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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki) > Rumour as weapon

Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

 

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 1976:

“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 recently.

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 the media.

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 the Tamils.

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 Muslim.

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.

 

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