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Tamilnation  > Tamilnation Library  > Politics > Mark P.Whitaker - Learning Politics From Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka  


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[see also Tamilnet.com: Some Reflections on Popular Anthropology, Nationalism, and the Internet - Mark P Whitaker, 2004 and Selected Writings - Dharmaretnam Sivaram]

Mark P.Whitaker - Learning Politics From Sivaram:" This is the story of the life and impact of the political activist, journalist, and freedom fighter Sivaram.  Dharmeratnam. Sivaram dedicated his life to helping the Tamil people. He started out as an active participant in the war against the Sri Lankan government—in the eyes of some, a "terrorist." Yet he eventually renounced the violence it involved. Instead, he became a journalist and used his position to fearlessly critique the government—despite repeated threats on his life and the murders of other journalists. Finally, in 2005, Sivaram himself was assassinated.

This remarkable book is both an intimate portrait of the man and a fascinating account of the political dilemmas that he faced—and that still face us today. It explains how an educated man adopts a position of supporting violence. And while his position softens, Sivaram remains critical of the liberal principles that govern Western policy. Written by a close friend, this unique account highlights some of the most difficult political questions facing us today." (Note from University of Michigan Press Website)

Excerpts from Chapter 6: Exploring the role of conventional Western counter-insurgency doctrine...

"My interest 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... 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..."

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 distressed 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 of 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...

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 reasons 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 Tamilnet.com.

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 behaviour 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 Tamilnet.com: 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.’

Our Discussions of Strategy

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 Lavinia 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 miniature 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...

‘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 approach 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 Batticaloa 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 psychological 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 fuelled 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 travelling 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 anthropological 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.'

'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. ' ...

‘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 military 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 still 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 pressure 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.’..

‘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. Counter-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...

The Aims and Methods of C-I Doctrine

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):

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.

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.

Checkpoints, unreasonably positioned checkpoints, constant checks – Kitson has a nice phrase for this, something abut ‘reasonable discomfiture’ – where normal life becomes tedium.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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.

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:

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:

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.

The LTTE campaign to stop drugs.

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 enthusiastic 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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