Rumour as weapon
North Eastern Herald, 3 October 2002
Rumour has had its many uses for the managers of state affairs
from ancient times. The British believed that agents of the deposed
Mogul rulers of Delhi had spread the rumour among their native
troops that bullets were laced with pigs’ fat and belts were made of
calf’s leather to instigate The Mutiny (or the Sepoy rebellion) in
the mid 19th century.
Rumour was so powerful and spread so fast among the Hindu and Muslim
troops of the British army throughout the vast subcontinent that the
rebellion it sparked off almost brought the empire to its knees. And
mind you this was long before the communications revolution, long
before telephones and the telegraph.
Rumour has often been deployed tactically by rulers to spread
confusion in enemy country.In modern times official and unofficial
counter insurgency manuals of the British and the Americans promote
the specific use of rumour and the means of spreading stories that
played on the target population’s beliefs and fears.
Secret US counter-insurgency manuals such as the one that was
distributed to the contras in Nicaragua describe the specific use of
rumour in psychological operations against a target population to
spread terror and induce submission or to confound enemy troops.
Psychological operations promote the dissemination of certain
stories designed to achieve specific effects in a theatre of
operation. Psyops assume the gullibility of a population or and
identify the correct grounds for spreading rumour.
Lt. Col. Edward Geary Lansdale who helped build the Philippine
military’s unconventional counter-insurgency programs when the
pro-US President Raymond Magsaysay was repressing the Huk rebellion
in the 50s, notes in a discussion of psy-war tactics outlines in a
two volume US Army Psychological Operations manual published in
“When I introduced the practical joke aspect of psywar to the
Philippine army, it stimulated some imaginative operations that were
remarkably effective. One psywar operation played upon the popular
dread of an asuang, or vampire... When a Huk patrol came along the
trail, the (Philippine army) ambushers silently snatched the last
man of the patrol...
“They puncture his neck with two holes, vampire fashion, held the
body up by the heels, drained it of blood, and put the corpse back
on the trail. When the Huks returned to look for the missing man and
found their bloodless comrade, every member of the patrol believed
that the asuang had got him and that one of them would be next. When
daylight came, the whole Huk squadron moved out of the vicinity”.
(US Army pamphlet 525-7-1).
In another discussion on psyops in the Philippines he says: “The
army unit captured a Huk courier descending from the mountain
stronghold to the village. After questioning, the courier, who was a
native of the village, woefully confessed his errors in helping the
Huks. His testimony was tape recorded and made to sound as if his
voice emanated from a tomb. The courier was then killed. His body
was left on the Huk village line of communications. Soldiers in
civilian clothes then dropped rumours in the village to the effect
that the Huks had killed the courier. The villagers recovered his
body and buried him.
“That night army patrols infiltrated the village cemetery and set up
audio equipment which began broadcasting the dead courier’s
confession. By dawn, the entire village of terror stricken peasantry
had evacuated! In a few days the Huks were forced to descend the
mountain in search of food. They were quickly captured and/or killed
by the army unit” (The Lansdale Papers in the Hoover Archives,
quoted in ‘Instruments of Statecraft’ by Michael Mc Clintock)
During the war, the Sri Lanka army intelligence in Batticaloa was
able to plant many rumours through their local recruits which
created confusion in the minds of LTTE supporters there. The common
rumours were about splits in the organisation.
Other rumours which the SLA psyops attempted to disseminate were
that Karikalan was put under house arrest when he went to the Vanni
in February this year; that Karuna’s marriage was on the rocks; that
the LTTE in Batticaloa is planning to operate on its own; that the
RAW, India’s external intelligence organisation, had set up local
operatives to ambush and kill Pottu Amman when he was in Batticaloa
However, one must say that the boldest attempt at this ever made was
by the Indian military intelligence in 1989. It effectively spread
the rumour that Prabhakaran was dead. It was so effective that the
rumour became a reliable story with due assistance from sections of
However, bizarre psyops tactics such as those described by Col.
Lansdale which were successful in counter-insurgency operations
against armed communist movements in Malaysia, Indonesia and
Philippines could not be applied effectively in the northeast
because the Tamil militants were generally no believers in religion
and myths, having emerged out of the very powerful rationalist
tradition of Tamil nationalism.
But it generally believed that the army’s psyops in the east have
been most successful in fanning suspicions between the Muslims and
According to those who hold this view, the army psyops units had a
fertile ground of old suspicions and fears between the two
communities to work on.
The Tamils were made to believe that the most feared military
officer in the east at the time, held responsible for many gory
massacres of civilians, was a Muslim named Captain Munaz. The army
was never known to have operated with nom de guerre like the
militants. Hence the people of Batticaloa assumed that Munaz was
It transpired the man was a Sinhalese named Richard Dias when in
1993 Justice Souza investigated the massacre of refugees in the
eastern university in September 1990.
The damage however was done. Recently, Tamil politicians have been
expressing concern that rumour weapon is being taken up again to
destabilise the peace process.
In this context it is extremely important that the SLMC be alert to
any attempt to co-opt disgruntled sections within its fold into
insidious psy-war projects based on the eagerness to secure leverage
for the government in the negotiations vis a vis the LTTE.
The United Front government and the Sri Lanka army have to seriously
weigh, clarify and investigate the provenance of every such rumour
to determine whether any psyops hand is behind it or not.