Obama, Osama, Blake and Prabakharan

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This was posted on The Agonist on May 23 2011

Death of Bin Laden

President Obama decided not to release any photographs of Bin Laden’s body or video footage of the burial. He said it was important to keep photographic evidence from “floating around as incitement or a propaganda tool”.

The body was prepared for burial “in conformance with Islamic precepts and practice”, then placed in a weighted bag and dropped into the water from the vessel’s deck. Officials said this was to avoid his grave becoming a shrine.

Leon Panetta , Director of the CIA, said that, “Obviously, under the rules of engagement, if he had in fact thrown up his hands, surrendered and didn’t appear to be representing any kind of threat, then they were to capture him. But they had full authority to kill him.”

Death of Prabakharan

May 18 2011 marked the second anniversary of the death of Vellupillai , leader of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) at Nandikathal lagoon north of Vellamullivaikkal near Mullaithivu.

For some Tamils, Prabakharan had the status of a demi-god. A Tamil Catholic priest (Fr SJ Emmanuel, former Vicar-General of Jaffna, now living in Germany) compared him to Jesus. The surviving LTTE initially claimed that Prabakharan was alive but the government published pictures of the corpse which was conclusively identified by former LTTE commander in the Eastern province ”Colonel Karuna” (Vinayagamoorthy Muaralithan) now deputy leader of the governing SLFP party). Further confirmation was through DNA testing against genetic material of Prabakharan’s son, Charles Anthony, who had been killed earlier by the Sri Lanka army. Circumstantial evidence suggested that Prabakharan senior’s death was caused by massive head trauma, perhaps from a shot at close range. There are also allegations that he was executed.

Sutirho Patronobis, wrote recently in the Hindustan Times: ”army chief Sarath Fonseka had initially told me that Prabakharan and a few of his remaining lieutenants were shot dead in an ambulance while they were trying to crash through a Sri Lankan army deployment. The official version changed a day later: Prabakharan was killed inside a mangrove forest near the bank of a lagoon in a last burst of gunfire. His body was then burnt and the ashes scattered across the sea.

A month later, the defence ministry said it was after the chance discovery of the body of Prabakharan’s bodyguard that the army realised that the LTTE chief was possibly dead. Unlike the attack on Bin Laden, in which four or five others were killed, hundreds of LTTE cadres died in attempting to save Prabakharan; no stealthy helicopter strike, it was a bloody fight. Fonseka is currently on trial for saying in an interview that surrendering LTTE leaders with white flags were executed.

Prabakharan was a Sri Lankan citizen who had been at war with the Sri Lankan government since 1975. In that year, he made his first known killing. The ensuing conflict led to around 100,000 deaths (although it is impossible to arrive at a definitive figure) . He was killed by the legitimate armed forces of a sovereign nation answerable to a democratically elected government on its own territory.

The USA was rather lukewarm in its reaction to this major victory in the global war on terrorism: “The Department of State welcomes the fact that the fighting has ended, and we are relieved that the immense loss of life and killing of innocent civilians appears to be over. This is an opportunity for Sri Lanka to turn the page on its past and build a Sri Lanka rooted in democracy, tolerance, and respect for human rights. Now is the time for the government to engage the Tamils, Sinhalese, and other Sri Lankans to create a political arrangement that promotes and protects the rights of all Sri Lankans”.

The Rise and Crimes of the LTTE

In 1972, a group of students formed a militant group called the Tamil New Tigers (TNT). One member of this group was Prabakharan, who was born in Jaffna in November 1954. On July 27 1975, the former mayor of Jaffna, SLFP politician Alfred Durayappah, a Tamil, was assassinated.  Later Prabakharan claimed that he had fired the fatal shot.

The TNT became the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and by means of murder and intimidation became the dominant group. Separatist militancy was further fanned by the anti-Tamil riots which followed the 1977 general election, in which the UNP came to power. The LTTE were proscribed in 1978 by which time most of its rivals had been eliminated. The anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983, Black July, sent many Tamils into exile from where they funded the growth of the LTTE.

Over many decades, Prabakharan used cease-fires to regroup and re-arm. Unlike the IRA leaders, he had no interest in compromise and would settle for nothing less than a separate state of Tamil Eelam, comprising one third of the island’s land mass and two thirds of its coastline, including the strategic harbour of Trincomalee. The LTTE continued to murder Tamils as well as Sinhalese. The distinguished foreign minister, Lakshman Kadigarmar, was one of the Tamil victims.

The LTTE was guilty of many crimes over the thirty years of the conflict. They assassinated Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lanka President Premadasa. An attempt on the life of President Kumaratunga failed but she lost an eye. In that attempt, 23 civilians were killed.

In 1985, LTTE gunmen shot dead 146 Sinhalese civilians and injured 85 others as they were praying at a sacred Buddhist shrine in Anuradhapura. A further 18 people fleeing from that massacre were shot dead in Wilpattu forest. Later in the same year, in Dehiwatta village, 100 LTTE men hacked to death 15 women and children as they were sleeping.

In 1986, an LTTE bomb exploded aboard an Air Lanka flight carrying mainly French, British and Japanese tourists killing 21 (including 13 foreigners – of whom 2 British, 2 German, 3 French, 2 Japanese, 1 Maldivian and 1 Pakistani) and injuring 41.

Throughout 1988 and 1989, there seemed to be an LTTE massacre of villagers every day. In June 1990, the LTTE marked the breakdown of ceasefire talks by overrunning police stations throughout the north east of Sri Lanka. The LTTE killed 600 police officers who had surrendered. On June 10, over 400 unarmed police officers were shot dead in police stations across eastern Sri Lanka.

On August 3, 30 Tigers attacked four mosques in the Kattankudi area, where 300 Muslims were prostrate in prayer. The Tigers sprayed automatic fire and hurled hand grenades at the worshipers. Most of the victims were shot in the back or side. Speaking to the New York Times, Mohammed Ibrahim, a 40-year-old businessman said, “I was kneeling down and praying when the rebels started shooting. The firing went on for 15 minutes. I escaped without being hit and found myself among bodies all over the place.” Mohammed Arif, a 17-year-old student who also survived the massacre said : “Before I escaped from a side door and scaled a wall, I saw a Tiger rebel put a gun into the mouth of a small Muslim boy and pull the trigger.”


Killings continued on a daily basis over the years. In 1994, presidential candidate and opposition leader Gamini Dissanayake (we know his son-in-law) was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber who exploded herself at a campaign rally in Colombo. Fifty others were killed in the blast and a further 75 were seriously injured.

The most deadly LTTE attack on a civilian target in the history of the group’s operations occurred in 1996. The Central Bank (located in the twin towers of the Colombo World Trade Centre) was bombed and 90 people were killed and 1,400 injured. In 1997, another bombing at the WTC killed 13 and injured hundreds.

In 1998, a Black Tiger squad drove an explosives-laden truck into the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, a major Buddhist shrine, killing seven and injuring 25. The attack took place just days before foreign dignitaries were expected to attend celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of Sri Lankan independence at the temple.

Later that year the LTTE shot down a plane with 55 passengers (including 48 Tamils) and crew while it was flying over LTTE held territory. Everyone onboard was killed.

In 1999, Dr Neelan Thiruchelvam, a Tamil, who was working on a constitutional package aimed at ending the decades-long conflict, was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber.

In May 2000, the LTTE celebrated the holiest day of the Buddhist calendar, Vesak Poya, by detonating a bomb hidden inside an ice-cream box on a bicycle killing 20 people and injuring 75.

In 2001, a 14-man suicide squad attacked an air force base and the adjoining international airport. They destroyed many aircraft, crippling the country’s economy and reducing tourism.

In 2006, the award-winning author Nihal de Silva and seven Sri Lankan tourists were killed by an LTTE land mine in Wilpattu National Park.

In the same year, The LTTE bombed a bus carrying 140 civilians in the north east. The blast killed 68 civilians including 15 school children, and injured 78 others. It was caused by two claymore mines placed side by side on the bus by LTTE cadres, which sprayed the packed bus with millions of ball bearings upon manual detonation. Survivors, including school children, of the blast were shot as they ran away.

In the same year, a suicide bomber in a truck killed 103 sailors on buses going or returning from leave at a transit point and wounded 150 other sailors. Several civilians were killed. Two people were killed and 14 others wounded, mostly civilians who were passing by the site in an attempt on the life of defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

There are many more instances of LTTE cadres hacking to death unsuspecting villagers at home or at prayer, or on buses or trains (often using multiple bombs in several carriages) on the way to work or school.


The Military Solution

President Rajapaksa decided in 2006 that a negotiated settlement was impossible and began a military campaign against the Tigers.

By the early months of 2009, the LTTE was on the verge of certain defeat but  would not give up, perhaps hoping that other countries might save him. There was constant pressure on the government from the USA, UK, EU and Norway to call a cease-fire. The government resisted because the LTTE had a history of using cease-fires to regroup and re-arm and also to continue killing. The government argued that it was doing its best to get food and medicine to civilians in the north who were being held hostage by the LTTE.

The LTTE had always employed forcible recruitment, every family had to sacrifice a child to the cause of Eelam. This gained pace as defeat loomed. Children under twelve were recruited. Civilians who resisted were executed.
Civilians turned on the LTTE who attempted to forcibly recruit men and women in the Puthumathalan area. Several LTTE cadres were killed and many injured. This incident occurred when the LTTE attempted to forcibly recruit a young girl, despite her protests. According to civilians who escaped from the area, the LTTE had dragged the girl and torn her clothing until she was almost naked. This incident had incited her relatives and people in the vicinity who then attacked the LTTE cadres. At least six vehicles in which the group had come had been set on fire by the angry civilians. Later the people surrounded an LTTE political office in the area and set it on fire. In retaliation, a group of armed LTTE cadres came to the area and indiscriminately attacked unarmed civilians, killing and causing injuries to several of them in the presence of the humanitarian agencies working in the area.

In Outlook India Ashok Mehta, former GOC of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka wrote: “The LTTE’s principal handicap has been Prabakharan . Because of him, the Tigers missed several opportunities for a political settlement””from the devolution package to even better offers later from president Chandrika Kumaratunga and prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. Chasing the chimera of Eelam,  became a liability.”

Robert Orris Blake and Human Rights

Assistant Secretary of State, Robert O Blake, recently visited Sri Lanka. Blake was previously US Ambassador in Colombo. In February 2007, he received minor injuries from a mortar blast while disembarking from a helicopter at a Sri Lankan air base in Batticaloa, where he was to attend a development meeting. The Tigers claimed they were not informed by the government that the ambassador was present and were only returning fire from the Sri Lankan Army.

Blake had been anxious for some time to visit Sri Lanka to lecture the government about the report to the UN General Secretary on human rights violations in Sri Lanka. That was before his government shot dead without trial a man who was not a US citizen in a nation that was not the USA.

Blake was asked at a press briefing whether his country’s battle against international terrorism was likely to be undermined by accountability issues on the grounds that Bin Laden was unarmed at the time he was shot. Blake’s six-foot seven frame swayed in the breeze somewhat. Although Pakistan comes within his area of responsibility, it was obvious that he had not been in on the plan to assassinate Bin Laden in that country.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay (a South African Tamil who has long been a stern critic of Sri Lanka) and groups such as the International Crisis Group, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised such issues. Pillay has urged the White House to make public the “precise facts surrounding Osama’s killing to ensure the operation adhered to international law”.

A discomfited Blake dodged questions and hurried away after only a brief session. Blake said that he had been travelling around Sri Lanka so he wasn’t aware of specific allegations levelled against the US over the Osama killing. “Let me tell you, that Osama bin Laden was the leader of an armed group that was engaged in armed conflict against the government of United States. He was therefore a lawful target. We certainly stand by our actions”.

Was Prabakharan not engaged in armed conflict with the government of Sri Lanka? Was he not a lawful target?

Blake caused some alarm in Sri Lanka when he made a statement before the Senate subcommittee on the Middle East (West Asia) and South Asia. His address included a telling phrase. This is the first time he has gone on record to publicly state, “Positioned directly on the shipping routes that carry petroleum products and other trade from the Gulf to East Asia, Sri Lanka remains of strategic interest to the U.S.”

Once in Sri Lanka he tried to soft-pedal. ”In my official meetings today, I assured the Sri Lankan government that the U.S. is committed to a strong long-term partnership with Sri Lanka and that reports of our alleged support for ”˜regime change’ have no basis whatsoever. I expressed support for the government’s efforts to recover from its devastating civil war, and encouraged further steps towards reconciliation, and a peaceful, united, democratic Sri Lanka. I think the government has made some positive progress. It is very important that this progress be sustained. ”

Bin Laden has been hunted for ten years, Afghanistan and Iraq have been invaded and occupied because Bin Laden has been held responsible for the death of 3,000 people on 9/11. Prabakharan was responsible for countless more deaths, but Sri Lanka is accused of war crimes in defeating his evil campaign. Since the death of Prabakharan two years ago there have been no terrorist incidents in Sri Lanka and most of the Tamil groups fighting for a separate state of Eelam are now working with the government.

We shall see whether the assassination of Bin Laden will end Islamic terrorism.