Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Sivaram and Counter-Insurgency

Part 1

from Mark P. Whitaker, (2007) Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Deathe of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka. London: Pluto Press

Sivaram said that there were four basic things he tended to look at when thinking about counter-insurgency.  First, there was the history of counter-insurgency as a practice...

Second, Sivaram believed one had to look at C-I’s modern manifestations, particularly at what he called the ‘post-Cold War theories of terrorism and counter-insurgency.’ ...

A third thing to look at, said Sivaram, was his specific studies of counter-insurgency in the Eastern Province...The key feature of all these modes, of course, was the same: ‘the closure of the political space from which a rebellion derives its staying power and ability to spread its influence with ease.’..   

The fourth thing Sivaram thought worth looking at were the political and global aspects of counter-insurgency doctrine and practice.

Excerpts from Chapter 6: From Taraki to TamilNet : Sivaram as Journalist, Military Analyst and Internet Pioneer

[All pauses and bracketing as in the original, unless italicized. See first sentence for example.]

(p. 124)

Learning Politics From Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka (Anthropology, Culture and Society) The Sri Lankan government, for its part, seemed to have a two-pronged strategy [in the early 1990s].  On the one hand, the Sri Lankan army commanded by General Kobbekaduwa, began to mount attacks into the Wanni region just south of Jaffna, not with the aim, as Sivaram pointed out to me later, of taking back territory but of threatening the LTTE’s various bases there in order to force the LTTE to expend its forces to defend them.  (‘A move straight out of Jomini, though they would never have put it that way,’ Sivaram said to me, in 2004.)  On the other hand, the army also quickly mounted a massive, torturously repressive, and very bloody counter-insurgency campaign in the east, during which thousands upon thousands of people ‘disappeared,’ sometimes to turn up later as bloated corpses bobbing in the ocean off Kallady’s Bar road – as I found, to my horror, when I interviewed survivors of that period in 1997.

Privately, Sivaram was highly distressd by the increasing levels of violence being directed at his beloved Batticaloa, though his columns by now rarely revealed any emotion other than a carefully cool, almost surgical, disdain.  But, as a military analyst, he was curious: what explained these clearly calculated excesses, these efforts to smother a target population with terror?  So Sivaram’s columns, for the first time, began to systematically explore the role conventional Western counter-insurgency doctrine – what he called, then, ‘pacification’ – was playing in the conflict.  Careful to supply definitions, as always, Sivaram/Taraki wrote:

The main aim of pacification in modern counter-insurgency techniques is the closure of the political space from which a rebellion derives its staying power and vitality to spread its influence with ease.  The military drive against a rebellion can consolidate its successes ultimately only if it can achieve a near total closure of the political space in which a rebellion is brought forth and thrives. (Taraki 1993b)

And it was with this strategic end in view, Sivaram argued, that most of the LTTE’s tactics – its suicide bombings, its efforts to establish a conventional army and its creation of a Jaffna proto-state – could best be understood.  That is, as disparate parts of a well thought out, historically unique, if ruthless, ‘counter-pacification strategy’ primarily designed around the need to keep precisely such a rebellious political space open.

(p. 130)

Moreover, there were geopolitical facts to be taken into account.  For Sivaram, key among these were the geostrategic interests of the US, India, and China in South Asia – especially with regard to the sea-lanes around Sri Lanka (Sivaram 2001).  Further, Sivaram felt that the end of the Cold War (as he told me in 1997) had caused a general unleasing of ‘super’ versus ‘regional’ power conflicts in South Asia; and that this was a competition in which Sri Lanka and his Tamil people were likely to end up mere pawns.  Finally, as he also told me in 2004, his contacts with Western intelligence and counter-insurgency strategists both in the West and in India (in 1995 and 1996) had convinced him that Sri Lanka was becoming, for them, a kind of laboratory for their counter-insurgency experiments.  This last development, he felt, should be stopped.

So for all these reason Sivaram began to think that the LTTE, however objectionable one might think it in other ways, must be supported.  This was why, after 1997, much of Sivaram’s energy shifted over to his work for  For Sivaram had come to believe that the UTHR(J)’s reports and the Sri Lankan government’s propaganda efforts threatened Tamil interests by continually throwing the bad behavior of the LTTE (and Tamil nationalism in general) into broad relief, while largely ignoring the way the government’s Western-style counter-insurgency efforts were hurting (numerically) far more Tamil people in Sri Lanka’s rural hinterlands.  This biased attention, he felt, was eroding any future ability either the LTTE or a more general Tamil nationalism might have to wrest fundamental concessions from the Sri Lankan government.  His answer was a Sri Lankan Tamil news agency so accurate and professional in its reporting that it could effectively shift international coverage by skewing what was looked at rather than by attacking what was said.  All this Sivaram considered part of his project: his own contribution, as it were, to counter counter-insurgency.


              It was during this period [2000/1], however, that Sivaram really formalized his views about ‘counter-insurgency’ and nationalism.  That is, he began to come up with a more systematic theory about how counter-insurgency works (and how it helps form and maintain modern nation-states), and a separate theory – or, rather, set of what he called, a la Foucault (1977), ‘counter-knowledges’ – about how this must be opposed.  In this light, he began to see the LTTE as a counter counter-insurgency force, or as a kind of counter-state in skillful if painful evolution…[break]

               The Sri Lankan cause to which Sivaram was devoted, and for which he was prepared to die, was, as he always put it, ‘justice for the Tamil people.’  And by ‘justice’ he had long meant either Eelam or a Sri Lankan state so restructured that Tamil people could never again be dominated by a Sinhalese majority acting strictly on its own behalf.  But any fragile hope for this ‘justice,’ he believed rested upon maintaining a precarious military-political parity between a united Tamil public and the Sinhalese (as he perceived it) state – a parity he saw as constantly threatened by modern counter-insurgency techniques.  Since this parity in turn depended upon the military prowess of the LTTE, the LTTE, for good or ill, was the best he felt he could hope for – at least for the present.  For Sivaram, to defy what his military and political logic told him was practical for reasons of his own ideological preference would have been tantamount to committing the very kind of Empedoclean folly he had railed against in our discussions back in 1984.  No, he felt he had to carry on with what actually was, and while one could debate some of Sivaram’s political principles (as I had, since 1984), or even his analysis of the post-ceasefire situation (I would not dare), his consistency was clear.  This was the substance of Sivaram’s so-called ‘turn.’


But all of Sivaram’s justifications, here, ultimately rested upon two foundations: first, his view that counter-insurgency (C-I) was a peculiarly dangerous form of modern power that, when locally employed, threatened any possible ‘just’ solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka; and, second, his belief that states, nations, and nationalism were not really as many trendy Western scholars like to portray them (a discussion to which we shall turn in the next chapter) because such portrayals inevitably left out or underestimated the extent to which C-I practices had reformulated most nation-states after World War II.  With regard to the first of these notions, I had a number of discussions with Sivaram in 2004.  One of these took place at his extremely modest house in Mt Lavenia on the night of our ill-fated trip to Batticaloa.  It was March 2004, and it was the first time I had ever got him to spell out, clearly, his ‘project.’

‘My job,’ he said then, as he sat fiddling with an article he was uploading to TamilNet, ‘is to challenge this business of taking the state for granted, and to provide counter-knowledge to resist oppression becoming normal.’

‘Oh,’ I said.  But then I was puzzled, not so much about his project but about its aims.  For if one used nationalism to resist nationalist state oppression, I wondered, would that not recreate the very thing being fought?  And could one not argue that insurgency and counter-insurgency (and counter counter-insurgency) similarly generated each other?  So I asked him.

‘As usual, you are getting everything glibly confused,’ said Sivaram equably.  And we went on to decide that, before I left, we would have to have two long discussions – one on nationalism and one on military strategy.  But just then Sivaram got the phone call that informed him that Karuna, the LTTE commander of the east, had just declared himself in rebellion against the rest of the LTTE.  So, to follow that story, we left for Batticaloa – immediately, in the middle of the night – and kept moving from lead to lead (and so Sivaram could try ‘peace talks’) through the next week until we washed up five days later, after a news conference at the spanking new ‘Peace Secretariat,’ at an LTTE bar in much fought over Kilinochchi, capital of the Tiger-controlled Wanni.  It was an outdoor place, pastel painted, with fake concrete bridges and tiny faux buildings, and it looked suspiciously like a minature golf course – except that the little hut that should have been renting golf balls and putters sold arrack, beer, and plates of fried meat – which serious Tamil drinkers call ‘taste’ – instead.  The waiters looked sternly teetotal and suspiciously fit.  In any case, we were still alone at the table, the rest of the reportorial horde having not yet arrived, and I suddenly realized that, with so much happening, we had not had a chance to talk about his views all week.

‘Would this be a good time to talk about C-I strategy and, what do you call it, counter C-I strategy?’

Sivaram’s face suddenly lit up with wolfish enthusiasm and mischief.

Maccaang, you are sitting in an example of counter C-I.’


And he explained that just as one primary goal of C-I strategy was to shrink the political space in which rebellions can grow, so one goal of the LTTE’s counter C-I strategy was to preserve that space, not just physically but also financially.  So the LTTE, among other things, had restaurants, bars, and other ‘gadgets’ (Sivaram’s favorite word) to generate revenue – along with many tax collectors, and police in snappy blue uniforms, to back them up.  Rebellions, he told me, had to be financed too.

Putting off the heart of the matter, I asked him how his views on military matters had influenced his journalism.

D. Sivaram
D. Sivaram

(p. 134)

‘That was one track.  The other track is that I started increasingly to look at the SLA’s strategy in the east as a laboratory case of standard counter-insurgency as disseminated by the British and the Americans.  So this was the second strand of my writings.  And I think this twin appraoch has continued:  looking at the larger strategic approach and then also at [specific examples.]  To put it in a nutshell, I think I should tell you that I was invited to the University of Palmerston North, in New Zealand, in 1999 [and] most of my thinking…on counter-insurgency in the east and other parts of the world were presented in a lecture that I gave there.’

‘And you have this lecture?’

‘I remember the argument.  Basically…’

But just then several other journalists from Jaffna and Batticcaloa showed up at our table, along with the professional photographer Dominic Sansoni, who owned Barefoot, the famous and stylish Colombo clothing store.


‘Basically,’ said Sivaram, settling into the chair by my desk, and simultaneously editing a TamilNet article on his mobile phone, ‘this is the argument I made in that lecture.’

Sivaram said that there were four basic things he tended to look at when thinking about counter-insurgency.  First, there was the history of counter-insurgency as a practice.  Focusing on Britain, the former colonial power with the greatest influence over Sri Lanka, Sivaram saw the origin of counter-insurgency as lying in the colonial wars of the nineteeth century.  Moreover, he believed C-I generally remained ‘still basically colonial in character.  The wars in Sri Lanka and Ireland are basically wars of internal and real colonialism.’  But Sivaram felt that C-I in its modern form found its start in Britain’s successful C-I war in Malaysia and in its other post-World War II colonial wars.  (Many other European states, of course, used CI too – for example, the French did in Algeria – but Sivaram liked to focus on Britain, India, and the US because their practices eventually so influenced Sri Lanka’s war.)  In any case, to really get a sense of this history, Sivaram urged me to look up the writings of Frank Kitson, a British army C-I commander who honed his skills in Kenya 1953-5, Malaya 1957, Cyprus 1962-4 and Northern Ireland 1970-2.  Kitson’s unself-conscious memoir, Sivaram claimed, provided the most reliable if upsetting history of what went on in C-I campaigns (Kitson 1977).  Moreover, to Sivaram’s mind, Kitson’s earlier book, Low Intensity Operations (1971) provided the most succinct C-I cookbook for states interested in suppressing dissent of any kind at every level.  For almost all the tactics were there: the use of penetration agents, the mounting of psycholgical operations (or ‘psyops’ – that is, propaganda, misinformation, PR), the making of fake political concessions to split the opposition, the deployment of informers in hoods, and somewhat less forthrightly, the ‘rough’ interrogations and ‘wetwork’ (that is, the hooding, torture, ‘turning,’ disposal, or dispatching of captives) that underlie so many C-I campaigns.

‘I gave the fucking book to Karuna,’ said Sivaram, shaking his head disgustedly, ‘That bugger always liked to borrow books.  He never gave it back.’

Second, Sivaram believed one had to look at C-I’s modern manifestations, particularly at what he called the ‘post-Cold War theories of terrorism and counter-insurgency.’  He said: ‘I see all this as an outgrowth of what was being done during the Cold War.  But now what is being done has evolved into something else, into this discourse on terrorism and what some Pentagon theorists call “warriorism”.’  Sivaram felt that while this new discourse was still based on ‘traditional counter-insurgency practice,’ ‘terrorism’ had now become ‘part of the conceptual baggage of counter-insurgency.’

‘I presented a paper about all this in 1998 at the University of Oslo to a couple of people from the Norwegian foreign ministry in which I argued that it was all based on the concept of asymmetric warfare – basically guerrilla warfare in a new garb.  In asymmetric warfare the US has to face an enemy quite different from the Marxist guerrillas of the Cold War.  But, I must also say, you could see that their new enemy was being constructed, that they [were] fighting enemies they themselves created – [in] Afghanistan, Iraq; but Iraq might be different: we will see – whereas in counter-insurgency the enemy [started out] quite real.  [In any case] in the post-Cold war world organizations like FARC [in Columbia] and the PKK [the Kurds], and the New People’s Army, and a lot of these guerrilla organizations were forces to be reckoned with, have seen some decline.  This is all because counter-insurgency works.’

A third thing to look at, said Sivaram, was his specific studies of counter-insurgency in the Eastern Province.  In this regard, Sivaram pointed me toward two articles he wrote in the early 1990s: ‘Govt’s counter-insurgency programme and LTTE’s response’ (Sivaram 1994a), and ‘Pacifying the East?’ (Taraki 1993b).  Taking them in reverse chronological order, Sivaram pointed out that his Tamil Times article was a meditation on the Sri Lankan army strategy being illustrated in two, then ongoing, operations: ‘White Eagle,’ south-west of Trincomalee (Sri Lanka’s famous, eastern, deep-water port); and ‘Jayamaga,’ north-west of Vavuniya.  Sivaram had started his written discussion of them by focusing on terrain:

The ability of a guerrilla group to operate successfully in the Eastern Province is derived from five vast hinterland zones comprising the dry zone jungle, shrub, marshes, slash and burn plots and paddy fields separated from the populated coastal areas of the province by lagoons and jungles. (Sivaram 1994a)

After discussing these zones in detail (he eventually concluded there were seven), Sivaram went on to argue that the British and American C-I model being used by the army laid out three basic methods to ‘limit and, if possible, ultimately destroy the LTTE’s logistic and tactical mobility along with its popular support among the Tamils’ (ibid).  These methods were: (a) the complete evacuation or destruction of villages; (b) the destruction of crops and the prevention of cultivation – a ‘scorched-earth policy’; (c) the control of supplies available to civilians living near rebel areas, for ‘the army insures that in all seven zones there is direct control on, and supervision of, the amount of food and medicine each family buys and takes into their area of residence’ (Sivaram 1994a).  Moreover, he argued:

In addition to the standard C-I methods described above, the deployment of small and highly mobile special forces commandoes which are constantly roaming one part or the other of the hinterland zones has greatly reduced the tactical mobility or the LTTE in the field and resulted in the loss of a large number of important Tiger cadres.  Prabhakaran’s answer to this problem has been to pull out his key commanders and political workers from the east. (Sivaram 1994a).

‘So the army was winning?’ I asked, curious.  ‘Their CI campaign was working?’

‘That is what I thought then.  I later realized I was partly mistaken, but that is what I thought.  In this article I was criticizing the LTTE for not picking up on this strategy.’

Sivaram shook his head, laughing.  He explained that while he had accurately observed the government’s C-I techniques, he had missed the LTTE’s counter counter-insurgency strategy.

‘Anyway, I also wrote an [earlier] article after a dangerous trip I took in 1993 to Tirukkovil in which I talked about a counter-insurgency program.’  That article, ‘Pacifying the East?’ written shortly after the fall of Pooneryn, began with a review of a similarly themed presidential speech.  Sivaram wrote:

The widely held view in military political and Western diplomatic circles that local government elections followed by economic development could expedite and consolidate the process of pacification in the east which in turn enable the government to hit hard at the LTTE in the north was thus expressed by the president [Premadasa] in his characteristic style at Ratnapura on October 28. (Taraki 1993b)

Sivaram pointed out that Premadasa’s speech here betrayed the president’s exposure to the language of C-I, where ‘pacification’ is a technical term with a long history, as well as one with a central place in the ‘well-developed jargon’ of C-I since World War II.  In any case, Sivaram, always careful to define his terms, argued that there were in general three basic modes of ‘pacification,’ although which mode a government chooses should be determined by the root causes of its conflict.  These modes were: (a) land reform plus some promise of political reform – where the rebellion derives its motivation from class inequality; (b) devolution and some regional autonomy – where ethnic grievances fueled the rebellion; or (c) disenfranchisement of the local warrior groups, a no longer relevant technique once practiced by the British in colonial Tamil Nadu (as laid out in Sivaram’s eleven part series on the history of Tamil miltarism in 1992).  The key feature of all these modes, of course, was the same: ‘the closure of the political space from which a rebellion derives its staying power and ability to spread its influence with ease.’

But, again, Sivaram felt his analysis was incomplete because it fell short of a complete understanding of the full scope and pervasiveness of counter-insurgency doctrine.  This remained so, he felt, until 1995, ‘when I started traveling abroad and started buying books on these matters.  Until then I had been reading piecemeal about counter-insurgency techniques.  So it was after this that I started developing a more comprehensive perspective and understanding of counter-insurgency.  Fortunately, the British defense attache in Colombo, who became a good drinking buddy, was a specialist in the matter.  He had first-hand experience in Ireland and Oman.  And the most important thing: he was a protégé of Frank Kitson, the father of modern counter-insurgency techniques.’

‘Your’re kidding.’

‘No, young man, I am not kidding.’

The fourth thing Sivaram thought worth looking at were the political and global aspects of counter-insurgency doctrine and practice.

‘Here,’ said Sivaram, still working with his stylus at his phone, ‘I will give a bit of explanation.’  He eyed me, flipped the front of his phone down, set it carefully on my desk, and put himself in lecture mode.  That is, he swirled his glass and settled back even further in his chair.

‘Counter-insurgency is not a military phenomenon.  It has to be understood as a poltical-military phenomenon.  So it has very strong political components, such as promoting Sistani, the Shia guy in Iraq who keeps telling Sadr to stop.  The political component itself – and how it is deployed by strategists to achieve the objective of a counter-insurgency campaign – is very important to understand.  So here I have to say that when speaking of the political component we are also speaking of a certain amount of anthropological and sociological and religious-studies knowledge.  These forms of knowledge are very important here…because one of the main things about counter-insurgency is to divide the target population  -- to prevent them from coalescing into one body.  So the political component is very important; and anthopological knowledge is very important.  For example, in Vietnam consider the use the US made of the Montagnards and other small groups.  And India is always doing this too.  To fight the Nagas, they used a small ethnic group call the Kukis [pronounced “cookies”].’

He stopped for a second, finished his glass, and pursed his lips.

‘There is also a geostrategic component.  In many counter-insurgency events multiple states get involved.  Usually it is one state using insurgency to destabilize another.  These are the four things we should look at.'

Continued...Part 2


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