On a small stretch of sand in north-eastern Sri Lanka in 2009, the military launched a genocidal offensive against the island’s Tamil population. The government told the world that it was rescuing civilians from the grip of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. It was a lie.

The Tigers had led the struggle for Tamil national liberation since the 1970s and had mass support. The government, desperate to wipe them out, indiscriminately bombed the entire population. Tens of thousands were killed in an act of premeditated extermination. 18 May marks 10 years since the end of the Sri Lankan military onslaught. The LTTE was militarily defeated; its leadership and cadres wiped out. But some survived. Santhia was one. After the war, she and her infant son fled Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state of India. They tried to reach Australia, but were stranded in Indonesia. Tragically, Santhia died of kidney failure in a Jakarta hospital in October 2017. She was only 42. 

In this series Red Flag editor Ben Hillier tries to piece together her story and explain the rise and fall of the Tigers. This is the fifth of six instalments. Read parts one, two, three and four.

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The Mullivaikal sky today is grey. Clouds stretch to the horizon and dull the east coast’s choppy waters. Fishing boats on the sand impress on visitors an image of uninterrupted traditional village life. But the permanent sentries from the sprawling naval base to the south are reminders that something isn’t right. Not too far from the beach, where wild flowers blossom and the scrub begins, terror is etched into the earth. Remnants of bunkers dug in desperation scar the ground. Mangled pieces of iron and severed palm trunks lie among what’s left of people’s belongings. Shoes, tangled saree scraps and other discarded items remain almost a decade after their owners departed. Each is a marker of one of history’s great horrors. 

“I will never forget that day”, one survivor recounts. “They buried us alive.” Many houses here have been rebuilt, but there is an eerie lack of life. Aside from the sea breeze, everything is still. On this tiny thread of desolation between the ocean and Nandikadal Lagoon, the dry earth blew shrapnel amid a monsoon of mortars. More than one hundred thousand were hemmed in, their senses pounded and their bodies strafed. There was no shelter. No way out. “Very terrible things happened here”, a local relates. “We were herded like cattle to this place. Someone had a hoe; we used it and our hands to dig. Our clothes, sarees, we filled them with sand to make walls on the bunkers … We didn’t have enough time to bury the dead. Every day we counted them: one hundred, one hundred and fifty … In the last days, thousands. The army used phosphorus. I can still remember the smell.” 

Sri Lankan military commanders called this place a “no fire zone” – a safe space in which to cover. Then they turned it into a mass grave, indiscriminately shelling civilians and bombing the makeshift medical facilities in a premeditated extermination. By mid-May 2009, tens of thousands of bodies littered Mullivaikal and the area to its north-west. “The battle has reached its bitter end”, conceded the LTTE website. “We have decided to silence our guns.” The Tigers were annihilated; many committed suicide. But there was a final humiliation: on the last day of the war, former comrades emerged wearing Sri Lankan Army uniforms. “We were shocked. They were double agents”, Vetrichelvi says. 

The army said that surviving LTTE cadres – maybe one thousand, who knows? – would be arrested and interned. But as Callum Macrae’s documentary film No Fire Zone later uncovered, many were tortured, mutilated and summarily executed. Images filmed by government soldiers as war trophies show naked, desecrated bodies of women Tigers. “I would like to fuck it again”, one of the soldiers says, surveying the dead laid out in front of him. Those who survived were marched south and transported to prison camps. One Tamil Catholic pastor related to Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer at the New Yorker, the situation: “We were walking out through fire and past dead people, and the soldiers were laughing at us and saying, ‘We have killed all your leaders. Now you are our slave’”.

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In the photo, Karuna Amman wears a smart, purple-striped French-cuff shirt tucked into a pair of dress pants. Now minister for national integration in the Sri Lankan government, he clearly has enriched himself. The former eastern commander of the LTTE is surrounded by military officers. It is 18 May and the war is over. He grins, surveying Velupillai Prabhakaran’s lifeless body. A handkerchief rests over the Tiger leader’s forehead, covering the bullet wound marking his execution. Karuna is a rat who helped slay the Tigers. Exactly why he broke ranks is contested, but in 2004 the colonel led up to 6,000 cadres in a rebellion against the northern command. While the LTTE rapidly took back control of the east, the split was debilitating. Thousands were lost to the split or to demoralisation. Worse, Karuna provided vital intelligence to the Sri Lankan military and later formed an anti-Tiger paramilitary organisation that worked with the army to destroy the LTTE’s eastern apparatus. 

“The Europeans had ruled their colonies under the slogan of ‘divide and rule’, deeming it easier to rule when the split factions were fighting each other”, Sri Lankan major general Kamal Gunaratne explains in his 2016 memoir Road to Nandikadal. “As for us, it was more favourable that Prabhakaran and Karuna were now taking up arms against each other, instead of both parties collectively fighting against us … With tension mounting between these two parties, a fierce confrontation was inevitable and our collective decision was to assist Karuna.” Twenty thousand Indian troops had been repelled from Batticaloa by LTTE cadres led by Karuna in 1988; more than a decade later the Sri Lankan Army was forced to disengage and retreat in the face of Tiger power. But after Karuna’s betrayal, all LTTE-controlled areas from Ampara through Trincomalee and beyond were conquered by mid-2007. There was more to it than Karuna’s defection, however. Several other factors explain how one of the most feared insurgencies in modern history was decimated so quickly.

First, Mahinda Rajapaksa, a hardline Sinhalese chauvinist, won the country’s presidential election in November 2005. Immediately, the change in government was felt in a rise in disappearances and extrajudicial killings in areas controlled by the Sri Lankan Army. The new president vowed to wipe out the Tigers – soon rejecting any political settlement that would safeguard the national rights of Tamils – appointing his army-veteran brother, Gotabaya, as secretary of defence and a fellow hardliner, Sareth Fonseka, as army commander. They transformed the military as the government increased the defence budget by 40 percent. Karuna’s defection proved crucial. “Earlier we would recruit approximately 3,000 [soldiers] per year, but now we are achieving targets of 3,000 per month. Immediately after we took [the east], we managed to recruit 6,000 in a single month”, Fonseka told Business Today’s Malinda Seneviratne in December 2008. “The strength of the army when I took over was 116,000. Today it stands at 170,000 … I created 50 new battalions.” The navy and air force also swelled to more than 50,000 personnel each.

Second, the Buddhist sangha continued to radicalise and assert itself politically. The monks founded the National Sinhala Heritage Party, which allowed only clerics to run as candidates for parliament. “According to their party manifesto, Sri Lanka was ‘a-dharma’ (unjust) and ‘a-rajika’ (headless); therefore religious actors must take over leadership of the state … The political system was to be ritually purified with the help of Buddhism”, Mirjam Weiberg-Salzmann from the University Of Münster in Germany notes. “While the monks promised to stand up for equal rights for all the country’s religions and ethnicities, they still claimed supremacy for the Sinhalese: ‘There is only one nation in this country, viz. the Sinhalese. The right to self-determination is only vested in them’ … This position denied both the Tamils’ right of self-determination and the existence of ethnic conflict … The monks spoke out for a ‘Sinhala Nation’, a ‘Dhamma Kingdom’ – a state built upon Buddhist principle ‘to save the future of our race and religion’.”

Third, and paradoxically, the Tigers’ increasing strength highlighted the limits of their military strategy. The more the fearsome guerrillas came to approximate a conventional army, the more their relative weakness was exposed as they engaged on their opponent’s terms. The LTTE was already at a distinct disadvantage in terms of hardware. The pool from which it could recruit soldiers was also smaller than that of the Sri Lankan armed forces, the Tamil population being little more than 10 percent of the island. The loss of cadres in the east and the realisation that the enemy was building its fighting resources led to the controversial Tiger conscription program – but it was impossible to match the recruitment drive of the army. And it was difficult to build an effective resistance when enlistment depended on compulsion rather than conviction. As Gunaratne notes, conscription was an acknowledgement that the LTTE now had to focus on quantity rather than quality in building its forces. Its capacity was thus degraded even as it grew in number. Sea Tiger losses also mounted as the navy asserted itself, depriving LTTE ground forces of ammunition and supplies. 

Finally, the international balance of forces turned decisively against the Tigers. The Sri Lankan government engaged in a major diplomatic push to isolate the LTTE, which depended on arms imports and on the Tamil diaspora for funds. The Tigers had been banned in India and the US in the 1990s. The Western diaspora heartlands of Britain, Canada and the European Union followed in 2001 and 2006, severely damaging the organisation’s fundraising efforts. It wasn’t just hindrance of the Tamil struggle, however. There was help for Rajapaksa’s regime, which did not have the capacity on its own to conquer the north-eastern Tamil lands. Phil Miller, a researcher for Corporate Watch in London, documented the flow of arms coming from Britain feeding the war machine. Peter Layton, writing in the Asia-Pacific magazine Diplomat noted US assistance “disrupting LTTE offshore military equipment procurement, sharing intelligence, providing a Coast Guard vessel, and supplying an important national naval command and control system”.

Support for the government also came from states otherwise at odds with the West. There was a sense that the Sri Lankan government under Rajapaksa would finally defeat the Tigers, so realpolitik took over as the whole world sought to ingratiate itself with the presumed victors. Aid worth billions of dollars was offered by China, Russia, Iran, Libya and Pakistan. Big finance soon weighed in as well. With Colombo debt-loading to annihilate the Tigers, the Global Financial Crisis gave added urgency to repayments. Creditors knew that the Sri Lankan government’s fiscal situation was unsustainable; they wanted the war to be over quickly. Burns Strider, an adviser to Hilary Clinton, emailed the then US secretary of state in 2009: “This is about Sri Lankan Govt and the Tigers … I have a good source … [T]he people on the ground both with World Bank and IMF believe the Tigers need to be completely defeated and any collateral damage inflicted on private people by SL govt in process is ok”.

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Santhia and Kumaran had a “love marriage”, which transcended caste and defied social mores. Their relationship was built on solidarity, struggle and the mutual understanding of two people devoted to a common cause. To an outsider, “love marriage” is at first glance a peculiar designation. But including the word “love” signifies a wedlock at odds with Tamil tradition, which usually involves an arrangement by families, rather than the two people intimately involved, and which requires a dowry of cash, goods and/or property to the groom’s family as a condition of marriage. The Tigers resolved to abolish the dowry system, opening the way for greater freedoms for individuals, particularly women, to enter relationships on their own terms. Sometime after the peace process began, Santhia settled in Kilinnochchi to start a family with Kumaran, their bond an exemplar of the higher union – free association – to which the LTTE aspired for the Tamil nation.

It proves difficult to glean from friends and former comrades much information about Santhia the individual and her personal life outside of the LTTE. They talk about her sense of duty and her demeanour and leadership qualities within the organisation. A friend of Santhia becomes irritated by repeated inquiries about the poets and writers she read, and what hobbies she had. Why would someone travel so far for such a banal inquisition? After some time trying to gain insights about Santhia’s own poetic writings, the answer is curt, her friend’s deadpan expression a demand for the line of questioning to end: “She wrote about the soldiers’ feelings: what they are feeling about Eelam and what they are feeling about the LTTE and our leader”.

The point, which the interviewer took too long to understand, is that the personal was subsumed under the struggle for national liberation. Individual desires never disappeared of course. Ex-cadres fondly recall the camp fire discussions through which they got to know one another, and the comradeship formed in the Vanni jungles. But the LTTE could not tolerate individualism or harbour dilettantes. Nowhere is this clearer than when sitting with Vetrichelvi, who grins away recounting the struggle, half an arm missing and many of her friends dead. There is not an ounce of self-pity here; the moment emotions threaten to get the better of her is one of deep embarrassment – a regrettable breach of discipline on the part of a cadre who fought too long for her guard to lapse in the presence of some journalist. 

Regardless of one’s evaluation of the Tigers – of their politics, of their strategy or of the tactics they sometimes employed – there is something uplifting here: a collective for whom the cause of everyone’s liberation was superior to the advance of any individual’s interest. The seriousness with which this was taken is illustrated by the graduation ceremony after completing basic training: every cadre presented with a necklace bearing not a jewel, but a cyanide capsule to be swallowed in the event of capture. The struggle portended freedom, but death hung over the hearts of those most committed to the cause.

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A year after the fall of the east, Mannar in the north-west was taken in August 2008. The noose was tightening. In September, all UN expatriate staff were ordered out of LTTE-controlled territory. “There was this large crowd of people outside [of the UN compound in Kilinnochchi] and they were really pleading with us – as the UN, as the international community – please don’t leave”, Benjamin Dix, a former UN staffer, recalls in No Fire Zone. “I remember driving out of there, just full of shame and guilt and confusion of this organisation that I worked for and what it apparently stood for. And we drove out … What we’d actually done was complete abandonment of our duty of protection of civilians in a conflict situation.” The government told the world of its “humanitarian” operation to “rescue civilians” from the clutches of “terrorists”. But those on the ground knew better what was coming. In the crowd, an elderly man pleads with the cameraman: “We are begging you to stay … If we allow you to leave, the truth is that everyone here will die. The knife is at our throat”.

Four months later, Kilinnochchi fell; Santhia joined yet another exodus. Hundreds of thousands of Tamils fled east as Sri Lankan troops encircled and pushed deep into the Vanni. The loss of the Tigers’ administrative capital was a mortal blow. “The LTTE’s political structures and institutions … were gradually closed down and abandoned as the insurgents lost territory”, notes Joanne Richards in a 2014 Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding working paper. 

“On 21 January 2009 the Sri Lankan government unilaterally declared a ‘No Fire Zone’ within an area of LTTE-held territory in Vanni … While the government claimed that the security forces were ‘fully committed’ to providing ‘maximum safety for civilians’, the army subjected the no fire zone to sustained heavy bombardment … As the frontlines moved further east, the government abrogated the first no fire zone and, on 12 February 2009, created a second, smaller no fire zone on a narrow strip of land on the east coast north of Mullaitivu. This action marked the beginning of a pattern in which the government declared ever smaller no fire zones and then continued on the offensive, pushing the LTTE’s frontlines back.”

Tiger attempts to broker a new ceasefire fell on deaf ears in Colombo. Over the next three months, their cadres and leadership suffered increasingly heavy losses. The organisation became virtually headless, commando units fighting again as guerrillas but without coordination or support and surrounded on all sides. Eventually, Prabhakaran realised the battle was lost and sent word that LTTE cadres could try to escape. But many fought on, including most of the senior leadership, who were systematically wiped out. Santhia was somewhere around here, but no one can say precisely when or how she got out after the fall of Kilinnochchi. The haze of battle and passing time result in imprecise testimonies. “After Kilinnochchi, no one had a set base”, Maran says. “Santhia was closer to the leadership, so was probably stationed near Prabhakaran. But she was not on bodyguard duties at that time because she had an infant with her.” (The Imran Pandian unit was responsible for the Tiger leader’s security). Whatever happened, Santhia survived. Within a year, she fled with her baby boy to India. She never saw her husband again.

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We have been stopped by the military for questioning only once. They are more relaxed now that eight and a half years have passed since conquering the north. But the tension among many Tamils is palpable. At a small farmhouse in the Vanni, a woman breaks down and pleads for us to leave. We are talking with her brother, who wants to explain more of what happened in Mullivaikal and of the years leading to the bitter end. But the two are all that is left of their family and the thought of more trouble from the government is overwhelming. He relents in the face of his sister’s obvious distress. 

They are not the only ones who hesitate. Others also refuse to speak – people who have lost so much that all they can do is try to piece together their lives and not draw undue attention from state security. The siblings know the truth in all its awful detail. Many like them will spare even their children the retelling and take to their graves the horrors they witnessed, hoping the next generation avoids such a terrible fate. It is understandable – no one is left to protect them.

Half an hour’s drive away, in Mullaitivu town, a local man climbs quickly and with discretion into the van. The Criminal Investigation Department (CID), notorious for kidnapping and disappearing suspected former LTTE members and activists committed to Tamil liberation, maintains a presence here. Siva (not his real name) directs the driver to a nearby field at Vadduvakal, a couple of kilometres from the killing fields of Mullivaikal. Here they were marched, he says, into a preliminary displacement camp, before being sent inland to the larger prison camps. 

“We had to leave [the dead] and keep moving”, Siva says. “My brother lost his right leg; I had to carry him. He was a member of the LTTE. They took him to Colombo, the CID, and he was there for four months. They tortured him many times and then released him. Some soldiers attempted to shoot us. Others helped to carry the injured to the camps and treated us well. All type of [soldiers] were there – the genuine people and …” – he trails off, but his eyes and expression say everything of what was to come next. 

North of the causeway bridge under which Nandikadal meets the Bay of Bengal, Siva points to the place where Karuna and the military top brass showed off Prabakharan’s body. Pulling out a mobile phone, he brings up pictures taken nearby four years later: parts of another skeleton still scattered at the lagoon’s edge. As the fog lifts on this and other human remains, it is clear that not even the dead were laid to rest at war’s end.

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Tamils around the world will commemorate the genocide on 18 May. There are a number of events leading up to the commemoration.

The Marxism conference in Melbourne will host a panel on Saturday 20 April. Speaking will be Greens former federal senator Lee Rhiannon, Tamil Refugee Council spokesperson Aran Mylvaganam and Red Flag editor Ben Hillier. Helen Jarvis will chair the session. Helen was a member of the 2013 Permanent Peoples Tribunal panel of judges that found the Sri Lankan government guilty of genocide against the Eelam Tamils. 

The Tamil Refugee Council is screening No Fire Zone, the Emmy nominated feature documentary telling the story of the final months of the 26-year long Sri Lankan civil war. Saturday, 4 May, 6pm at RMIT Cinema Theatre in Melbourne.

The Tamil Refugee Council is also organising a protest action:
End the Military Occupation of Tamil Homeland!
5:30pm Wednesday 15 May, State Library of Victoria

On 18 May there is a vigil to remember the Tamil genocide
6:30pm Saturday 18 May 2019
Hungarian Community Centre, 760 Boronia Road Wantirna