On 18 May 2009 the Sri Lankan regime declared victory in its 25-year war against the Tamil Tigers. In the final weeks of the conflict, at least 40,000 Tamils, the vast majority civilians, were massacred as the armed forces bombarded hospitals, food lines and camps. SENAN, international coordinator for Tamil Solidarity, reviews a graphic first-person account of the slaughter.
The Cage: The fight for Sri Lanka and the last days of the Tamil Tigers
By Gordon Weiss
The Bodley Head, 2011, £14.99
THE CAGE IS significant because of the information it gives on the final phase of the war inSri Lankathat ended in May 2009. Gordon Weiss’s position as United Nations (UN) spokesperson during the war gives the book authority. His description of what took place as a “bloodbath” has provoked anger from Sri Lankan officials, who are trying to dismiss this book as a fantasy.
One of the government’s loyal servants, Rajiva Wijesinha, a writer and language professor, says Weiss was irritated with his superiors, had “a lot of trouble with his own junior staff”, and pushed his own “particular agendas, some insidious, some based on idealism”. Set apart from the UN staff and journalists who stuck to the official line, Weiss is seen as an odd one out, dismissed as an idealist because he dared to reveal some of what was going on. Weiss admits that he did not have his own way with the chain of command. As a UN spokesperson he was prevented from speaking out despite eyewitness accounts of war crimes collected by UN staff.
The title, The Cage, is a reference to the tiny part of northernSri Lankainto which tens of thousands of Tamil-speaking people were pushed and bombed. The book points to the failure of the UN to protect them. And it is a devastating account of the human rights violations of the Sri Lankan regime headed by president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
An eyewitness report of the decimation of the last UN convoy, Convoy 11, provides a graphic account of the “intentional murder of civilians”, in the words of Harun Khan, the retired Bangladeshi army general who led the convoy. Weiss details several massacres, including the repeated bombardment of hospitals and so-called ‘no-fire zones’ where shells fell among densely packed civilians. Despite the UNHCR’s frantic attempts to communicate their coordinates and the civilian presence to the military high command, the bombing continued.
The book catalogues the struggle between the defence ministry and those humanitarian agencies and journalists who dared to stand up to the regime’s false propaganda. The regime claimed that this was a “zero civilian causality war”, the “largest hostage rescue operation in the world”. This argument was used as a cover to attack, abduct or murder those who raised concern over civilian casualties.
Yet, nowhere does Weiss explicitly assert that war crimes were committed by the Sri Lankan regime. To those who see the outcome of the war as positive, he asks: “Were the deaths of between 10,000 and 40,000 people an inescapable fact of war, and thus forgivable in the ultimate search for a just and stableSri Lanka?” He does not answer this directly. Incidentally, the figure of 40,000 is widely recognised as an absolute minimum.
Months of massacre
THE WAR WAS almost over by 25 January 2009, when Mullaitivu fell into the hands of the military. Here, a large number of cadres from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were killed. Even before then, Tamil Tiger fighters sensed defeat. What took place in the following months until 17 May was the brutal hunting down of wounded Tigers and an unrelenting massacre of civilians.
The LTTE was in retreat and was beginning to look for a way out of the war. On 31 January, around 200,000 Tamils took to the streets inLondondemanding an end to the conflict. Similar massive demonstrations followed across the world wherever Tamil-speaking people lived. In February, the LTTE put out a low-profile call for a ‘negotiated surrender’. Weiss denounces this as a “classic Tiger strategy”, echoing the Sri Lankan regime’s position. In April, defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa denounced the ceasefire offer as a joke. Weiss fails to recognise the importance of this – to do so would go to the heart of the military’s brutal killings.
By 20 January, soon after the no-fire zone (NFZ) along the A35 road was declared it was crowded with people. Heavy shelling of Puthukkudiyiruppu (PTK) forced people into the NFZ. Then artillery began to fall among them. These NFZs “had little to do with protecting civilian lives and everything to do with their removal as an obstacle to unrestrained firepower”, notes Weiss.
Khan said: “It was not directed fire, but the kind of indiscriminate covering barrage that is used to shield an advance. But it was non-stop, and it was striking the field full of people”. Incredibly, Khan survived seven hours of non-stop bombing on one day and heavy bombardment for the next two days until 25 January. Immediately afterwards, army commander General Sarath Fonseka remarked that “95% of the war is over”.
The military knew that the Tamil Tigers had sustained heavy losses and that large numbers of elite cadres had probably been killed in this operation. A humanitarian emergency developed with a lack of food and medicine for thousands of badly injured civilians. Thousands of dead bodies were left among the injured while the military continued the killings.
On 27 January, Colonel R Hariharan, a retired Indian military intelligence officer who headed the Indian army when it fought the LTTE in 1989, stated that the ‘real’ end would not be achieved until “most of the cadres are killed or caught”, and that the death of Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran was the only way to finish off the LTTE. This was the policy the Sri Lankan military followed, fully backed by Indian intelligence and military forces. The Sri Lankan regime continued its indiscriminate massacre of civilians until 18 May, when Prabhakaran’s death was announced along with an end of the war.
Those who fought the Sri Lankan army were mostly conscripted fighters, young people forcefully recruited and pushed into the frontline. Absolute chaos existed among civilians trying to flee and even among the LTTE ranks. Communication between different groups of fighters had largely broken down. There was no chain of command. In the midst of this chaos, civilians fell victim to military bombardments and LTTE guns.
WEISS GIVES A glimpse of the indiscriminate attacks of the military: “More than 65 attacks took place on hospitals and clinics… In the last ten days of January, for example, three different hospitals sustained five strikes that killed 17 people and wounded another 68… In the first ten days of February, there were eight strikes on three hospitals, including multiple strikes on the same day that probably killed around 100 people”.
People ran to hospitals, schools and Red Cross and UN-marked buildings in the hope that the military might refrain from firing there. People tried to prevent the UN from leaving. UN officers on the ground did their best to communicate their presence to the Sri Lankan government. Khan, for example, was in contact with Jagath Jayasuriya, commander of the security forces headquarters in Vanni who reported to Fonseka. UN security chief, Chris du Toit, was in touch with senior army officers, including Donald Perera, overall commander of the armed forces, as well as with Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Despite this, civilians were targeted mercilessly.
Instead of unreserved opposition to the targeting of civilians, Weiss points to theUSair force’s Intelligence Targeting Guide. This guide has not stopped theUSor its Nato allies from bombing civilians in places likeAfghanistan. Weiss’s dangerous conclusion effectively means that it was OK to bomb a hospital if LTTE fighters had taken refuge there. This is particularly horrific because people gathered in these places in a desperate attempt to survive. The LTTE strategy of using civilian places to hide is well-known and was exposed from 1989 when it fought the Indian military. But that is no excuse for bombing these areas. Many reports, including those of hospital staff, indicate that the LTTE did not fire from hospitals.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared that anything outside the NFZ was a legitimate target – while bombing continued inside the NFZ. Not only did the Sri Lankan military force people into tiny areas to kill them, but it also fired at fleeing civilians, such as the 60 killed at Omanthai checkpoint. The military killed most of those who surrendered at the end of the war, in summary executions sanctioned by the tops of the regime.
Shamefully, the surrender negotiations included the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Norwegian government, along with members of the Tamil National Alliance, a Tamil political party. They had spoken directly to government ministers, Basil Rajapaksa and Palitha Kohona. It is disgraceful that they did not openly state that they knew about the surrender in advance. Some of those involved in the surrender negotiations are outside the country now but have so far failed to speak out. The UN should publicise all the details of the negotiations. Even though there is widespread acceptance that the Sri Lankan regime committed war crimes, the UN is still withholding information.
WEISS TRIES TO explain the failure of the ICRC by saying that it protects its “commitment to discretion and neutrality” so that it can provide a “lifeline to utterly defenceless people who might otherwise simply disappear”. This is hypocritical. Weiss points out the ICRC’s role in visiting Nazi camps during the second world war and not broadcasting the horrors that lay within. Neutrality is a dirty word when it is used to justify silence in the face of slaughter. Such silence only serves those who commit the barbaric acts. The ICRC consistently compromises civilian lives to maintain its dealings with notorious governments.
Weiss says that the UN has a “sovereignty-centred character”, and that the conflicting interests of member states handicap it. He correctly points out: “The UN relies on the fiction that it is a single body”. This means it is unable to act against the interests of countries which hold veto power on the security council.
Weiss avoids any serious criticism of his former employer. Yet the UN has consistently failed to prevent massacres or humanitarian crises. It is dominated by theUS, and thus also by the interests of the multinational companies it represents. TheUSwill use the UN where useful and ignore it where necessary. Where the UN frustrates theUS, for example voting against war inIraqin 2003, it is circumvented. The UN’s weakness is illustrated by the fact that it has passed more than 50 resolutions againstIsrael’s occupation of Palestinian territory and yet theUSveto means they are never acted on.
At times, governments of neo-colonial countries gang up to advance their own interests. This is exploited by these governments to get away with murder. This tactic was used by the Sri Lankan regime just after end of the war was declared. The former Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN, Dayan Jayatilleka, attacked the western powers at the eleventh special session of the UNHCR in May 2009 to win the support of the so-called ‘anti-imperialist’ states. Referring to the western powers he said: “These are the same people who told the worldIraqhad weapons of mass destruction. I wouldn’t buy a used car from these people let alone allegations of war crimes”. Gotabaya Rajapaksa went further: “They are jealous of us because they have not defeated terrorism as we have”.
The hypocrisy of western governments is seen by the fact that they are responsible for many massacres – in turn used by the Sri Lankan regime to defend its own actions. Supporter of the Sri Lankan regime and so-called expert on terrorism, professor Rohan Gunaratna, argued: “InIraqandAfghanistanwhere over a million civilians have been killed, there is no UN panel advising the UN secretary general to investigate war crimes”.
Spheres of influence
ONE OF THE major concerns for western powers is the growing Chinese influence in the region. So they have been careful not to alienate the Sri Lankan regime. They fear that a war crimes investigation may pushSri Lankafurther into the hands ofChina, eroding their influence. For that reason the western powers are willing to talk about crimes as a ‘violation’ but are not prepared to take any action. The ideal situation for them would be the replacement of the blood-stained Rajapaksa with a ‘cleaner’ figurehead. Western powers certainly have been quick to capitalise on the hoped for post-war economic growth. In July 2009, the IMF approved a $2.6 billion loan, andCanadatripled its ‘aid’ toSri Lanka.
In fact, it was the mass mobilisation of diaspora Tamils in countries likeBritainthat did the most to draw attention in the west to the massacres.
The vast majority in the world are left to starve and die by hunger and war. They do not have any political representation. The UN is a body of governments most of which brutally suppress the democratic rights of their own people. Those who are chosen to occupy decision-making positions in the UN rely on the blessing of the major powers.
Weiss’s narration of the methods of senior members of the UN is shockingly revealing: “The secretary general [Ban-Ki Moon] had known the president [Mahinda Rajapaksa] for some years. He felt that he had the kind of personal leverage that would achieve real results…” Weiss describes how Ban replied to a journalist who asked him why he came late to the conflict, and why the UN is “continually going toSri Lankaas a petitioner”. Ban boasted that he had been in touch with the regime from “the beginning of the crisis… making phone calls all the time, even until just right before and after the conflict”. Ban claims that Rajapaksa assured him of a meaningful enquiry. If this is to be believed, the secretary general of the UN relied naively on telephone promises fromSri Lanka’s president.
Meanwhile, he sat silently on the pile of information and eyewitness accounts from his own staff of the massacres – and as tens of thousands marched throughLondonand other cities, crying out: ‘Ban Ki-Moon, Ban Ki-Moon, save the Tamils’. In reality, the leader of the UN was using his power to prevent information about the killings being revealed. No wonder Tamil-speaking people’s anger has turned on the UN, widely seen as having blood on its hands.
A leaked memo ofNorway’s deputy UN ambassador, Mona Juul, revealed where Ban’s interests lie: “Chinais happy with Ban’s performance”. (Chinawas the first to support Ban’s re-election as secretary general;Sri Lankaalso supported his candidacy.) Juul attacked Ban as a “powerless observer”, “passive and not very committed”. InSri Lanka, the UN stood by while a personal ally of the secretary general commanded a massacre of thousands. It stood by while its staff were bombed and its rights were restricted.
INSRI LANKAthere is an attempt at an ‘intellectual justification’ for the war and horror. For those who looked for a quick fix, the main obstacles were the major players in the conflict. An ‘easy’ way out was seen as the elimination of one side! Weiss states: “The conquest of the Tigers was a resounding military success”. His only concern seems to be the way the war was conducted. Had the Sri Lankan regime respected ‘international law’ and minimised the casualties, apparently, all would have been well for Weiss.
The regime was determined to inflict an irreversible defeat on the LTTE and Tamil-speaking people through a bloody massacre. Removing the LTTE from the picture has not resolved the conflict, however. Until there is a real solution to the national question, the Tamils’ struggle will continue to erupt in one way or another.
The LTTE had not survived for so long merely through ‘brutal control’. Its strength came mainly from the support that emerged among the Tamil-speaking people whose national aspirations did not find political representation. But the methods of the LTTE failed, as it sought to control the fight-back from above rather than mobilising the masses in the battle for the democratic, national and social rights of all Tamil-speaking people.
Claiming that it was the sole representative of the Tamil-speaking people (including the diaspora), decisions were left in the hands of an undemocratic few who were not answerable to the broader masses. This partially alienated the wider mass from participation. The LTTE used the mass as a resource and demanded unconditional support. This led to a series of mistakes, such as attacks on Tamil-speaking Muslims (mostly in the eastern province), clamping down on dissent, etc. This, in turn, aided the Sri Lankan regime’s campaign to proscribe the Tamil Tigers’ international operations.
Clearly, the working class, poor and oppressed, when faced with military occupation, have every right to armed self-defence. When organised democratically, this can form an important part of mass, united, non-sectarian struggle organised under the leadership of the working class. One of the LTTE’s crucial mistakes was not to appeal to those in the Sinhala majority south who continued to fight bravely for Tamil-speaking people’s rights. It also failed to engage politically with the vast Tamil-speaking population in southernIndia, and to build solidarity with the struggling masses inSouth Asiaand around the world.
Guerrilla tactics linked to terrorist methods such as suicide bombing were, by and large, a reaction to the brutal repression carried out by the oppressive state. As a method of struggle, however, it is always used by the oppressors as an excuse to wipe out the resistance as a whole. It also reflects the lack of confidence in the revolutionary masses on the part of activists and can only be maintained by exploiting the weakness and disorganisation of the masses.
Putting itself above the movement inevitably led to many mistakes by the LTTE leaders. Colonel Karuna, the eastern commander of the LTTE whose defection played a key role in weakening the LTTE, is now a deputy leader of Rajapaksa’s Sri Lankan Freedom Party. Kumaran Pathmanathan took control of the LTTE leadership after the war, but is now working with the Sri Lankan defence ministry.
Destroying the LTTE has not eliminated the struggle. Only a political solution that addresses the national aspirations of the Tamil-speaking people would bring a lasting solution. In this respect, the “resounding military success” of the Sri Lankan armed forces is completely hollow and will not provide the basis for a lasting solution to the national conflict.
February to May 2009 cannot be described as a war. It was a bloody massacre. For bravely exposing this brutal final phase, Gordon Weiss deserves the highest credit. It is also important to emphasise the extent to which the Sri Lankan regime was prepared to go to wipe out the LTTE and its supporters, overwhelmingly civilians.
This review appears in the current issue of the monthly magazine, Socialism Today (No.152, October 2011): www.socialismtoday.org