October 10, 2012
by Karthick RM
Countering insurgencies is as old as states and empires. As a concept, however, study in Counterinsurgency (COIN) gained momentum in the colonial period so as to deal with frequently occurring rebellions in colonies as well as to counter the “communist menace”. COIN grew as a science with late modernity and the rise of what ‘Taraki’ Sivaram) called “counter-insurgency nation-states”. We must understand that COIN has developed as a science, deployed by specific actors in specific conditions as a science. And by virtue of its being a science, each deployment is closely followed, studied and applied by various states engaged in COIN operations according to the particular conditions they encounter. Some refined political analysts, understanding the geo-strategic importance of Sri Lanka, have argued that the Sri Lankan war machine was ideologically and materially equipped in its COIN operations against the Tigers by a confluence of world powers. Reflecting on this, Mark Whitaker writes in his biography of ‘Taraki’ Sivaram that “by the middle 1990s Sivaram had come to view Sri Lanka’s conflict as a kind of military-political laboratory in which the various repressive forces of late modernity (local and international) were testing their clever, often cruel, counter-insurgency tactics”. Just that the lab rats favoured by the world powers in the island had genocidal intentions, Karthick RM argues in this article.
Speaking at a conference at Trinity College, Dublin on 24th May 2012 titled ‘The Local and the Global: The Geopolitics of Peace and Conflict’ exiled Sinhala journalist Bashana Abeywardane, opined that genocide was used as a Counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy by the Sri Lankan state to crush the armed struggle for a sovereign state of Tamil Eelam led by the LTTE. Citing British military strategist Frank Kitson, who had played an important role in suppressing the Mau Mau uprising and the insurgency of the Malayan Communist Party, Mr. Abeywardane said that when you want to neutralize an insurgency movement, you must destroy its “genuine subversive element” – arguing that in the case of Sri Lanka, the genuine subversive element in the island was the Tamil population as such. He further cited geo-political factors that influenced the decision of the world powers to support the Sri Lankan state’s military offensive leading up to May 2009, arguing that the island held geo-strategic importance only if it was a unitary political entity.
COIN, as the term suggests, is a war manoeuvre used against insurgents by states. While the principal feature of COIN is to ensure that a state facing an insurgency does not lose its constitutional-legal monopoly over violence in the territory it controls/seeks to control over to the insurgents, there are specific cases where COIN gains additional features as well. According to David Kilcullen, a leading COIN expert based in the US, counterinsurgency “is an umbrella term that describes the complete range of measures that governments take to defeat insurgencies. These measures may be political, administrative, military, economic, psychological, or informational, and are almost always used in combination.” He further adds that to understand strategies deployed in particular conflicts it is necessary to take into consideration “the nature of the insurgency being countered, the nature of the government being supported, and the environment—especially the human environment—in which the conflict takes place.”
As a phenomenon, countering insurgencies is as old as states and empires. As a concept, study in COIN gained momentum in the colonial period so as to deal with frequently occurring rebellions in colonies as well as to counter the “communist menace”. As a science, it grew with late modernity and the rise of what ‘Taraki’ Sivaram (iconic Eelam Tamil journalist, military analyst and senior editor of TamilNet who was assassinated by Colombo in 2005) called “counter-insurgency nation-states”. We must understand that COIN has developed as a science, deployed by specific actors in specific conditions as a science. And by virtue of its being a science, each deployment – whether successful, partially successful, or failed – is closely followed, studied and applied by various states engaged in COIN operations according to the particular conditions they encounter.
Some refined political analysts, understanding the geo-strategic importance of Sri Lanka, have argued that the Sri Lankan war machine was ideologically and materially equipped in its COIN operations against the Tigers by a confluence of world powers. Reflecting on this, Mark Whitaker writes in his biography of ‘Taraki’ Sivaram that “by the middle 1990s Sivaram had come to view Sri Lanka’s conflict as a kind of military-political laboratory in which the various repressive forces of late modernity (local and international) were testing their clever, often cruel, counter-insurgency tactics”. Just that the lab rats favoured by the world powers in the island had genocidal intentions.
From here, we need to chalk out those points that need to be outlined so as to further study the ‘Sri Lanka model’ of COIN – both objective conditions and subjective forces that existed in the island.
1) Location of the island of Sri Lanka makes it geo-strategically important. The position of the island between the routes of the Straits of Malacca and Hormuz make it an excellent base for a power seeking to exert influence in the Indian-Pacific waters;
2) Demographic distribution in the island, with the Eelam Tamils identifying the North and East region as their traditional homeland (i.e. Tamil Eelam).
3) A virulent strain of Sinhala/Sri Lankan nationalism that seeks to forcibly assimilate Eelam Tamils through Sinhalization, which possesses a neanderthal paranoia about external Tamil conspiracies to take over/divide its Sri Lanka, seeing the entire island as primarily Sinhala property, and exercises control over both repressive and ideological state apparatus;
4) An Eelam Tamil nationalism that had manifested itself as an armed struggle, that aspired for a political solution based on the right of nations to self-determination;
5) World powers with vested interests in preserving the unitary state structure of Sri Lanka.
The author needn’t spend time in elaborating on point (3). The inherent appeal for genocide that such a strain of nationalism would possess should be evident to readers. Suffice to point out that the ideological patriarch of Sinhala nationalism, Anagarika Dharmapala, a xenophobic monk who expounded theories of Sinhala race superiority and the need for their lebensraum, was greatly impressed by Japanese militarist nationalism. No wonder that what his sons did at Mullivaikaal is compared by Tamils to the Rape of Nanking.
Point (4) needs some observation. The armed struggle for Tamil Eelam led by the LTTE was categorized under “Identity-Focused Strategy” by the US Field Manual 3-24.2 on ‘Tactics in Counterinsurgency’ (April 2009). According to the manual, “The identity-focused strategy mobilizes support based on the common identity of religious affiliation, clan, tribe, or ethnic group. In this strategy, legitimacy and popular support are tied to their identity and, often, no effort is made to garner popular support outside their identity. Rather, communities often join the insurgent movement as a whole, bringing with them their existing social or military hierarchy. External support is garnered from international elements of the same identity.” Further, it is argued that this strategy “Protects what it considers the interest of the identity”, and “Mass base easily aligns with insurgency objectives.” In other words, the goals of this type of an insurgency includes preserving and protecting political, historical and cultural symbols that are of core value to the community, and the strength of this type of an insurgency is the support it enjoys amongst masses adhering to an identity.
To use Sivaram’s analysis , the LTTE, after it developed into a conventional army effectively challenging the monopoly of violence that the Sinhala state possessed, required the following conditions:
(A) A politically motivated population from which to raise battalions;
(B) An economy to raise resources to clothe, arm, feed and deploy its forces;
(C) A secure territory to train and barrack the forces;
(D) An efficient logistics system;
(E) Facilities to treat a battalion of wounded fighters.
To this, I would like to add another crucial condition (F), namely, a rear base to withdraw should a situation emerge when the best fighting forces risk complete annihilation. The Tigers had this in Tamil Nadu till the point when the Indian government turned hostile towards the Eelam Tamils’ struggle. The neutralization of the rear base by India cut-off the only possible, strategically favourable sanctuary the insurgents had in the region.
Other than this, the LTTE’s de facto state that emerged after hugely successful military operations against the Sri Lankan military secured all other conditions. Popular support among the Eelam Tamil people, a civilian infrastructure that functioned like a ‘normal’ government with its system of taxation, funds from a million strong diaspora, medical facilities to treat the wounded, a political and military stronghold in the Vanni region, and logistics system secured mainly through control of the sea with the Sea Tigers.
It was this force that the Sri Lankan state faced. From the conditions that the LTTE secured in their de facto state, we can map out those measures taken to destroy them.
Measures adopted by Sri Lankan government to destroy the LTTE:
(I) The measures taken by the co-chairs (the group of US, EU, Norway and Japan who were ‘managing’ the peace process initiated between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government since 2002 till its collapse in 2006) in the ceasefire period to restrict taxation by the LTTE in the territory in governed – but considering the taxation of the Sri Lankan government as legitimate ;
(II) The measures taken in the ceasefire period to restrict the movement of the Sea Tigers, thereby affecting flow of logistics;
(III) Foreign intelligence supplied to the Sri Lankan military to target and attack the Sea Tigers’ bases, boats and supply channels;
(IV) Proscription of the LTTE in Western countries where the Tamil diaspora is present, arrests of diaspora activists and criminalization of fund raising for political or relief purposes ;
(V) Sri Lanka’s undeclared embargo on food, medical and other basic supplies to LTTE controlled regions;
(VI) Sri Lanka ‘compelling’ the pull-out of relief organizations and NGOs after the collapse of the peace process in 2006;
(VII) Sri Lankan military’s systematic targeting of hospitals, educational institutions and food supplies so as to leave the Tiger’s civilian infrastructure in complete disarray;
(VIII) Making the secure territory of the insurgents insecure for the population;
(IX) Collective trauma inflicted to hurt not the insurgent alone, but the population as such, so as to destroy their political motivation. A study of the patterns of claymore attacks, Kfir bombings, and artillery shelling by the Sri Lankan military would show that these were intended to target the Tamil population primarily. Add to this cordon and search operations in Sri Lanka overrun Tamil territory, creation of High Security Zones and military enclaves, military checkpoints that make the Sinhala repressive state appear omnipresent, destruction of Tamil cultural and political symbols, routine tortures, rapes, interrogations, disappearances etc. The point is, reduce the population to subhuman conditions that let alone being political, even to be treated as something close to a human would appear as an act of benevolence by the Sinhalese.;
(X) Finally, with all external factors in its favour, with the political space for the Tigers completely blocked, and the internal factor of Sinhala nationalism being at an all time high, using the moment to inflict as much casualties as possible on the Eelam Tamil people as a warning of what would happen to those resisting Sinhala hegemony.
The adoption of these measures led to Mullivaikaal, with 40000 plus dead and many more disappeared. An observation of these measures shows that while the genocidal intention of internal actors in the state influenced the manner in which they handled conditions (A) and (C), the counter-strike to conditions (B) (D) (E) and (F) was dealt wholly or largely by external forces. Or, the external forces, which had vested interests in the island, created favourable conditions for the Sri Lankan state to unify the island through whatever means possible.
It all these known factors taken into account that made the ‘Sri Lanka model’ tick.
What followed after shows Sri Lanka’s operations did not stop with the military defeat of the Tigers. They are listed out as points to give readers a general overview – ideally, each of the points merits separate analysis – of what is happening in the so-called ‘post-war’ era. Some of these factors have been listed by Sivaram much earlier as being part of a COIN strategy.
— Increased military presence in the North and East and creation of military bases in Tamil areas. A report published in the July 14, 2012 issue of the Economic and Political Weekly titled “Notes on the Military Presence in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province” states that military to civilian ratio in the North is as high as 1:5 – higher than Kashmir. The Sinhala military monitors, dominates and penetrates all aspects of social, cultural and political life of the Eelam Tamils be it civil society protests, religious festivals or birthday celebrations. Paul Virilio contends that “Whoever controls the territory possesses it. Possession of territory is not primarily about laws and contracts, but first and foremost a matter of movement and circulation.” Sinhala military control of Tamil territory equals Sinhala possession over it, to facilitate smooth access of the Sinhala state apparatus to all corners of the island.
— Settlement of Sinhalese from the South in places where Tamils have been displaced. Tamil activists argue that this is a system of colonization intended to destroy the territorial integrity of the Tamil homeland by bringing about demographic changes that would make them a minority in their own areas.
— Building of Buddhist statues and monuments celebrating Sinhalese triumph in Tamil areas often carried side-by-side with destruction and desecration of places of political or cultural importance to the Tamils.
— Parcelling out Tamil lands to foreign investors through a military-corporate nexus. A combine of free-market capitalism that respects no borders and a militarist state that is bent on breaking the sovereignty that the Tamils aspire to, works towards facilitating exploitation of human and material resources available in the Tamil homeland.
– Induced proliferation of drugs, alcohol and pornography among the Tamil people. Likewise, a high prevalence of sexual abuse of Eelam Tamil women by the Sri Lankan military and police forces has also been recorded. An ICG report on “Sri Lanka: Women’s Insecurity in the North and East” credits this to the overwhelming military presence in the Tamil areas. However, the analysis and conclusions of this report has been criticized by Tamil feminists and scholars for failing to recognize the genocidal nature of the sexual violence perpetrated on the Eelam Tamils. Analysts further say that all of these processes have been intended to systematically tear the socio-cultural fabric that binds the Tamil people
— ‘Disappearances’ and routine psychological harassments of ex-LTTE cadres not just to make them broken persons, but also to warn those around of the consequences of rebellion. Particularly affected are women combatants. A TamilNet analytical feature details how women cadres have been subject to abuse and in many cases, forced pregnancies, in the course of ‘rehabilitation’. The fate of about 2000-3000 women cadres is still unknown, the feature notes.
What is to be noted here is that none of the world powers that aided the Sri Lankan state with ammunition and ideas, some of who have now started to ask the Sri Lankan government to speedily implement the “positive recommendations” of the ‘reconciliation’ commission setup by it, have addressed even one of these issues with the seriousness it deserves. Likewise, while the Sinhala nationalists justify/deny the above in the name of security, other observers call these processes a protracted genocide, results of structural violence. These are the effects of the ‘Sri Lanka model’ on the Eelam Tamil nation.
The science of COIN will add the ‘Sri Lanka model’ in its ambit. Already, numerous states across the world facing insurgencies have threatened to do a Sri Lanka on the rebelling people. Turkey of late has been making most references in public to this model to the Kurds. But as mentioned above, the success of the ‘Sri Lanka model’ depended on a combination of internal and external factors, objective conditions and subjective forces, none of which will be found at a different time and a different place – the laboratory and the lab rats would not be the same elsewhere. We must also realize that international legitimacy, ideas and weapons from all directions given to the internal actors who had genocidal intention played the major role in effecting the defeat of the insurgents and the concomitant genocide than the internal actors themselves. Other states needn’t have all the advantages that Sri Lanka had.
Then again, no COIN expert worth his salt would suggest a blind imitation of this model. It needs to be restated here that there is no pure model of COIN – each one influences the other and in turn is influenced by others. What will happen is that those aspects of the ‘Sri Lanka model’ that can find applicability in other conflicts will be studied deeper and applied accordingly.
One can see at least 3 general lessons emerging from the ‘Sri Lanka model’ that other states might find appealing to deal with insurgencies.
- Military solution first. Display ruthlessness in securing your hegemony and the population will be willing to accept any political solution you throw at them later.
- Winning ‘hearts and minds’ is outdated. Break the spine of the population; throw fear in their hearts and numb their minds. They will be grateful to you for letting them to just live.
- The press does nothing to influence public opinion that you don’t want it to. If they are against you, they are with the ‘terrorists’ and are to be dealt accordingly.
What this would mean for people involved in struggles against various oppressive governments is left to the reader’s imagination.
 See Mark Whitaker, “Learning Politics From Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka”, London: Pluto Press, (2007) p. 146.
 For further information on how the LTTE’s Peace Secretariat viewed the tilting of the parity of status by the co-chairs through various means during the peace talks, click this link.
 For a more elaborate account of how the criminalization of Tamil diaspora politics is still taking place in the West so as to arm-twist them to drop the demand for Tamil Eelam, refer to Vicki Sentas’ chapter “One more successful war? Tamil diaspora and counter-terrorism after the LTTE” in “Counter-Terrorism and state political violence: The ‘war on terror’ as terror” edited by Scott Poynting and David Whyte, Routledge (2012).
The author is a research scholar in political theory at the University of Essex.