Ilankai Tamil Sangam

28th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Sivaram and Counter-Insurgency

Part 2

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

'Now containment,’ he continued, ‘is what is applied in situations where counter-insurgency methods have failed to successfully deliver the desired results.  Containment, as I see it, is the means by which one uses political means to stop a guerrilla organization that shows a clear capability to collapse a state.  (I use “collapse” in the active voice.  The best example is El Salvador.) Containment in the sense we are talking about here “locks” an insurgent movement into a political mode usually using the bait of political recognition through talks.  Once locked into the negotiating mode, the insurgent movement will have to indefinitely postpone or, rather, put on hold, the timetable of its war strategy. '

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.]

Continued from Part 1


‘Before I go into conventional warfare strategies and so forth let me come to something that has been bothering me since 2001.  The military strategy of containment – not in the Cold War sense, but in a militray sense of the containment of insurgencies – basically this is the paper I presented at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC (Sivaram 2001).  [I was invited] by Teresita Schaffer, the ex-ambassador from the US to Sri Lanka ([from] around 1994 or 1995); she is in charge of the South Asia section of CSIS.  [In the audience were people] from the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s office, from the State Department, [one] from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the CIA, the Sri Lankan embassy, and several other important guests.

‘So there I did a comparative study of containment in which I argued that the Sri Lankan army in 2001, when things were not going well, had come to a point where it could only think of containing the LTTE because it had lost its offensive capability with the failure of Operation ‘Rod of Fire’ (Agni Khiela) [in April 2001]…I argued that the Sri Lankan government’s approach boiled down to a strategy of containing the LTTE by engaging it in talks.  And I think I made the point that peace talks are a very important component of a containment strategy.  I gave the example of FARC…drawing a parallel to what happened in Colombia.  The US Defense Intelligence Agency – there is a place in Alexandria, a sprawling massive operation – said in 1997 that the Colombian state was collapsing.  They gave a lot of reasons, yet the bottom line was they said that Columbia was in a state of collapse; the military weak, the government tottering, and so forth.  So I said: yet Colombia is till there.  Why?’

‘Well, why?’ I said.

‘It did not collapse,’ Sivaram went on, ‘because of several factors.  Basically, the US was able to influence or direct the Colombian state to engage in various measures to contain the FARC and start talks.  But during this period, while the FARC was contained by talks, the US pumped in the largest amount of military aid…given any country in Latin America – all under the excuse of fighting narcotics.  There were also a few operations, which were designed to apply maximum preassure on FARC and to blunt its growing conventional capabilities.  But the talks were the main thing.

‘Now containment,’ he continued, ‘is what is applied in situations where counter-insurgency methods have failed to successfully deliver the desired results.  Containment, as I see it, is the means by which one uses political means to stop a guerrilla organization that shows a clear capability to collapse a state.  (I use “collapse” in the active voice.  The best example is El Salvador.) Containment in the sense we are talking about here “locks” an insurgent movement into a political mode usually using the bait of political recognition through talks.  Once locked into the negotiating mode, the insurgent movement will have to indefinitely postpone or, rather, put on hold, the timetable of its war strategy.  (I am talking about war because we are discussing its war against the state.)  This gives a wide range of opportunities for the state and its backers to strengthen the state’s military and get massive infusions of foreign defense aid and assistance – which are otherwise stymied during the war due to regular exposures of human rights violations.’

He stopped and looked fierce for a moment.

‘Now I am saying all this about containment and negotiations as a key component of this military strategy regardless of those who cry foul at me for taking a “cynical and militaristic” attitude to conflict resolution, peace processes, negotiations, etc.  But I say that the ultimate test of the real nature of talks that states engage in with insurgent movements – i.e., to see whether it is containment or a genuine desire to change – is whether any externally underwritten commitment has been made by the state in question to restructure itself at least in regard to those aspects which in the first place generated the insurgent movement.’ [Emphasis his, judging by the way he was slapping the table at each word.]

‘What are some test cases?’ he asked, rhetorically.

‘A classic example,’ he answered himself, ‘is provided by the talks between the FMLN in El Salvador.’

D Sivaram with destroyed Sri Lankan army armored vehicle, early 2000s



‘The US got the FMLN to talk just as they were poised to overrun the country, but nothing happened in the talks.  Example two: the New People’s Army (NPA) in the Philippines.  It was the largest insurgent movement in the 1980s.  Then they started talks with the Philippine government.  Now they are split, weakened, their membership has dwindled, and they are fucked.  And who is facilitating the talks? Norway.  The coincidence is remarkable.’

‘Why Norway?’ I asked, fascinated, but rather worried by the direction this was taking.

'The US during the Cold War developed them as a listening post.  Norway is a US handmaiden.  Anyway, so the NPA split, the leaders are in exile, the movement limps on.  Still, there are talks; but the US signed several defense treaties with the Philippines and there is nothing the NPA can do about it.  You should look for an article called “Crumbs for Asia’s Finest Puppet” by Sonny Africa (2004).  And the FARC was also messed up by the same process.  They talked, the army moved in, so the FARC got fucked.  You see, modern states don’t think of totally destroying insurgent movements.  They aim to weaken and keep them within a tolerable level.’

‘But isn’t it possible,’ I asked, ‘ that a state might be willing to restructure itself to end a conflict?’

‘Such restructuring would have to include the monopoly of violence held by the state-controlling group.  But this never happens for this monopoly is the last thing that a state-controlling group will give up.  No,’ he shook his head and said, determinedly: ‘the state never gives up its monopoly of violence.’

‘So,’ he continued, ‘we talked about the FARC, Zapatistas, and a whole host of others who got fucked by this kind of containment.  And, most important, is the example of the Nagas separatist movement – who have been locked in talks since 1997.  What India could not achieve by fighting them for 50 years they achieved by locking them up in talks.  I could go into this in detail.  This is the kind of knowledge that no state wants to be disseminated.’

‘You should write a book.’

‘I did.  But I don’t have time to write another.  That is why I’m talking to you.  Only…’ he started laughing, ‘for God’s sake, don’t make this sound like a book of fucking anthropology.’

Pausing only long enough to enjoy my chagrin, he went on:

‘The second test of whether such talks are a component of a containment strategy is a state’s hand in inducing or promoting splits in the insurgent movement – covertly, for the peace period offers the best opportunity for this.  Karuna…’ Sivaram’s voice momentarily roughened, ‘is an example.  He was not induced; but he is being promoted.  But keep in mind throughout your book on me that this is all about the control that state-controlling groups have on some basic monopolies.  These are not easily given up – this is what all my arguments are based on.  So state-controlling groups won’t – in fact, nobody will – part with money or power.  This is just human nature.  There is no arguing about that.

‘The third test of such talks,’ he said, gesturing at my computer screen for me to continue, ‘is the degree to which the state and its international backers (here I largely mean the US – though the Russians, French, Indians, and Brits have been know to do this as well) show a greater interest in “pacifying” the target population with aid, psychological operations, so-called confidence-building measures, and NGOs than in restructuring fundamental aspects of the state that led to the insurgency.  There is a RAND book on the Zapatistas that talks about all this.  But I’ll give an example.  In Sri Lanka, talks have been going on almost three years now.  Fiscal devolution was important to the LTTE because the Parliament controlled all the wealth.  So one of their key demands was devolution of fiscal policy.  So what do we see?  All sorts of aid that provides temporary band-aids while the key issue of fiscal devolution is not addressed.  All this is aimed at preventing the population from backing another challenge by the insurgent movement to the state’s monopoly of violence and wealth.  This is a way to not break but erode the will of the people.  Go to the CSIS website and type “Sivaram” and get what they said about what I said.’

‘I will. But had you written about this anywhere else at the time?’

“When I came back from the US [in 2001] after giving my paper I wrote about containment in Tamil in the Batticaloa paper, Thinakathir.  This is where my head got broke in the beating that occurred in December 2001.  Anyway, I wrote this and then the LTTE’s former leader of EROS – their house intellectual, Velupillai Balakumar – wrote an article saying that Taraki is saying all this, and that the LTTE is aware of these things and knows what to do.  To some extent I think this is true.’

(p. 143)

‘My strategic view was first stated in the Island article, ‘The LTTE is now a conventional army” (in Taraki 1991:80).  Here I took a look at some of the larger strategic aspects of the war.  Basically, that the LTTE was aspiring to emerge and function as a conventional army in the north.  In essence, I was saying – and few people realized it at the time – that the Tigers had thought out a strategy, consciously or unconsciously, to overcome the aims of the counter-insurgency war that the Sri Lankan government was fighting against them.  One of the objectives and intended or unintended effects of counter-insurgency is that it precludes the means of guerrilla warfare developing into a serious challenge to the state’s monopoly of violence.

‘So counter-insurgency works?’ I asked, again.

‘Of course it works.  Coutner-insurgency has been successful in 80 out of 100 cases.  But the point is that the LTTE’s project of starting a conventional army was a direct challenge to the goal of counter-insurgency.  Because, as we shell see when we discuss counter-insurgency, the aim of counter-insurgency is to prevent a guerrilla organization from acquiring enough material and political resources to pose a serious challenge to the state’s monopoly on violence – something which guerrilla movements as such cannot do.’

At this point, Sivaram stood up, stretched, and walked into the kitchen to pour himself another shot of arrack.  Then he wandered about the room, continuing his lecture.

‘Of course, my observations were not properly understood at the time because the mindset of the Sri Lankan army then was entirely in a counter-insurgency mode.  Mainly, they were being advised by British guys who just thought, “These are some slipper-wearing guys – what the hell do they know?”  their image of very poor Third World fellows in slippers had no connection with strategic thought.’

Sivaram paused, laughed, and then slipped back into lecturing.

‘As the first phase of its project of becoming an army the LTTE concentrated its resouces in the north by pulling out the majority of its fighters from the east as soon as the Indian army left.  The LTTE had acquired a large stock of weapons from the TNA, which was being armed by the Indian army.  These included the Swedish Bofors recoilless rifles (the Carl Gustavs).  And once they had done this – concentrated in the north – they set about creating a liberated zone where they could raise adequate resources to establish and expand a conventional fighting force.  Of course, on the government side, neither the army nor the political leaders had a strategic perspective on what was going on – and even their British and Indian advisers did not.  One of the main effects of counter-insurgency is that it keeps the insurgent movement dispersed.  The middle-class romantics who start out fighting such guerrilla wars often don’t understand the nature of power.  They think of Che in the jungles and get caught up in the romance of roughing it that way.  But they do not understand the key issue involved in challenging a state.  The key thing is whether you can really challenge the state’s monopoly of violence.  That is the only thing that can compromise the state.  So I said they had no perspective on this matter.’

‘Well, what happened then?’

‘From 1990 to 1994 the Sri Lanka government under the UNP was focused largely on the east, and on winning the counter-insurgency operation there.  They believed that if the east was completely pacified the LTTE could be contained in the north, and Eelam as a physical and political reality would be scuttled.  At the same time, as the east was being pacified, the LTTE could be contained in the north – particularly in Jaffna – and dominated piecemeal by drawing out the LTTE in large numbers into battle and killing them and depleting their numbers with superior fire-power.  This was embodied in General Kobbekaduwa’s dictum: “I am not interested in real estate.”  By which he meant that his aim was not to take territory but to draw out the LTTE and kill as many of them as possible.  He was commander in the early 1990s and he is still considered one of the best commanders of the Sri Lankan army, and as the one who first enunciated this dictum.  So this was their approach.

Continued...Part 3


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