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Parallel Governments - Living between terror and counter terror in northern Lanka (1982-2009)

 An extraordinary situation has developed in the north-east where, since 1983, the writ of the official government no longer runs. Various Tamil militant groups have been contesting the state and between themselves in internecine fighting for power, control and the legitimacy to rule.

by Daya Somasundaram
University of Jaffna


(October 24, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) This paper is a naturalistic and ecological ethnography of the period between 1980 and 2009 in northern Lanka, using participant observation, in-depth interviewing, focus groups, key informants, literature survey and critical inquiry techniques. The Lankan and Indian states and various Tamil militant groups vied for the control, loyalty, obedience and subservience of the civilian Tamil population through terror, counter-terror; the media, arts, history writing, in cyber space and other propaganda; democratic and extra-democratic means such as elections, relief, rehabilitation; and other methods. Community leaders were eliminated and dissent suppressed. Whole villages and communities have been displaced multiple times.


By Terror thereof to forme the wills of all. And whoever calls this into question proposes an end to what we know of politics and as such.

Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan (1651)

The prophetic dream of Marx and the over-inspired predictions of Hegel or of Nietzsche ended by conjuring up, after the city of God had been razed to the ground, either a rational or an irrational State, but one which in both cases was founded on terror.

Albert Camus, The Rebel (1971)

But faced with the endemicity of torture, terror and growth of armies, we in the New World are today assailed with a new urgency. There is the effort to understand terror, in order to make others understand.

Taussig, ‘Culture of terror – space of death’ (2004)

How does one become socialized to terror? Does it imply conformity or acquiescence to the status quo, as a friend suggested? While it is true that with repetitiveness and familiarity people learn to accommodate themselves to terror and fear, low-intensity panic remains in the shadow of waking consciousness. One cannot live in a constant state of alertness, and so the chaos one feels becomes diffused throughout the body. It surfaces frequently in dreams and chronic illnesses.

Linda Green, ‘Living in a state of fear’ (2004)

Terror has been an instrument of statecraft, diplomacy and political advocacy for centuries … The mainstream global culture of statecraft insists that the true antidote to terror is counter-terror.

Ashis Nandy, ‘Narcissism and despair’ (2009)

It was Thomas Hobbes who first pointed out that behind the veneer of states is the spectre of violence and threat of terror that is used to control and rule the subject populations; for example, through the police or, increasingly in the modern ‘security states’, through intelligence agencies and other covert operations. When this control and rule is challenged, comes under question or is weakened, the covert violence becomes more overt, manifesting as techniques of terror. When the power to rule is contested by other parties, they may vie for control, loyalty and legitimacy through terror and counter terror tactics on the populace.

The ongoing ethnic war in Lanka was a good example of the modern use of terror on a mass scale. All parties to the conflict have resorted to a ‘dirty war’ (Nordstrom, 1994) with the use of terror tactics in the bitter contest for power. The Sri Lankan state, the various Tamil militants, who for over two decades fought to create an independent state, the Sinhala Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP), an ultra leftist militant group that made two attempts to violently overthrow the government, and India, during its short intervention in the north-east part of the island (1987–90) to impose peace, have all used mass terror to control the population, compel obedience and suppress dissent. But in the scale, duration, sheer numbers of victims and in the vast resources, national and international, available to it, it is the Lankan state that is most guilty of the misuse of power and the privileges that accrue to it as a state. Though critical at times, the international community (IC), its many organizations, diplomatic missions, the UN, and aid agencies giving technical support, military hardware, training and the global network of socioeconomic ties and mutual relationships that give covert recognition, legitimacy and tacit sanction, are also indirectly implicated in what is actually going on in countries like Lanka (Nordstrom, 2004). Some, like the former Australian Foreign Minister, Garret Evans (2007), have advocated through the International Crisis Group for the right and duty of the IC to intervene when the state fails to protect its citizens, a principle called Right to Protect (R2P). Between the terror and counter terror of the Lankan state, paramilitaries and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) existed the shadow world (Nordstrom, 2004). This was the grey area beyond the legal, formal, overt world where civilians have to survive when the official government collapses around them.

An extraordinary situation has developed in the north-east where, since 1983, the writ of the official government no longer runs. Various Tamil militant groups have been contesting the state and between themselves in internecine fighting for power, control and the legitimacy to rule. For a period between 1987 and 1989, the Indians attempted to establish military and administrative control in the north-east but even then, the situation was muddled with the Lankan state, Indian proxy paramilitary group, Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), and the LTTE contesting each other for different aspects of power. Among the Tamil militants from over 36 groups post-1983, the LTTE emerged as dominant, ruthlessly eliminating other contenders by 1986 (Hoole et al., 1988). However, the other militants have retained some power by aligning either with the states or the LTTE. The LTTE also managed to establish at different times, varying degrees of absolute military control over different territories, so called ‘uncleared areas’ by the Lankan state which continued to pay government salaries, provide rations and materials as well retain a modicum of administrative control. But the LTTE established a de facto government, a mini state, of its own with police, army, navy, air force, legal codes, courts, prisons, taxes, customs, immigration, administration, local government, planning, development programmes, social services, Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), financial system, trades, shops, commercial ventures, medical services, educational services – trappings of a counter state in the uncleared areas. It also continued to have considerable control and power over the local population in state controlled, ‘cleared areas’, through sympathy, terror and infiltration of most institutions and organizations. The Lankan state managed to deliver a mortal blow to the LTTE by May 2009 following a long, brutal military campaign against the LTTE which tried to hold onto civilians as human shields, that left 20,000 civilians dead, perhaps 60,000 injured, and over 300,000 displaced, with many confined in internment camps (Philp, 2009; Philp and Evans, 2009; UTHR-J, 2009; Wax, 2009). Thus the power and control in the whole north-east was under intense, violent contest on a daily basis through terror and counter terror. Extra judicial revenge and reprisal killings, abductions, disappearances, torture, intimidation, threats, assaults, extortion and robberies are daily occurrences that the civil population faces. Often it is not clear who is responsible for what within an overall reign of terror. There were economic blockades, sanctions, embargoes, restrictions or quotas for essential and other goods, transport barriers, frontier closures, wholesale battles, curfews, hartals or strikes, hoarding, shortages, lack of food, water, electricity, shelter, exorbitant prices, multiple taxes, extortion, economic paralysis or poor quality services and chronic understaffing.

Counter Insurgency (CI)

It becomes somewhat easier to understand what was going on in the north and east of Lanka from a framework of counter insurgency strategy (Whitaker, 2007). Current CI doctrine start from the colonial masters’ experience of administering their far-flung empires. Native populations often rebelled against the imperial powers using insurgent methods and they were met with counter insurgent techniques. According to Sivaram1 (Whitaker, 2007), the original CI manual was by Frank Kitson (1971, 1977) who had been the British army commander in charge of CI operations in Kenya, Malaya, Cyprus and Oman. Kitson described the use of penetration agents, the mounting of psychological operation (or psyops – i.e. propaganda, misinformation, PR), the making of fake political concessions to split the opposition, the wielding of army counter terror, the cordoning off of communities, the deployment of hooded informers,2 and, somewhat less forthrightly, the rough interrogations and ‘wetwork’ (that is, the hooding, torture, ‘turning’, disposal, or dispatching of captives) that are being used in Lanka by the state in its CI operations (Whitaker, 2007). The most current and state-of-the-art CI manual is that of the US Army (2006) which is being ‘successfully’ implemented in Iraq by one of its authors, General Petraeus. After emphasizing the essentially politically component of CI, all these experts assert that CI when practised properly is effective (Amato, 2002; Kitson, 1971, 1977; US Army, 2006; Vijayasiri, 1999; Whitaker, 2007). Malaya and Kenya are trumpeted as success stories in the practice of CI. However, apart from temporarily suppressing the immediate rebellion, it is not clear how far CI is effective in solving the underlying problems that are the source of the insurgency in the first place. As recent uprisings in Kenya and stirrings in Malayasia show, the underlying inequities are left simmering in the post colonial situations. Amato (2002) and Vijayasiri (1999) are quick to point out that CI was not carried out properly in Lanka and if used correctly it would be successful. They mention lack of clear political will or policy as the cause of failure of CI in Lanka but suggest how to improve the CI operations. Perhaps President Rajapakse with his brothers, advisors and General Sarath Fonseka took these admonitions to heart to mount a more successful CI campaign against the LTTE in 2007–09.

In the post 9/11 world with the consequent global war on terror, terrorism and counter terrorism have become very closely associated, if not synonymous, with counter insurgency discourse. Other similar terms are asymmetrical warfare where a less resourced and weaker force will use unconventional, guerrilla, or subversive techniques in the conflict with stronger and more established states and those helping them. Essentially it is a struggle for power, for legitimacy to rule from the target populations. Both parties will vie for the support and allegiance of the civilian population using whatever techniques they think will work. Thus, though officially denied, terror and counter terror become one of the accepted methods of the dirty war, of trying to win over, frighten or coerce the population to their side. Instead of the traditional violence, it is now thought more effective and efficient (cost-effective) in the long term to use the ‘stick and carrot’ method to psychologically win over the population. Sivaram reports a discussion with a retired Lankan army general who said

that a population targeted by C-I is actually like the body of a prisoner who has been taken under the Prevention of Terrorism Act ... So you treat the target population as a prisoner: break its will, reduce its expectations to bare minimum, 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. (Whitaker, 2007: 153)

Sivaram himself finally became a victim of covert CI operations, being eliminated extra-judicially in 2005, for his forthright writings.

Fundamentally, CI is aimed at re-establishing the legitimacy of the state while cutting of the target population’s support and sympathy for the insurgents (US Army, 2006). According to Sivaram, ‘ … Another aim of counter-insurgency is to induce war-weariness in the target population … the state is always focused on destroying the political will of the target population, and the art and science of doing that is counter-insurgency’ (Whitaker, 2007: 153) and the way it does that is:

Massacres and terror; Arrest, detention, torture, all indiscriminate, and interrogation to destroy the basis of civil society; Checkpoints, constant checks; Promote vigilante groups [who] create an atmosphere of terror and collapse the social fabric (Patricia 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 to dilute and obfuscate the basic issue in question that in the first place gave rise to the insurgency. (Whitaker, 2007: 150)

To be continued...

Pre-publication copy of: Somasundaram,D. (2010) Parallel Governments: Living Between Terror and Counter Terror in Northern Lanka (1982—2009). Journal of Asian and African Studies.

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