Prof. Michael Roberts, in addition to his academic writing and research, is well-known political commentator in Sri Lanka. He is also a regular contributor to this site. In the incredibly violent days of the war in early 2009, two of Michael’s submissions (Dilemma’s at war’s end: Thoughts on hard realities and Dilemmas at wars end: Clarifications & counter-offensive) provided some of the most explosive analysis and discussions on the politico-military as well as humanitarian options at the time.

As noted on Thuppahi, his blog, although Michael can be called ‘a historical anthropologist, the fact remains that all his work engages the political relations of power and that he straddles the disciplines of Politics, Sociology, Anthropology and History’.

In this interview, we talk about Michael’s corpus of research and in particular the issue of caste politics in Sri Lanka. We also speak of what he called the Ashokan Paradigm, and the politics of co-opting critical voices by the Rajapaksa regime. In this context he mentions that Selvarasa Pathmanathan (alias KP) ebing in custody, and hopefully channeling money to government, is a good thing.

Michael, who is for most of the year resident in Australia, has also published a number of high profile op-eds and blog posts on the issue of Tamil migration and refugees during and post-war. I used an excerpt from an article of his published in the Australian media to explore his controversial views on this matter, including his assertion that most of the refugees would have had to have some form of contact or association with the LTTE in order to get their migration papers in order.

After talking about the nature and form of Tamil party politics in Sri Lanka post-war, Michael goes on to berate the State media and NGOs for not highlighting the tireless work done by a few select civil society organisations in Menik Farm just after the war ended.

I also reminded him of his compelling article against the desecration of LTTE graves in the Vanni (tuyilam illam, or “resting places”). I anchored my question to an excerpt from Michael’s Symbolic Postscript: A Terrible Violence, a hard-hitting essay against the Army’s actions sanctioned by government. Michael’s pragmatist approach to this is further explained in this interview.

We end our interview on Michael’s postulation of four nations in Sri Lanka – the Sinhala nation, the Tamil nation, the Muslim nation (which for him is questionable) and the fourth, a Sri Lankan identity. Regarding the last nation or category, he also speaks of the vital distinction that needs to be made between a Lankan-ness and a Sinhala-ness.

  • Agnos

    Mr. Roberts,

    In your article “Dilemma’s at war’s end: Thoughts on hard realities” in Feb 2009, you said:

    “During January 2009 figures of 250,000 trapped were quoted by both Lankans and foreigners situated in Colombo; while sometimes the figure rose to 400,000. These statistics have been duly parroted in global media circuits. They are still in the air (7 February 2009)!!

    Impelled by genuine humanitarian concerns, those in Colombo who underlined these figures probably felt that their goals would be enhanced if the numbers were larger: so in their reasoning presumably 250,000 could engender a better outcome than say, a figure of 130,000. But questions arise: don’t their emotional ethical concerns also warrant more careful considerations of veracity and fact?”

    Well. How did it turn out, Mr. Roberts, with all those IDPs in Menik farm alone numbering more than twice your estimate of 130,000?  Who purposefully underestimated the number of civilians and do you think you have any credibility left after that?  

    Did you go along with the purposeful underestimation by war criminals so that they could finish off the people without worrying about noncombatants?

    Did someone force you to give them academic cover?

    Hard realities, indeed!

    As far as I am concerned, you and Mr. M. Sarvananthan, another guy who made the same egregious error in playing with human lives, are guilty of aiding war criminals. When prosecuting war crimes in Sri Lanka, the statements you both made will be considered and you will be deemed to have aided war crimes.

  • Candidly

    Drawing attention to the question of whether there were 130,000 or 250,000 northern Tamil people in the war zone is not the primary issue. The main issue is that all those present in the war zone were there either voluntarily (the two armed groups & their supporters) or were forced to be there by the LTTE. If a group of armed criminals take hostages or embed themselves amongst civilians they are the ones with moral & legal responsibility for any subsequent casualties. The government authorities only have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to minimise casualties, but they cannot possibly be expected to surrender to the moral blackmail of the criminals using non-combatants as human shields.
    If I commit a crime & then violently resist arrest and try to hide behind bystanders, I am the one primarily responsible for any casualties, not the police trying to arrest me or free the civilians. If any society surrendered to those methods, that we would be the end of civilisation.

  • The Mervyn Silva

    Very true the Candidly, so very true! It is the faulting of he LTTE and nothing but the LTTE that all those peoples are dying and getting kiled also. During the war I am remembering very well, I am telling teh president (this was before he is becomng Hih Majesty), why you waiting and waiting? Bomb, bomb, bomb a merey Hi the terrorist to the high heaven, nothing for us to worry, all responsibility with terrorists. But president is waiting, thinking what is the Miliband going to say, what is the Obama going to say? And I a telling him, who is the Obama, who is the Miliband? And the Hilary? Pooh! She is not even knowing the Monica is under the table so what is she knowing about the foregin affairs if she is not knowing the affiars in the home side? And look who we are having to be speaking for us, I am saying. The Dayan Master, the Roberts Master and many many other Masters and servants. They can be writing good story and selling them also. Nothing to worry. It is only then he is saying to the Gota, BOMB!I am knowing he Dayan Master is getting the reward but poor Roberts Master is looking like getting nothing yet, just the interview with the Sanjana.

  • Political and religious extremisms caused civil war in many countries. Both types of extremism have existed amongst the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka(SL) for the past 60 years and have caused war crimes and Tamil genocide.

    If SL desires to occupy and grab Tamil Eelam(TE) it is political extremism. Likewise, if TE desires politically to occupy SL it would also be politcal extremism.

    Political moderation in thinking is the both TE and SL should coexist with separate identity and sovereignty.

    Mahinda Rajapakse’s stand of “United SL” is extremism; meaning that TE should be a colony of SL. His war against the LTTE was covertly intended to militarily occupy TE and make it a colony of SL.

    Extreme greed was the reason for Portuguese, Dutch and British colonialism in the island. Now there is Sinhala greed causing colonialism in TE.

    Mahinda is extremist like Adolf Hitler in his colonialism and is a danger to the world at large.

    Correctly, Rajapakse was disallowed to speak at Oxford recently for his extremism and blatant lies.

    Likewise, SL should be expelled and disallowed to speak in the UN, NAM and the British Commonwealth for its extremism and lying.

    The UN, NAM and the British Commonwealth must promote political moderation in the island and pave way for political solution by granting “Observer Status” to Trans National Government Of TE(TGTE), which has a moderate political stand for the peaceful coexistence of TE ans SL in the island.

  • yapa

    Dear Sam Thambipillai;

    “If SL desires to occupy and grab Tamil Eelam(TE) it is political extremism.”

    Here is a justification for your Tamil Eelam.


  • Dilkussha

    Very interesting indeed. Reflecting on those parting words, if the land is to be blessed, don’t let the part swallow the whole. As a diaspora Sri Lankan, when visiting Sri Lankans meet me and get to know that I am originally from that beautiful Isle, the questions they usually ask, if they are Sinhalese, forty and over, go something like this:-
    -Where did you stay in Sri Lanka ?
    – What did you say your last name is ?
    – Is your husband a sinhalese or is he a native of the country you live in
    – Whats your maiden name?
    – Do your parents live with you or in Sri Lanka?
    – What are they doing?

    It seemed to me that they find it a bit difficult to accept me as a fellow Sri Lankan if primarily the “sinhaleseness” is not nailed. Prof. Roberts has indeed got it right.

  • justitia

    Recently, [edited out] went to the wanni and “misappropriated” 400 two wheel tractors which were about to be distributed to farmers who had been selected by the local authorities and ICRC who were the donors, and “donated” them to his own political supporters instead.The ICRC representative, a lady, wept in drustration.
    This high handed act was not even mentioned in the state media, or even in parliament.
    It appears that the Presidential Immunity extends to his siblings too.
    Prof Weeramantry has identified the executive presidency as the main cause of the present socio-political situation.
    How does the president expect tamils or even sinhalese have any faith in his administration?
    The immedite need is to ensure Human Rights and the Rule of Law.
    These are not enforced in sri lanka.
    Tamils need to exist with completely equal rights in every sense of the word, with all other citizens. Such equality is not a ‘concession’.
    It is their birthright.
    Such equality will correct most grievances of tamils and ensure contentment

  • yapa

    Dear justitia;

    “These are not enforced in sri lanka.
    Tamils need to exist with completely equal rights in every sense of the word, with all other citizens. Such equality is not a ‘concession’.
    It is their birthright.
    Such equality will correct most grievances of tamils and ensure contentment”

    True! You demand your due rights, correct. Do you also demand the “due consequences”, for the mighty destruction done to this country by the Tamils, especially by the people of your generation, during the last 30years, based on unjustifiable evil ideologies such as “Traditional Tamil Homeland?”


  • Agnos


    “If a group of armed criminals take hostages or embed themselves amongst civilians they are the ones with moral & legal responsibility for any subsequent casualties.”

    OK, tomorrow, one madman will enter your home while you are out, hold your wife, children and elderly parents hostage. Let us see your logic of not “surrender[ing] to the moral blackmail of the criminals using non-combatants as human shields.”

    If you have any understanding of morality or have any moral fiber in you, you wouldn’t be making such arguments here. But then we are talking about Sri Lanka, where every murderous thug says he is talking ‘candidly.’

  • Agnos


    Read the latest WikiLeaks cables from ex Amabassador Blake about GoSL complicity in paramilitary crimes, including the use of abductions, murders, extortion, child soldiers and prostitution. You have a “magnificiant” civilization in Sri Lanka, a government of criminals, by criminals, for criminals. Keep your hollow words to yourself, or to the mass graves in your backyard; I will stay focused on getting a measure of justice.

  • Candidly

    Agnos wrote:
    “OK, tomorrow, one madman will enter your home while you are out, hold your wife, children and elderly parents hostage. Let us see your logic of not “surrender[ing] to the moral blackmail of the criminals using non-combatants as human shields.””

    Alright, so I pay the madman the ransom money (and let him take one of my kids as hostage which he also demanded). Then he goes to the next door house and does the same thing there…

    As I wrote earlier, surrendering to such methods means the end of civilisation.

    Alternatively, when all attempts at negotiation fail, all us neighbours get together and decide to not give into these criminals any more and we band together to do something about it. Which is exactly what we (the British) did in 1939 against another notorious gang of political criminals also led by a psychopathic killer.

  • eeurekaa

    ”Do you also demand the “due consequences”, for the mighty destruction done to this country”
    Jayantha Dhanapala’s written submission to Lessons Learnt Reconciliation Commission, 30 August 2010:
    ‘’’Your mandate artificially sets a time frame from 21 February 2002 to 19 May 2009 . That and its restricted mandate is also a limitation in your good faith efforts to discharge your task. The lessons we have to learn go back to the past – certainly from the time that we had responsibility for our own governance on 4 February 1948. Each and every Government which held office from 1948 till the present bear culpability for the failure to achieve good governance, national unity and a framework of peace, stability and economic development in which all ethnic, religious and other groups could live in security and equality. Our inability to manage our own internal affairs has led to foreign intervention but more seriously has led to the taking of arms by a desperate group of our citizens.’’ (Dhanapala was formerly UN Under-Secretary General for Disarmament. He also began to contest against Ban Ki-Moon but he was made to withdraw).

  • Vino Gamage

    I agree with you: You demand your due rights. Do you also demand the “due consequences”?
    Allergy to analysis and historical amnesia in Sri Lanka, Dayan Jayatilleka, 17 October 2010:
    ”… The Bandaranaike administration sowed the dragon’s teeth and it took Mahinda Rajapakse to slay the marauding dragon, with all the corollaries and consequences that entailed. … Dozens of Tamil youth were imprisoned under Emergency for years, for the crime of hoisting black flags against the promulgation of the ’72 Constitution. …” (Jayatilleka was former Sri Lankan Representative to the UN)

  • yapa

    Dear Vino Gamage;

    Go to the root cause of the problem. Why start half way? Undue disproportionate demands for the resources (especially land) of this country by the Tamils is the root cause of the problem. Accept the injustice, help remove the root cause, that is the only solution.


    • Belle

      Ahhh, the Conradian solution: “Exterminate the brutes!” Except we know what happened to Kurtz, don’t we?

      Why aren’t the roots being cut off, since that is such a logical solution? Could it be that a parasitic plant has attached itself to these roots, so that to cut off the “root” of the problem, is also to cut off the problem itself, which provides sustenance to this parasitic plant, keeps it going, so to speak?

  • Vino Gamage

    what sensible Sinhalese have been telling LLRC is totally different from what you say.
    the problem is our textbooks – propogating untruths and illogic.

  • Vino Gamage

    After the 1958 riots Tamil parliamentarians were put on house arrest for 2/3 months for ”causing the riots”.
    CEYLON : A DIVIDED NATION, B H Farmer(1963):
    ”The truth, though unpalatable may be to some, is simply that nobody unacceptable to the present Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has any chance of constitutional power in contemporary Ceylon.”

  • The Mervyn Silva

    Will someone not be ridding the Yapa of this “insane root” in his system?

  • Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam

    Thank you Sanjana and Prof Roberts. Sanjana’s last question and Prof Roberts answer sums up the issue and provide a path towards unity and “Sri Lankanness.” To get to Sri Lankanness the recognition of the two Nations as equal parts is a prerequisite. They need to be equal because the part is in itself a whole consisting within it parts that need to be equal for political stablity.

    Starting from the late forties, in sports, I have observed this distinction and togetherness. We respected each other’s identity and the identity that we were teammates and Ceylonese. Such recognition extended when I represented Ceylon in international games, including the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. In sports the distinctness and the Sri Lankanness co-exist.

    My observation and interviews, during the last six months, in the Vanni, of those who went through the war confirms Prof Roberts observation on the resiliency of the survivors. Though they suffered, lost their belongings and family members, and many are disabled, they have not lost their identity and their rights as a Nation. In public functions they do sing the national anthem in Tamil.

    There is an opportunity for peace with the recognition of the two nations as equals. Destroying or replacing monuments or ‘Resting Places’ may obliterate concrete objects, but the image of the destruction imprinted in the mind is a stronger memory than physical objects. If one travels in a bus or a Van past the new monuments and destroyed ‘Resting Places’ one will be reminded by those who witnessed such destruction and erection of new monuments the sordidness of the acts and the suppressed anger.

    The monument in Kilinochchi (where a former Children’s Park rebuilt by two Sinhala gentlemen just after the Tsunami, with the stone inscriptions of the donors.) is a huge concrete cube. A large shell is embedded in the Cube with cracks radiating from the impact point. From it a lotus flower springs up. Sinhala tourists crowded at the base and laid flowers for the fallen Sinhala soldiers. A Tamil person, who knew me, mentioned what the Cube signifies to the people in Kilinochchi. “The Cube is Sri Lanka. The shell widened the crack in Sri Lanka.” One monument with two different symbolism by two nations of peoples. I hope the Tamils will not destroy that monument for the Sinhala fallen heroes.

    Such actions and reactions does not augur well for political and emotional reconciliation and peace.