Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Abuse of the Innocents

This article was published in the Sunday Island on December 10, 2011.

I have been reading a lot in the Sri Lankan press recently about sexual abuse of children. All right-minded people abhor such predatory behaviour and corruption of the innocent. Because of this universal horror, it can be a dangerous subject for public discussion. Debate often generates more heat than light.

I worked at one time as a ministerial advisor on child protection. A lot of disturbing material, in the form of social services reports and police evidence, crossed my desk. I had many upsetting conversations with victims (then having reached adulthood) and with those who claimed to be falsely accused.

One of the depressing things about those files was the number of allegations against those whose job it was to care for already damaged children. Perhaps people who had an unhealthy sexual interest in children might deliberately seek a career in the social services. This was added dimension to the horror – were those entrusted with the care of children merely there to exploit opportunities to harm them? It also tainted dedicated people doing a difficult and necessary job for society.

I recall a time when it was impossible to believe that such a thing as sexual abuse of children existed. When I was a social security visitor in a working class district of Manchester in the early seventies, someone tried tell us, in a somewhat cryptic manner, their suspicions about what was happening to their neighbour’s babies. I and my colleagues, did not at first understand. How, or why, would anyone do such bizarre things?

Over the coming years, naivety gave way to hyperawareness. In the UK, child sexual abuse came into general public consciousness with a shock when two paediatricians working at Middlesbrough General Hospital, Marietta Higgs and Geoffrey Wyatt, used a diagnostic test called reflex anal dilation and concluded that there was suspicion that 121 children had been sexually abused. Many of the children had come to hospital for treatment for complaints such as asthma, one had scratched her arms while picking bilberries. While in foster care, the children continued to be regularly examined by Dr. Higgs. She subsequently accused foster parents of further abuse and they too were arrested. I recall being in Stockton-on-Tees at the time, listening to the stunned local people talking in shops and bars. Overnight, the town had become a byword for perversion and cruelty. Ordinary people could not believe it.

Ordinary people were right. After a number of court trials, 26 cases involving children from twelve families were found by judges to have been incorrectly diagnosed. Dr Higgs experimented with the test on her own children and, finding a negative result, concluded that any positive result must mean the child had been abused. Cases involving 96 of the 121 children alleged to be victims of sexual abuse were dismissed by the courts.

In 2007, people affected by the scandal spoke on British TV about what happened in 1987. It was revealed that Marietta Higgs is still in practice. Also in 2007, Higgs said in a TV interview that she would do the same again and she suspected the numbers being abused were even greater than the 121 named. BBC Radio interviewed a 29-year-old who recalled not being allowed to see her father for seven months during the height of the crisis in 1987. “I’m determined to show they have not beaten me. But it was cruelty we received at the hands of people that were supposed to protect you.” Some of the children are now complaining that what Higgs and Wyatt did to them was sexual abuse and had a traumatic effect.

The Department of Health made an honest effort to steer a course through these dangerous waters. When I was there, the guidance was called Working Together, stressing a multi-disciplinary approach involving co-operation between social workers, police, schools, religious bodies. Even members of the general public were given a “responsibility to protect”.

Although benign in intent, Working Together’s consequences were malign. The evidence-based ethos of the police came up against a very different ideology. The police coped by giving in to it. Social workers and those in other disciplines who came to see child protection as a career path (to some it was almost a religion) based on apparently scholarly research, whose flawed methodology was not readily apparent to the uninitiated. The police set up their own child protection units and went native, buying into to the child protection culture.

The Castle Hill investigation involved only one care worker but the report on it expressed ideas about “organised institutional abuse”. The new ethos coming from California was: because allegations of sexual abuse had been disbelieved too often in the past, now everything had to be believed. When the police had the responsibility to investigate allegations of abuse, there was a need to provide evidence for a court and to presume innocence. The new therapeutic approach replaced scepticism with credulity. It became an article of faith that children did not make false allegations of sexual abuse. Ronald Summit, an LA mental health consultant said: “The more illogical and incredible the initiation scene might appear to adults, the more likely it is that the child’s description is valid”.

Unfortunately, the problem was not the truthfulness of children but the use that adults made of their testimony. Kee McFarlane developed coercive interviewing methods that led children to fabricate accounts of satanic abuse at the McMartin Preschool. She became recognized as an ‘expert’ and trained numerous other social workers, resulting in a national hysteria which engulfed several preschools across the nation and led to the wrongful conviction of large numbers of day-care employees.

Satanic abuse hysteria hit Britain while I was at the Child Protection Unit at the Department of Health in London. We commissioned the anthropologist, Professor Jean La Fontaine, an expert on witchcraft and witch hunts, to conduct a study, Speak of the Devil, which I had the honour of editing. The Californian craze had been taken up by powerful advocates in the media in the UK. One of the most significant voices was that of the journalist Beatrix Campbell, whose steely gaze I encountered at various conferences. Another strong advocate of the satanic conspiracy was Valerie Sinason, a psychotherapist, whom I also met many times, and whose argument kept reverting to one single case for which she did not have first-hand evidence. These conferences became religious rallies (or pyramid-selling meetings) where one was afraid to voice any doubts about the faith that satanic abuse existed.

These satanic rites supposedly involved breeding children for sacrifice, child murder and cannibalism. I recall a forensic psychiatrist saying at one of these conferences that she had never, in many years of wide experience, seen any evidence of satanic child abuse. I thought she would be dragged from the hall for hanging, drawing and quartering as a heretic.

Social workers all over Britain were convinced that they had a divine duty to protect innocent children against an evil conspiracy whose tentacles stretched deep into the establishment, involved free-masonry and reached into the police forces who were supposed to be investigating it.

A number of police inquiries concluded that thorough investigations had produced no bodies, no bones, no bloodstains and that, if ritual abuse presentations did not cease, there was a likelihood of a witch-hunt developing which might result in grave injustice.

Professor La Fontaine had previously been sympathetic to the Bea Campbell view of the existence of satanic abuse but in her report concurred with the police view that there was no evidence. She argued that what is presented as the testimony of children in most satanic abuse cases is almost always an adult construction. This comes about either because of selective over-interpretation of innocent remarks or through coercive or suggestive interviewing. The social workers shaped the evidence they were pre-disposed to find.

What happened in Britain from 1987 onwards a kind of viral mass hysteria generated as the result of a global village rumour whose specific origins, documented by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker in their book Satan’s Silence (Basic Books, New York, 1995), can actually be examined.

While I have no doubt that it correct to be vigilant in the protection of children in Sri Lanka, I am somewhat concerned about some of the things I am reading. For example, I was editing a Sarvodaya paper which boldly stated that unspecified “1998 research studies show 50,000 Sri Lankan children engage in prostitution”. The paper then goes on to say “100,000 engage in prostitution as estimated by NGOs and media”. There is one single footnote to support this and the website referred to does not exist. A Googling wild-goose-chase led me to what seemed to be an authoritative UNESCO site but it turned out they were just quoting Sarvodaya. The Asian Human Rights Group claimed 40,000 in 2006 but they were just quoting the Daily Mirror who gave no indication where they got it from. Other Googling turned up Tamil Net propaganda against the government or Karuna.

This is not to say that child sex abuse is not a serious problem. However, it needs to be dealt with on a basis of fact rather than churnalism, factoids and distortion similar to those used in Channel 4’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.

When I worked at the Department of Health I saw a vast police investigation aimed at uncovering organised paedophile rings in care homes in North Wales. Many false allegations were made and many innocent people went to prison and had their careers and reputations ruined. Some died. (Channel 4 was involved.) Richard Webster wrote a 700-page book about the affair called The Secret of Bryn Estin: the making of a modern witch hunt. None of it might have happened had it not been for one disgruntled care worker, Alison Taylor, who encouraged vulnerable people to seek the limelight and financial reward by fabricating allegations.

When the late and unlamented News of the World campaigned against paedophiles a mob attacked a paediatrician (not Marietta Higgs). The Grease Yaka phenomenon has shown Sri Lanka how frightening this kind of mass hysteria and lynch mob mentality can be.

Should Britain Be Expelled from the Commonwealth?

This article was published in the Sunday Island on September 24, 2011.


There has been opposition from western human rights groups to Sri Lanka’s bid to host the Commonwealth Games in Hambantota. Canadian PM, Stephen Harper says he will not attend the Commonwealth conference if it is held in Sri Lanka. This has been taken even further by some who have called for Sri Lanka to be expelled from the Commonwealth. We might take as a specimen charge Siobhain McDonagh’s speech in the House of Commons on 24 March 2009. “As the Sri Lankan Government have not been willing to end the conflict, I would like my Government to call for their suspension from the Commonwealth.”



On 15 September 2011, she again spoke in a Commons debate to condemn Sri Lanka. It would be instructive to read the exchanges, although the amount of smugness and self-congratulation and mutual back-scratching from MPs of all parties might induce projectile vomiting.



McDonagh has referred to the democratically elected president of Sri Lanka (who according to a recent Gallup poll is supported by “more than nine out of ten Sri Lankans) as “a probable war crimes suspect”. Elsewhere she has referred to Sri Lanka as a “failing dictatorship”. She boasted: “the leadership of my right hon. Friend Mr Brown brought an end to GSP Plus…voted against the IMF’s $2.5 billion deal with Sri Lanka, and prevented it from hosting a Commonwealth summit. Britain must not lose that lead.”



Ms McDonagh is Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden in the London borough of Merton (an area in which I resided for ten years). She likes to present an image of left-wing libertarianism and sell herself as a champion of human rights. However, her voting record in the House of Commons tells a different story. Siobhain McDonagh voted very strongly for the Iraq invasion, very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war, very strongly for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws, very strongly for introducing ID cards, very strongly for a stricter asylum system. So her libertarianism and concern for human rights seems very selective.



She started out as clerical officer in Balham in the Department of Health and Social Security, for whom I also used to work (although I was at a slightly more senior level and at a less disreputable and more efficient office).



She was first elected to parliament in 1997, after being selected through an all-woman short-list. This method of selection was declared illegal in January 1996, as it breached sex discrimination laws, but she did not withdraw. McDonagh attracted criticism in April 2000 for using public money to send party political information to her constituents. Tory John Redwood said, “she should have found out by now that free post is not there for self-promotion”. She spent an average of £32,000 per year on postage.



She made a speech in Parliament saying she makes “no apology for concentrating on local issues”. Unfortunately, local issues includes Sri Lanka because of the large number of Tamils in the constituency. Hers is by no means a safe Labour seat. She won it from Conservative Dame Angela Rumbold on her third attempt. It would require a 16.4% swing for her to lose it. McDonagh had a majority of 13,666 in 2010. A Tamil with Muslim support, Rathy Alagaratnam, was an independent who ran against her in 2010 and 2005. McDonagh’s parliamentary work-rate is not impressive. She is below average for the number of times she has spoken in debates, and for her written questions. She is well below average for the number of times she has voted in the Commons.



The veteran parliamentary analyst, Andrew Roth is somewhat dismissive of McDonagh’s intellectual capacity: “Low-profiled Blairite superloyalist. Persuasive, articulate, prefers Cosmopolitan to New Statesman“.



After the 2005 election, she served as PPS to Defence Secretary John Reid. From May 2006 to June 2007 she was PPS to the Home Secretary. Gordon Brown made her Assistant Whip in 2007 but she was sacked (while being interviewed on Channel 4) for plotting to overthrow Brown.



The Wimbledon Guardian, which I fondly remember as being full of rapes and perverts (how unlike the Wimbledon I knew and loved) reported that McDonagh was given a petition signed by 196 residents at Morden’s Civic Centre on October 10 2008. “Representatives from the British Tamils Forum met Siobhain McDonagh to ask for support in tackling human rights abuses. They asked her to join the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils, a group of MPs campaigning to highlight the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka.”



The subtext is that McDonagh recognised that the support of pro-LTTE campaigners might be useful to her in her constituency. She has taken a great interest in the human rights of Sri Lankan Tamils. “As is the case for many MPs, barely a week goes by without me meeting constituents who have family members back home in the Tamil region of Sri Lanka.” When Tamils protested outside Parliament, the Wimbledon Guardian reported: “The demonstrators include many from Mitcham’s large Tamil community”. Subramaniyam Paramestvaran, a 28-year-old student from Mitcham, went on hunger strike. When a 19-year-old Tamil threw himself into the Thames to protest against “genocide”, McDonagh told the Wimbledon Guardian that the demonstration reflected “the frustration of young, hardworking men who see their friends dying and getting injured in their own country”. On 16 June 2011, she made representations against “the deportation by the UK Border Agency of my constituent Mr Jenach Gopinath back to Sri Lanka, whose Government are suspected of war crimes against Tamils, including the killing of 40,000 Tamil citizens. Later today, a plane chartered by the UKBA will deport 40 asylum-seeking Commonwealth citizens of Tamil ethnicity back to Sri Lanka”. During the same debate she said: “Few could not have been moved by the terrible pictures on Channel 4 of imprisoned Tamil soldiers being shot in cold blood”.



On 21 October 2005, in a debate on a Armed Forces (Parliamentary Approval for Participation in Armed Conflict) Bill, she said: “Yes, some of us feel bad about Iraq; some were even in the Government when that decision was made. I think that deposing a murderous tyrant such as Saddam Hussein and introducing democracy to that part of the world was the right thing to do. I know that some people disagree. However, we cannot start changing the law for every future conflict because we feel guilty about how we behaved in the last one. We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, ‘You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later.’ We cannot tie their hands behind their backs. We have to stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about the brave men and women in Mitcham and Morden and elsewhere”.



“Yes, some of us feel bad about Iraq; some were even in the Government when that decision was made.” That seems to distance herself from any direct personal responsibility.



How about deposing that murderous tyrant Prabhakaran? What about the Sri Lankan soldiers who fought in good faith?



Wikipedia says: “She is a vocal critic of Sri Lanka. Issues pertaining to the Sri Lanka Tamil diaspora are the most visible in her public image.” In a Commons debate on Sri Lanka on 5 February at 2.41 p.m. she said “the Sri Lankan government should realise that they need to be as magnanimous as other failing dictatorships have been; and that until they are, they will not have peace on their island.” She called for Sri Lanka to be suspended from the Commonwealth.



The Commonwealth started out as a replacement for the British Empire which could be marketed in a high-minded way as an ethical rather than exploitative association. Initially it consisted solely previous British colonies, but now it includes former Belgian colony Rwanda and former Portuguese colony Mozambique. Some former British colonies have been suspended or have resigned. Pakistan resigned in 1972 but rejoined in 1989 and was suspended in 2007. Nigeria was suspended from 1995-1999. Zimbabwe withdrew in 2003 but Britain aimed to tempt it back by 2011. In 1961 South Africa left when it became a republic but rejoined in 1994. Fiji was expelled in 1987 following the second coup of the year. Sierra Leone was suspended after the military coup in 1997.



On 20 October 1991, the Harare Declaration reaffirmed the principles laid out in the Singapore Declaration twenty years before. The Harare principles require all members of the Commonwealth, old and new, to abide by certain political principles, including democracy and respect for human rights. These can be enforced upon current members.



To McDonagh, it is acceptable for the UK to invade another sovereign state and depose its leader, but it is not acceptable for an elected government in Sri Lanka to take on the terrorists within its own sovereign boundaries. It is acceptable to demand an investigation into Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes but not acceptable for the UK’s war crimes to be investigated.



Sri Lanka, whatever its faults, is hardly a “failing dictatorship”. A recent Gallup poll showed that “more than nine out of ten” Sri Lankans supported the government. In the UK, the electorate gave its verdict on McDonagh’s party but the Conservative party could not get a working majority and there are severe rifts in the governing coalition. McDonagh declared: “We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, ‘You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later.’ We cannot tie their hands behind their backs.”



In the light of the UK’s illegal invasion of another sovereign nation and in the light of Sir William Gage’s report ion war crimes perpetrated by British soldiers, is there case for Britain being expelled from the Commonwealth?


The Fog of War – Channel 4 and the Fog of Words

This article was published in the Sunday Island on August 27, 2011


“You are hearing it through the crackling radio and it’s the fog of war stuff and it is difficult to make crystal-clear perfect decisions all the time.”



The Lambeth Borough Police Commander, Nick Ephgrave, said he “bitterly regretted” not containing the Brixton riot. The same words were used to excuse the slaying of Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent Brazilian gunned down by police at Stockwell tube station, also in Lambeth.



Reports are coming in of British soldiers mutilating Taliban corpses and sexually abusing under-age Iraqi boys.


The fog of war?



Factoids and Churnalism



In Lakbima News June 26 2011, Namini Wijedasa interviewed Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. She said the Channel 4 programme called on viewers to make many inferences.



Heyns’s response: “I think the video has to be seen in the context of all the available evidence, which includes what has been investigated and published by NGOs and the panel of the Secretary General. The cumulative effect of the available evidence makes a coherent case that there is reason for serious concern about what both sides did during the war, and in particular what happened in the final stages, when the government gained the upper hand, and that there were no outside witnesses”.



Heyns says “there were no outside witnesses” but is confident “the available evidence makes a coherent case that there is reason for serious concern”. This evidence includes allegations made in the report of the Moon advisory panel. Most of the panel’s material came from the NGOs that Heyns also mentions. Heyns is making a case which  seems to be strengthened by the fact that allegations are being made by Channel 4, several NGOs and Moon’s advisory panel. In actuality, they are all drawing on the same unreliable source material and churning it up.



Jon Snow introduces the Channel 4 programme by saying that at the war’s end “as many as 40,000, and possibly far more, civilians were killed”. That is meaningless. How can one say “as many as” and “possibly far more” in the same sentence?






The government produced experts who attested the original video was a fake but these experts were not expert enough for the critics.  UN Rapporteur  Philip Alston said his experts (Peter Diaczuk, an “expert in firearms evidence”, Daniel Spitz, a “forensic pathologist”, and Jeff Spivack, an “expert in forensic video analysis”) prove its authenticity . Alston conceded that there were some “characteristics of the video which the experts were unable to explain”  but asserted that “each of these characteristics can, however, be explained in a manner entirely consistent with the conclusion that the videotape appears to be authentic.”



That is a very strange statement in relation to the English language. The unexplainable characteristics can be explained in a manner consistent with the  conclusion that the video appears to be authentic. Alston is not saying the “experts” have said the video is authentic. The unexplainable can be explained to fit a conclusion that the video appears to be authentic. Even if they came out and said directly that the video was genuine and had not been tampered with, this is not proof that it shows Sri Lankan soldiers killing Tamils.



The Experts



Experts have a great deal of influence. Forensic experts put the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four in jail for 15 years for crimes they did not commit.



Who are these experts who convinced Philip Alston and Stephen Sacker?



  • Spitz  was appointed Medical Examiner for Macomb County, Michigan by his father who had the job before him. He achieved notoriety by ruling an execution-style death as suicide missing the   bullet hole in the neck and the bullet in the jaw.



  • Fredericks  is not trained in photogrammetry and has no more expertise than a layperson. He lied in court about his company’s ties to Taser, and supported a police cover-up.



  • Spivack is a not very successful self-employed private investigator (he filed bankruptcy in 2003),with little verifiable work experience, and flaky credentials.



Unreliable Witnesses



The Channel 4 commentary does not make it clear who Damilvany Gnanakumar is. She was a Tamil Tiger who was ordered to work in Mullivaykkal hospital by Castro. In London, she was women’s co-ordinator for the Tamil Youth Organisation an LTTE front. In Kilinochchi she was assigned to work with foreign media and was described by a former colleague called Prabakaran as a “news correspondent”. He said she had been trained to use firearms and wore a cyanide capsule around her neck. As long ago as September 2009, Gnanakumar was discredited. Why is Channel 4 still treating her as an independent witness?






Rape is a terrible crime. Rape as a systematic policy and weapon of war is even more appalling.



The Darusman Report says on Page 152:



“Rape and sexual violence against Tamil women during the final stages of the conflict and in the immediate aftermath are greatly under-reported. Cultural sensitivities and associated stigma prevented victims from reporting such crimes even to their relatives”.



What does under-reported actually mean? It can only mean that some rapes were unreported because of stigma. One might ask how the panel can be confident that such crimes occurred  if they were unreported. One might say that rape is bound to happen in war but such assumptions cannot be offered as “evidence”. The report continues: “There are many indirect accounts reported by women of sexual violence and rape by members of Government Forces”. There is a double distancing here which makes it difficult to understand what actually happened or what is being alleged. What does indirect accounts mean? Can it mean anything other than hearsay? It seems to be saying women who had not been raped themselves heard stories from other people who also had not been raped that some other women had said someone had been raped.



Credibility and Truthiness



Heyns’s phrase: “In the context of all the available evidence” seems to mean that if enough dodgy allegations are gathered together their critical mass bestows credibility. If a rumour appears on a lot of websites or blogs, the mere accumulation is seen as proof.



The word “credible” is used often in the Darusman Report but there is no substance behind the currency. The report uses a lot of fudging words like “if proven” and reiterates many charges that have been presented without substantiation for over two years. Allegations become “credible allegations” and morph into “credible evidence”.



Channel 4 deploys a great number of factoids (a term coined by Norman Mailer and defined by the OED as “an item of unreliable information that is repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact” –  something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but, in fact,  is not a fact.  Stephen Colbert calls it Veritasiness –  “truthiness”, common sense, received wisdom, truths that are self-evident in the gut, regardless of reality. “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”. Stephen Sacker was full of truthiness in his  Hard Talk haranguing of Rajiva Wijesinha. Everybody knows the SLA was shelling hospitals so why are you denying it? Experts have deemed the Channel 4 footage genuine, so who are you to deny it?



There is no room for truth in the world of soundbites.


The Enigma of Exile

Colman's Column3


The exile’s new world, logically enough, is unnatural, and its unreality resembles fiction. Edward Said.

George Eliot, in her novel Daniel Deronda, wrote:

“A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amid the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood.”


Where would I be rooted? I was born on the outskirts of the ancient cathedral city of Gloucester. I used to walk the same fields and hills as the poet and composer Ivor Gurney. Gurney died in 1937 in a mental hospital,  longing for the familiar fields of Gloucestershire. Helen Thomas, the widow of the poet Edward Thomas, who had been killed in the First World War, visited him. She took Edward’s maps of Gloucestershire and they traced their fingers over the routes Edward had walked. “He spent that hour in re-visiting his beloved home, in spotting a village or a track, a hill or a wood and seeing it all in his mind’s eye, a mental vision sharper and more actual for his heightened intensity.”

Even that long ago, Gurney lamented the loss of the Gloucestershire he loved. Today, I have no longing to re-root myself in the place of my birth. There are no humans there now that I know, and the landscape is unrecognisable. In The Enigma of Arrival V.S. Naipaul wrote of “a movement between all the continents”. It could no longer be confined to a single paradigm (post-colonialism, internationalism, globalism, world literature). Naipaul’s long-suffering wife was educated at Denmark Road High School for Girls in Gloucester. I have many fond memories of Denmark Road girls. Naipaul was living in Gloucester when he wrote the book. He hated the place.


In A Prayer for my Daughter, Yeats wrote:


“O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.”


Philip Larkin demythologises the romantic idea of a rooted sense of place:


“Nothing, like something, happens anywhere”.


I lived for many years in Manchester and then in London. I had many happy times in both great cities, enjoying the wide diversity of cultural amenities they offered. Life in London became too expensive, as it was government policy to restrict inward migration of poor people and to encourage kleptocratic Russian exiles to increase house prices beyond the reach of ordinary people. I moved to Ireland and took Irish citizenship. I felt a sense of returning home and I still have family in the birthplace of my father. However, the cliché of Irish welcome did not always manifest itself in reality. My wife felt a pull towards the land of her birth.


Sri Lankan editors have often encouraged me to write about Sri Lanka from a foreigner’s perspective. I recognise that this can be fraught with danger. The problem is that if I respond to requests to make wry and humorous observations about Sri Lankan life and mores some might, however sensitive and cautious I might be, find what I write condescending or arrogant.


The first article I published in this country elicited this e-mail: “You crazed Irish monkey, you deserve to be in an asylum or a zoo. No wonder the Tigers are strong in your area if it is home to an IRA fugitive like you. I am reporting you to the authorities”.

On Groundviews, some said I had no  right to be commenting on Sri Lanka because I am not a citizen of Sri Lanka. Those questioning my right to write fall into two camps. Some  see me as anti-government. One accused me of “regurgitating terrorist propaganda” when I discussed Tamil grievances. One commenter (who now describes my work as excellent) repeatedly asserted that I had been sent to Sri Lanka by sinister forces to undermine the nation. Most critics describe me as a government stooge or lackey. Emil van der Poorten even went so far as to call for me to be “silenced”. Some say that I cannot write about Sri Lanka because I live here. Only people living abroad could have the necessary detachment and absence of fear of the government.

It is usually unwise for a stranger to intervene in a fight between husband and wife. Similarly, the exile should avoid taking a partisan stance in the domestic politics of his host country. I do not write about Sri Lankan politics very often. I have avoided publishing anything at all about the recent Geneva resolution.


This is the dilemma of the exile. As a guest in Sri Lanka, I do not want to attack or defend the government. I certainly do not think I have a responsibility to attack the government. On the other hand, I want to write about the country because it is where I live. Everybody has to live somewhere. Mr van der Poorten exiled himself to Canada for many years and even went into politics in that country. He has returned to his homeland and has no compunction about finding fault with it. No-one silenced him in either country.


Exiles was James Joyce’s only play.  WB Yeats rejected it for production by the Abbey Theatre. The play was given its first production in 1919 in Munich, on the commendation of the novelist  Stefan Zweig. Its first major London performance was in 1970, when Harold Pinter directed it at the Mermaid Theatre. When Exiles was revived at the London National Theatre in 2005, Edna O’Brien wrote that it was “a work freighted with jealousy and the ogre of betrayal. He had many enemies, but chief among them were his former drinking cronies, Oliver St John Gogarty and Vincent Cosgrave. Both bore him malice because he had left Ireland”. There is a whiff of betrayal about being an exile. Joyce declared his aim of forging the conscience of his race using the tools of “silence, exile and cunning”. I am not so ambitious but try in a modest way to make a difference in my local community.

Dylan Thomas wrote of his time in the seaside town of Laugharne (model for Lareggub in Under Milk Wood): “though very much still a foreigner, I am hardly ever stoned in the streets anymore, and can claim to be able to call several of the inhabitants, and a few of the herons, by their Christian names.” I did experience some hostile glances when I first came to this village but now, after nine years, my roots are firm and I get smiles everywhere I go.


In his essay Reflections on Exile Edward Said wrote: “It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. … The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.”


Many Sri Lankans have two homes, spending part of the year in Sri Lanka and part of the year abroad. Some of them remind me of Baudelaire’s prose poem N’Importe ou hors du monde. “Life is a hospital where each person is trying to change beds. One of them would like to suffer near the heater; another thinks he could get better near the window”.  When they are in Sri Lanka, they wish they were abroad. When they are abroad, they wish they were in Sri Lanka.


A Sri Lankan once asked me what I missed about my former life. I missed live jazz at the Band on the Wall in Manchester, but I can listen to jazz at home. I missed seasons of classic movies at the National Film Theatre. I can arrange my own movie seasons with DVDs from Majestic City. I miss the long summer evenings of County Cork and the Murphy’s stout, but I can enjoy a Lion Lager watching the fire flies. I miss McVitie’s plain chocolate digestives. I miss walnut oil. I once got a bit tearful listening to John Spillane singing The Land You Love the Best. None of this is life-threatening.


Bob Dylan sang, “Pity the poor immigrant/ Who wishes he would have stayed home”.  Don’t pity me, Bob. Whatever about my unhealable outsider-dom (I will never be a fan of contemporary cricket, I will never be fluent in Sinhala or Tamil) my lights are on and I am at home. Bless me, it is nearly eight years since I last left Sri Lanka. England and Ireland are unreal to me now. I have no desire to go anywhere.

Julie MacLusky

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