Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: MIA

Freedom Fighters, Terrorists and Ordinary Decent Criminals


This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday March 31 2015.


Colman's Column3


The world was horrified recently at the news that a co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, had deliberately flown his plane into a mountain killing 150 people. Many have commented that this was the ultimate expression of modern narcissism, a trend for suicidal people to want to take others with them without their consent. I wrote last week about how Kieran Conway, in a book in which he calls himself a “freedom fighter”, admitted responsibility for killing 21 innocent young people in the cause of a united Ireland. No one asked those young people what they thought about it. Terrorism is another kind of narcissism.

There are fuzzy boundaries between war, terrorism, crime, politics and business. Politicians use terms like “war on terrorism”, “war on crime”, “war on drugs”. Some might believe that this is part of a plan to militarise civil society. “Freedom fighters” easily morph into criminals as they resort to bank robberies and drug dealing to raise funds for the cause. Many once considered as terrorists later take their place in government.  In Ireland, there was Eamon De Valera and more recently Martin McGuinness. In Kenya there was Jomo Kenyatta; today his son is president and has had his case dropped by the International Criminal Court.

MIA made it into the news again the other day. It was not for any recent achievement but merely about a gripe that she regurgitated concerning the way Oprah Winfrey had treated her some time ago. Suggestions that MIA was terrorist sympathiser led to some people dragging out that old chestnut: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. Whenever this is said, no definition of “freedom fighter” is offered. No examples of bona fide freedom fighters are presented except for Nelson Mandela.

Ronald Reagan called the Nicaraguan Contra rebels freedom fighters. Reagan also frequently called the Afghan Mujahedeen freedom fighters during their war against the Soviet Union, yet twenty years later, when a new generation of Afghan men fought against what they perceived to be a regime installed by foreign powers, George W Bush labelled their attacks “terrorism”.

Professor Martin Rudner, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Ottawa’s Carleton University, says the phrase “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” “is grossly misleading.” It assesses the validity of the cause when it should be addressing terrorism is an act. “One can have a perfectly beautiful cause and yet if one commits terrorist acts, it is terrorism regardless.

Distinguished scholars have devoted their lives to defining terrorism and have admitted failure. In the first edition of Political Terrorism: a Research Guide, Alex Schmid spent a hundred pages examining more than a hundred different definitions of terrorism. Four years and a second edition later, Schmid conceded in the first sentence of the revised volume that the “search for an adequate definition is still on”. Walter Laqueur despaired of defining terrorism in both editions of his  work on the subject, maintaining that it is neither possible to do so nor worthwhile to make the attempt.

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” seems to mean that state authorities sometimes delegitimize opponents, and legitimize the state’s own use of armed force. Critics call this “state terrorism”.

The UN’s attempts to define terrorism failed because of differences of opinion about the use of violence in the context of conflicts over national liberation and self-determination. Since 1994, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly condemned terrorist acts using the following political description of terrorism: “Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable”.

Although, in the international community, terrorism has no legally binding, criminal-law definition, there are definitions of “terrorism”. A study on political terrorism examining over 100 definitions of “terrorism” found 22 separate definitional elements. These can be summarised thus: violent acts, which deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants, intended to create fear, perpetrated for a religious, political, or ideological goal.

Bruce Hoffman wrote: “By distinguishing terrorists from other types of criminals and terrorism from other forms of crime, we come to appreciate that terrorism is :

  • ineluctably political in aims and motives
  • violent – or, equally important, threatens violence
  • designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target
  • conducted by an organization with an identifiable chain of command or conspiratorial cell structure (whose members wear no uniform or identifying insignia) and
  • perpetrated by a subnational group or non-state entity.”


Everyone agrees that  terrorism is a pejorative term, with intrinsically negative connotations. Use of the term implies a moral judgment.  According to David Rodin, utilitarian philosophers can (in theory) conceive of cases in which the evil of terrorism is outweighed by the good that could not be achieved in a less morally costly way. Michael Walzer argued that terrorism can be morally justified in only one specific case: when “a nation or community faces the extreme threat of complete destruction and the only way it can preserve itself is by intentionally targeting non-combatants, then it is morally entitled to do so”.

Those dubbed “terrorists” by their opponents rarely identify themselves as such, preferring to use other terms such as separatist, freedom fighter, liberator, revolutionary, militant,  guerrilla, rebel,  or patriot.

The use of violent and brutal tactics by criminal organizations for protection rackets or to enforce a code of silence is usually not termed terrorism. However, “terrorists” or “freedom fighters” often use their capacity to intimidate to engage in similar activities to organised crime. While they were purportedly striving to reunite the six counties of Northern Ireland with the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland, the Provisional IRA were also building up a criminal empire. While this might have begun as a means of financing the republican struggle, crime seemed to become an end in itself. The profits of crime might have been a reason for prolonging the conflict.

Raids on illegal distilleries in Ireland uncovered bottling and capping machinery and high- quality copies of brand labels. Many of the products were designed for use in pub optics. The IRA took the production of counterfeit spirits so seriously that it even had a quality control unit.

Conway writes about his participation in bank raids and gun battles. The IRA’s “elite robbery team” unit organised armed robberies using a tactic known as “tiger kidnapping”, where the family of an employee was held hostage to ensure co-operation. The unit played a central role in the theft of £26.5 million from the Northern Bank just before Christmas 2004 and organized three other robberies which netted a further £3 million in that  year.

According to Customs Revenue officers, about half of Northern Ireland’s filling stations sold fuel smuggled from the Irish Republic, where duty was considerably lower, at a cost to the Treasury of about £200 million a year. Fuel smuggling, much of it organized by the notorious South Armagh brigade, was probably the IRA’s single largest source of income.

The paramilitaries were involved in pirating DVDs and software and the IRA’s links with America gave it access to new releases. The IRA’s counterfeiting operations extended to fake football strips, designer clothes, power tools and a well-known brand of washing powder. A bottle of counterfeit perfume seized at a market was found to contain urine as a stabilizer.

Often the IRA invested as a silent partner in legitimate businesses. The IRA’s finance unit contributed to Belfast’s property boom by investing in houses.

The IRA received up to $6 million (£3.1 million) for helping to train  rebels in Colombia. The payment was allegedly negotiated by a former IRA “chief of staff” who had worldwide contacts — including in Libya, where republicans deposited some of the proceeds from their vast criminal empire.

The Irish gangster Martin Cahill was the subject of two feature films. In The General, Brendan Gleeson played him. In Ordinary Decent Criminals, Kevin Spacey played him. Cahill was involved in petty crime from an early age and turned to armed robbery after stealing arms from a police station. O’Connor’s jewellers at Harold’s Cross, Dublin was forced to close, with the loss of more than one hundred jobs after Cahill stole €2.55 million worth of gold and diamonds from the store.

In 1994, a gunman, who was armed with a .357 Magnum , shot Cahill in the face and torso, jumped on a motorbike and disappeared from the scene. The IRA said that it was Cahill’s “involvement with and assistance to pro-British death squads which forced us to act”. One theory is that John Gilligan, who was convicted of the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin (also shot by a motorcyclist), had Cahill killed because he was trying to get a slice of Gilligan’s drug profits.

Gilligan effectively had the complicit support of the Dublin IRA and had members of the INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) in his pay. He was importing enough cannabis to make everybody rich. He was even importing small arms, which he passed on to republicans as sweeteners.

The IRA established links with organized crime in the same areas of the Costa del Sol where many of Dublin’s top “ordinary” criminals, the “Murphia”, lived. The Murphia became the wholesale middlemen and women who supplied parts of the UK drugs markets after developing links with their British counterparts.

The dissident republican group the Real IRA was responsible for murders, attempted murders and pipe bomb attacks in the Republic. The group is believed to be extorting millions of Euros from targeting drug dealers — as well as business people — in Dublin and Cork. The Real IRA have taken over many of the security and protection rackets once run by the Provos. The dissidents are also believed to be selling some of these bombs to gangs including criminal elements within the Travelling community.

The Provisional IRA funded its terrorist activities with bank robberies and protection rackets. Martin McGuinness was the IRA Commandant for Derry. He and Gerry Adams were prominent in the labyrinthine negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement and the IRA laying down its arms. As a minister in the government of the statelet of Northern Ireland, McGuinness   visited Sri Lanka to advise us on peace and reconciliation. Sinn Fein, which used to be seen by voters in the Republic as the proxy of the Provisional IRA, is a major Opposition force in the Dáil today and is often mentioned as a possible coalition member of the government. Fiachra Gibbons, in the New Statesman, described Sinn Fein as “a kind of cross between Fianna Fáil and the Catholic Church, but with extra guns, paedophiles and front businesses.”

In Sri Lanka, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) was mainly dependent for funding in its early days on robberies and extortion.  Trading in gold, laundering money and dealing in narcotics brought the LTTE substantial revenue to buy sophisticated weaponry. They also played a role in providing passports, other papers, and also engaged in human trafficking

Those who carried out the Easter Rising in 1916 are seen in a romantic light compared to the bombers of today. However, like the bombers of today, they  believed they were entitled, although they were but a small unelected group of conspirators in a democratic country, to stage a revolution in which many innocent people were killed. “Armed struggle” generally means fanatics killing innocents by remote control. The whole point of terrorism is to induce fear among non-combatants. It is a bit rich for those committing these acts of terror against civilians to call themselves freedom fighters. Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public for political purposes are abhorrent, whatever political or philosophical justifications are presented.



MIA Flips the Bird

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.


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 . 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?

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