media circuits. They are still in the air (7 February 2009)!!

Impelled by genuine humanitarian concerns, those in Colombo who underlined these figures probably felt that their goals would be enhanced if the numbers were larger: so  in their reasoning presumably 250,000 could engender a better outcome than say, a figure of 130,000. But questions arise: don’t their emotional ethical concerns also warrant more careful considerations of veracity and fact? … and a closer examination of the category ‘civilian’? And thus the addition of significant caveats in the information conveyed to those outside the Sri Lankan realm? Emotional agitation does not excuse political naivety among those moderate and/or non-partisan.

The recent call for a ceasefire by some powerful states and institutions in order to avoid a humanitarian disaster has not specified a time-frame. Let me assume that it is for a month. But, more critically, let me ask: how will it help the Tamil ‘civilians’ who are within the LTTE territories?

The LTTE has hitherto denied these ‘civilians’ [some of whom, to repeat, are auxiliaries and part of their logistical operations] permission to leave — though maybe some 9,000 people have got away in driblets here and there during recent weeks. So, what will change over the next month of ceasefire?

One change is obvious: the LTTE will marshal its depleted forces and prepare to do or die in its typically vigorous fashion, while auxiliary ‘civilians’ and ordinary civilians will have to commit themselves to more privation. When war resumes after a month the Tamil ‘civilians’ would be in the same boat as before or worse off because the final tasks of the SL armed forces would be a few notches more difficult.

Whatever the heart behind such demands, then, the whole scene indicates a need for some reality checks among the do-gooders. Being cloistered in Colombo or New York does not seem conducive to a comprehension of the pragmatics of war. The reality check for Western do-gooders should, as I have indicated above, encompass a reflective review of the military operations pursued by the British, Free French and American armies as they advanced eastwards into Germany in 1944/45. References to the “rules of war” are being bandied about freely without careful evaluation of the pragmatics of this particular context and with striking naivety, indeed, appalling naivety.


Peiris, Gerald H. in 2000 Pursuit of Peace in Sri Lanka. Past Failures and Future Prospects, ed. by K. M. De Silva & Gerald Peiris, Kandy: ICES.

Natali, Christiana 2008 “Building Cemeteries, Constructing Identities: Funerary Practices and

Nationalist Discourse among the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka,” Contemporary South Asia, 16: 287-301.

O’Duffy, Brendan 2007 “LTTE: Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Majoritarianism, Self-Determination and Military-to-Political Transition in Sri Lanka,” in Marianne Heiberg, Brendan

O’Leary, and John Tirman (eds.) Terror, Insurgency, and the State. Ending Protracted Conflicts,

Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 257-87.

Roberts, Michael 2006 “Pragmatic Action and Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite of Commemoration,” Social Analysis 50: 73-102.

Roberts, Michael 2008a “Tamil Tigers: Sacrificial Symbolism and ‘Dead Body Politics’,” Anthropology Today, June 2008, 24/3: 22-23.

Roberts, Michael 2008b review of William Clarance, Ethnic Warfare in Sri Lanka and the UN Crisis, in South Asia, 31/2: 394-96.