Addressing Greg Sheridan’s Review of the Tamil Lobby and Australia
Greg Sheridan’s articles on the Tamil lobby in Australia and the workings of the Australian state are something of a breakthrough because the media coverage of the Sri Lankan conflict has been chequered and influenced by the naïve perspectives driven by the liberal ideologies which dominate some sectors of the fourth estate. Sheridan, in contrast, is on the conservative far right, so readers must attend to this circumstance when evaluating his reportage.[i]
However, this orientation and his senior position as Foreign Policy Editor for The Australian render his intervention significant. There are two areas addressed by his article, “Criticism of Sri Lanka ignores Tiger threat.” One relates to his clarification of the reasons why the Howard government did not follow other Western countries in proscribing the LTTE in 2005. In sum, his amplification is quite revelatory. But one governmental consideration is astonishing: “the bureaucracy was hesitant about designating the Tigers as a terrorist organisation because it might lead to retaliation against Australians in Sri Lanka [and] it was [necessary first to] upgrade security for the Australian High Commission in Colombo.” My wife, a Scot, considered such reasoning hilarious. It displays an Australian mindset, the government’s not Sheridan’s, that resided in some never-never land and had no comprehension of the sophistication of the LTTE .[ii]
The other arena relates to the issue of war crimes accountability. While qualified by a note that “both sides committed atrocities in this war,” Sheridan’s strictures on the LTTE as the most vicious of outfits this world has seen are compounded by Alexander Downer’s endorsement of their defeat. In brief, both are saying that in 2008/09 the world had to choose between two questionable state formations and that the LTTE was by far the worst option.
As Sheridan puts it, the LTTE was “the key Sri Lankan villain.” What may be a pedantic caveat is required here. The Tigers and their supporters abroad did not consider themselves “Sri Lankan” any longer. Prabhakaran was the President of Thamilīlam and was treated as such at the world media event in Kilinochchi in April 2002.
Sheridan’s conservative and statist sentiments are displayed when his castigation of the LTTE is threaded by the conventional demon, the “suicide bomber.” Just as Channel Four and ABC stoked emotional consternation against the Sri Lankan government by piling image upon image of alleged executions and bombing deaths (from questionable sources in some cases) right wing accounts deploy the suicide bomber as demon.
Writing here with considerable background in this field, I affirm that the LTTE adopted the suicide pill from 1983 as a defensive weapon.[iii] It was not till 5 July 1987 that suicide attacks were initiated when Miller drove a truck bomb into army barracks in the Jaffna Peninsula. Suicide bombers are a low-cost precision weapon that has been deployed by weaker parties in an insurgency or war in some instances. As Rohan Gunaratna indicated recently, the LTTE integrated this tool into their strategy in seafront, battlefront, and beyond-front in enemy heartland as a weapon that took out key political leaders as well as commanders.[iv] Nevertheless, in several ways Black Tigers must be broadly regarded as the equivalent of the SAS, while the Black Tiger units in the Sea Tigers were akin to the US Navy Seals.
It is not suicide bombing one must criticize, but rather the deliberate targeting of civilians on numerous occasions by the LTTE, whether by normal military action, commando raid, suicide bomber or remote-controlled device. Apart from decimating the other Tamil militant outfits in the 1980s, the LTTE also imprisoned, brutalized and killed many Tamil civilians, while massacring Sinhalese and Muslim civilian on the odd occasion and killing others as collateral damage during attacks on high-value targets. The reports of the UTHR (Jaffna) should be mandatory reading for the Australian media. The killings of President Premadasa and Rajiv Gandhi are a tip of a huge iceberg.
The LTTE leadership revealed organizational skills, innovative military technology and outstanding generalship during much of the war. Their international arms procurement networks and their transnational shipping corporation were central aspects of their war-machine. The ramified Tamil migrant networks were integral to these activities as well as the agit-prop work in all corners of the world.[v]
The latter activity is still thriving, albeit weakened by factionalism. The Global Tamil Forum sees itself a Tamil government in exile and the recent campaign of the Tamil ultra-nationalists in Australia was one arm of their propaganda action. The Australian network has been in existence for decades and it is bizarre for Sheridan to end his article on the Tamil lobby with the statement that it is “poor policy for Australia to allow the development of a Tamil Tiger network on its shores.” – a formulation that suggests that it is embryonic.
Some Australians have reacted in an extreme manner to the increase of “boat people” in recent years. The fear that ex-Tigers are among the Tamil asylum-seekers is one dimension of this agitation. As an educated guess I hold that most such personnel would be sick of the war so that they are likely to pursue economic survival rather than agit-prop or shady dealings. The Tamil lobby in Australia in all its variety is staffed by well-placed professional people who have migrated quite some time back. Their nationalism has been a response to the pogroms (1977, 1980) in Sri Lanka and the anguish aroused by the death of kinsfolk and friends through the intermittent armed reprisals and shelling indulged in by Sri Lankan government forces from 1983 onwards.
Though a few of these ultra-nationalists may now have decided to pursue other paths, a significant number remain dedicated to the GTF cause. They have been joined by second and third generation Tamil Australians whose ethnic patriotism was fortified by the emotional fervour surrounding the decline of Tiger military fortunes in 2009 and the death of their beloved talaivar (leader with a capital T), Prabhakaran.
The stories of government atrocity (translated as “war crimes” loosely defined) in 2009 across Tamil migrant circles in 2009 were a mix of truths as well as half-truths and fabrications coined by agit-prop personnel including TamilNet, an LTTE arm that still functions. The power of gossip in stoking ethnic fires develops in part from the utter conviction that retailers have in the authenticity of each tale. Where the same “fact” is reaches Z from several different lines A, G, R and Y, then it takes root and is passed on feverishly as truthful fact.
Thus fabrication takes deep root as “fact” because of its blend with half-truth and truth in one combo, its reiteration over many moons and the fervour of the telling by a person who is convinced that it is true. A receptive audience helps. This audience in Australia includes fellow Tamil migrants, other Sri Lankan Australians alienated by the character of the Rajapaksa government and yet other Australians who lean towards the underdog.
The latter, the White Australians, include those of liberal and Left disposition as well as aid workers and civil liberties personnel whose trades are in this realm. There is overlap and dialogue between these persons and journalists, while some committed Tamil nationalists nestle within these circuits in nodal academic or media positions.
While a handful of these Australians may possibly have become hardcore “White Tigers” by virtue of years of association with LTTE hardliners,[vi] most seem to be well intentioned. They want to locate and punish governmental “war crimes” in a few symbolic cases. Through the punishment of offenders they wish to signpost a moral lesson for the future generations.
Moral justice, however, demands identifiable fact and empirical authenticity. Therein is the conundrum. Tamils and Sinhalese may have been ranged against each other in conflict over the last three decades with the Muslim-Tamil opposition as the third facet. However all three ‘communities’ are peas in a Sri Lankan pod together with every minute ethnic community in the island. A significant proportion of the Sri Lankan populace is enmeshed in what can be called a culture of retribution.
A Culture of Vengeance: Retribution is a par for the course in everyday life in Sri Lanka. It intrudes as malicious petition and scurrilous letter as well as muckraking tale in lounge or newspaper. It is part of the organising rationale in healing rites seeking to cure those afflicted by somatic illness.[vii] It is the driving force in sorcery action or counter-action. If one suspects that AB has caused you or a kinsperson some harm, it is quite legitimate to visit a shrine to a powerful deity and use the priestly intermediary to supplicate the deity to wreak havoc on the perpetrator.[viii]
This, process, therefore, is a case of righteous punishment … in other words (imagined) truth leading to justice. Long before the ethnic war broke out Obeyesekere’s ingenious ethnographic research demonstrated that the proportion of pre-meditated murders in Sri Lanka was comparatively low because the availability of sorcery shrines encouraged many people from all classes to utilize this channel to carry out indirect harm (death by whatever cause) to an adversary through the agency of deities.[ix]
On a priori grounds one can conclude that the bitterness wrought by the ethnic war in Sri Lanka is a fertile bed of manure for motives of retribution to course through many a Tamil person. Such sentiments encourage the fabrication of false allegations.
In any event concoctions were one part of the armoury wielded by the agit-prop arms of the LTTE. One must remember that some the best university brains in Britain marshalled such activity in World War II. Just as patriotism justified any lie in wartime, especially clever lies, then, so too, now, committed ultra-nationalist Tamils are not held back from deploying concoctions in the airwaves of the world.
The issue that faces Australians and all world citizens today therefore is to how to discern empirical fact amidst the medley of allegations. Otherwise the search for truth and justice will be compromised in greater or lesser degree by both the process and the media verdicts arising from such a process.
Several journalists in Australia have revealed an abysmal inability to use probing questions test the stories that are being retailed by dedicated Tiger personnel. Kindergarden reporters do no favour to either truth or justice.
Neither do moral crusaders directed by a form of secular fundamentalism which reads the complex world in either/or terms with limited weight attached to context. “Truth” is simply not a mantra that appears with the wave of the wand. If those Tamils who provide them with raw data are tainted themselves, caution is advisable. Fabricated court cases will generate a cycle of vengeance.
Whatever reservations one may have about Sheridan’s place in the Australian political firmament and whatever the caveats presented here, his emphasis on the context of the present war crimes allegations (restricted mostly to 2009) is of supreme importance. In January-May 2009 Sri Lankans had two choices: the fascist LTTE or the government of that day, with its populist-cum-authoritarian leanings. It was a stark choice. As I indicated in an article then, the GoSL was the lesser evil (which is more or less Sheridan’s conclusion).
Moreover, in early May 2009 the editor of the web site Groundviews, an arm of the civil liberties NGO known by its acronym of CPA, boldly asked its readership if a large number of casualties were acceptable in order to terminate the long history of war in Sri Lanka. In the course of a vibrant debate several voices, including local Tamil voices (for. e. g. Ergun, Sanjay and Nikolai), answered unequivocally in the affirmative. I had no hand in that debate. If people and media ensconced in their comfortable lounge chairs in Australia are not ready to attend to such voices from within a society at war, they are reposing in remote utopia.
The termination of the war produced a huge sigh of relief among most of the people residing within Sri Lanka. Since it was the resoluteness of the Rajapaksa government that had created this result they deserved some plaudits (which is what Alexander Downer more or less implied when speaking to Sheridan). The exultation displayed on the streets by the urban petty bourgeoisie and others in Sri Lanka was not my style, but I could comprehend the emotions … a mite over the top but as harmless as natural.
The neo-liberals and Leftists in Sri Lanka and abroad, however, thought otherwise and decried the “triumphalism” of the Lankan people in papal voice as if it were some moral disease. I wondered then if any of the older personnel in this pontifical attic could remember the celebrations on VE day at the end of World War II or the scenes when de Gaulle and the Free French marched into Paris. True, the scale of the European theatre then, its land mass and population, was far greater than that of little Lanka; but relative to size and population the suffering in Lanka on all sides between 1983 and 2009 was surely not dissimilar in approximate scale.
It is possible that there was some intimidation of individual Tamils in some parts of the south in May 2009 and it would be pertinent if some organisation came out with even a partial study that goes beyond anecdotal tales. Whatever this verdict, they should pause to consider the violent killings and humiliations inflicted upon those who collaborated with the Nazi administrations in the nation states of Western Europe in the immediate aftermath of World War Two.[x] My impression was that in May-June 2009 (unlike in July 1983) the vast majority of the people in the southern regions distinguished between the Tigers and the Tamil people. In contrast, say in France in 1945 many French regarded their Vichy French collaborators as one with the Nazis and wrought vengeance on them in ways that could be merciless.
Admittedly, the conditions of total war then in the 1940s did not have today’s backdrop. That is, the horrors of the Second World War have driven reformers to try and constrain the extremes of that era with the Geneva Convention and other human rights principles. This is precisely where the issues arising from Sheridan’s essays become pertinent. Since the prosecution of justice demands truth how does one identify fact within a milieu poisoned by the activities of individuals and organisations seeking retribution and where LTTE fronts masquerade as human rights associations? It appears that the moral crusaders, whether Australian, Lankan or Other, are oblivious to this problem.
They are further hamstrung by their experiential and analytical distance from the complexities of war. They should also absorb Simon Jenkins’s sharp note on David Miliband’s Sri Lankan intervention in 2009: “In Sri Lanka a rudimentary study of the past three months of fighting would have told Miliband that a ceasefire would be pro-Tamil, not just “pro-humanitarian”.” As my writings have underlined, Hilary Clinton was equally culpable.[xi]
The self-righteousness directing such interventions in 2009, the criticism of triumphalism in mid-2009 as well as the thinking of the Australian neo-liberals acting in concert with Tamil spokespersons on the war crimes prosecution campaign recently in 2011 derived from positions in the same utopian stratosphere. The current of secular fundamentalism coursing through the world today sometimes generates benefits, but, as often, encourages the type of idiotic meddling which David Miliband indulged in when he was Britain’s Foreign Minister – leading to Simon Jenkins unmerciful strictures in May 2009. It may be a coincidence that both Jenkins and Sheridan are from the conservative side of the political spectrum in their respective countries; but we should learn to evaluate their reportage from content and specific case rather than political badge. They have not fallen into the cavern of culpable credulity and posturing adopted for so long by many a Western media person.
Chalk, Peter 1999 “The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) International Organizationand Operations: A Preliminary Analysis,” Commentary 77 (Winter). http://www.cis-scrs.gc.ca/en/publications/commentary/com77.asp.
Davis, Anthony 1996 “Tiger International: How a Secret Global Network keeps Sri Lankan
Tamil Guerilla Organization Up and Killing,” Asia Week, 26 July, pp. 30–38.
Kapferer, Bruce 1988 A celebration of demons, Bloomington, Indiana university Press.
Kapferer, Bruce 1988 Legends of people, myths of state, Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1988.
Kapferer, Bruce 1997 Feast of the sorceror, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Harshula 2009 “Australia’s Tamil Eelam Lobby and CHOGM,” http://groundviews.org/2011/11/03/australia%e2%80%99s-tamil-eelam-lobby-and-chogm/
Hoole, Rajan 2001 Sri Lanka: the arrogance of power. Myths, decadence and murder, Colombo: Wasala Publications for the UTHR.
Jenkins, Simon 2009 “Miliband’s piccolo diplomacy,” The Guardian, 19 May 2009. Also in http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/11/10/simon-jenkins-pulverized-milibands-assinine-foreign-interventions-in-2009/
Obeyesekere, Gananath 1975 “Sorcery, premeditated murder, and the canalization of aggression in Sri Lanka,” Ethnology 14: 1-23.
Peiris, G. H. 2002 “Secessionist War and Terrorism in Sri Lanka: Transnational Impulses.”
in. K. P. S. Gill and Ajai Sahni (eds.) The Global Threat of Terror: Ideological, Material and Political Linkages,Delhi: Roli Books, Bulwark Books, and Institute for Conflict Management, pp. 85–126.
Roberts, Michael 2005 “Saivite symbolism, sacrifice and Tamil Tiger rites,” Social Analysis 49: 67-93.
Roberts, Michael 2006a “Pragmatic A\action & enchanted worlds: a Black Tiger rite of commemoration,” Social Analysis 50: 73-102.
Roberts, Michael 2006b “The Tamil movement for Eelam,” E-Bulletin of the International Sociological Association No. 4, July 2006, pp. 12-24 [reprinted in Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics, 2010, pp. 203-18].
Roberts, Michael 2007 “Suicide missions as witnessing: expansions, contrasts,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 30: 857-88
Roberts, Michael 2009a “Dilemmas at war’s end: thoughts on hard realities,”
www.groundview.org., 10 Feb. 2009 and Roberts, Fire and storm, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2010, pp. 265-74.
Roberts, Michael 2009b “Dilemmas at war’s end: clarifications & counter-offensive,”
www.groundview.org, Feb. 2009 and Roberts, Fire and storm, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2010, pp. 275-88.
Roberts, Michael 2009c “Realities of War,” Frontline, 26/20, 9-22 May 2009, pp. 14-20.
Roberts, Michael 2009d “Simpletons at the world’s peak: Sri Lankan situation stumps the world,” Frontline, and Roberts, Fire and storm, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2010, pp. 289=302.
Roberts, Michael 2011a “Reviewing Eelam War IV: A Think-Piece drafted in May 2011,” 23 July 2011, http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/07/23/a-think-piece-drafted-in-may/
Roberts, Michael 2011b “Incorrigible Watch-Dogs of the Human Rights World
Roberts, Michael 2011b “People of righteousness target Sri Lanka,” 27 June 2011, http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/06/27/people-of-righteousness-target-sri-lanka/
Roberts, Michael 2011c “Misreading Pirapāharan: Western pawns beyond their depth,” 1 July 2011, http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/07/01/mis-reading-pirapaharan-western-pawns-beyond-their-depth/
Sheridan, Greg 2011 “Criticism of Sri Lanka ignores Tiger threat,” The Australian, 6 November 2011. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/criticism-of-sri-lanka-ignores-tiger-threat/story-e6frg6ux-1226186195729.
Sheridan Greg 2011 “Sheridan on skewed perspectives that ignore LTTE threat then and now,” http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/11/06/sheridan-on-skewed-perspectives-that-ignore-ltte-threat-then-and-now/
[i] This review has been aided by the comments of David Olney, a colleague in the Politics Dept at the University of Adelaide.
[ii] Olney said that it is just the sort of stupidity that is found in the ONA, the Office of National Assessment, in Canberra. Note that one occasion where the LTTE’s sophistication went missing was when motives of retribution encouraged Prabhakaran to plot the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
[iii] See Roberts 2005m 2006 a 2006b and 2007.
[iv] Public Lecture at the British Council, Colombo, 15 November 2011.
[v] Gerald Peiris 2002; Chalk 1999 and Davis 1996.
[vi] Note Roberts 2011.
[vii] Bruce Kapferer, A celebration of demons, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1988; and Feast of the Sorceror, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
[viii] For one classic illustration, see Kapferer 1988 Legends of People, Myths of State, Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1988, pp. 28-32.
[ix] Gananath Obeyesekere 1975 “Sorcery, premeditated murder, and the canalization of aggression in Sri Lanka,” Ethnology 14: 1-23.
[x] This note is based on a talk given by Gareth Pritchard of the History Dept, University of Adelaide, at the Flinders University History Seminar series in 2011.
[xi] Jenkins 2009 and Roberts 2009c & 2009d.