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Sri Lanka's Information War

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Sri Lanka's Information War
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In the silent, low-res imagery of the closed-circuit video footage that rapidly spread across YouTube, the young Tamil woman appears unafraid, even poised. Wrapped in a crisp sari, hair in a tight bun, she waits across the desk from the political secretary of a Sri Lankan minister. But something, almost imperceptible in the footage, goes wrong. So as a dozen people go about their business behind her, the woman rises from her chair, tugs at her bra and explodes, her torso vaporized in a C4 blast that kills her and the secretary, instantly raising the Sri Lankan death toll by two.

The November 2007 attack video was not posted by the apparent attackers, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, but by the Sri Lankan government's Ministry of Defense, whose 25-year war with the insurgents has been marked by many losses on the information front. The launch of a viral video on YouTube, however, demonstrated a more sophisticated effort to control what is called the "information environment," an effort to "publicize insurgent violence and use of terror to discredit the insurgency," a tenet of the U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

The information war, fought through images and language, is over narrative. The Tamil Tigers want to be seen as liberators; the government wants to paint them as terrorists. In this struggle, over the past few years, the government has gained the upper hand.

Ground zero for the government's information campaign is the Media Center for National Security, a complex of offices and conference rooms on the western edge of Colombo. In an hourlong interview with World Politics Review earlier this year, Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, a military spokesman, explained why the government posted the sari-bomber video.

"We wanted to show the world that it's another terrorist organization," Nanayakkara said of the LTTE. (Government officials rarely use the term "Tamil Tigers," a more colloquial, evocative moniker for the insurgents.) "They are the people who have produced these suicide bombers, and after them all the other countries where the terrorism is taking place started suicide bombing, especially the human bombs, right?"

Nanayakkara, a tall man with the severe expression of a combat commander, is one of few outlets for official information. The communication strategy was formulated in 2006, when the Media Center was established, "mainly to disseminate accurate defense-related news within short as possible time, to both local and international media, and then at the same time to counter the LTTE propaganda."

Journalists complain that information coming out of the Media Center is impossible to verify and often contradicts equally hard-to-confirm LTTE statements, making facts hard to discern from propaganda. (The sari-bomber video clocked 600,000 hits and came with a message from the Ministry of Defense, Public Security, Law and Order. "This Tamil woman had been ordered to kill another Tamil man by blasting herself to death to bring liberation to her race," it read in part. "Who has fooled whom?")

The government is battling an image of the Tigers as underdogs, led by a leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, whose message has not changed in 25 years: The Tamil people face eradication by the Sinhalese majority. There is no salvation for them but through armed struggle for Eelam. The Tamil Tigers are that struggle.

Prabhakaran has taken the conflict deep into the information environment, accessing the imaginations of supporters through satellite links and radio signals, on Web sites and in chat rooms. Each attack and every stunt builds on his message, encouraging the diaspora to send money, spurring weapons sales and keeping the Tigers armed and viable.

"To the LTTE the information war has three key objectives," Shanaka Jayasekara, a terrorism researcher at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in an e-mail: "[to] maintain diaspora interest in the cause [by] reporting back on the efficient use of funds; . . . political recognition for the cause; . . . [and to] maintain [a] permissive environment for fundraising in host countries (reinforcing a clear distinction between Islamic terrorism and domestic theater terrorism)."

The sari-bomber video had to compete with hundreds of others posted by the Tamil Tigers or their supporters, each one highlighting a battlefield success or stunt, and many filmed by dedicated combat camera crews.

One of the more spectacular of those successes came in the early morning of Oct. 22, 2007, when a squad of Tiger saboteurs and a camera crew infiltrated the Sri Lankan air base of Anuradhapura, just north of the capital, adjacent to Bandaranaike International Airport. The team blew up a high-tech surveillance plane, two attack helicopters, an unmanned aerial vehicle, a jet and three trainer planes. Two light planes of the nascent Tiger air wing joined in the attack, dropping two bombs before returning unharmed to their hidden jungle hangers. Thirteen government soldiers were killed, including four when a separate helicopter crashed. Twenty-one guerrillas died before order was restored, some seven hours later.

News of the attack flashed around the world, with same-day videos springing up on YouTube, glorifying the "commandos" for their sacrifice and augmenting earlier footage of Air Tiger cadres flashing peace signs to accompanying techno music. The whole show was as much an image coup as a tactical success.

The LTTE took "a lot of propaganda mileage" from the attack, as even Nanayakkara admitted, but not before he corrected my use of language. "First thing," he said, "they are not commandos; they are terrorists."

No one understands the importance of Sri Lanka's information war quite like N. Vithyatharan, an editor whose two Tamil-language newspapers -- one in the northern peninsula of Jaffna, the other in Colombo -- are "continuously targeted by pro-government forces." Vithyatharan is a small man with a listing walk that suggests heavy burdens.


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