A year ago this week, the Sri Lankan government officially declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in one of the most extraordinary counter-insurgency campaigns in recent times.
The endgame of the conflict, particularly from January to May 2009, saw the bloodiest fighting, often with the presence of tens of thousands of civilians that the LTTE desperately used to fend off its inevitable defeat. Since then, new evidence has become public that offers further insights into the final months of Sri Lanka’s secessionist civil war.
For decades, the jungle-laden Mullaitivu District, located in Sri Lanka’s northeast, served as the LTTE’s main stronghold. However, under significant military pressure from the Sri Lankan Army during the final stages of the conflict, the LTTE conducted a fighting retreat towards its last bastion astride the Mullaitivu coastline.
As it did so, the LTTE used all means at its disposal to inflict casualties to delay, halt or even push back the Army’s advance. For example, the LTTE constructed a series of embankments between two and three metres high, also known as earth bunds, which proved to be formidable defensive obstacles. Assault troops also encountered camouflaged LTTE armour plated bunkers.
According to one frontline Army officer from the time: ‘You don’t know where they are, and you can’t even see them until your right on them…The first you know is when you are wounded in the leg. All we can do is to fire towards the sound, throw grenades and send off RPGs [Rocket Propelled Grenades] in the general direction.’
In addition, frontline infantry often confronted elaborately laid LTTE minefields that required field engineers equipped with Bangalore torpedoes to clear pathways. Similarly, the LTTE cleverly utilised booby traps made of discarded rubbish and metal that were tied to hidden explosive caches dispersed over a wide area that when triggered caused multiple and devastating explosions.
Each passing month saw increasingly fierce combat. Reports suggested that the Army absorbed anywhere between 10 and 20 fatalities per day—sometimes more—while the Army claims that the LTTE suffered average losses ranging from 25 to 40 combatants per day. Due to high levels of attrition and the need to augment its depleted conventional formations, the LTTE had little choice than to continue to rely heavily on forced recruitment of civilians, a practice that it revived full-scale in late 2007.
To ensure a ready supply of civilians, the LTTE adopted a series of coercive measures such as that reported in one Sri Lankan newspaper which quoted a 14-year-old female child soldier saying the LTTE had warned her that her family would be punished if she didn’t join. Indeed, the Army confirmed that an increasing number of conscripts were seen at the frontline, notably child soldiers. ‘It’s like looking at your own child. Quite large numbers [of the LTTE fighters killed or captured] are under 16,’ one Army Brigadier told the Telegraph. ‘They grab them from their parents and [when] they try to pull them back they [the parents] get shot. These children have dog tags and cyanide capsules.’ Indeed, it was later revealed, according to the independent Sri Lankan daily, The Island, that in the final months of the war the LTTE planned to carry out a massive offensive against the Army with 300 suicide bombers, but was forced to cancel it as many suicide bombers were either killed in action or deserted to government-controlled territory.
The incidence of civilian casualties was low prior to the commencement of the Mullaitivu campaign, as combat was essentially between two conventional armies in the field, and civilian concentrations were situated far from the fighting.
However, as the territory controlled by the LTTE rapidly contracted, the density of trapped civilians increased rapidly, meaning civilians were often being caught in the crossfire. In an effort to provide safe passage from the combat zone, the Sri Lankan government declared two limited ceasefires, which saw civilian safe zones created at Vishwamadu and Oddusudan. However, such measures were doomed to failure when the LTTE rejected them and chose not to offer any alternative locations.
According to Tamil journalist DBS Jeyaraj: ‘The Sri Lankan government had…declared two limited ceasefires. But the LTTE imposed further restrictions and the number of civilians coming out dropped during ceasefire days…the LTTE exploited the ceasefire in February to mount a very effective counter strike…The April ceasefire was used to construct several new “trench-cum-bund” defences.’
Meanwhile, the LTTE positioned its artillery and mortar assets near or amidst civilian concentrations, tactics confirmed by a range of media outlets including Reuters India in February 2009, which quoted a 74-year old Catholic nun as claiming: ‘The LTTE fired from close to civilians. We had objected, but that didn’t work.’
Out of desperation, thousands of civilians defied the LTTE edict, forbidding any civilians from leaving LTTE-controlled territory, and attempted to escape under cover of darkness and brave crossfire from running battles, LTTE-laid minefields and LTTE fire targeting escaping civilians.
At a press conference in Colombo last July, Dr. Shanmugaraja, a former LTTE physician who surrendered in the final weeks of the war, said: ‘Many civilians were killed and wounded as the LTTE opened fire at them when they tried to flee from the Tiger’s grip…Their strategy was to keep the civilians around them and survive. That was why they came along with civilians once safe zones were demarcated for the civilians by the Security Forces.’
In addition, there’s ample evidence to suggest that civilians in LTTE-controlled territory were integrated into the LTTE military-logistical system and war effort. For example, Sri Lankan-Australian scholar Michael Roberts, an expert on Sri Lankan politics and anthropology, wrote in his article, Dilemma’s at War’s End: ‘All young people seem to have been inducted as auxiliaries. As they lost territory, the LTTE also used heavy machinery and marshalled labour to build ditches and embankments…a task that clearly involved massive logistical operations.’
He added: ‘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.’
In fact, the presence of more than 280,000 civilians in LTTE-controlled territory served a clear and diverse purpose, which was highlighted in their use as military labour to build fortifications; porters shuttling food, ammunition and supplies to frontline LTTE units; of manpower to augment the LTTE’s military strength; human shields that gave the LTTE significant bargaining power with the international community to call for a permanent ceasefire; and the maintenance of its supply lines.
In effect, the LTTE depended indirectly almost entirely on regular Sri Lankan government convoys to areas under enemy control for food, medicine and essential items—an extraordinary situation. Another former LTTE physician, Dr. Vardharaja, elaborated on this exploiting of civilians by the LTTE to ensure supplies kept coming in, when he said: ‘The problem was that the LTTE took medicine from us to treat their injured. They asked us to tell the media that we don’t have medicine. There was as a shortage of medicine because LTTE took the whole stock.’
By mid-April 2009, the Army had successfully repulsed all LTTE counterattacks and finally cornered the group on a sliver of territory along the coast, 13 kilometres long and just 3 kilometres wide. The LTTE decided to stage its last stand in its coastal stronghold with an estimated 240,000 civilians still present, leaving the Army facing an unprecedented difficulty of capturing the last patch of land while ensuring civilians’ safety.
It is this reality that underscores how misplaced the international criticism of the military’s conduct in the final stages of the civil war was. On February 9, for example, a suicide bomber reportedly infiltrated an internally displaced persons registration camp and detonated her suicide jacket, killing 8 civilians and 24 soldiers. On April 20, 3 LTTE suicide bombers infiltrated and detonated their suicide jackets, killing 17 civilians and injuring 200. The LTTE shrewdly used tents, make-shift shelters and bunkers to conceal snipers, machine gun nests and artillery/mortar emplacements, which were often merged with civilian dwellings. Given this, assault troops had no choice but to systematically clear tens of thousands of tents, makeshift shelters, bunkers and trenches, which left them exposed to LTTE ambushes laid inside tents, makeshift shelters or subterranean bunkers. As such, in an attempt to mitigate the incidence of civilian casualties, the Army relied heavily on dozens of trained snipers to great effect in neutralizing LTTE combatants.
In the final weeks of the war, the LTTE continued to aggressively conscript civilians who were given crash training and assigned to scratch units at the frontline. For instance, in a now public April 2009 report, Rajan Hoole, who heads the dissident Tamil University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) and who is known for his criticism of both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, pointed to conversations with civilians who fled LTTE controlled territory.
‘The LTTE has recently started the practice of sending out teams of 6 cadres with instructions for each team to return with 30 conscripts,’ Hoole wrote. ‘If they fail they are reportedly subject to heavy and often lethal punishment.’
However, the LTTE’s efforts were in vain. After bitter fighting on May 16 and 17, the last civilians were extracted from the combat zone, leaving 400 hardcore LTTE leaders and fighters exposed. By the morning of May 19, the LTTE lay defeated and its leaders eliminated, bringing a decisive end to the nearly three decade long Sri Lankan civil war. The Army’s final operation involved 4 weeks of heavy fighting and the loss of over 500 soldiers.
The evidence revealed by the LTTE’s own former sympathisers indicates the lengths the group was willing to go to and the difficulties facing conventional militaries confronting a fanatical adversary that conducts itself with impunity. Under such circumstances it’s unrealistic to believe civilian casualties can be avoided. Indeed, the very success of the Army in extracting more than 280,000 civilians from the combat zone from January to May 2009, despite this effort contributing to it suffering heavy casualties in process, is an indication of the complexity of conducting military operations in an environment where an enemy is willing use civilians as a key element of its military strategy.
Civilian casualties are, of course, tragic. But the endgame of Sri Lanka’s civil war requires a much more in-depth and nuanced understanding of the dilemmas that faced the Army before any conclusions can be drawn.