Sergei De Silva-Ranasinghe’s Review Of Eelam War IV


by Michael Roberts, Colombo Telegraph, Sept. 17, 2016

DeSilva-Ranasinghe’s article – how-sri-lanka-won-the-unwinnable-war Asia Pacific Defence Reporter Sept 2009

This article –

ADDENDUM, 14 September 2009

In analyzing historical issues over the years, I came to the conclusion that a multiplicity of factors generates the events that are understood to be major transformations – so that any emphasis on A MAJOR FACTOR is likely to be misleading. The delineation of factors must also pay heed to temporality. Factor A can impinge to generate a turning point at Moment X and this can prompt a process of concatenation that has momentous effects.

Let me underline the problem from within the circumstances we are addressing. I happened to chat with Sergei at Mount Lavinia in June this year while he was holidaying with his family. In passing he laid great emphasis on the defection of Karuna and his loyalists in 2004 as a major factor in the defeat of the LTTE. Does this modify the theses he presented earlier in 2009?

The Karuna-led defection clearly weakened the LTTE in monumental ways. Firstly, the recruits from the Eastern Province had been a major proportion of the Tiger fighting cadre and the loss of experienced fighters as well as the severe decline in recruits from that region weakened the LTTE. Secondly, those elements of the Karuna loyalists who joined the SL Army provided not only vital intelligence and skills, but also served—in surmise here — as point-men in the deep penetration units of the re-fashioned SL Army (the latter a point stressed by de Silva-Ranasinghe).

In my own mind I have conjectured that Karuna personnel may have been among the resolute men who infiltrated the remaining LTTE terrain and resided among the teeming Tamil populace on the north-eastern coastal strip east of Nandikadal – the “Last Redoubt” in my conceptualization[10] – in the months of March-May 2009. I have asked myself HOW the people remaining in that area in late April knew that there were safe passages delineated across the Nandikadal Lagoon and that they would be treated fairly if they fled when the battle lines overtook their ‘space’. From data provided by Jeyaraj we know that leaflets in Tamil had been dropped by the SL Air Force.[11] We have been told that loudspeaker announcements were broadcast. However, it is to VK Shashikumar that we are indebted for a piece of information that GSL personnel are tight-lipped about. Writing for the Indian Defence Review in 2014, he states:

But what was critical to the success of the Army was the stupendously brave and accurate ground intelligence gathering by troops of the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP). Elements from LRRP had infiltrated the NFZ where the LTTE was holed up disguised as civilians and these army intelligence operatives provided the crucial inside information that eventually proved crucial for the success of the military operations.

In conjecture I believe it probable that some Tamils from the Karuna contingents were among the ‘deep spies’ inserted among the corralled Tamil peoples.

Though the defection of Karuna, and thus of section of the Tamil population in the Batticaloa District was a setback for the LTTE, we must weigh the fact that this did not deter the LTTE and that they remained confident of victory despite this event and the losses suffered during the tsunami. Take note of a possibly apocryphal tale: “we will teach you all a lesson” are the words attributed to Thamil Chelvam circa July 2006 when he responded to an informal approach from President Rajapaksa seeking appeasement as a crisis-point developed after the LTTE had taken the first step towards war by closing the gates at Mavil Aru south of Trincomalee. – a response that meant rejection of appeasement.[12]

That event saw the outbreak of Eelam War IV – determined at this point by the LTTE’s opening gambit and is self-confidence in their capacities. The first phase of Eelam War IV, namely, the battles in the Vakarai region, commenced leading in their turn to the battles for control of the Eastern Province. The SL forces won the latter struggle — marked eventually by the conquest of the Tiger stronghold at Toppigala one year later in August 2007 (see Roberts, TPS. Pictorial, pp. 109-10).

So, one sees a temporal turning point of sorts effected in the course of 2006/07. Turning points are not always conclusive. Thereafter the GSL forces were able to concentrate their forces on the southern and northern fronts in the circumstances outlined by de Silva-Ranasinghe. The factors that then determined ongoing events include (a) good leadership at all levels, political and military; (b) a re-tooled and skilled SL Navy; (b) the big step taken by the SL Navy command to send an operational force under Travis Sinniah far out to sea to sink in February and March 2007 two rogue LTTE warehouse ships – a measure which emboldened and enabled them to sink three more on the10/11th September 2007;[13] (c) a re-skilled and well-led SL Army (d) close coordination with the SLAF whose eyes-in-the-sky sharpened ground operations (see de Silva-Ranasinghe 2009 repeated in Thuppahi 2016).

Sustaining this process was the decision taken by the Rajapaksas to expand the number of fighting personnel and the use of a professional advertising agency, TRIAD, to attract recruits[14] and, as Kamal Gunaratne has stressed recently, the readiness of the Sinhala rural population to sacrifice their sons for the country – a form of dana (almsgiving) that has been marked in some spots by bus shelters built by grieving parents (Roberts “Winning,” 2014c).

Behind this too was the quiet and covert acceptance of events by the central government in India[15]and considerable financial and/or military aid from Pakistan, China and the Middle East in circumstances where US[16] and Western aid was fitful, select and, from late 2008, circumspect if not nil.

***   ***

This month of September 2016 I stumbled across an essay from 2009 that I had not seen before. I was puzzled because it is a splendid summary of the political and military factors that enabled the Government of Sri Lanka to overwhelm the LTTE in the course of Eelam War IV (2006-09), a force considered invincible by so many – including the Norwegian diplomatic ‘whiz-kid’ Eric Solhiem who told President Mahinda Rajapaksa in late March 2006 that Pirapaharan was “a military genius” (my interview with Lalith Weeratunga,14 June 2016). The puzzle arose from the absence of authorship in the version I came across – seemingly a foreign Australian agency and author.

Since few foreign reports had revealed any discerning understandings of the war,[1] I was stunned because this summary was as thorough a job as anyone could produce in a short essay. On reflection I decided that it must be Sergei de Silva Ranasinghe’s work because he had produced detailed accounts of the ongoing war while it was in progress (see incomplete list in separate Thuppahi item). He confirmed this by sending me the source, the Asia Pacific Defence Reporter issue dated September 2009 – a journal where he had also presented articles as the war unfolded.

Given that Major-General Kamal Gunaratne has recently produced a book analyzing the war over its whole length (1970s-2009), this concise study of the last phase is highly pertinent. I have yet to see The Road to Nandikadal (2016). I suggest that de Silva-Ranasinghe’s summary overview from 2009 will enable readers to assess its contribution.22war-zone-late-april-icg

De Silva-Ranasinghe’s review would have been constrained by the tight demands of word-length. So let me add an elaboration that arises from chance findings during my recent visit to Sri Lanka. Interaction with Jagath Senaratne brought a large tome on the Sri Lanka Air Force to my attention and led to an interview with Air Chief Vice Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe (appointed February 1994). His command did not extend to Eelam War IV, but my recent work on the battle for Jaffna Peninsula during the last stages of Eelam War III became the focus of my queries (Roberts 2016b).

It was during these enquiries that the centrality of the SL Air Force during all stages of the war fully dawned on me. The SL Army’s operations everywhere would not have been feasible without the logistical troop and supply work administered by the SLAF – whose aircraft of varying type were work horses to the core. Troops have to be rested and spelled. Injured troops have to be rescued and taken to hospitals. Some return to battle more experienced and thus as invaluable elements in ongoing confrontations.

During Eelam War IV, moreover, the SLAF was equipped with a plethora of UAV drones[2] and with a Beechcraft 200 recce plane which together provided the SL Army and SL Navy with invaluable real time battlefront data. Among this real time photographic vistas made available to a wider audience were the remarkable scenes of some thousands of Tamils civilians and Tigers fleeing across the sand dunes and waters around Nandikadal Lagoon after the special forces led by Majors Ralph Nugara and Athula Kodippilli penetrated the extended LTTE bund and booby-trapped fortifications on Sunday night April 18/19th 2009 in what I consider to be a truly remarkable night operation.[3]

As far as I can work out, only Reuters[4] and some Indian outlets[5] took the opportunity to display some aspects of these events to the world at large. In submerging this critical dimension of the conflict, the world’s media chain – from the NY Times to the Times to the Guardian to the Fairfax and Murdoch chains in Australia — stand condemned for unmitigated partiality and misrepresentation.[6]aaa-tamil-cvilians-nkl

One of the serious shortcomings in media reportage on complex events is the editorial diktat enforcing crisp and brief reports of around 800 words in some places and perhaps extending to 1500 in a few. Such restraints often constrain attention to nuances, prevent revealing embellishments and distort overviews. Sergei de Silva-Ranasinghe is to be congratulated on overcoming these constraints. The contrast between his work and the reviews by Nirmala Ganapathy for the Economic Times (then in 2009) and Peter Layton’s more recent excursion (2015) could not be more stark.

Thus, my memorandum here is mere appendage, capping his work with a few embellishments, but extending to photographs and/or maps of some consequence.[7] The latter should not be regarded as “mere embellishments.” They are a vital ingredient in deeper understandings– the more so in instructing office-bred readers who have simply no understanding of what bunkers or camouflaged foxholes are and how an infantry platoon can advance in the night (or day) in the face of these fundamental military tactics.[8]

In the last months of the war the SL forces were faced by an impediment even more severe than booby-trapped berms or serried bunkers: namely, some 300-320,000 civilians packed together in arena that was roughly 26 sq. kilometer in extent and serving as so many sandbags in a defensive formation clouded by the difficulty of recognizing Tiger personnel (many without distinguishing uniforms).

What these forces achieved in April/May 2009, therefore, was remarkable – as magnificent as the Vietnamese forces defeat of the French colonial forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.[9] However, this will never be marked in weighty Western media outlets or their military annals. It does not suit USA’s present political interests to permit such a conclusion. The punishing rod is what is being swung at the moment.



Al-Jazeera 2008 SL Army closes in on Tamil Tigers,” 7 October 2008, https://thuppahi.

Al-Jazeera 2009a “SL army claims control of rebel territory, 26 Jan 2009,”

Al-Jazeera 2009b “SL army closes in on Tamil Tigers,” 1 February 2009.

[Balachandran-Roberts] 2015 “PK Balachandran on Overt and Covert Paths in Indian and American Policies towards the Sri Lankan War, 2008-09,” 15 September 2015,

Ganapathy, Nirmala 2009 “Sri Lanka defeats LTTE, time to win over Tamils,” 19 May 2009,

Govt Film Unit [SL] 2014 “Last Days at Nandikadal,” OR

Gray, David 2009 “A Day at the Front Line in Sri Lanka (Photographer’s Blog),” 27 April 2009,

Guardian 2010“Miliband in row with Sri Lankan defence minister,” 30 April 2009,

Guardian 2010“Wikileaks cables: David Miliband focused on Sri Lankan war ‘to win votes’,”

Hewavitharana, Siri 2011c “UN misled on Channel 4 video,” 6 August 2010,

Holmes, Maj-Genl John 2015 “Expert Military Report,” 28 March 2015, Annex I of Report on the Second Mandate of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Complaints of Abductions and Disappearances [i.e. Paranagama Report], August 2015, pp. 243-44

Hull, C. Bryson 2009 “Sri Lanka opens eye in the sky on war zone,” 20 April 2009,

Hull, C. Bryson & Ranga Sirilal 2009a “Sri Lankan War in Endgame, 100,000 escape rebel zone,” 23 April 2009,

IDAG [i.e. Citizen Silva] 2013 “The Numbers Game: Politics of Retributive Justice,” OR

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2009 “Fraudulent concept of a “fire-free, no-fire, safe zone,” 18 April 2009,

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2011 “KP’ Speaks Out. An Interview with Former Tiger Chief, Vavuniya: NERDO.

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2015 “The Life and Death of Velupillai Pirapāharan,” 9 May 2015,

Layton, Peter 2015 “How Sri Lanka Won the War. Lessons in strategy from an overlooked Victory,”

Mahindapala, H. L. D. 2009 “How Prabhakaran went down in Nanthi Kadal – the last battleground,” 10 July 2009,

[Mango] “Amnesty International reveals its Flawed Tunnel-Vision in Sri Lanka in 2009,” 10 Aug. 2011,

Marga 2014 Issues of Truth and Accountability. The Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka,

Nugara, Ralph 2016“Combat Training in the Sri Lanka Army.” 26 February 2016,

Rajasingham, Narendran 2009 “Rise and Fall of the LTTE — An Overview,” Sri Lanka Guardian, 7 Feb. 2009,

Rajasingham, Narendran 2010 “Pro-LTTE Diaspora pursue Eelam Agenda without Any Thought about Tamils living in Sri Lanka,” 26 May 2010,

Reddy, B. Muralidhar 2009a “Cornered Tigers. The Sri Lanka Army takes control of the administrative and political capital of the LTTE,” Frontline, 26/2, 17-30 Jan 2009.

Reddy, B. Muralidhar 2009a “An Escape from Hellhole,” 2009042558390100.html.

Reddy, B. Muralidhar 2009b “Multiple Displacements, Total Loss of Identity,” 2009/05/27/stories/2009052755811500.htm

Reddy, Muralidhar 2009c “A first-hand account of the war and the civilians’ plight as Eelam War almost comes to a close,” Frontline, 26/11, May 23-June 5, 2009

Reddy, Muralidhar 2009d “An eye-witness account of the last 70 hours of Eelam War IV,” Frontline, 26/12:  June 6-19, 2009.

Roberts, Michael 2009 “Dilemmas at War’s End: Thoughts on Hard Realities,” 10 Feb. 2009,, rep. in Roberts, Fire and Storm, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, pp. 267-74.

Roberts, Michael 2010 “Simpletons at the World’s Peak: Sri Lankan Situation Stumps the World,” in Roberts, Fire and Storm, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, pp. 289-302 .… originally in Frontline under a different title in May 2009

Roberts, Michael 2011a “People of Righteousness target Sri Lanka,” 27 June 2011,

Roberts, Michael 2013 “BBC-Blind: Misreading the Tamil Tiger Strategy of International Blackmail, 2008-13,” 8 December 2013,

Roberts, Michael 2014a “The War in Sri Lanka: Ravi Nessman’s Slanted Story for USA on the Tavis Smiley Show, 18 February 2009,” 31 January 2014,

Roberts, Michael 2014b “Generating Calamity, 2008-2014: An Overview of Tamil Nationalist Operations and Their Marvels,” 10 April 2014,

Roberts, Michael 2014c Winning the War: Evaluating the Impact of API WENUWEN API,” 1 Sept. 2014,

Roberts, Michael 2014d The War in Sri Lanka and Post-War Propaganda,” 18 November 2014, …being Memo sent to OISL with Hyperlinks and Images added

Roberts, Michael 2014e “Cartographic & Photographic Illustrations in support of the Memorandum Analysing the War in Sri Lanka and Its Propaganda Debates, 18 November 2014,

Roberts, Michael 2014f Tamil Person and State. Essays, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.2014

Roberts, Michael 2014g Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2014

Roberts, Michael 2015a ‘The Realities of Eelam War IV,” 25 October 2015,

Roberts, Michael 2015b “Targeting Sri Lanka by playing ball with Tamil Extremism,” 24 July 2015,

Roberts, Michael 2015c “Ambassador Blake in Never-Never-Land: Misreading LTTE Capacity in Early 2009,” 26 August 2015,

Roberts, Michael  2016a “Speaking to Gotabaya-I: Plans Afoot in 2009 to Rescue the Tiger Leadership,”  8 March 2016, ………… …..

Roberts, Michael 2016 “Saving Talaivar Pirapāharan,” 5 April 2016, ……………………….

Roberts, Michael 2016b “Where Ratwatte and CBK Stood Strong: Coping with the Elephant Pass Debacle in April-May 2000,” 24 July 2016,

Roberts, Michael 2016c “David Miliband’s Imperious Intervention in Lanka left in Tatters,” 5 July 2016,

Salter, Mark 2015 To End a Civil War. Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka, London: Hurst & Company.

Shanmugarajah, V. 2014 Dr. Veerakanthipillai Shanmugarajah’s Affidavit Description of Conditions in the Vanni Pocket in Refutation of Channel Four,” 5 January 2014,

Shashikumar, VK 2009 “The Rajapaksa Model of Combating Terror,” Indian Defence Review, 24/4 and

Shashikumar, VK 2009b “Lessons from Sri Lanka’s War,” 19 November 2014,

Sriyananda, Shanika 2016 “Defeating the LTTE. Major-General Kamal Gunaratne in Riveting Q and A,” 7 September 2016,

Sydney Morning Herald 2009 “Tamils protest outside Kiribilli House,” 27 April 2009,

Tammita-Delgoda, S. 2009 “Sri Lanka: The Last Phase in Eelam War IV. From Chundikulam to Pudukulam,” New Delhi: Centre for Land Warfare, Manekshaw Paper No. 13,

Tammita-Delgoda, S. 2014 “Crossing the Lines: Tamils Escapees from the Last Redoubt meet the Army,” 21 September 2014, … originally appearing in shorter form in 2009 .

Tamil Guardian 2009 “Diaspora Tamils protest, fast in increasing numbers; call for ceasefire,” 15 April 2009,

Telegraph 2009 “Britain and France fail to persuade Sri Lanka to end war,”

UNPoE 2011 Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts report on Accountability in Sri Lanka, March 2011…. POE_Report_Full.pdf

US Embassy 2014 “Ball-by-Ball through Wikileaks: US Embassy Despatches from Colombo, 2009: ONE,” 27 August 2014,

Washington Post 2009 “Clinton & self-styled peacemakers obstructing Tiger defeat,” 27 April 2009,

Wertheim. Stephen 2010 “A Solution from Hell: the United States and the Rise of Humanitarian Interventionism, 1991–2003,” Journal of Genocide Research, 12: vol. 3 & 4, 149 -72

[1] There are exceptions. The Reuters team under Bryson Hull, Al-Jazeera, Muralidhar Reddy, PK Balachandran offered useful reports at times.

[2] I became aware of this in mid-2009 when a Local TV station had illustrated interviews with the service commanders and that with the Head of SLAF at one point showed a hanger with numerous UAV’s – quite a revelation to me because there seemed to be 20 or 30. It is a reflection of the self-defeating mind-set of some service personnel that even Jagath Senaratne could not secure details on this score when he made inquiries this September.

[3] See Shashikumar 2014 for a partial description. One ‘whisper’ I picked up (where?) is that the point-men paddled across Nandikadal Lagoon at night under floating munition boxes in order to create the initial beachheads by removing mines and booby-traps and eliminating the Tiger men.

[4] See Hull 2009; Hull & Sirilal 2009 and Gray 2009.

[5] See especially Reddy 2009 to 2009d.

[6] The implications for such failures are seen in Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s rasping condemnation of the Sri Lankan government on 22nd April 2009 for endangering and harming {Tamil} civilians even after some 105,000 or so escaped their corral trap (Roberts, “Simpletons at the World’s Peak,” 2010). An equally revealing series of fallacious assessments from within the heart of Colombo can be found in the reports provided by Associated Press headed by Ravi Nessman who also made space for the Un Media Officer –one Gordon Weiss – to go to air in condemnation of GSL and its forces in early May 2009. Also see Roberts “The War in Sri Lanka: Ravi Nessman’s Slanted Story for USA on the Tavis Smiley Show, 18 February 2009,” 31 January 2014,

[7] Fuller collections can be found in my book Tamil Person and State. Pictorial (Colombo, 2014); while most of my articles have a few such illustrations.

[8] A classic illustration of the idiotic evaluations of a civilian mind is seen in Mark Salter’s criticism of the SL Army: “… advancing soldiers regularly fired or threw grenades into civilian bunkers as a ‘precaution’ against the possibility of the LTTE using them to launch attacks” (2015: 571).

[9] The landscape around Dien Bien Phu was mountainous and entirely different (so Sri Lankans should think of battles in the hills around Hunasgiriya or Laggala or Aranayake). One facet of the Vietnamese achievement was to marshal artillery in the mountains above the French defences — no mean task. However, they did not have to restrict their artillery and mortar fire.

[10] The term ”Last Redoubt” is used deliberately instead of “Second No Fire Zone” or “NFZ’ – a concept deployed mechanically by Robert Blake, the UN and even GLS sources. It is misleading because the concept had no legal grounding in the absence of agreement by the LTTE and their deployment of military forces in the arena. This is a classic instance of the Rajapaksa government stabbing itself in the solar plexus.

[11] As translated from the Tamil by Jeyaraj, each leaflet ran thus: “I am aware of tremendous difficulties faced by civilians who are unfortunately still being held hostage by LTTE in NFZ. Your suffering is prolonged by this action of LTTE who are holding you as a human shield for their own safety and security. I appeal to every one of you to come across to the cleared areas. My government will continue to give utmost priority to ensuring] the safety and welfare of each and every one of you” (1 May 2009 in Also in Salter 2015:364.

[12] This story was related to me by Harsha Navaratne when I met him at Vavuniya in mid-2011 and I have no definitive confirmation on this point. During my recent interview with Lalith Weeratunga (June 2016) I gained the impression that Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, a senior Minister proficient in Tamil (he was of Colombo Chetty lineage), may have been the GSL emissary. Since Fernandopulle was subsequently assassinated by the Tigers, extra-difficulty encompasses any efforts to validate the tale. So, question marks surround the veracity of this incident because the tale of jungle-king from the south being ready to face the jungle-king from the north occurred for a fact in late March 2006 when Mahinda Rajapaksa challenged Erik Solheim’s bombast (in Weeratunga’s presence).

[13] Information gleaned from an interview with Commodore Karannagoda in July 2015 at Sarath de Zoysa’s house and telephone chats with Travis Sinniah at various moments. The extent to which satellite information supplied by US military sources aided these operations is a point of debate and contradictory information. Information from captured Tiger personnel was probably as central in guiding the SL navy to LTTE sea operations

[14] See Roberts “Winning the War: Evaluating the Impact of API WENUWEN API,” 1 Sept. 2014,

[15] See Balachandran-roberts 2015. Around Feb/March 2009 Alok Prasad, the Indian High Commissioner, encouraged President Rajapaksa to stonewall and block a high-powered American military team seeking to explore means for USA to intervening via GSL permission to carry out a so-called humanitarian mission so as to avoid large-scale deaths [and to rescue the LTTE leadership]. My note here is informed by a new piece of information from Lalith Weeratuga (June 2016) about an interchange between Prasad and Rajapaksa and the work that went into my essay “Saving Talaivar Pirapahran.”- (2016).

[16] The advent of Hilary Clinton as Secy-of-State in late 2008/early 2009 seems to have capped a process pushed by Susan Rice and Samantha Power in the course of 2008. Note Wertheim “A Solution from Hell,” 2010.

Comments are disabled on this page.