Triumphalism and foreign commentators
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday August 29 2010.
Some months ago, my fellow LAKBIMAnEWS contributor, Dayan Jayatilleka, was kind enough to mention my humble efforts in what he called “the prestigious Le Monde diplomatique”. In a series of short articles, I tried to convey to the western world the complexity of what was actually happening in our country. Most people who commented on these pieces described them as “professional” and “unbiased”, although an article caused one reader to call me a government lackey and another to call me a regurgitator of terrorist propaganda. I received an e-mail addressing me as “you crazed Irish monkey, you IRA fugitive. You should be in a zoo or an asylum”.
The August 2009 edition of Le Monde diplomatique carried an article on Sri Lanka by one Cédric Gouverneur entitled ‘The Time of Triumphalism.’ The editor of the English-language edition, Wendy Kristianasen, asked me for my views, somewhat pointlessly, after the article was published. Unfortunately, she did not like my views.
She wrote to me: “It will be rather a statement of the obvious for you, but it is a good way to get the wider world interested in the country and its complex politics.”
My response was that it was unhelpful to get the wider world interested if the wider world gets interested in a distorted picture. Her response was : “I think, for what it’s worth, that the West knows very little about Sri Lanka, particularly outside of the UK. …Most ordinary people simply know that there was a long, difficult conflict. That’s all. Whereas what goes on in Iraq, Afghanistan, and particularly Israel, is widely reported on, in every detail, and closely followed. Every ordinary person has an opinion on those subjects, and may even feel him/herself to be an armchair expert.”
Cédric Gouverneur wrote about Sri Lanka back in 2004: “Many observers would wager that the LTTE will evolve mid-term, influenced by the Tamil diaspora (accustomed to Western democracy after 20 years of exile) and their own pragmatic leaders, who are increasingly political and less warlike.”
He clearly got that horribly wrong!
In this latest article he raises several issues which need to be debated, and which have been covered in some depth in LAKBIMAnEWS and other papers, such as the plight of the IDPs, the militarisation of the north, the fear of colonisation of predominantly Tamil areas.
The phrase “the government, overjoyed at being able to divide the Tamils” occurs in the body of the text. I doubt if that is actually telling us anything real or useful. This phrase suggests that the Tamil inhabitants of Sri Lanka form a homogeneous entity. Tamils are already divided by differences of origin, class, caste, religion, income, status and political views no matter what the government does. It would be more accurate to say “The government, overjoyed at electorally annihilating the opposition”.
In the article, theories are developed on the strength of vox pop statements from unreliable witnesses. “This triumphalism has exasperated Tamils recently liberated from Menic (sic) Farm”. This is based on the comments of a man who is nostalgic about the days of the LTTE. But even he says : “I appreciate that since the shelling, the army has behaved well towards civilians. They want to win our hearts and minds.”
Shanti Satchithanandam’s views are cited and she is described as a “victim” of the Tigers. Others have described her as a Tiger supporter.
It is implied that Sinhalese were gullible because: “They truly believe the media’s line that their army freed the Tamils from the clutches of a criminal organisation.” Why should they not believe it?!
The article is riddled with factual inaccuracies. There many serious howlers in the historical timeline headed “Thirty years of civil war”. I will not bore you with all of them. The thirty years begins with 1815 (surely something wrong with the arithmetic!). “The British finish colonising the island, previously divided into three kingdoms – two Sinhalese, one Tamil”. The most egregious error is “December 2009. Rival candidates President Rajapaksa and the former chief of staff, Sarath Fonseka, dispute the election results”. How could they dispute the results in December 2009 of an election which did not take place until January 2010?
Ms Kristianasen was not pleased when I drew her attention to these flaws. She said “I must ask you to commit yourself to responsible journalism”. Monsieur Gouverneur sent me an angry and abusive e-mail after she forwarded to him my e-mail address without my permission.
I urge you to read the article in full. Only paying subscribers to Le Monde diplomatique can access it on their own website (http://mondediplo.com/2010/08/05srilanka) but the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice (whose Advisory Council includes Noam Chomsky, Bianca Jagger, Jake Lynch, Lakhdar Brahimi, who was once foreign minister of human-rights beacon Algeria, and Edward Mortimer) have kindly reproduced it (historical howlers and all).
I am not one of those who use the tu quoque argument or says westerners are not allowed to criticise Sri Lanka because the crimes of the west are worse. However, Sri Lanka seems plagued by foreigners dropping in for a few days, becoming instant experts and disseminating a distorted picture. Cédric Gouverneur has written many of these “what I did on my holidays” pieces.
I urge LAKBIMAnEWS readers to study the article and engage in debate on it. Unfortunately, such debate is not possible with Le Monde diplomatique – they have no letters page, no readers’ editor, no complaints or corrections section, no facility to comment in any way on M Gouverneur’s article.