Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Sivaram and Counter-Insurgency

Part 3

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

‘My interest,’ he said again, quietly, ‘is to create a body of knowledge to help oppressed people all over the world help themselves get out from under oppression; to disseminate this body of knowledge.’...

  1. If the target of the state is to break the will of the target population as a whole, counter it by concentrating your military resources to create a zone of control where the population would be committed to the cause.
  2. Counter-media like Al Jazeera and TamilNet.
  3. Burn the porn.  The LTTE says: if you are using it as an individual that is fine; but don’t make it a distraction or destroy a student and people.  If you are an adult, don’t take school children, or whatever.
  4. The LTTE campaign to stop drugs.
  5. Marginalize the moderates with the TNA.

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 2



Sivaram paused for a moment, as if considering where to go next.  He decided to pick up our discussion from where we had left off the day before.  He reminded me of what we had already said about C-I doctrine and ‘pacification.’  He then asked me to reflect on the tactics Kitson and his ilk advocated, and that we both knew had been used with such devastating consequences (and some effectiveness) in Batticaloa District.

‘You must see that C-I,’ he said, intently, ‘is about forcing the target population to lose its collective will to achieve the objective which you are trying to destroy or head off.  The problem is that quite often academics tend to miss the wood for the trees.  The point that they miss is that the state is always focused on destroying the political will of the target population, and that the art and science of doing that is counter-insurgency – including the political components.’

‘Well, how do you break the will of a population?’ I asked.

‘Not in any particular order,’ he said, ticking them off on his fingers (so I listed them below):

  1. Massacres and terror.  Frank Kitson has a nice phrase for this.  One of the proponents of this is Lunstead, in Mclintock’s book.  Of course, terror has been typically used since ancient times – Genghis Khan used it: well displayed massacres; massacreas done as spectacle so everyone knows about it.
  2. Arrest, detention, torture, all indiscriminate, and interrogation to destroy the basis of civil society.  All of this denies one’s sense of rights.  You want people to lose track of the idea that they have rights of any kind.  You reduce them to a point where staying alive becomes their top priority.
  3. Checkpoints, unreasonably positioned checkpoints, constant checks – Kitson has a nice phrase for this, something abut ‘reasonable discomfiture’ – where normal life becomes tedium.
  4. Promote vigilante groups that are not answerable to anyone.  In the east, there are the Razeek and Mohan groups.  They are not answerable to anyone so there was no one you could complain to if they arrested you.  That is what you want.  Because these vigilante groups further create an atmosphere of terror and collapse the social fabric.  Patrica Lawrence’s thesis becomes important here [see Lawrence 2000]: people lose their psychological moorings and so become unable to make any kind of politically cohesive statement.  So the vigilante groups become a regime of terror within a regime of terror.
  5. Promotion of numerous political and interest groups from within the target population backed, covertly or overtly, by either the vigilante groups or by the state, to dilute and obfuscate the basic issue in question that in the first place gave rise to the insurgency.

Sivaram broke off from his list for a moment to comment: ‘What are the real key issues? (a) Control of national wealth by the Sinhalese, as stipulated in the Constitution saying that the Parliament has complete control; (b) control of the monopoly of violence by the Sinhalese in a manner prejudicial to the Tamils – that is, the executive controls the army and the Parliament provides for it; but the executive is always Sinhala and so is the Parliament, and the army always remains Sinhala Buddhist; and (c) complete and inalienable  control over the land.  The constitutions specifies all these inalienable – at least the first two.  Now these are the fundamental issues.  The state wants to obfuscate all this by promoting these other groups that focus on other issues.

  1. Criminalizing and delegimizing the non-state party.  Done largely through the media.  The state’s extortion is taxes; the non-state party’s extortion is extortion.  You do dirty tricks and put the blame on the non-state actors.  To understand all this you have to go back to our conversation about nationalist dicourse.
  2. The promotion and propagation of the conceptual/political dichotomy of the moderate and the militant/terrorist.

Sivaram paused, again to expand on point seven: ‘A good example is what the British did in India.  The Indian National Congress was started by a British civil servant named Hume largely to get the opinion of leading members of Indian society who were not totally averse to British rule in India.  Then there was the armed militant movement to totally free India from British rule.  The British called this the “terrorist” movement – the discourse [on terrorism] starts there.  While th others were promoted as moderates and liberals who were prepared to advocate the independence without jeopardizing British national security interests in India.  The moderates were prepared to talk and negotiate with England; the “terrorists” were prepared to align with Germany and Japan to secure independence.  So you promote the moderates.  So the Indians are very good at this, because they inherited it from the British.  Moderates are people who will talk with the state, never press for radical restructuring.  The SDLP in Ireland is a good example of this.  And India always had this: Kashmir the same.’

‘Well, what about Gandhi?’

‘Gandhi was a crook – expected Tamils to learn Hindi.  This is just the dharma of the powerful; they will keep this up.  By the way, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was a strategy to erase this divide – a strategy out of my own thinking.’

He shook his had and stopped talking for a moment.  He looked, suddenly, very sober, despite the hour and the many glasses of arrack.

‘My interest,’ he said again, quietly, ‘is to create a body of knowledge to help oppressed people all over the world help themselves get out from under oppression; to disseminate this body of knowledge.’

Then he went back to ticking off C-I practices:

  1. A standard thing in all modern CI programs is to promote porn.  Batticaloa had about four full-time blue film theaters during this period, from 1990 to 1994, and you could walk in any time – and these were backed by the army.
  2. Laxity in the issuing of liquor licenses, as in Black and Indian places in the US.  In Batticaloa there were the bars that were there for ages – but now you find them all over the place.  So sex and booze are part of C-I – fuck, drink, and forget; don’t talk about your rights.

He sighed and sat down again, settling into his chair for a story.  ‘Now all this was put to me in a nutshell one day in the late 1990s (I don’t want to mention the year) at a beautiful lakeside town in Switzerland by a recently retired Sri Lankan army general who was an admirer of my writings.  So we were having a long evening discussion about C-I and, after many glasses of Chivas Regal (I was telling him how the LTTE had fucked their counter-insurgency, ‘cause with too much booze you tend to go over the top), he said that a population that is targeted by C-I is actually like the body of a prisoner who has been taken under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.  He is beaten out of his wits in the first phase of his detention.  He is tortured.  He is deprived.  He loses track of normalcy.  The focus of his whole being after a few days of this kind of abuse is on not getting beaten.  His life’s sole aim would be focused on that – he would lose track of everything else.  Then, there walks in another officer who says, “Don’t worry.  These guys are sadists!”, who brings him a cigarette.  Now you have the prisoner’s life pinned to those two things: one, is the hope that the nice man will come around; the other is the fear and constant terror that the torturers will turn up.

‘Now, remember,’ he said, gesturing at me with his glass, ‘this general was talking about how the target population is like this prisoner under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.  So you treat the target population as a prisoner; break its will, reduce its expectations to bare minimun, so Tamils who set out to demand a separate state would end up just arguing for not being tortured.  So your aspirations are depressed from separatism to being allowed to travel without being shot.  And then the nice guys – the NGOs, the paramilitaries, are the nice guys who come and talk to you and you start giving them intelligence and you become pliant.  And you start learning the lesson of just being grateful for being alive.

Sivaram (l.) & other journalists celebrating publication of an Eastern newspaper, September 21, 2003, photo TamilNet

Another aim of counter-insurgency,’ he continued, ‘ is to induce war-weariness in the target population.  That is why State Department fellows are always talkng about “war-weariness” – so that [the target population] no longer support its original demands.  Once that happens, support for the guerrilla movement also falls.  A people’s sense of sovereignty vanishes and they can be robbed at will – as has happened in Congo and Sierra Leone.  Congo is one of the richest places, but the pople of Congo cannot assert their sovereignty to get a cut of their national wealth because of the civil war, starting with the US intervention and killing of Patrice Lumumba.  And if your read the book about oil in central Asia you will get another example, and you can see this a-plenty in Latin America.’

‘Granting for the sake of argument that all this is so,’ I said, ‘how do you fight this?  How do you counter C-I?’

‘As I said before, in the 1994 article that I wrote about C-I, I did not understand the LTTE’s strategy: because I saw C-I succeeding, while the LTTE seemed to be only thinking about dazzling victories in the north.’  But by 1996-7, Sivaram claimed, he had shifted his view and come to the conclusion that there were six basic ways you could head off C-I.  And, again, he ticked them off as a list.

  1. If the target of the state is to break the will of the target population as a whole, counter it by concentrating your military resources to create a zone of control where the population would be committed to the cause.

‘And thereby,’ he explained, ‘you undermine the state’s project of breaking the whole population’s will by keeping a part of the population from being subjected to these tactics.  This is why the LTTE pulled out its troops from the east, let the C-I go there, and concentrated in the north.  You create a liberated zone by concentrating your resources rather than by scattering them.  This way of countering C-I has to be parallel to the development of a conventional army as efficient, or more so, then the state’s forces because you have to have the sophistication and power to counter the Jonomiesque “I an not interested in real estate" move against your fixed base.  And also an understanding that if the enemy wants you to do something, don’t rise to the bait.  You never work according to the enemy’s timetable.’

Then Sivaram ticked off another counter C-I tactic:

  1. Counter-media like Al Jazeera and TamilNet – these may be the only two examples in this whole wide world.

‘Counter-media,’ said Sivaram, explaining, ‘breaks the obfuscation and helps the population stay focused on the injustices.  And it also shakes the population out of the stupor induced by the normalization of injustice.  For example, in Batticaloa, when we local journalists and some Eastern University lecturers started a campaign to explain and campaign against the Prevention of Terrorism Act [PTA] and the emergency regulations, we found that there was a generation of young people in Batticaloa who had grown up thinking that this was normal law.  We constantly came upon people who thought that it was normal, very normal, for the police or army to walk into your house, arrest you, or beat you up.  They believed, this generation – just took it for granted – that if you are arrested, you are tortured.  The surprising thing – and you can search TamilNet for these seminars – even old men from the era of normal law had forgotten a thing called a “search and arrest warrant.”  That is what I mean by the normalization of injustice.  Hence, now the LTTE uses arrest warrants.  It feels it has to dismantle the gains made by counter-insurgency and rebuild the will of the people.  To rebuild a sense of their sovereignty.  And you find them burning blue fim cassettes in Jaffna.  Then the Pongu Thamil [literally, “Tamil uprising’; referring to a series of popular demonstrations in Tamil Sri Lanka and the diaspora] was another thing aimed at rebuilding the will of the people.  Hence, our campign against the PTA was successful to the extent that the Tigers, for the first time, took up the issue of the PTA being removed as part of restoring normal life in the north-east.’

Sivaram went on to say that I should include a discussion of TamilNet and the Sri Lankan security forces’ use of Tirukkovil hospital in the east (see TamilNet 2002).  “The STF was just camped there for 15 years.  People just took it for granted that the army could be in Tirukkovel hospital…that they could park themselves in a functioning hospital, so that patients had to go through an army checkpoint to go to the hospital.  But in the Tamilnet I have fought a big war against this normalization of injustice.  They are still there, but at least it has become controversial now.

‘And rape,’ he said, ‘We started focusing on these things in English.  If you read the ceasefire agreement (the CFA), you will find this whole thing about restoring normalcy.  The key word is dismantling the gains of counter-insurgency.  At least the people have realized that this is fucking wrong, and [in the case of the Tirukkovil hospital] the STF is negotiating this.  But it’s all about restoring to people their dignity and their sense of direction and rights.’

‘And are there other counter C-I practices?’ I asked.  According to Sivaram, there were three more:

  1. Burn the porn.  The LTTE says: if you are using it as an individual that is fine; but don’t make it a distraction or destroy a student and people.  If you are an adult, don’t take school children, or whatever.
  2. The LTTE campaign to stop drugs.
  3. Fuck the moderates with the TNA [Tamil National Alliance].

‘A couple of us did that,’ said Sivaram proudly, sadly, somewhat drunkenly.  But by this time it was very late, well past twelve, and the rest of the house was asleep.  Rubbing my eyes, I suddenly realized, with a quiet internal ‘ah,’ that herein lay the reason why Sivaram had become so publicly Demonstration to protest killing of journalist  D Sivaram May 3 2004 Colomboenthusiastic about the LTTE after the ceasefire.  That is, first and foremost, because he had become convinced that supporting the LTTE’s centralizing power in the Tamil community was prerequisite to defeating the kind of divisive C-I practices that had for so long devastated Tamil Sri Lanka; tactics that were continuing, he clearly believed, albeit more subtly, in the stalling tactics, shadowy intelligence warfare, and support of Karuna of the current Sri Lankan government. 


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