MIA Flips the Bird

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Who watched the Superbowl? Was MIA’s flipping of the bird as shocking as Janet Jackson’s mammary apparatus?

This has created some controversy in Sri Lanka because MIA is of Sri Lankan Tamil origin.





Way back in May 2010, Alaska Progressive  wrote a post  on on Open Salon about  the banning of a violent MIA video which showed children being blown up.


I am against censorship and wouldn’t support the banning of  MIA’s video. Nobody has the right to be immune from being  annoyed or offended. However, nobody seems to object to child pornography being banned. A lot of complex issues are involved if one thinks seriously about  censorship.

AP said:  “We are subjected to gratuitous violence every day, whether it is first-person shooter video games or stylized slaughter in movies and TV”. Does that mean we need more of it and that we should not worry about it?

AP:  “People claim to want art to be provocative, but when it hits a little too close to home or touches a nerve as it approaches an unspoken truth, then it is ‘offensive’ and ‘distasteful.’”

I am myself happy to be  provoked but let us  examine the reality behind the provocation and not succumb to the fantasy. Let us look at the “unspoken truth” behind  MIA’s position.

It seems to be OK to blow someone up in a film because the movies are just fantasy.

I have a problem with that. Fantasies have proved toxic in Sri Lanka. As a result of fantasies about national myths, a  lot of people in Sri Lanka have seen people blown up in real life. As one goes about from day to day in Sri Lanka, one sees a lot of people with missing limbs. The north and east, the areas once dominated by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) , are still littered with mines left by MIA’s friends. MIA supports the LTTE. The LTTE blew people, including babies and schoolchildren, up.. The LTTE, to the joy of most Sri Lankan  were  comprehensively defeated in May 2009 and there have been no terrorist incidents since then.

Large sections of the Tamil diaspora seem to want to continue the fight. MIA seems to be continuing to support them. Let her have her video but let us examine the “unspoken truth”.

I am sure that there is a lot of research showing that images of pornography do not lead to rape and that movie fantasies about violence do not engender violence. Does rap music cause men to imitate misogynistic attitudes and bad behaviour towards women that extends to physical violence? My gut feeling  leads me to believe that Hollywood violence de-sensitises viewers and leads to atrocities in Iraq and allows politicians to sanction torture. Which came first, Jack Bauer or John Yoo and Abu Ghraib?

The US likes to fight “wars” like video games or TV programs.

AP makes the very good point: “this is the violence we take part in and promote throughout the world on a daily basis.” AP says:  “It is disingenuous of Americans to be so outraged when we are the ones perpetrating this violence against so many others.”

There is an assumption that the US has a moral justification and obligation to intervene in other nations’ affairs. There is also the fantasy that it has the capability to address terrorism and, simultaneously, support ill-defined humanitarian objectives. The US is not as tough and powerful or as humane as it deludes itself to be. It is unlikely that it can defeat the Taliban forever. In trying to make its fantasies real it causes havoc and suffering.

Ian Birrell wrote about elections in Afghanistan in the London Independent:  “Once again, we are chasing a chimera, falling for the myth of democracy rather than the reality. Buttressed by our own history, we see the ballot box as the ultimate expression of democracy… The dream is back on. Meanwhile, warlords wash the blood from their hands and dress up as democrats, doing deals to carve up the country… At the end of the process, there will still be some tribal tensions, gangsterism and poppy fields. Even to get to this point will cost billions. It will take many years. And sadly, there will be scores more teenage soldiers slaughtered and maimed. ”

The birth of the American nation depended on the genocide of the indigenous races and its development depended on slavery. In his book, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of  Modern America, 1877-1920, Jackson Lears describes how many Americans embraced militaristic fantasies of national rebirth through war and empire. US soldiers were awarded medals in 1890 for firing Hotchkiss cannons at unarmed Indians at Wounded Knee. When Filipinos resisted US imperial claims, the US Army ‘civilized’ them with indiscriminate slaughter – as Mark Twain put it ‘Maxim Guns and Hymn Books’.

And still it goes on.

America is today an imperial power with military bases instead of colonies. George Orwell commented in 1943, “It is difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now Occupied Territory.” Citizens of many nations today get that same feeling. Those populations hosting US bases, in say Okinawa,  are expected to be grateful that the bases are contributing to democracy and freedom, but instead feel exploited because the bases are used to control trade, resources, local supplies of cheap labour, and the political, economic, and social life of host countries. They also force the host countries to support American imperialism, including foreign wars, despite harmful fallout, like the rape of local women and children, to the indigenous populations.

As Sri Lanka’s President Rajapaksa said, why is the US criticising Sri Lanka for defeating its own home-grown terrorists? Sri Lanka is a small nation (about the same size as West Virginia).  It is not sending its planes to bomb other countries. It is not setting up bases all over the world.

Americans’ attitudes are  fuelled by Hollywood fantasies. MIA’s fantasies are accepted as entertainment with the added bonus  of another fantasy about giving the oppressed a voice. This is just another aspect of American imperialism. Even leftish US “liberals” seem to want to police the rest of the world through cultural dominance.

Just about everybody in Sri Lanka resents the USA’s attitude towards it. Robert Kaplan acknowledged that tiny, cash-strapped Sri Lanka has successfully defeated its terrorists but asserted that the US had nothing to learn because the US was too virtuous to use such methods.

See: http://agonist.org/padraig_colman/20090728/fantasies_of_virtue

Dayan Jayatilleke, (he would not be very popular in the states as he is an admirer of Fidel Castro), former Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN said:  “Sri Lanka is not the case of an army of occupation invading and occupying another country. Sri Lanka’s is a military that serves a constitutional democracy, a military that fought a war strictly within its recognised borders against a separatist, terrorist militia, with whom the State had tried to arrive at a peaceful settlement on numerous occasions. Therefore, we will not have forced upon us formulae and paradigms derived from entirely different contexts.”

Moving on to the specific case of MIA and her video. MIA supported (and still supports) an organisation, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), which invented suicide bombing and held the population of the north and east of Sri Lanka hostage for thirty years in a de facto totalitarian fascist state. The population was mainly Tamil because the Tigers carried out brutal ethnic cleansing to get rid of all the Muslims and Sinhalese who had lived there for generations. The Tigers were certainly not “poorly equipped”, thanks to the funds provided by the diaspora. They had an effective navy and a rudimentary air force bombed the international airport, petrol stores and government buildings. On one occasion, the airport had to be closed and frightened foreign tourists hid under desks while the Tigers went on a killing rampage and destroyed most of the Sri Lanka Airlines fleet.

Because of “fantasy”, many in the west came to see the LTTE as romantic freedom fighters, the good guys, the white hats against the Sinhalese majority, the government, the bad guys, the black hats.

The LTTE oppressed Tamils and killed off any Tamil politicians or civilians who stood in their way. Their activities were funded by drug smuggling and people trafficking and by the Tamil diaspora of which MIA is a member.

Tamil journalist, DBS Jeyaraj,  wrote a year ago, just before the LTTE was defeated, in the Indian newspaper based in Tamil Nadu, The Hindu: “the conflict has gone beyond its original causes. If the Tamils opted for a separate state owing to certain discrimination and unaddressed grievances, the brutal war has brought in a whole set of new problems dwarfing the original ones. Many of the ills afflicting Tamils now are due mainly to the war. It is logical therefore to assume that many of these war-related issues would gradually cease or lose their potency in a non-war situation.”

This is not to say that I buy the fantasy on the Sinhalese nationalist side. While trying to adopt an unbiased approach, I have been berated by Sinhalese for “regurgitating terrorist propaganda” by merely trying to explain why people were fighting for a separate state of Tamil Eelam. One charmingly told me that I was a “a crazed Irish monkey, an IRA fugitive  who should be in a zoo or an asylum”. From the other side, I am accused of being a government lackey and a bigot if I criticise the LTTE.

Clearly, we wouldn’t have  had a thirty-year war in Sri Lanka with over 100,000 dead if there were no genuine grievances. Tamil separatism gained traction because of the acts of commission or omission of successive Sinhalese-dominated governments. Tamil people did suffer but the situation is far more complex than western fantasists would believe.

Prime minister, SWRD Bandaranaike alienated Sri Lankan Tamils by introducing a Sinhala only policy in 1956. In Being a Tamil and a Sri Lankan,  Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby wrote: “If I may not be misunderstood by my non-Tamil friends, what happened in post-1956 Sri Lankan politics was not so much the implementation of Sinhala as the sole official language,  but Sinhalisation of the entire administration and political machinery. The Tamils were prepared  to learn Sinhala and there were in Jaffna, Buddhist monks teaching that language in the better-known schools. The Muslims also learnt Sinhala. It was, however, not the use of the Sinhala language, but the insistence on Sinhalising the staff and the geographical areas which made Tamils and Muslims hold on steadfastly to their north eastern areas and identities. When they were threatened in the areas where they were working and had established themselves as its people the slogan of the Traditional Homeland began gradually to emerge”.

After 1956 there were anti-Tamil riots culminating in the horrific events of July 1983 which led many Tamils to leave the country. There were many incidents where ill-disciplined police took reprisals against innocent Tamil civilians reminiscent of the Black and Tans in Ireland. Many Tamils who remained in Sri Lanka gave  up all hope of justice from the government and therefore fought for a separate homeland.

I have covered this in some detail at


Whatever Sri Lankans think about President Mahinda Rajapaksa, most are grateful that there have been no terrorist problems since he defeated the LTTE nearly three years  ago. No-one in Sri Lanka, even Tamils, would want the LTTE back. Apparently many Tamils abroad, like MIA, do want the LTTE back.

Many of the militant Tamil separatist groups  – PLOTE, EPDP, TULF and TNA – have stated categorically that a separate homeland for Tamils in Sri Lanka is no longer on the agenda. However, some elements of the diaspora still fantasise about it and have held “elections” for a “transnational government”

Douglas Devananda used to carry arms for the EDPD (Eelam People’s Democratic Party)  but is now a government minister. Many innocent people have been killed in botched attempts by the LTTE to assassinate him. He said: “when the whole country is looking towards a bright future, extraneous forces which cannot digest the healthy political developments in the country have now embarked on an idiotic move called `Transnational Government’. I am confident that the selfish action of a handful of LTTE proxies is not going to take them anywhere. Hence the Tamils abroad and in Sri Lanka should be cautious of these sinister moves to destabilise peace that prevails in the country”.

Devananda himself is part of the problem.

The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leader V. Anandasangaree said, “The intended ‘Transnational Government’ by the LTTE proxies is sheer stupidity. The elements opposed to the people’s co-existence in the country are all out to create another racial calamity for their existence abroad. People such as V. Rudrakumar in the USA and his allies in other parts of the world are trying to continue with their ulterior motives to destabilise the peace created in the country after three decades”.

Leader of the People’s Liberation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) D. Sitharthan said, “Even after people gave their verdict in the North and the East at the parliamentary polls sidelining the TNA, the LTTE proxies are trying to deceive the people abroad and in the country by coming out with gimmicks such as forming a ‘Transnational’ government abroad. When the LTTE was active there were people who were thriving by showing themselves as supporters of the outfit. However, with the annihilation of the LTTE those who supported it are finding it difficult to survive. Therefore, they are resorting to all sorts of stunts to revamp their activities. Foreign Governments should be cautious of those elements and ensure that their sinister moves are curtailed”.

What Sri Lanka needs now is a genuine attempt to address current grievances rather than endlessly stirring the pot about what happened in the past. What of the present day? What grievances do Tamils in Sri Lanka have today and how might they be addressed in order to prevent further outbreaks of violence?

In the north and east many people are still suffering the after-effects of thirty years of domination by the LTTE which left the infrastructure of the north and east undeveloped or destroyed. The defeat of the LTTE left further damage by government forces which will not be easy to put right.  I have written elsewhere about conditions in the IDP camps. People who went “home” from the camps faced a bleak outlook. Restoring livelihoods and alleviating poverty will be a huge undertaking.

The government has taken positive steps to rebuild homes and provide jobs even for former LTTE fighters (see http://mondediplo.com/blogs/rehabilitating-the-tigers) . A spokesman for the garment industry said: “It does not matter whether they come from the IDP camps or rehabilitation camps for former LTTE cadres. What is important is that everybody is given a chance to grow in the new Sri Lanka.”

A grievance in the past was “colonisation”.  Some argued that the central government, under cover of developing “bare land”,  was engaged in a process of Sinhalese settlement similar to the Israelis in Palestine. Such settlements by Sinhalese assisted by the government allegedly worked under a sinister agenda of infiltrating the Tamil “homeland” and diluting Tamil representation. Economic regeneration and re-integration needs to be handled sensitively. Reconstruction should not just be for the profit of carpet-bagging southern business. This danger is epitomised by reports that the people of the north are not unanimously overjoyed by being gawked at by tourists from the south.

So far, a separate Tamil state no longer seems to be on the agenda of anyone in Sri Lanka, although elements of the diaspora might still entertain such fantasies. As Jeyaraj wrote: “The future and well- being of the Tamil people are inextricably intertwined with that of Sri Lanka and its people. All future efforts to secure rights and share power have to be within the unity, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of Sri Lanka.” The position taken by Dayan Jayatilleke, ambassador to France, and others is that devolution under the 13th Amendment of the constitution is essential to prevent future unrest. Columnist Malinda Seneviratne believes that any form of federalism or devolution risks continuing fragmentation and that economic development is the best way of reintegrating the north and east into the rest of the nation. “If minority grievances going unheeded leads to political unrest and violence then it is in the interests  of those who voted for Rajapaksa and the UPFA to have such grievances addressed. My only demand  was that grievance must be undressed of the frills called myths, legends and fantasies”.

In Northern Ireland, peace was achieved through negotiation when both sides became exhausted and accepted that neither could win. The IRA gave up its goal of a united Ireland. The LTTE went into every negotiation with an uncompromising demand for nothing short of a separate homeland, comprising two-thirds of the territory of Sri Lanka, of Tamil Eelam.

Whatever notion the western media might convey, the entire Tamil population has not been imprisoned in concentration camps prior to extermination. Tamils are spread throughout the country and generally live normal lives in harmony with Sinhalese and Muslims and the myriad ethnic and religious groups that inhabit this island. Many Tamils are prosperous and influential. Some held senior positions in government until the Tigers killed them.

Reconciliation will be difficult but it is possible. Sri Lanka needs help in this process not sanctimonious lectures.

If MIA is using her music and videos to further the agenda of the vestigial elements of a vicious terrorist group to undermine from abroad sincere efforts towards reconstruction and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, it is distasteful . If it’s all only for the sake of entertainment and marketing and consumerism is that OK?