The Hero Of Dien Bien Phu: A Short Tribute To General Vo Nguyen Giap

Posted in International by Karthick RM on October 12, 2013

Originally published on Countercurrents

“Successes send weak souls to sleep; they spur strong souls on.”
-Maximilien Robespierre

When a band of Vietnamese communists overran a garrison of French Far East Expeditionary Corps in Dien Bien Phu on May 1954, it created shockwaves across the world. It pricked the sensors of military minds in the West, even as it reinforced the thoughts of revolutionaries like Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara that successful guerrilla wars against colonial and neo-colonial forces can be waged. If the brains behind this historical victory were to be sought, it would be this diminutive person called Vo Nguyen Giap.

GiapIt is, I would say, Hegelian irony that General Giap is popularly called ‘Red Napoleon’. Unlike Hegel’s vision of the French leader as the world-soul on a horseback, the Vietnamese General who played crucial roles in campaigns against the Japanese, the French and the Americans cut no grand picture in appearance. A person with a keen desire for social change, witnessing close relatives fall prey to the cruelties of French colonial rule, he joined the resistance movement young. After a brief career as a teacher of history, he began creating it. But this article is not so much about the man’s life as it is about the relevance of his thought.

Giap’s most popular statement is his observation on armed struggle. “Violence is the universal objective law of all thorough national liberation revolutions, of all revolutions which are truly popular in character.” While being a Vietnamese nationalist, Giap was profoundly Universalist in orientation. He did not wax on the particularities of the Vietnamese people, but rather focused on what the superior knowledge of the Leninist revolution of the USSR, and the French and American revolutions before that, could teach the Vietnamese in liberation of their country. And, he believed that “Marxism-Leninism never disowns the history and the great constituent virtues of a nation; on the contrary, it raises these virtues to new heights in the new historical conditions.” The race-gender-sexuality pseudo-radicals of today would, of course, call him a totalitarian, an upholder of metanarratives and whatever.

It was not idealism alone that fuelled Giap, but a cold and pragmatic assessment of the forces at home and the forces abroad. The Vietnamese war against the US was not just won, as some leftists romantically put it, by peasants with pitchforks, but rather by the ability of the Vietnamese leaders to adopt the right military strategy and tactics as according to time, their understanding of the Sino-Soviet relation and receiving help from both powers, and their recognition of the strategic importance of a rear base. As Giap observed in the context of Dien Bien Phu, “a strong rear is always the decisive factor for victory in a revolutionary war.”

The strategic directive of the Vietminh to apply “dynamism, initiative, mobility and rapidity of decision in the face of new situations” was to General Giap a military art “whose characteristic is to defeat material force with moral force, defeat what is strong with what is weak, defeat what is modern with that is primitive, defeat the modern armies of the aggressive imperialists with the people’s patriotism and determination to carry out a thorough revolution.” A down-to-earth realist, he implored revolutionaries to “strike to win, strike only when success is certain, if it is not, then don’t strike.”

Critics of Giap generally pick on the fact that the Vietnamese lost so many in their war of liberation. Many of the obituaries for Giap in the western media have referred to the criticism of Giap’s nemesis, US Army General William Westmoreland, who followed a strategy of attrition (simply called body counts) against the Vietnamese rebels. The good General, with his deep concern for the loss of Vietnamese lives, said of Giap “Now such a disregard for human life may make a formidable adversary, but it does not make a military genius. An American commander losing men like that would hardly have lasted more than a few weeks.” Leaving aside the criminal irony in Mr. Westmoreland’s observations, no less a person than Martin van Creveld, a leading military historian and strategist of contemporary times, said emphatically in his book The Changing Face of War that “Cruel as it sounds, history shows that a tenth of the population dying in a protracted struggle is not necessarily too high a price to pay to fend off the yoke of a foreign power”. Indeed, freedom never comes free.

The real tragedy, as far as Vietnam is concerned, is not the atrocities of French or American imperialism. It is rather the 1979 invasion of Vietnam by China; the latter’s response to the former’s deposing of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Though the Chinese got a miserable drubbing at the hand of the Vietnamese, this event raises a lot of questions on both the practical and ethical possibilities of ‘Socialism in One Country’ (SOC). Though ‘Permanent Revolution’ is only an ideological pipedream, the regression of countries that adopted the SOC model into state capitalism – quite brutal in many cases – must compel activists and ideologues on the left to seriously rethink what was wrong in the original theory in the first place.

This is all the more necessary now at a time when ‘revolutions’ and ‘springs’ in the middle-east and elsewhere are simulated by Western powers or have been hijacked by them, at a time when counterinsurgency has become a highly professional academic discipline, at a time when obsessing about identities, ‘lived experiences’ and particularities is an intellectual fashion, and worse, to take from Oscar Wilde who wrote this well over a century ago, at a time when “it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought.”

But even this rethinking, this military art of asking the right questions, requires strategic formulation. We need to know who the enemy is, we need to know on what grounds is his superiority, and we need to know how to pull him into a terrain where we can strike to win. And let us learn from the man who defeated the best military minds at their own game. Comrade Hero of Dien Bien Phu.

*All quotes of General Vo Nguyen Giap have been sourced from “The Military Art of People’s War: Selected Writings of General Vo Nguyen Giap”. Edited and with an introduction by Russell Stetler, published by Monthly Review Press, London, 1970.

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The Master and his Puppets: Some Comments on ‘Tamil Moderates’

Posted in Politics, War by Karthick RM on May 18, 2013

Article jointly written by Krisna Saravanamuttu and myself. Originally published on JDS

Unca Sam's HR concernsAround Geneva, the Rajapaksa regime and its mercenaries raise some self-righteous noise against the ‘neo-colonialists’ in the West. Quarters in the US-led West, tired with Rajapaksa’s intransigence wrt the human rights situation in the island and his supposed inability to provide a stable liberal democratic regime, have been releasing this report and that resolution criticizing the current state of affairs in the island. This contradiction will grow. The US will get angry with Sri Lanka for being unable to provide stability. Its natural allies then will be the Tamils, who are inherently free-market capitalists. And voila, you will have Tamil Eelam on a platter.

Or so some Tamil pundits in the West fantasize. And thus, they believe that it is in the best interest of the Tamil nation to adopt the narrative of ‘reconciliation and accountability’ that is chanted as a prayer in the hallways of Geneva. You don’t want to disappoint your large hearted allies after all.

We wish we could share such colorful dreams, but realpolitik is sadly very sober and requires a ratiocination of the most rigorous kind. Trust ‘Taraki’ Sivaram, senior editor of TamilNet and military analyst, an exemplar of parrhesia, the courage to speak truth to power, and who was assassinated for the same virtue.

In the feature he was working on at the time of his death, ‘US’s strategic interests in Sri Lanka’, noting the defense cooperation between US-Sri Lanka, Sivaram argued that “Stabilizing the Sri Lanka state was considered critical for the US at this juncture to consolidate and cement its strategic interests here. The LTTE was a stubborn impediment to achieving this end – particularly the constant threat to Trincomalee and Palaly. Containing the Liberation Tigers and making them more malleable were also identified as priorities.”

A year later, the west managed peace process collapsed, LTTE was criminalized in Europe under US-UK pressure, and Sri Lanka got a free hand to continue its war on the Tamil nation to the best of its potential. And oh, the Sri Lanka signed the Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement with the USA in 2007, a deal to secure exchanges in logistical support, supplies and services. On another front, the Tamil diaspora was extensively studied by US based defense corporations like RAND in studies like the 2001 publication “Trends in Outside Support for Insurgent Movements” or the 2007 article by William Rosenau ‘Subversion and Insurgency’, where the author describes the LTTE as “Subversion on five continents”.[1] The internationally coordinated COIN ops against the Tamil struggle that led to the climax of the genocidal war in 2009 have been discussed earlier.

But why criticize American concern for human rights now? Doesn’t Uncle Sam have a heart after all?

In his feature referred above, Sivaram had said “The ‘management’ of the ethnic conflict, among other things, is also important for the US to “sufficiently” expand and consolidate its military and intelligence relations with Sri Lanka as an important security partner in the region.”

One portion of this ‘management’ was the internationally coordinated war on the LTTE. And the US is pretty honest on this – Ambassador Michelle Sison in an event in Sri Lanka on March 2013 affirmed “The U.S. also helped the government and people of Sri Lanka in every way we could to try to end the LTTE’s reign of terror”. She also talked about reconciliation and accountability.

Moreover, to properly analyze the current American engagement with the Tamil liberation struggle, we must objectively establish the history of US engagement with the island’s politics. To this end, Jeffrey Lunstead, former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, provides an insider’s perspective in his report The United States’ Role in Sri Lanka’s Peace Process. Though the US publicly espoused its support to a politically negotiated solution, in actuality it provided a “commitment to strengthening the Sri Lankan Armed Forces”.[2] The American strategy marginalized the LTTE in the international arena (i.e. maintaining the LTTE on the Foreign Terrorist Organization list, excluding the LTTE from the Washington Donor Conference) and intensified the US military-to-military relationship with the Sri Lankan government.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in on 19th November 2006. Two days later Under Secretary Burns said “We also believe that the Tamil Tigers, the LTTE, is a terrorist group responsible for massive bloodshed in the country and we hold the Tamil Tigers responsible for much of what has gone wrong in the country. We are not neutral in this respect. We support the government”.[3]

The Americans provided the Sri Lankans with training, education, and weapons infrastructure. The US played a key role in cutting off the LTTE’s own financial networks yet it handed over millions in foreign military funding to the Sri Lankan government. And Paul Moorcraft, a British military analyst, in his recent book on the war in the island notes the level of assistance that the US gave to Sri Lanka, including the advice to use cluster bombs against the Tamil population.[4] All this while the US insisted that it sought to deter war and not encourage it.

The other portion of this ‘management’ is best observed at, what one diaspora grassroots activist so poignantly termed, ‘the Geneva thiruvizha’. Introducing the US sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka, 2013. No talk on Tamil nationhood. No talk on Tamil genocide. No mention even of the word ‘Tamil’. But yes, “reconciliation and accountability.”

In order to pacify the Diaspora, the backers of US based resolution give the false impression that it is against Sri Lanka and its adoption would somehow benefit the Tamils. The resolution, whose only implicit reference to the Tamil struggle is ‘terrorism’, harps on reconciliation and the LLRC as a solution to the ongoing conflict. The undeniable fact, however, is that the LLRC was conceived as an escape route for Sri Lanka. When legitimate criticism does emerge about the LLRC based approach, the knee jerk reaction of its lobbyists is to simply argue that the UNHRC resolution is a ‘first step.’ A fine ‘first step’ indeed. Towards a political disaster, perhaps.

After the Mullivaaykaal genocide, Sivaram’s analysis of COIN remains critical to assessing American engagement with the Tamil Diaspora. A key COIN tactic Sivaram addressed was “the promotion and propagation of the conceptual/political dichotomy of the moderate and the militant/terrorist”.[5] Today the Diaspora seems to be a target in US COIN strategy, wherein “the global proscription regime is an institutional, structural violence which criminalizes diaspora politics and affective connections to the idea of Tamil Eelam”.[6] Unfortunately, some sections of the Tamil lobby Diaspora developed selective amnesia regarding US intervention to tilt the parity of status earned by the Tamils in favor of the Sri Lankan war machinery.

First, any serious observer of the Tamil Liberation struggle cannot deny the role played by the global Tamil Diaspora. After all, it was the same Diaspora that was criminalized through the US led proscription of the LTTE in the western world due to its moral, political and economic support of the liberation struggle. The U.S. Army & Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24 (2007) advises, “Victory is achieved when the populace consents to the government’s legitimacy and stops actively and passively supporting the insurgency”. Thus, to establish victory over the Tamil independence struggle on the international front, the Tamil Diaspora must be conceptually and politically demobilized from its primary objective.

The pro US lobbyists may argue that the Americans looked away in a ‘war without witnesses.’ The sad truth, as seen above, is that the Americans and their allies provided the weapons and the diplomatic cover for Sri Lanka to commit the 2009 genocide. The defeat of the LTTE and the 2009 genocide are an example of what Herman and Peterson called a “constructive genocide” that served the major US interests of stabilizing the island by getting rid of the stubborn LTTE impediment.

With the defeat of the military force of Tamil independence, the US fixed its aims on the Diaspora political force by seeking to reshape and moderate the terms of the debate. Classical COIN theorists like Galula have stressed the importance of the counterinsurgent to work on appropriating and diluting the cause of the insurgent so as to eradicate support while contemporary theorists like Kilcullen have stressed the importance of creating an alternate narrative that excludes the narrative of the insurgent.

To distort and dilute the cause of the Tamil liberation struggle, the LLRC based approach is attempting to change and moderate the debate from sovereignty, freedom, and self-determination to accommodation, integration and co-existence, thus moderating the perception of the oppressed about the conflict rather than helping end the system of oppression itself. The debate shifts from genocide and national liberation to individual human rights problems and political devolution, which can be rectified under a more liberal, democratic Sri Lankan regime. A recent TamilNet feature raised a question whether resolutions and HR reports that fail to recognize genocide or Tamil sovereign nationhood is the other side of a coin where military minds hail the ‘Sri Lanka model’ as a successful addition to COIN theory.

The lobbyists in favor of the US resolution are given the bait of political recognition while those who reject it on principled grounds are deemed as radicals and leftists. The ‘moderates’ are seen to be effective because they can invite their political masters in the west to their meetings and engage in photo ops with them. Yet, the ‘moderates’ can only beg for scraps of justice from their masters but remain powerless to halt, challenge or even address western complicity in the structural and protracted genocide that the Tamil homeland endures.

Why does this same lobby not reject the US approach and demand a more concrete political program of an international investigation and a referendum to establish a sovereign Tamil Eelam? Hair-splitting and claims of being pragmatic aside, the answer is that the pro-US lobby will lose its utility in the eyes of its political superiors at the US State Department. Some take up the ‘reconciliation for all citizens’ narrative as conscious agents, getting perks, grants, and funding. Others do it as unconscious agents, in the best of intentions that by bending over backwards, the world powers will pay heed to Tamil suffering and deliver justice. Either way, the effect is the same.

Of course, the liberal lobbyist brigades will argue that they are keenly aware of the broader strategy at play. These ‘moderates’ insist that they are politically savvy and clever enough to navigate through the western agenda and secure Tamil liberation. Sadly, it is one thing to think like an American and an entirely different thing to think the way the American wants you to think. Confused and impotent, they forget that the dog can wag the tail but the tail can never wag the dog.

Through the use of a resolution that is impotent as far as the Tamil nation is concerned and reports that do not address the crucial questions facing the Tamil nation, the US is pushing for a more user-friendly regime in Colombo. Emphasizing the paradigm of human rights and reconciliation over liberation and justice will in the end only help Sri Lanka rehabilitate itself in the world when a more liberal regime takes over from Rajapaksa.

Like the butchers Pinochet, Pol Pot or the recent Efrain Rios Montt, it can be argued that the US may someday discard Rajapaksa when his usefulness to them is over – or it may not. Rajapaksa’s personal fortunes or misfortunes are of no concrete concern to the Tamil nation. The point is whether Tamil Eelam is to be or not to be. And those who choose to obscure it are by definition against it. It is that simple.

But do puppets ever see the strings attached?


1. William Rosenau, “Subversion and Insurgency”, RAND Report prepared for the Office of Secretary of Defence, 2007, p12

2. Jeffrey Lunstead “The United States’ Role in Sri Lanka’s Peace Process: 2002-2006.” Colombo 7: The Asia Foundation (2007), p17

3. Ibid, p39

4. Paul Moorcraft, “Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers: The Rare Victory of Sri Lanka’s Long War”, South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword, (2012), p110

5. Mark Whitaker, “Learning Politics From Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka”, London: Pluto Press, (2007), p152

6. Vicki Sentas’ “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), p111

Sasi, Andy and myself interviewed on Palaka’ni by Krisna

Posted in Politics by Karthick RM on October 18, 2012

Had a great time with these amazing comrades! 🙂

Genocide as Counterinsurgency – Brief Notes on the “Sri Lanka Model”

Posted in Politics, War by Karthick RM on October 12, 2012

Originally published on Sanhati

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.

Objective conditions:

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).

Subjective forces:

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 [1], 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 [2];

(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 [3];

(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.

[1] 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.
[2] 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.
[3] 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).

Is Eelam Over?

Posted in Liberation Struggles by Karthick RM on May 30, 2009

And though their hopes and dreams were shattered
let their deaths not be in vain
We must keep forever burning
freedom’s torch, the victor’s flame.

-Cheryl Berger

The Tamil Tigers are over, Eelam is over. So claimed the Sri Lankan government on the 18th of may – a claim which was echoed by many sections of the Indian media as well. Gory images, of what the Lankan government claimed to be, the bodies of Velupillai Prabhakaran and his son, Charles Anthony were telecast on news channels. The Lankan government also claimed that the entire top brass of the Tigers, including Pottu Amman and Soosai, were killed in the “final assault” on the Tigers. Till now, however, the Tigers have confirmed only the deaths of Nadesan and Pulidevan. They claim that the high command is still alive and active.

Yet, the images had their effect. Many in my family were horrified when they saw the image of a “dead Prabhakaran” on TV. Some wept. So would have thousands of Tamils across the world, for the charismatic leader of the LTTE meant many things to them. A cherished son to the old, an inspiring Annan to the young, a Sooriyathevan (sun god) to some fanatic supporters, a revolutionary icon, a romantic hero, a guardian. Above all, he symbolized hope. Even those Tamils to whom he was a ruthless despot now feel that the strongest voice that represented their cause has been silenced.

On the other side of the racial divide, among the Sinhalese, there was jubilation. Many news channels showed vulgar public display of triumph by the Sinhalese in Colombo. They were seen bursting crackers, beating drums, feeding sweets and cakes to “their heroes,” the security personnel. For them, it was not merely a victory of the army over the LTTE – it was the establishment of Sinhalese superiority over the Tamils. A Tamil contact from Sri Lanka told me that Tamils were harassed in many parts of the country, especially in the capital city. He said that Tamils were forced to shell out money to Sinhalese mobs so that they could buy sweets for the victory celebrations. Back home in Tamil Nadu, a friend who is closely associated with the Sri Lankan Tamils Protection Movement (SLTPM) said that if at all there is justice in the world, the Sinhalese would pay with their blood for every drop of tear shed by the Tamils. The victory of the Lankan army, if anything, has only accentuated the existing Tamil-Sinhala divide.

Prabhakaran dead?

After the news channels flashed disturbing images of “Prabhakaran’s body,” many theories emerged on his death. Some say he committed suicide. Some say that a close aide shot him. The Lankan army claims that they finished him off – and the Sri Lankan government has given half a dozen versions of the final encounter. Pro-LTTE outfits say that the body is not Prabhakaran’s, that it is a decoy. They also claim that the Lankan Army has used this ploy to divert attention from the large scale massacre of Tamil civilians that occurred in the last one month and to demoralize the Tamils. In fact, even the Tigers don’t seem to be unanimous in their stance. Selvarasa Pathmanathan, LTTE’s head of International Relations, claimed on May 24th that Prabhakaran “attained martyrdom fighting the military oppression.” This was promptly denied by the Tiger’s intelligence wing the very next day. Controversy, it appears, would not elude the elusive leader ever.

So is Prabhakaran dead? Or will he remain a mysterious disappearance like Subash Chandra Bose? The loopholes in the government’s versions have been pointed out by many experts on the issue. At the same time, unless there is a concrete proof that he is alive nothing much can be said on the Tigers’ contention that he is still active. What needs to be analyzed at the moment are the factors that led to the fall of the Tigers.

How the Tiger was trapped

The single greatest factor that contributed to the defeat of the Tigers was their transformation from guerilla warfare to conventional warfare. The Tigers were considered masters of guerilla warfare, placed on par with the Viet-Minh. They waged successful battles against the Sri Lankan army in Eelam Wars I, II and III and managed to capture huge swathes of territory. During the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka from 1987-90, the LTTE, who had a cadre strength of around 3000, were able to secure a decisive victory over a 100,000 strong army by deploying guerrilla strategy.

For an insurgent outfit, the greatest asset is fluidity. By Maoist terminology, the discontented Tamil masses were the “water” in which the guerilla fighters, the “fish,” could swim freely. But the transition to conventional warfare restricted the fluidity of the Tigers. In their transition, the Tigers flouted two main rules of insurgency – not to engage in battles that cannot be won and to be on the move continuously. The conventional mode of war is more suited for a state’s army – not for non-state actors. The Tigers functioning as a state’s army, providing no space for criticism and self-criticism, weakened them internally.

The defection of Karuna in March 2004, partly engineered by the Lankan government, came as a great blow to the LTTE. Karuna, who was the Eastern commander of the Tigers, took along with him a sizeable group of experienced fighters. They provided the Lankan army the much needed inside information on the Tigers. Soon after his defection, the Eastern provinces under the control of the Tigers fell to the military offensive like a house of cards.

‘World opinion,’ or the opinion of politically and economically powerful countries of the West, turned against what they dubbed ‘terrorism’ post 9-11. The governments of these countries saw no difference between one group and another – any non-state actor waging an armed struggle against a recognized state was considered terrorist. The eventual proscription of the LTTE in the US, Canada and the EU hit them where it hurt the most – their endless supply of funds from the Tamil Diaspora.

The political isolation of the Tigers in the South-Asian region, though it didn’t matter initially, worked against them in the long run. India, Pakistan and China, each having strong economic interests in Sri Lanka, went head over heels in their attempts to woo the Lankan government. While Pakistan and China were overt in their military assistance to Sri Lanka, India could not afford to do so, fearing a backlash in Tamil Nadu. It, however, covertly provided military equipment, training for Sinhalese soldiers, intelligence inputs and radars. Plus, Israel and Russia also provided military support to Sri Lanka through arms deals. One similarity about all these countries is that all face some form of secessionist-liberation struggles back home. Without any support from any government in the region, the Tigers were fighting a full fledged war against not one, but six forces. They were outnumbered and outgunned.

To sum it up, an analogy can be drawn between the predicament of the Tigers and the fate of Abhimanyu in the Mahabharata. Like Abhimanyu, the Tigers entered a form of battle that they were partially accustomed to. They fought against larger forces, with all odds against them. And like Abhimanyu, they fought valiantly to the last. The dubious role of Jayadratha, the character who prevented the Pandavas from reaching Abhimanyu in time, is best suited for India. In the past, India had prevented many an arms consignment from reaching the Tigers at crucial times in the war. So what was the role of the Lankan army in the Kurukshetra of the Vanni jungles? Similar to the role of Dushasan’s son who dealt the death blow to a battered and bruised Abhimanyu. They killed a wounded Tiger.

The idea of Eelam

“There is no end for Prabhakaran,” thundered Vaiko at a massive rally organized by the SLTPM on May 21st in Chennai. There is an element of truth in his statement. Prabhakaran was synonymous with an idea. An idea of Tamil Eelam, that emerged as a concrete concept after the Vadukkodai resolution of 1976. An idea of an independent state that the Tamils could call home. An idea of an egalitarian society sans bias, sans discrimination where free men and women would progress and prosper. An idea of struggle for justice and freedom. Prabhakaran is among those individuals who were identified with certain ideas and who survive in public memory through the ages. Prabhakaran used to say that history was his guide. The history of Prabhakaran and the Tigers serve as guides for any future action towards securing justice for the Tamils. Whether he is alive or dead, the idea of Prabhakaran lives in the hearts of millions of Tamils world over. And as long as that survives, the dream of Eelam will persist among the Tamils and will haunt Sri Lanka as a nightmare. This critical moment in the timeline of the Eelam struggle signals only the end of a phase, not the struggle as such. Tamil Eelam is not over. It has reached a new beginning.

A Fight to the Finish?

Posted in Liberation Struggles by Karthick RM on March 26, 2009

Belying speculations that he might have fled Sri Lanka, the recent reports of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran being spotted in the no-fire zone in Pudhukudiyiruppu have raised new concerns for the Sri Lankan establishment. Prabhakaran and his son, Charles Anthony, who have emerged occasionally from their bunkers to interact with the civilians according to news reports from the war zone, are believed to have requested the Tamils to rise-up against the government forces and not to leave their homes. The Sri Lankan defence ministry has alleged that by doing so, Prabhakaran was attempting to precipitate a humanitarian crisis.

But a humanitarian crisis has existed much before Prabhakaran’s “recent attempts” to create one. The Sri Lankan armed forces have regularly targeted civilian settlements of the Tamils under the cover of eliminating “Tiger strongholds.” Besides civilian casualties, there are huge sections of the population that have been rendered homeless. Going by UN estimates, it is believed that more than 1,00,000 Tamil civilians are trapped in the Pudhukudiyiruppu region, the last bastion of the Tigers. The Sri Lankan government besides criticizing the estimates as being exaggerated, also accused the Tamils Tigers of holding the civilians as hostages. Interestingly, in separate reports, the Sri Lankan military claimed that the fighting force of the LTTE was reduced to less than 500 combatants.

It is logically impossible for 500 fighters, who are locked in combat with an advancing army, to hold such a huge number of people at gunpoint. Firstly, the Sri Lankan government has done little to disseminate proper information about the “safe-zones” to the trapped civilians. Secondly, the reality is that a huge majority of the trapped civilians are reluctant to move over to the government held areas, fearing possible interrogation, torture and even murder by the government forces. These fears are not entirely unsubstantiated. There have been numerous incidents in the recent past where Tamil civilians, suspected of having connections with the Tigers, were taken for interrogation from camps in Vavuniya and never returned.

The absence of independent human rights monitors in these regions makes it impossible to check occurrences of abuses by security forces and the curbing of the press ensures that many such incidents are rarely highlighted in the media. All these work to the advantage of the Sri Lankan government, which, in its “war on terror” has paid little heed to humanitarian concerns. What is happening in Sri Lanka can easily be classified as genocide, by any international standards.

The Tigers on their part should not discourage those civilians who wish to move over to the government zones. Prabhakaran can be expected to fight to the finish and he would expect the same from his cadres. After all, the Tigers consider themselves combatants waging a liberation war against a genocidal state. But the plight of innocent civilians caught between the LTTE and the advancing Sri Lankan Army deserves international attention. The sad situation for the Tamil civilians is that their choices are limited. If they move over to the government zones, they might be killed. If they remain in the war zones, they will be killed. It is a choice between an uncertain life and a certain death.

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Great Expectations: Prabhakaran’s Appeal to India

Posted in Liberation Struggles by Karthick RM on January 1, 2009

At a decisive stage in the ongoing hostilities in Sri Lanka, Prabhakaran’s Heroes Day speech on November 27 sprung quite a few surprises. Far from being perturbed by the heavy losses that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have faced over the past few months, besides tremendous civilian casualties among the Tamils, Prabhakaran insisted that the “yearning for freedom remains strong” among the Tamils. Not compromising on his dream of a separate state of Tamil Eelam, he stated with optimism that “It is true, Tamil Eelam is a small nation on the globe. However, it is a nation with great potential. It is a nation with a characteristic individuality. It has a distinctive language, cultural heritage and history.”

The bitterness and desperation that underlay the Heroes Day speech of 2007 was conspicuous by its absence this year, a time when the Tigers are faring their worst. Prabhakaran, who claimed in 2007 that the Tamils had lost confidence in the international community, seems to have regained hope after the series of demonstrations and protests in Tamil Nadu expressing solidarity with the Eelam struggle. Thanking the leaders of Tamil Nadu, he said, “Notwithstanding the dividing sea, Tamil Nadu, with its perfect understanding of our plight, has taken heart to rise on behalf of our people at this hour of need. This timely intervention has gratified the people of Tamil Eelam and our freedom movement and given us a sense of relief.”

While taking great pains to emphasize that the Tigers never considered India their enemy, Prabhakaran appealed to the “Indian superpower” to view the struggle for a Tamil Eelam in a positive light, and to revoke the ban on the LTTE, “which remains an impediment to an amicable relationship” between India and the Tigers.

Strong public expressions of solidarity with the Eelam Tamils by social organizations, intellectual forums, labour unions, student unions and political parties in Tamil Nadu reflect public sentiment in Tamil Nadu, which feels increasingly alienated from the approach of both the central and state governments towards the issue. The various outfits, besides condemning the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka, have also put forth the demand that the central government should enforce a ceasefire in Sri Lanka. But genuine public sentiments and political pressures apart, what can India do now?

Tamil politicians frequently cite Indian intervention in East Pakistan in 1971, in view of the alleged atrocities by the Pakistani army and a refugee influx in India, leading to the creation of the independent state of Bangladesh, and argue that India should do the same in Sri Lanka, where the ethnic conflict has claimed the lives of over 1,00,000 Tamils. Let us assume that India interferes in the conflict in the favour of the Tamils, would it favour the Tigers or a separate state of Eelam? It is nigh impossible for a Congress-led government to reconcile itself with the “killers of Rajiv Gandhi.” So, as some political novices like Subramaniam Swamy have suggested in the past, India would attempt to disband the Tigers and support other Tamil groups, and facilitate the implementation of the Indo-Sri Lanka accord of 1987. But history has shown that the LTTE, which, incidentally, has the support of a sizeable section of the Tamil population, considers itself to be the sole voice of the Eelam Tamils and has displayed ruthlessness in crushing dissent. So, India intervening on such a plane would only lead to a fiasco, similar to the IPKF intervention of 1987.

Should the BJP come to power in the next general elections, a change in approach towards the Eelam issue can be expected. Indian intervention under the BJP, which with its agenda of Hindu nationalism has been relatively more inclined towards the demands of the Tamils, who are predominantly Hindus, could create a separate Tamil Eelam state. But then again, a semi-fascist organization like the BJP, which unabashedly professes a supremacist agenda, would never allow a revolutionary socialist organization like the LTTE to be in charge of affairs in the new state. It would only prefer a puppet government that would ensure Indian hegemony in the region. So, while Eelam would be created, it would have lost its purpose – independence.

Besides pressures from Tamil Nadu, there are other forces which shape India’s approach towards Sri Lanka. Ever since its decisive victory over Pakistan in the war of 1971 and its emergence as a regional nuclear power, India has consistently pursued an agenda of imperialist expansionism. Lenin argued in Imperialism that “an essential feature of imperialism is the rivalry between several great powers in the striving for hegemony, i.e., for the conquest of territory, not so much directly for themselves as to weaken the adversary and undermine his hegemony.” In its attempts to retain its economic and political hegemony over countries in South Asia and to score points over Pakistan and China, India has extended overt and covert support to undemocratic polities like the former monarchy of Nepal and the militarist regime of Burma. Does it then come as a surprise when Pranab Mukherjee, India’s External Affairs Minister, tells Sri Lanka that India can meet its security requirement “provided you do not look around”?

The Indian government is more likely to negotiate a settlement with the Sri Lankan ruling class, one which is favorable to its own strategic interests, than favor a minority waging an armed struggle for independence against the Lankan state. And it is precisely for this reason that the Indian ruling class and their agents in the media conjure theories that a separate Tamil Eelam may provoke secessionism in Tamil Nadu, thereby dismissing the very question of support to Eelam. India’s paranoia about secessionism and genuine struggles for liberation within its own soil is obvious from the way it has brutally suppressed the genuine demands of various nationalities like the Kashmiris, the Assamese, the Nagas and the Manipuris. So, from one rogue state to another, the Indo-Lankan alliance seems natural.

A drastic reaction from the public of Tamil Nadu and the political parties may change India’s agenda, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. Until that happens, Prabhakaran’s wish for aid from India would remain what it is – a wish.