Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Tamils

The Easter Rising

Martyrology, Martyrdom, Rebellion, Terrorism

Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart.

From Easter 1916

 

By WB Yeats

“I want to grow up in a Northern Ireland where you can look at a sunset without wondering what they are bombing tonight”.

Immortality

I was disturbed to read comments on Colombo Telegraph by someone calling himself Thanga.[i]

“The question whether Prabhakaran is alive or dead is immaterial. Prabhakaran is part of Tamil history and part of Tamil psyche. He will be remembered by generations and generations to come. And liberation movements never die with their founders. As proof, books on LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran and the Eelam occupied an entire stall at the recent Book fare in Madurai book fair. ‘Over 25 books on Prabhakaran and the Eelam have been published in the last two years alone after the end of the Sri Lankan ethnic war. These books are attracting new readers,’ said the person manning the stall of Tholamai Veliyeedu. A 1000 page book on the life of Vellupillai Prabhakaran written by Pazha Nedumaran, an LTTE insider will be released soon. Prabhakaran is the only leader whose birthday is celebrated right around the globe in a grand scale! Prabhakaran was a brave, self-less and dedicated leader who lived by example. A leader who never slept on a mat or used a pillow!”

As recently as May 2011, in Tamil Nadu, MDMK chief Vaiko was saying the war for Eelam was not over; Prabhakaran was not dead and would emerge from hiding at the right time. According to Victor Rajakulendran, the  LTTE remains a shining example, a “good history,” for all Sri Lankan Tamils to follow.

Irish Religiose Masochism

A miasma of religiose masochism hangs over Irish republicanism. Staying in Ireland as a child in the 1950s, I was acutely aware of the overlapping of the decades, the way the distant past lived in the present. In the 1950s, the 1920s lived on,  as people still had pictures from that era on their walls. Shops still sold sentimental poems about the fallen. A fetid atmosphere of sanctity hung over shrines to the dead republican heroes.

A website gives a list of republicans executed, shot by the authorities  or dead of hunger strike from 1916 to 1981. Some were killed by the British, some by Irish governments. Some committed suicide by starvation. They are all classed as “martyrs”.[ii]

Irish republicanism has an air of the pornography of martyrdom, of that self-flagellating kind of religiosity redolent of Iberian as well as Irish Catholicism. Often the Catholic church condemned the rebels but that did not prevent the movement portraying their fighters as ascetic saints, and venerating their dead in holy shrines.

Martyrdom was a principle aspect of the 1916 Easter Rising.

Padraic Pearse

 

The leading figure in the Irish Easter rising in 1916 was Padraic Pearse. He  was a poet and playwright who founded a number of schools to which the Gaelicist intelligentsia sent their offspring to be raised in the high tradition of mythical hero Cuchulainn: “better is short life with honour than long life with dishonour”; “I care not though I were to live but one day and one night, if only my fame and my deeds live after me”.

Though not obviously a fighter, Pearse was enthused by the sight of armed Ulster loyalists and wanted to emulate them: “we might make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people: but bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing”. He developed a messianic and sacrificial notion that his cause was, through a symbolic loss of life, comparable with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Pearse expressed an ecstatic view of the energising force of the sacrifice of death in the First World War. He  frequently celebrated the beauty of boys dying bravely in their prime, before the shoddy compromises of adult life corrupted them.  Was there  something homo-erotic in this, reminiscent of St Sebastian (as painted by Il Sodoma) as a gay icon? Pearse’s biographer, Ruth Dudley Edwards, wrote in an article entitled “The Terrible Legacy of Padraic Pearse” [iii]: “It would be frequently remarked of Pearse that he had no understanding of the mundane day-to-day concerns that precluded others from showing the same fanatical dedication to his successive causes: he lived and died for a people that did not exist.”

Blood Sacrifice

James Connolly was a more hard-headed, practical socialist who responded thus to an article by Pearse: “We do not think that the old heart of the earth needs to be warmed with the red wine of millions of lives. We think that anyone who does is a blithering idiot”. Connolly  was a Marxist who wrote, “I have not the slightest tincture of  [Catholic] faith left”. Nevertheless, Connolly was to write soon after: “Without the slightest trace of irreverence, but in all due humility and awe, we recognise that of us, as of mankind before Calvary, it may truly be said: ’Without the shedding of Blood there is no Redemption”.

Incredibly, the logistics of  the Easter Rising were designed to maximise “bloody sacrifice”. Buildings were chosen for occupation, not to immobilize key government institutions, but to maximise injury to persons and property. Rebel HQ was set up in the General Post Office in the middle of the main shopping area. South of the River Liffey,  parks, factories, bridges and public buildings were seized by small armed parties but with no plan of encirclement. Only about 1,600 rebels turned out in Dublin, with activity in the rest of the country limited to parading.

By the time Pearse surrendered after six days, only 64 rebels had been killed (including 15 executed). In the World War, 25,000 Irishmen died fighting as members of the British Army. The majority of the casualties in the Easter Rising , both killed and wounded, were civilians. Both sides, British and rebel, shot civilians deliberately, on occasion, when they refused to obey orders such as to stop at checkpoints. The British Army reported casualties of 116 dead, 368 wounded and nine missing. Sixteen policemen died, and 29 were wounded. All 16 police fatalities and 22 of the British soldiers killed were Irishmen. Rebel and civilian casualties were 318 dead and 2,217 wounded.

The rising was planned as  a “blood sacrifice” for a society  that had become apathetic. There were  disagreements among the rebels. Eoin McNeill wished to proceed only on a basis of realistic hope of success rather than staking everything on a gesture of moral revivalism. He thought the blood- sacrifice option intellectually flaccid. Many, however, like 18-year-old medical student, Ernie O’Malley, who had no previous record of nationalist involvement, were strangely stirred by Pearse’s peculiar theology of insurrection. O’Malley became a key organizer and leader in the guerrilla war as well as one of its most  prominent literary chroniclers.

The Easter Rising  was not supported by public opinion in Ireland, and the immediate reaction afterwards was fury and disgust. Max Caulfield was a journalist, not an academic historian, who was born in Northern Ireland. His book on the Easter Rising was written in 1963 and he was able to interview participants in the rising, both British and Irish, and eye witnesses. The book has never been out of print. I have the paperback edition still (cover price six old pre-decimal pre-euro shilling) A revised edition was published in 1995 and reviews of that suggest it stands up well. I have re-visited my paperback version (severely nibbled by Sri Lankan ants)and it still reads well.

Max Caulfield noted that, as the rebel prisoners were marched away under arrest, they were attacked by working-class women, who pelted them with rotten vegetables and emptied chamber pots over them.

In his eyewitness account, The Insurrection in Dublin, James Stephens (poet, novelist and short story writer) wrote: “Most of the female opinion I heard was not alone unfavourable, but actively and viciously hostile to the rising. This was noticeable among the best-dressed classes of our population; the worst dressed, indeed the female dregs of Dublin life, expressed a like antagonism, and almost in similar language. The view expressed was ‘I hope every man of them will be shot’.”

Afterward, general incompetence on the part of the British government, and the arrests of thousands of men, some of whom  were taken to England and Wales to be interned, only served to arouse hatred for the English among the population and to support the rebels’ propaganda.

The men who were executed were regarded as martyrs.  The dead were prayed toas well as for. If the situation had been handled better by the British, the Sinn Fein movement could have received a severe setback.   As an aftermath of the rising, about 50,000 British soldiers were stationed in Ireland which deprived England of  much-needed men and equipment.  Recruitment for the First World War in Ireland practically stopped, making a net loss to the firing line of 100,000 men. The threat of conscription further alienated the Irish.

A new revolutionary elite formed in detention and “a sentimental cult of veneration for the martyrs developed outside, as after previous failed risings. A settlement involving a good measure of Home rule had been  likely even without the rising. The conspirators thus achieved their aim of reversing the movement towards Anglo-Irish reconciliation”[iv]. Throughout 1917,  the Irish volunteers invited  arrest and martyrdom and tried to disrupt the prison system by hunger strikes in pursuit of “political status”.

Terrorism was slow to develop and was mainly precipitated by brutal British methods of repression which forced Volunteers to band together for protection. There were no more than 4,000  armed activists and they had no hope of military success. Internment was introduced in 1920. The Black and Tans and Auxiliaries were also sent into Ireland in  that year. Their reprisals included beatings and killings; they destroyed 53 creameries and ransacked many towns; in December 1920 they set fire to the centre of Cork City; on November 21, twelve football supporters were slaughtered at Croke Park in revenge for the assassination of fourteen spies.

The idea of the Rising being carried out by martyrs and saints was furthered by literature until the 1960s. With the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising, a flood of books were released, and for the first time voices of dissent and revision were heard. The violence in Northern Ireland and the Provisional IRA claiming to be the ideological sons of the Easter Rising also contributed to a change in public opinion.

John Waters wrote an article in the Irish Times last year to mark the 95th anniversary of the Rising. Here is a selection of comments:

Patrick Hennessey

“Dublin is a poxy little city of about a million people sitting on a small island which happens to have one of the worst climates on the planet, and is now broke. Nearly 100 years ago a bunch of boys with more imagination than common sense fought for its independence. 100 years later it speaks English , shares common laws and rules with most of Europe and the same money.”

Frank

“Although it’s quite difficult to establish how many Dubliners supported the Rising, those who rejected it did so for a variety of reasons. Apart from family involvement in the British army and the wanton destruction of buildings and killing of civilians (far more in fact than Volunteers and soldiers), the expectation that Home Rule would be granted following the end of the war must also have been a factor. In addition, however, many ordinary Dubliners went about their daily business without ever thinking about ‘striking a blow against England’. Not every part of the country was riven by violence during the 1919-1921 period and that many Irish people tried as best they could to lead normal lives while at the same time abhorring the violence being perpetrated by both sides.”

Michael O’Byrne

“The rejection by Dubliners of the Easter Rising was the right reaction, although perhaps for the wrong reasons with some. This tragic and misguided terrorist action started off with the cold-blooded murder of an unarmed policeman. No amount of rationalization can transform that first murder into an act of heroism and the misleading euphemism of the War of Independence for the subsequent terrorist campaign is dishonest and a travesty of the reality of those years. The warped so-called principles embraced by the terrorists of those times continue to be adhered to by the likes of the Real IRA. As a Christian I abhor all violence – that includes a rejection of all military actions whether they are by the state or those who dissent from and try to overthrow the status quo.
Dishonour was the hallmark of the Easter Rising and the consequences emanating from that appalling action. The murder machine was well and truly set in motion from that point onwards and the IRA became the role model for terrorists on a worldwide scale. Has any statistician calculated the total number of men, women and children murdered and maimed from that point of time until the present day? The initial rejection by the citizens of Dublin of this bloody folly was right, although their abuse of the criminals and demand for their murder through execution was totally wrong – as the carrying through of the inhumane vengeance by the British, an example of crass stupidity and lack of wisdom.”

Jim McGowan

“I don’t think we would be better off inside the Commonwealth; I’m proud we’re independent and not part of Great Britain. The 1916 rising was not democratic, they did not have a mandate; and ad hoc military activity like this is not good; in fact it has blighted our country’s history for decades.”

Michael Collins and Éamon De Valera

Two of the Easter rebels escaped the firing squad and continued to polarise Irish politics for decades. Éamon de Valera, “The Long Fellow”, had been born in New York and had a Cuban father of Spanish descent so the British did not feel inclined to execute him as a traitor to the Empire.

Michael Collins, “The Big Fellow”,  was not regarded by the British as important and he was despatched to Stafford prison and then on to Frongoch internment camp. He was back in Dublin by Christmas 1916. The  guerrilla methods he soon developed were thought to have influenced Che Guevara (who, incidentally, had an Irish grandmother) and the Viet Cong.

When the British offered to negotiate a Treaty in 1921,  De Valera engineered that Collins would lead for the Irish side. De Valera’s  opponents claimed that he had refused to join the negotiations because he knew the outcome would be a partitioned Ireland and did not wish to receive the blame. Collins himself protested  that he was not a skilled negotiator and that being seen in public would reduce his effectiveness as a guerrilla leader should hostilities resume. Reluctantly, Collins accepted the role of lead negotiator and signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty which set up an Irish Free State of 26 counties with dominion status within the commonwealth. The six counties of the north east remained in the United Kingdom. While it fell short of the republic that he’d originally fought to create, Collins concluded that the Treaty offered Ireland “the freedom to achieve freedom.” A little now, more later. Nonetheless, he knew that partition, would not be popular in Ireland. Upon signing the treaty, he remarked “I have signed my own death warrant.”

De Valera was unhappy that Collins had signed any deal without his  authorisation. A civil war was fought on the basis that Collins had sacrificed a united Ireland. Though nominally head of the anti-Treatyites, de Valera does not seem to have been involved in any fighting and had little or no influence with the military republican leadership. Collins was secretly planning to launch a clandestine guerrilla war against the Northern State, while De Valera, in his own long years in power, accepted the status quo with Britain and executed and interned IRA die-hards who continued to fight for a united Ireland.

De Valera sent a personal note of congratulations to Subash Chandra Bose upon his declaration of the Free India government in 1943, although Ireland did not extend diplomatic recognition to it. Against the advice of some advisers, de Valera formally offered his condolences on the death of Hitler.

Éamon de Valera led his party, Fianna Fáil, to adopt conservative social policies, since he believed devoutly that the Catholic church and the family were central to Irish identity. De Valera died in 1975, a blind 93-year-old. One biographer, Tim Pat Coogan, sees his time in power as being characterised by economic and cultural stagnation. A younger historian, Diarmaid Ferriter,  argues that the stereotype of De Valera as an austere, cold and even backward figure was largely manufactured in the 1960s and is misguided.

Collins died in 1922 at the age of only 31, in an ambush at Béal na mBláth (the Mouth of Flowers) near his home town of Clonakilty in West Cork. He was older than Jim Morrison but younger than Elvis. Collins’s memory lives on but can he be regarded as a martyr when he was killed, not by the British, but by his fellow Corkonians? He is certainly marketed to tourists as a “Lost Leader”.

 

Kitty Kiernan

Collins was big and handsome and charismatic. There were rumours of lovers including Dame Edith Vane-Tempest, Lady Londonderry, a famous political hostess.

Lady Londonderry

According to the memoirs of Derek Patmore, a writer and artist who was a close friend of Hazel Lavery, wife of the portrait painter Sir John Lavery, Collins was “the great love in her life”. A personification of Ireland modelled on Lady Lavery and painted by her husband was reproduced on Irish banknotes from 1928 until the 1970s. Sir John painted a portrait of Collins in full military uniform in his coffin draped in the Irish tri-colour.

 

Hazel Lavery

Frank O’Connor, in his 1937 biography of Collins[v], paints a picture of a larger-than-life character, hot-tempered, violent, sentimental, respectful of elders, well-read, intelligent, and, despite his volatility, calculating and efficient. O’Connor was a distinguished writer of fiction, so one cannot tell how “creative” his picture is. The book is sympathetic to Collins which might be surprising as O’Connor (real name Michael O’Donovan) fought on the opposite side and was one of twelve thousand Anti-Treaty combatants who were interned by the government.

“The bulk of Collins’s time was not spent in action scenes. It was spent as a manager and administrator, whether as Minister of Finance or Director of Intelligence”.[vi] He was conscious of the advantage of maintaining a public image of a uniformed general commanding the national army but he was irritated at the mystical and neurotic worship of the republic.

O’Connor describes Collins thus: “This energetic man, who kept a file for every transaction, who insisted on supervising every detail and went nowhere without his secretary, bore very little resemblance to the Collins of legend and none at all to the revolutionary of fiction. Beside him, Lenin, with his theories, feuds and excommunications, seems a child, and not a particularly intelligent one. He ran the whole Revolution as if it were a great business concern, ignoring all the rules”.

Even in March 2012, the rivalry between Collins and De Valera lives on. In the Irish Senate, Fine Gael Senator Tom Sheahan recently asked, “Is it not ironic the way history repeats itself?” said, pausing for effect before adding: “Deputy Micheál Martin is not the first Corkman to be shot in the back by a de Valera.” The Senator’s mock concern for Fianna Fail leader  Martin, who forced his deputy leader Éamon Ó Cuív – a grandson of de Valera – to resign because of his defiance on the party’s support for the fiscal treaty referendum, had the desired effect. Having got everybody into a state of high excitement, Mr Sheahan remarked mildly: “I will withdraw the comment which appears to have caused upset.”[vii]

That the question of who shot Michael Collins still has the ability to provoke a political row 90 years after the event is a testament to the significance of an event that played such an important role in the first year of the State’s existence.

Neil Jordan’s 1996 film Michael Collins implied that de Valera had a direct role in the shooting. Collins was portrayed as warm-hearted and passionate by the expansive Liam Neeson (love interest supplied by Julia Roberts as fiancée Kitty Kiernan) while De Valera was played slyly by that master of sinister, Alan Rickman.

Civil War

Most people, except the Northern Ireland protestants, were content enough with the Treaty. In the 26 counties,  a few Republican intransigents like De Valera did not recognise its legality and provoked de-stabilisation by classifying  MPs and judges, and even journalists,  as legitimate targets for assassination. Far more people, including civilians, were killed in the civil war than were in the war for independence. David Fitzpatrick[viii] wrote in 1989: “ The violent challenge to the state then degenerated into a dolorous sequence of murders, robberies, burnings and kidnappings which has not yet ceased. So the state survived its painful baptism into a faith whose first article was the consolidation of state authority rather than the welfare of the nation. “

The Free State government responded with draconian measures such as summary execution without trial. Ex-comrades carried out seventy-seven such executions adding to “the litany of republican martyrs, and thousands of imprisonments created abiding bitterness”.[ix]

Three years after the end of the Sri Lankan conflict, there are still disputes about the number of dead. Ninety years after the end of the Irish Civil War, figures are still uncertain. The figures used by historians in the 1980s are now considered to be greatly exaggerated.  A figure of over 4,000 does not tally with recent research which gives national army deaths at around 800.The Registrar General’s office estimates that in 1922 and 1923 there were 1,150 deaths  classified as homicides, executions or shootings.

Hunger Strikes

I was amused at the usage in Sri Lanka (and Tamil Nadu) of the expression “fast unto death”. Generally, it is no more than a fast from breakfast unto lunchtime. In the Irish republican tradition, the term “hunger strike” is used and it often does end in a  martyr’s death. Some scholars trace the Irish tradition of hunger striking back to Asian roots. The tactic was fully incorporated into the ancient Brehon legal system. Fasting in order to bring attention to an injustice was a common feature of early Irish society.

According to Roy Foster[x]: “Sinn Fein rhetoric capitalised on the drama of high-profile tactics such as [Thomas]Ashe’s hunger strike in 1917; significantly, a member of the [Catholic] hierarchy officiated at his funeral.” Like later Provisional IRA hunger strikers, Ashe was demanding special status as a prisoner of war. At the inquest, the jury  condemned the staff at the prison for the “inhuman and dangerous operation [force feeding] performed on the prisoner, and other acts of unfeeling and barbaric conduct”

In October 1920, eleven republican prisoners in Cork Jail went on hunger strike at the same time. The Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney , died on hunger strike in Brixton prison. Attempts at force-feeding MacSwiney were undertaken in the final days. On 20 October, he fell into a coma and died five days later after 74 days on hunger strike. His body lay in Southwark Cathedral in London where 30,000 people filed past it. MacSwiney’s life and work had a particular impact in India. Nehru took inspiration from MacSwiney’s example and writings, and Gandhi counted him among his influences. Indian revolutionary  Bhagat Singh, on hunger strike before his execution, quoted Terence MacSwiney and said “I am confident that my death will do more to smash the British Empire than my release”.  Ho Chi Minh, who was working in London at the time of MacSwiney’s death, said of him, “A nation that has such citizens will never surrender”. MacSwiney himself wrote: “It is not those who can inflict the most, but those that can suffer the most who will prevail.”

The Provisionals’ leader in the 1970s, Sean Mac Stíofáin (who was baptized John Stephenson in Leytonstone, England, as a Catholic, despite the fact that neither of his parents was Catholic) announced melodramatically at his trial that he would be “dead within six days”.  After four days, however, – amid rumours that he had been paying frequent visits to the prison showers – he agreed to take liquids (including soup and sweet tea). His hunger strike led to tumultuous scenes in Dublin and protests outside the Mater Hospital where he was visited by the then Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Dermot Ryan, and his predecessor, Dr John Charles McQuaid. He was ordered off his hunger strike by the Army council after 53 days and was never to regain his influence.

Bobby Sands

Bobby Sands was the first of ten Provisional IRA  prisoners to die during a  hunger strike in 1981. The ten men survived without food for 46 to 73 days, taking only water and salt, before succumbing. Sands’s death resulted in a new surge of IRA recruitment and activity. International media coverage brought attention to the hunger strikers, and the republican movement in general, attracting both praise and criticism. Sands wrote a book on the subject, One Day in My Life and was the subject of a film, Hunger.

The Physical Force Tradition

Charles Townshend[xi] wrote that the Easter Rising was: “A manifestation of violence as politics. It was not the prelude to a democratic national movement which led in turn to the establishment of a ‘normal’ constitutional national polity. It was, rather, a form of politics which may be called ‘demonstration politics’, the armed propaganda of  a self-selected vanguard which claimed the power to interpret the general will. Cathartic action was substituted for methodological debate; ideal types replaced reality; symbols took on real power. The Irish Republic, ‘virtually established’, would not now go away, yet it could never exist- not, at any rate, as the ‘noble house’ of Pearse’s thought”.

Conor Cruise O’Brien pointed out 30 years ago that Pearse and his colleagues believed they were entitled , although they were but a small unelected  group of conspirators  in a democratic country, to stage a revolution in 1916 in which many innocent people were killed –  entitled  because their judgement was superior to that of the population at large. For generations afterward, the IRA used the same argument, seeing themselves as the heirs of Pearse. Why was it right for the 1916 martyrs, O’Brien asked , yet wrong for the Officials, the Provisionals and now the Continuity and Real IRA to emulate them?

Former Provo, Danny Morrison,  explained in a Pearse documentary Fanatic Heart, that Pearse’s rhetoric was useful to the Provos when they were making war, but is inconvenient when they are trying to make peace. Did  the 1916 Rising set an unfortunate and tragic precedent?

Ruth Dudley Edwards: “With another generation of intransigents murdering in our name, isn’t it time we contemplated the heresy that the 1916 rebellion was misconceived and without justification, and that the physical force tradition in the 20th century has been an unmitigated disaster?”

False Analogies

My main theme in the article is the damaging effects of myths and martyrdom.

The road to hell is paved with false analogies. However noble his intentions, Martin McGuinness was mistaken when he thought the LTTE were in the market for negotiation in the same way as the Provisional IRA. The political will did arrive eventually in Northern Ireland, but even today I am reading of bombs being discovered all over Ireland. However strong the desire for peace among most people a small handful of diehards can continue to maim and kill. Who else wants that.

I don’t want to get into comparative horrors. I agree that there is a great deal of difference between Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka but if you read the article again you will see that I am not only writing about Northern Ireland.

I accept that the horrors of recent times have been worse in Sri Lanka than in Ireland, but Irish nationalists have long memories going back 800 years. Two events that stand out have been classified as genocide.

Cromwell held all Irish Catholics responsible for the rebellion of 1641. The New Model Army 1649-53 campaign remains notorious in Irish popular memory as it was responsible for a huge death toll among the Irish population ( possibly 40%). Irishmen were sent to the West Indies to work as slaves on the sugar plantations.

Broadcaster and historian Robert Kee suggested that the Irish Famine of 1845 is “comparable” in its force on “popular national consciousness to that of the ‘final solution’ on the Jews”. Ireland’s population fell by between 20 and 25%. One million people died of starvation and typhus. A million more emigrated. Millions emigrated over following decades. Some 2.6 million Irish entered overcrowded workhouses, where more than 200,000 people died. The 1911 Census showed that the island of Ireland’s population had fallen to 4.4 million, about half of its peak population. The population of Ireland has never got back to pre-famine levels. The famine was not simply a natural disaster. It was a product of social causes and British government policies based on voodoo economics.

Foreign Intervention

Look at the backgrounds of some who have claimed to speak for the Irish to the extent that they thought they had the right to kill the Irish for their own good.

Many of the most active Republicans were born outside Ireland. Tom Clarke was born in the Isle of Wight and spent his childhood in South Africa where his father was a British soldier. James Connolly spent the first part of his life in Edinburgh. Jim Larkin grew up in Liverpool. Eamon de Valera was born in Manhattan and had a Cuban father (Edgar Hoover described him as a ‘Portuguese Jew’). Liam Mellows was born in Lancashire. Mary MacSwiney was born and educated in London and Cambridge. Sean MacBride, (Maude Gonne’s son – Maude herself, a fervent Irish nationalist and muse of WB Yeats, was born near Farnham in Surrey, England, the eldest daughter of Captain Thomas Gonne of the17th Lancers, whose own ancestors hailed from Caithness in Scotland.) the IRA chief of staff and future founder of Amnesty International, was born in France where he was brought up speaking French.

Volunteers from London, Liverpool and Glasgow fought during the 1916 Rising, and this was the first time many of them had actually been to Ireland. There were also reports of people from Poland, Finland and Sweden fighting alongside the insurgents.

Padraic Pearse’s father was from Cornwall. Pearse died for Ireland.

Robert Erskine Childers, son of British Orientalist scholar Robert Caesar Childers, was born in Mayfair, London. “grew up steeped in the most irreconcilable sort of Unionism.” He was educated at Haileybury, the elite public school for future army officers and colonial administrators. He was a steadfast believer in the British Empire and fought in the Boer War. He became disillusioned with the Empire and became converted to the cause of Home Rule for Ireland. He was parliamentary Liberal candidate for the naval town of Devonport. He was quite well known in England after his success with a spy novel, The Riddle of the Sands, which painted the Royal Navy in a good light, and was expected to win the election. When the Liberal Party dropped its intention to implement self-government in Ireland in response to threats from the Northern Ireland Unionists of a civil war. Childers abandoned his candidacy and left the party. He did some gun running for the rebels on his yacht the Asgard. He became a nationalist so intemperate and fanatically obsessed that his opposition to compromise is sometimes blamed for bringing about the Irish Civil War. He survived the Easter Rising because he was in London. Childers was later secretary-general of the Irish delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish treaty but was vehemently opposed to the final agreement. He fought on the losing side in the Civil War. The author Frank O’Connor was involved with Childers and wrote that he was ostracised by the anti-treaty forces and referred to as “That bloody Englishman”. He was executed by the Free State government. Churchill said of Childers: “No man has done more harm or done more genuine malice or endeavoured to bring a greater curse upon the common people of Ireland than this strange being, activated by a deadly and malignant hatred for the land of his birth.” Childers shook the hand of every man in the firing squad and asked his 16-year-old son to seek out everyone who had signed his death warrant and to shake them by the hand. I met that son, Erskine Hamilton Childers in 1974 when he was visiting Cobh as President of Ireland. He had also been born and educated in England and had a distinctive upper class English accent.

Countess Markievicz was a member of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. She was born Constance Georgine Gore-Booth in London and married a Polish count. She joined Sinn Fein and the Irish Citizen Army and fought in the Easter Rising. During the Rising, Lieutenant Markievicz supervised the setting-up of barricades and was in the middle of the fighting all around Stephen’s Green, wounding a British sniper. When the defeated rebels were taken to Kilmainham Jail they were jeered by the crowds as they walked through the streets of Dublin. In prison, she was the only one of seventy women prisoners who was put into solitary confinement. She was sentenced to death, but General Maxwell commuted this to life in prison on “account of the prisoner’s sex.” It was widely reported that she told the court, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me”. The prosecuting counsel, William Wylie, later to be appointed a High Court judge in 1924, wrote to his daughter and alleged that she said “I am only a woman, you cannot shoot a woman” and that she had “never stopped moaning the whole time she was in court”. She was released in 1918 and later joined the Anti-Treaty side in the Civil War. She died of TB in 1927.

Cathal Brugha was born Charles Burgess. His father was from Yorkshire. He was known for his bitter enmity towards Michael Collins. During the Easter Rising, he was severely wounded by a hand grenade, as well as by multiple gunshot wounds, and was initially not considered likely to survive. He recovered over the next year, but was left with a permanent limp. He died from a bullet wound in the leg 11 days before his 48th birthday when approaching the Free State troops brandishing a revolver in 1922.

W J Brennan-Whitmore was Michael Collins’s chief intelligence officer after being interned with him at Frongoch. He joined Sinn Fein in 1910 was active in the Irish Volunteers in North Wexford and fought at North Earl Street in the 1916 Rising. In the early 70s, Lyn Ebenezer met Joe Clarke, another republican internee at Frongoch. Clarke despised Brennan-Whitmore, saying “never trust a hyphenated Irishman”. Ebenezer also met Brennan-Whitmore himself when he was 85. He has been written out of Irish history possibly because he contributed to several ultra nationalist anti-Semitic journals. He was a prolific correspondent writing regular diatribes against the European Union in the Irish Catholic.

Margaret Skinnider was a sniper and the only female wounded in the action at Easter 1916. She was mentioned three times for bravery in the dispatches sent to the Dublin GPO. She was born in Coatbridge, Scotland.

Mango has already mentioned Sean Mac Stíofáin. Jack makes the ludicrous comment: “One can only speculate whether such (a political settlement) would have been possible without people like Sean Mac Stíofáin and William Wallace.”

The political settlement was necessary because of actions of people like Mac Stíofáin. He was born John Stephenson in Leytonstone. He spoke fluent Irish but with a cockney accent. His father was an English Tory alcoholic wife-beater. His mother, who died when John was ten, was born in Bethnal Green. He was a virulent anti-communist and a lifelong devoted Roman Catholic. Cathal Goulding, who served six years in prison with Mac Stíofáin in the 1950s, and who later became his bitter enemy as chief of staff of the rival Official IRA, was particularly scathing about “that English Irishman”. “Sean’s problem is that he spends all his time going around trying to prove to everybody that he’s as Irish as they are, and in the IRA he had to show that he was more violent than the rest. He’s too narrow, doesn’t understand politics as such, and believes physical force is the only answer.” Mac Stíofáin was nicknamed “Mac the Knife”, and personally developed the strategy of random car-bombings which paralysed town centres across the North on a daily basis in the early Seventies. He disclaimed responsibility for the innocent civilian casualties by simply declaring: “It’s a war”. Directly involved in authorising the Bloody Friday bombings of July 1972, when nine people were killed and around 130 injured, he claimed that the authorities had not acted promptly on warnings given by the IRA.

One of the key operators during the bombing campaign in England in the mid-1970s was Liam Quinn. He was one of the Balcombe Street Gang and shot dead an unarmed, off-duty policeman, Stephen Tibble. Born in San Francisco from a Mexican mother and a third generation Irish American father, he once said: “I guess that nice American boy wasn’t happy with the television culture and the Disneyland world. I guess he was looking for a new identity and better sense of values and just happened to find a worthy cause to be devoted to.”

As far back as 1920, Scottish communists John McLean and Willie Gallagher were involved in gunrunning for the IRA.

At least three members of the English group Red Action were convicted of IRA and INLA activity during the 1990s. Rudolf Raab and Hans Joachim Stemler, were Germans actively involved in the INLA.

Second generation Irish people were sometimes among the victims of IRA operations in England. For example, among those killed in the 1974 Birmingham bombs, three were of Irish descent, as were 35 of the 200 injured. IRA bombs left Irish people open to suspicion and hostility.

Proportionality and Presumption: “a self-selected vanguard which claimed the power to interpret the general will”.

In the 1960s in Northern Ireland there was a legitimate, non-violent, civil rights movement dedicated to addressing the grievances of the Catholic population. The movement was hijacked by the hard men of the Provisional IRA. Although they assumed for themselves the role of protectors of the Catholic population, their agenda was to emulate the republican martyrs of yesteryear and to fight for a united Ireland. This degenerated into atrocity and criminality[xii]. Despite the undoubted success of the Good Friday Agreement[xiii] a handful of unelected die-hards do not want peace. They want to create new martyrs for Ireland .

Is there an inevitable regression from Northern Irish Catholics suffering discrimination, to innocent English (and Irish) people being blown to giblets while enjoying a drink with friends?

The film critic Mark Cousins has noted the current prevalence of vengeance as a theme in movies. He noted that one of the questions of our time is how a tribe that has been harmed finds peace. The answer for some filmmakers (presumably it makes money)  seems to be to return harm to those who harmed. Such movies seem to give comfort by ventilating an audience’s feelings of impotence.

 

LTTE Exploitation of Death

“The LTTE capitalised on the emotional force of death and its commemoration to arouse support for the cause of Eelam and the LTTE. From the very outset in 1983 they exploited the death of their fighters in action by organising funeral processions, even clandestine ones, to incite people against the enemy and to draw them to the LTTE cause. Then, circa 1989 they even took the radical step of claiming the primary rights over the corpses of all their fighters; and decreeing that even those of Saivite faith should be buried not cremated… The institutionalisation of commemoration was gradually expanded over the years that followed and rendered as evocative as it was systematic. This event was augmented by a series of other rites of homage recognising key Tiger heroes and heroines, in effect generating a ritual calendar of ten ceremonies every year”.[xiv]

The LTTE were noted for inventing suicide bombing. Black Tigers could have a noble death sacrificing themselves for the cause. They carried cyanide capsules around the neck so they would not be captured alive. It has been noted by many that Prabhakaran did not take this route himself. One recent comment on Groundviews by someone critical of the GOSL: “When the moment came he did not have the guts to commit suicide even though he recommended it heartily to his underage combatants.”

Choosing Martyrdom

Armchair warriors and conflict junkies get some satisfaction from  keeping anger alive and espousing vengeance as if life were a movie, the pain of the wounded and incarcerated a matter relevant to their own egos. Some warriors use real, deadly bombs. The Real IRA as of June 2005, was believed to have a maximum of about 150 members. One of the organisation’s founders, the sister of Bobby Sands, Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, said: “Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers. He did not die for nationalists to be equal British citizens within the Northern Ireland state”.

I was in a bar in Cork city centre when news of the Omagh bombing was on the TV. Everyone in the bar wept unashamedly. Only a tiny minority wants such brutality. On Saturday 15 August 1998, 29 people died and approximately 220 were injured as a result of a car bombing carried out by the Real IRA in the town of Omagh, in County Tyrone. The victims included people from many different backgrounds. Among them were Protestants, Catholics, a Mormon, nine children, a woman pregnant with twins, two Spanish tourists and other tourists on a day trip from across the border in the Republic of Ireland. Bobby may have made a conscious decision to “die for Ireland”. The victims of Omagh did not.

No-one has been successfully criminally convicted of the bombing but a retrial of a civil case brought by relatives of some of the victims against Colm Murphy and Seamus Daly has been set for October 3 2012. In June 2009 Michael McKevitt, a convicted Real IRA leader serving a 20-year jail sentence,  and Liam Campbell were found liable for the bombing in a civil ruling. Mr Justice Morgan, now Northern Ireland’s lord chief justice, ordered them to pay £1.6m in compensation.

As I write this I am reading reports of IED bombs being disabled in Cork, Belfast and Dublin in the past week. The Army Bomb disposal Squad have had five call-outs in a week. Action and reaction – will the circle be unbroken?

Revolutionary leaders presume a lot. Pearse might nobly say: “I care not though I were to live but one day and one night, if only my fame and my deeds live after me”. Thanga might say: “Prabhakaran was a brave, self-less and dedicated leader who lived by example. A leader who never slept on a mat or used a pillow!” Did Prabhakaran ever ask those who are shown in the horrific Channel 4 images if they wanted to be martyrs? Was there a referendum on martyrdom,  a focus group?

In his acceptance address to the Gandhi Foundation when receiving their 2008 Peace Award, my friend Harold Good, who played an important role in the Northern Ireland peace process, quoted a child who wrote: “I want to grow up in a Northern Ireland where you can look at a sunset without wondering what they are bombing tonight.” Harold commented: “Today our children see sunsets instead of bombs. As a community we have faced and accepted realities; engaged in dialogue; achieved consensus; accepted compromise and witnessed the signs and symbols of peace.” Harold told me recently that he follows events in Sri Lanka with great interest and concern.

Read the comments on the Channel 4 website. My feeling is that most of the hatred is coming from people who do not live in Sri Lanka. Is this hatred and lust for revenge healthy or productive?

Human beings suffer,

They torture one another,

They get hurt and get hard.

No poem or play or song

Can fully right a wrong

Inflicted or endured.

History says, Don’t hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that a further shore

Is reachable from here.

Seamus Heaney The Cure at Troy

The Legacy of the Martyrs

The two major political parties in Ireland today developed from the opposing sides in the Civil War. Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny) was the anti-treaty party of De Valera. Fine Gael was the pro-treaty party of Cosgrave, Collins and the Free State government. De Valera fought against the treaty because it left Ireland divided, part of the Commonwealth and owing allegiance to the Crown. Despite being on the losing side in the civil war, Fianna Fáil and De Valera dominated Irish politics for most of the state’s existence. Since the formation of the first Fianna Fáil government on 9 March 1932, the party has been in power for 61 of the last 79 years. Its longest continuous period in office was 15 years and 11 months (March 1932–February 1948). Its single longest period out of office, in that time, has been 4 years and 4 months (March 1973–July 1977. Although De Valera fought the treaty because it divided Ireland, anyone fighting for a united Ireland during De Valera’s long reign was likely to be interned or executed.

A republic was not declared until 1949. Ireland is still divided. One might ask whether the violence and suffering of the war of independence and the civil war were worth it.

Fianna Fáil were practically wiped out at the last general election because of the public perception that corrupt and incompetent politicians had ruined the country’s economy.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has proposed that former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern be expelled from the party, saying he “betrayed the trust” of the country and the political organisation. Martin said the Mahon tribunal’s  final report, which found Mr Ahern failed to “truthfully account” for the source of bank account lodgements, confirmed the former Fianna Fáil leader’s personal behaviour had fallen short of the standard expected of holders of high office.

The report referred to was Tribunal of Inquiry Into Certain Planning Matters and Payments, commonly known as the Mahon Tribunal, The report accused Ahern of untruthfulness. It found former European commissioner Pádraig Flynn behaved corruptly, and said another former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, had abused his power.

“Corruption in Irish political life was both endemic and systemic. It affected every level of government, from some holders of top ministerial offices to some local councillors, and its existence was widely known and widely tolerated,” said the report.

Here is another quotation from that man Yeats.

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone?
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Enough Martyrs

Someone commented on Groundviews: “The IRA and the LTTE had to make the best of whatever resources they had. People, be they majorities or minorities will rise up when they can no longer put up with the oppression that they have to face. The French Revolution, Russian Revolution and the Cuban Revolution were inevitable due to the oppression that people had to face.”

My response was: “What do you mean by “people”? Looking at the specific case of the 1916 Rising – there is no disagreement among Irish historians on this point and never has been; the rising had little or no popular support and the leaders were regarded with derision. The situation in Northern Ireland at the time of Bobby Sands’s martyrdom was that Catholics were suffering severe discrimination. Bobby Sands was not fighting for an end to discrimination as such. He was fighting for a united Ireland. What peace has been achieved in Northern Ireland has come because both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are both members of the EU and much of the Good Friday agreement was about setting up institutions which covered All Ireland. Although most Irish people are grateful for peace Bobby Sands’s sister and her husband feel they have the right to interpret his ‘legacy’ by killing innocent people. Some freedom fighters!”

The same commenter wrote about “the struggle for freedom – to preserve one’s culture at any cost… There is such a thing as a ‘national consciousness’ in which the abuses of the past are not forgotten but remain vibrant and alive in the form of a collective memory. It is to this category that the ‘martyrs’ belong. They are not remembered for going on hunger strikes or surrendering at the very end – which your article makes a mockery of – but for the stand they take against injustice. Many of them are revolutionaries. None are afraid to die, which is where the hero-worship comes into play. Whether or not you agree with their cause is irrelevant; the mark that they leave on the collective consciousness of a people or nation is indelible.”

One comment was: “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. In this world that we live in, there are many who are willing to live on their knees, but then there are the few who would rather die on their feet then live on their knees be it for a united Ireland or for a separate state called Tamil Eelam…don’t forget that William Wallace or Prabhakaran did not wake up one fine day and decide that they must fight the British or the Sinhala armed forces. It was the many years of oppression that their people had to undergo which made them take up arms against their oppressors.

We need to unpack lethal clichés like these. Where do you draw the line between national consciousness and delusional, dangerous myth-making? The commenter’s knowledge about William Wallace seems to rely solely on Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart. According to Wikipedia: “Not much is known about him beyond his military campaign of 1297–98, and the last few weeks of his life in 1305. Even in recent years, his birthplace and his father’s name have been disputed.”

“Some accounts have uncritically copied elements from the epic poem, The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Knight of Elderslie, written around 1470 by Blind Harry the minstrel. Harry wrote from oral tradition describing events 170 years earlier, and is not in any sense an authoritative descriptor of Wallace’s exploits. Much of the poem is clearly at variance with known historical facts and records of the period and is either fabricated using traditional chivalric motifs or ‘borrowed’ from the exploits of others and attributed to Wallace.”

The script for Gibson’s film was written by Randall Wallace and was largely based on Blind Harry’s account.

In defending his script against criticism, Randall Wallace has said, “Is Blind Harry true? I don’t know. I know that it spoke to my heart and that’s what matters to me, that it spoke to my heart.” However some important aspects of the plot, e.g. his affair with Princess Isabella, are based neither on history nor Blind Harry.

Print the legend!

Is it a good thing to keep alive the abuses of the past in order to continue the bloodshed? Ernest Renan wrote that nationhood requires forgetting many things. He cited the massacre of Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s Day as a symbol of the kind of thing France needed to forget in order to be a nation.

Just looking at Northern Ireland from the late 60s: there was undoubtedly discrimination against Catholics and civil rights groups protested against that. The Provos latched onto the civil rights movement and the bloodshed started.

The Provos were not fighting for civil rights or “freedom”. They were fighting for a united Ireland. Most people in the whole of Ireland then and now could not give a toss about a united Ireland and certainly would not want to die for it.

I am not saying that violence is never necessary, I am saying that rebel leaders like Pearse, Sands and Prabhakaran might have the right to choose martyrdom for themselves but those Spanish tourists and the pregnant woman in Omagh did not choose to be blown to giblets.

The best resources the Real IRA have are about 150 volunteers and bombs with which to kill tourists and pregnant women.

Another wrote: “Martyrdom is a well-known phenomenon in human history. Especially, when a minority fights against a majority oppression that is how they try to award the people who sacrifice their lives to their cause. That is one of promises, if not the only promise,, which they offer to the young recruit if they die during the battle against the oppressors because they do not have anything else to offer. This is common to Irish Republicans, Tamil Tigers, Palestinian militants, Taliban fighters, Kashmir insurgents, etc. The majority can pay their soldiers and supporters by other means such as money, government contracts, positions in the government, ministerial posts, diplomatic postings, etc. Most of them, if not all, fight for the majority cause for their personal benefit. That is why they do not and cannot talk about martyrdom”.

The Easter Rising of 1916. This was not a simple case of a minority being oppressed by a majority. The rebels were ethnically and religiously part of the majority population. The enemy was the imperial power which had colonised Ireland for 800 years. The rebels were a minority in that they had no popular support. I am asking if it was legitimate for them to take it upon themselves to opt for violence in the name of the Irish people as a whole when the Irish people as a whole took no interest in the matter. This happened 96 years ago but has resonance today because a small band of people called the Real IRA are still engaged in a bombing campaign with no mandate from the Irish people for a cause that hardly anyone cares about. Innocent people will be killed..

In every generation some Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty. What does that mean? How many of them would be willing to die for it? How many would agree with Bernadette Sands McKevitt that it would be worth dying to object to the arrangements making up the good Friday Agreement which brought a measure of peace which most of “the people” so deeply craved?

Declan Kiberd in his great book on the forging of an Irish national identity Inventing Ireland, wrote that the Irish literary renaissance, which contributed to the attempt to forge an Irish identity, happened simply because a small group of people lived near each other and cordially hated one another. There was a great deal of cordial hating among different rebel factions also.

Enough of martyrs. Enough of revenge. Let us hope a further shore is reachable, in Sri Lanka and Ireland.


[iv] Fitzpatrick op cit.

[v] The Big Fellow: Michael Collins and the Irish Revolution

[vi] Historian John Regan in Cork Examiner 26 February 1997

[viii] Fitzpatrick op cit.

[ix]  Modern Ireland 1600-1972, Foster, RF, Allen Lane, 1988

[x]  Foster, op cit

[xi] Political Violence in Ireland: Government and Resistance since 1848, Townshend, Charles, Oxford 1983.

[xiii] The Collins Press; New Upd edition (1 Mar 2008)

[xiv] Michael Roberts

What the Tigers Mean for India

What the Tigers mean for India

This article was published on Le Monde diplomatique in May 2009

As Tamil Nadu goes to the polls, there are fears that the Tamil Tigers will regroup in the Indian state and add to insecurity in the subcontinent
May 2009, by Padraig Colman

India and Sri Lanka have both been holding elections. Although India is touted as the world’s largest democracy and Sri Lanka praised for peaceful handovers of power since independence in 1948, elections in both countries have potential for violence, and their politics are intertwined. The Sri Lanka government believes it is close to securing a military victory over the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) who have been engaged in a bloody struggle since 1983 to achieve a separate Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

As the Indian state of Tamil Nadu goes to the polls on 13 May, its chief minister M Karunanidhi and opposition leader Jeyaram Jayalalitha are trying to outdo each other in support for Sri Lanka’s Tamils. Jayalalitha has vowed that if she becomes Tamil Nadu’s chief minister again she will use her influence to send Indian troops into Sri Lanka to create a separate state of Tamil Eelam.

Although the Sinhalese are the majority in Sri Lanka, they have a minority complex: Tamil may be the language of just 11% of the population (of 20 million), but there are more than 62 million Tamil speakers just across the Palk Straits in India.

Meanwhile Tamil Nadu itself has long been fractious, and the Sri Lankan situation has a destabilising effect on its polity: many Indians in Tamil Nadu support the Sri Lankan separatist militants. Continuing civilian casualties in northern Sri Lanka have led to violent protests in Tamil Nadu, and immolations and hunger strikes. Chief Minister Karunanidhi himself went on a brief hunger strike (described as a fast from breakfast to lunch rather than a fast unto death).

Over the years, India has not just played a passive role in Sri Lankan affairs. Its intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), trained Sri Lankan Tamil militants at a RAW base in Uttar Pradesh in 1983. Arms deliveries to various Sri Lankan Tamil separatist groups began in 1984.

In 1982, exiled LTTE leader V Prabakharan had been arrested in Madras, when he was captured by a mob after a shootout with a rival militant. The Sri Lankan authorities were overjoyed that the man they had hunted for seven years for the murder of the mayor of Jaffna was now in custody.

Tamil Nadu’s chief minister was then the former film star MG Ramachandran. He and (current chief minister) Karunanidhi, another graduate of the film industry, were old rivals who saw the Eelam campaign in terms of their own electoral advantage. They used their influence to ensure that Prabakharan was not extradited to Sri Lanka and that the Indian government continued to support the separatist militants.

However, the Indian government discovered that the Sri Lankan militants it harboured were not easy to control. After Indira Gandhi was assassinated, her son Rajiv followed different advice and tried to mediate. Initially the atmosphere between the two nations improved and the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed on 29 July 1987, which led to the Indian army operating in northern Sri Lanka. India then expected the LTTE to hand over its arms, but the LTTE resisted efforts by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to disarm them: the LTTE was as ready to fight the Indians as it was to fight the Sinhalese. The Indians at first sent 10,000 troops but, with unexpected resistance from the LTTE, the number increased to 100,000. The LTTE took control of Jaffna and set about eliminating their Tamil rivals.

The Indian intervention was unpopular with the Sinhalese. As well as fighting Tamil rebels in the north, the government was simultaneously dealing with an uprising by Marxist Sinhalese nationalists in the south.

The LTTE refused to accept Rajiv Gandhi’s framework for an honourable peace. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Premadasa had been opposed to the accord from the outset. When he became president in December 1988, tensions between Sri Lanka and India increased and Premadasa continued to press for the withdrawal of the IPKF. This was completed in March 1990. Over 1,000 Indiansoldiers had been killed and more than 2,000 wounded; the financial cost to India of its intervention in Sri Lanka was put at around $1.25bn.

Indira Gandhi had been the architect of India’s interventionist policy but her son Rajiv paid the ultimate price: on 21 May 1991 he was killed by a female Tiger. India’s Supreme Court ruled that the killing was carried out on Prabakharan’s orders. Four conspirators were sentenced to death (in absentia); Prabakharan is still wanted by India.

The interim report of the Jain Commission recommended that Karunanidhi, as chief minister, and his DMK party be held responsible for abetting Rajiv’s murderers. But the final report contained no such allegations. And, in a fine irony, the current leader of the Congress Party is Rajiv’s widow, Sonia, nd the Congress government now has Karunanidhi as an ally.

Indian support

India has recently been supporting the Sri Lankan government and supplied it with radar equipment (cynical Sri Lankans say it wasn’t good enough to stop the Tigers’ air raids). India’s secret service has discreetly provided intelligence, particularly naval, and training for pilots and radar operators. India has supplied 120,000 family packs and 1,680 tonnes of food products to displaced civilians.

It has also sent a 62-member medical team, with medicines and equipment, to cater to the urgent medical requirement of injured and sick civilians being evacuated out of the conflict zone through the sea route. The team has eight doctors plus paramedical staff, and the Indian hospital there has treated over 2,500 serious cases so far, most of them surgical cases. The Indian government has promised its help in the reconstruction and reconciliation process when the war is over and will soon send de-mining teams to Sri Lanka to help civilians return to their homes. But there are fears that the LTTE will now regroup in Tamil Nadu causing continuing discord there and posing another threat to India’s security – coming on top of the activities of militant groups throughout the country and cross-border terrorism in the northwest complicated by the uneasy relationship with Pakistan.

2 comments on « What the Tigers mean for India »

  • # Richard Neva :
    25 February 2010 @03h23  
    What the Tigers mean for India
    You must see the film “The Terrorist” for a sensitive look at a woman terrorist. Like all of these movements there are two sides to each party’s intentions. It pays to study both or at least consider both sides, that is what educated people do before they toss a bomb.
  • # Padraig Colman :
    1 May 2010 @10h01  
    What the Tigers mean for India
    Thank you for your comment, Richard. I will look out for that film. “It pays to study both or at least consider both sides, that is what educated people do before they toss a bomb”. I am not sure I understand what you mean by that. Can you clarify? Generally speaking it would probably best for educated people not to toss bombs and considering both sides before doing so seems a bit irrelevant when it comes to things on the scale of tossing bombs. I’m puzzled.

Sri Lanka in July 2009

Sri Lanka: view from the ground

This was the first article I had published on Le Monde diplomatique

 

Exclusive July 2009, by Padraig Colman

Even those Sri Lankans, including Tamils, who were dubious about their government’s decision to pursue the military option against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), are relieved that the venture appears successful. They also are surprised at the reaction to the victory by nations such as the US, the UK, India and Israel, and the sharp criticism about civilian casualties and displaced people.

From Sri Lanka, it feels as if the Tamil diaspora in the UK, Canada, US and Australia has overly influenced the media in those places. People in the West seem to believe that all Sri Lankan Tamils were confined to a narrow strip of beach under shellfire from government troops, and are now herded into concentration camps. I do not wish to downplay the suffering of those in the north, but the reality is that Tamils are spread throughout Sri Lanka and many are prosperous and influential.

A distinguished Tamil journalist based in Canada, DB Jeyaraj, wrote: “The Tamils need to remind themselves that the LTTE, despite its prolonged campaign, has ultimately achieved nothing for the Tamil people. If the LTTE had converted the military strength it once enjoyed into bargaining power at the negotiating table, the Sri Lankan Tamils would have been much better off. It did not and in the process has brought misery and despair to the Tamil people.”

Dr Noel Nadesan, editor of Uthayam, a Tamil newspaper in Australia, wrote: “The Sri Lankan president deserves the congratulations of all Sri Lankans regardless of their ethnicity. More than any other community, the Sri Lankan Tamils owe him their thanks for ending their misery.”

As a Tamil blogger remarked: “I hold no brief for the Sri Lankan government which, unfortunately, is growing more despotic by the day”, but he wondered why Sri Lanka should have agreed to a ceasefire when it had the Tiger leader trapped; it was unlikely that, in similar circumstances, the US would let Osama bin Laden escape.

Hillary Clinton has criticised Sri Lanka for being too tough on the Tamil Tigers — and Pakistan for not being tough enough on the Taliban. (In Swat there are up to two million displaced civilians. There is a shortfall in humanitarian aid and NGOs are pulling out.)

The current Indian government promotes reconciliation and a just settlement for Sri Lankan Tamils. Memories of India’s previous interventions are still acute in Sri Lanka. Indira Gandhi’s government funded and armed Sri Lankan terrorists, including the LTTE. In 1987 an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) tried and failed to disarm the LTTE. Tamil sources asserted that more than half of the victims of the IPKF 1987 offensive were Tamil civilians and Brigadier Manjit Singh admitted: “We could not differentiate between the LTTE and the civilians.” In October 1987 Indian troops stormed into Jaffna hospital, throwing grenades and firing, killing 70 doctors, staff and patients.

Michael Roberts, a Sri Lankan historian, argues that the Sri Lankan army had similar problems recently, noting that “the category ‘civilian’ is an ambiguous category”, because the LTTE command-state integrated civilians into the front line. Roberts makes a comparison with the end of the second world war, when the Allies insisted on unconditional surrender and carpet bombed civilians (and exploded the atomic bomb) to attain that goal.

The Sri Lankan government was taken by surprise when Israel, in spite of or because of, its actions in Gaza, accused Sri Lanka of indiscriminate military action and violations of human rights in fighting LTTE terrorism. Israel supplied military hardware and expertise which were probably significant factors in the LTTE’s defeat.

The writer and journalist Neil Ascherson has written about the way the British delude themselves that they built and divested themselves of their empire in a decent fashion, although, in fact, “In the detention and work camps, and the resettlement villages, the British created a world no better than the universe of the Soviet Gulag.” The British foreign secretary, David Miliband, was involved during a recent visit to Colombo in a shouting match with Sri Lanka’s defence supremo, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, who felt it necessary to remind Miliband that Sri Lanka was no longer a British colony. Miliband has been complicit in US rendition and torture and Britain continues to allow the US to use the British colony of Diego Garcia, from which it expelled the inhabitants, for those purposes.

A recent report by Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, found that accountability in the US has been “deplorable”; few would doubt that the US has killed civilians and used torture in Iraq. In Britain, Miliband proposes that an inquiry into the UK’s involvement in Iraq be held in secret, but Air Marshal Sir John Walker, the former head of Defence Intelligence, said: “There is only one reason that the inquiry is being heard in private and that is to protect past and present members of this government. There are 179 reasons [179 dead soldiers] why the military want the truth to be out on what happened over Iraq.” Major General Julian Thompson said that the military wanted to be heard in public “the allegation that a British government manipulated intelligence to take part in an illegal war.”

Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN has said: “Sri Lanka is not the case of an army of occupation invading and occupying another country. Sri Lanka’s army 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.”

Because those accusing Sri Lanka of war crimes are not free of guilt themselves, should the issue of war crimes in Sri Lanka be ignored? Some would argue that a full investigation of war crimes would be a distraction from the reconciliation process; others argue that reconciliation is impossible if war crimes are not investigated (perhaps more bitterness is felt among the diaspora than among Tamils in Sri Lanka).

The reconciliation process in countries such as South Africa, Rwanda, Chile and Northern Ireland have been cited. There is no doubt that Sri Lankan Tamils have suffered discrimination and there has, in the past, been horrific anti-Tamil violence. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka is not an apartheid society like South Africa, Palestine or even Louisiana. The government was fighting terrorists, not trying to wipe out the Tamil population. In Sri Lanka a democratically-elected government increased its popularity with voters by overthrowing a de facto unelected, totalitarian military dictatorship in part of its internationally recognised sovereign territory, and intends to restore democracy to that area. In Northern Ireland peace was achieved through long negotiations when both sides became exhausted and accepted that neither could win. The IRA gave up its arms and put its goal of a united Ireland in abeyance. The LTTE went into any “negotiation” with an uncompromising demand for a separate state of Tamil Eelam.

There are arguments that the government must blame itself because of inept PR and censorship. Certainly, the news has been manipulated under the cover of “prevention of terrorism” and press freedom will continue to be threatened. Anti-terrorism laws (perhaps not as draconian as in the UK or US) remain in place and many investigations into attacks on the media remain unresolved.

President Rajapakse’s reputation is high with the Sinhalese majority and he should now have the political capital to reach out for the hearts and minds of the Tamil community and bring them within a unified nation without fear of backlash. It is to be hoped that other governments and the international media will help the nationbuilding by supporting reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

30 comments on « Sri Lanka: view from the ground »

  • #
    2 July 2009 @15h15
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Tks for the unbiased comments. You see the problem wisely and broadly. Why not others can see it this way.

    From Canada

  • # Happy Reader :
    2 July 2009 @16h19
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Thanks for the article.

    Yes, the Sri Lankan Government should reach out to the tamil community (only in Sri Lanka), but the Tamil community should also reciprocate and rule out a separate or federal state. This would remove a lot of the understadable fear and suspicion.

    Non-war related discrimination against Tamils is only the language issue for the rural community, just as the vast majority of Sinhalese faced during British rule. This should be rectified.

    But in the long run, multi-ethnic integration based on new commercial centres in the north, east and south is the only real solution. Basically, develop the rural areas and people will forget their ’greivances’.

  • # Mohamed Jamal/Doha :
    2 July 2009 @17h16
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    AS a Sri Lankan I 100% agree with what Dayan Jayatilaka our UN/Ambassador says. We have best democracy in the world. Anybody violate the law will dealt with country’s law.
  • #
    2 July 2009 @19h17
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    It has been/is dishartening to see the condescending double standards of the ’international community’ regarding the actions taken by the Sri Lankan government to unify the country.

    It is also unfathomable why a minority should be able to own almost a majority of a soverign nation, which, unfortunately was one of the fuels that supplied this three decade long pointless blaze of hatred.

    The only solution possible now is to reconcile, but remember the past such that future generations will not repeat the same mistakes, and come together to rebuild the nation to her original glory as the ’Pearl of the Indian Ocean’

  • # MAHESH :
    2 July 2009 @19h39
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    GREAT ARTICLE.THE STILL VERY BITTER AND ARROGANT TAMIL DIASPORA SHOULD READ THIS ARTICLE WITH A SENSE OF NUTRALISM.MAY SRI LANKA BE THE NATION FOR ALL AND ITS PROSPERITY,SECOND TO NONE.
  • # Sepala Munasinghe :
    2 July 2009 @19h46
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    An investigation into corruption at the highest level over an arms deal was stopped by an executive order; the Constitutional Head of the country, in whose name a criminal prosecution was brought against a private individual, was less than honest in regard to it bringing the criminal justice system into disrepute;the second legislative Chamber has in its membership convicted criminals; the first legilative Chamber comprises members who de-frauded the tax revenues of the country for their own use; a judicial inquiry by the High Court into allegations of torture could not proceed to a meaningful conclusion because of an Executive order;a Prime Minister holding office is criminally investigated by the leading law enforcement agency. Are we referring to a bannana republic? A fish and chips monarchy more likely! UK lost its moral authority long time ago to lecture on international/humanitarian law to other countries.
  • # Himan :
    2 July 2009 @19h46
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    UK’s colonial mindset has to be eradicated first. Sri Lanka is a small country, but bullying small nations should be severely dealt with.
    Sri Lanka should claim damages to the nation as a whole fromthe British giovernment. There are no two questions about it. The damage UK caused to the society, economy and environemnt is immense. They did the same to other countries they captured. It is indeed a crime. FOr that they have to pay.
    That alone would be enough for Sri Lanka to prosper and to sustain as the pearl of the Indian ocean, which existed before the British rule.
  • # Serenity Now :
    2 July 2009 @20h16
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    Very Nice article. Very good journalism. Good to know that there are still professional journalists, and not just tabloid writers out there.
  • # MahamahaRaja :
    2 July 2009 @21h17
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Tamils have not faced any “discrimination” in Sri Lanka. Wanting colonial era privileges to be maintained for them, in the home of the Sinhalese into which they were brought like slaves, which they achieved through unwavering servitude and sucking up to their colonial white masters, is UNACCEPTABLE!

    Do some research before regurgitating terrorist propaganda.

  • # Selvam :
    2 July 2009 @23h31
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    This article gives an unbias brief account in this island’s terrorist problem.No country should be given a chance to intervene into their internal problems. The tamil dispora in Uk,Usa,Canada and othere countries should not be considered as Sri Lankan tamils since they left Sri Lanka for their personal gains and only tamils in Sri Lanka should be accounted and they know their problems very well.Also they are the people who are going to live with the majority Sri Lankans.
  • #
    3 July 2009 @00h38
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Well said Le Monde. It is heartening to note that there is still unbiassed reporting without the influence of ’diaspora dollars’. Reconciliation and rehabilitation should be the need of the hour and not the hatred peddled by the tamil diaspora who are smarting due to the fact that their contributions over the years have amounted to nothing but misery for those living in SL. If they had planted some mango trees over there, people would now be reaping some fruits at least. from Nandi

    email:nandimithra@hotmail.com

  • #
    3 July 2009 @03h37
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Selective quotes from pro-government Tamils does not acurately reflect the ground situation nor does comparing the situation to other countries.
    Just because US’ and UK’s practise torture or committ other human rights violations means the Rajapaksa regime’s horrific treatment of Tamils is OK. The Rajapaksa regime are war criminals and should be treated as such.

    Kaz

  • # Nissan :
    3 July 2009 @04h52
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    Nothing more than a lip service to the Government of Sri Lanka.
  • # Lanka Lion :
    3 July 2009 @04h52
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Thank you very much.

    Nothing can be more true.

  • # Siri From NY, USA :
    3 July 2009 @06h13
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    The winners of the war against the LTTE are the Sri Lankan people and they should never allow any foreign power to interfere in the internal affairs of their country. The big losers are the Western powers who tried to side with the LTTE for Tamil diaspora votes. However it is surprising that Hillary Clinton took the stand she did as the Tamil votes in the USA is insignificant. She should also keep in mind that there are many non Tamil Sri Lankans in the USA who supported the Democratic party in the last election and her attitude may antagonise them. Many of the Tamil protesters may not even be vote carrying citizens as they came as refugees. Only the unemployed have time to protest on the streets. It is also possible that the monetary contributions made by the Tamil diaspora to Clinton’s fund may have helped her to form her opinion. This kind of foreign policy will not benefit America as we keep losing our friends all over the world and this becomes crucial in the voting at the UN. Sri Lanka has always been a friend of the USA and they are being badly treated for personal gain.
  • # Trevor (Berlin) :
    3 July 2009 @11h07
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    Well said! I belong to the Burger community, also a minority group in SL that is privileged due to it’s mother-tongue being the english language. I was born, bread and “buttered” in Colombo and grew up in a very comfortable atmosphere together with my Sinhalese, Tamil, Moor, Malay and Bora english-speaking friends, colleagues and neighbours. Mind you, the Tamil-diaspora abroad does not consist of only SL-Tamils but also Tamils from other nations. Remember, there are over 100 million Tamils in the world. In comparison, the Sinhalese (about 18 million) are in the minority. It is obvious that the English try to protect the Tamils as the Tamils were the government servants during the colonial period. The first schools built by the English in SL were in the Northern and Eastern provinces where the majority Tamils lived. The Sinhalese only wanted to see the English out of their country. It is pathetic that the English have now scooped down to such a level in allowing even SL-cricket fans be mollested by Tamil demonstrators, some of those who have not even seen the shores of SL. If such ignorance should prevail, then the SL cricket board should consider boycotting future cricket games in England. Tamils who are disheartened with our beautiful country should consider moving over to Tamil Nadu, there are over 60 million Tamils there to support you!! It’s time that the other minorites of SL expressed their views so that the world is not misled by the false propaganda of the Tamil diaspora. Politicians like Hillary Clinton should first visit our country before making unsavourable remarks. I love my motherland!
  • # mohan :
    3 July 2009 @22h41
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    It is a well balanced article..however lacks the vision of what should be done for the future..winning the hearts and minds of the minority community should be the priority of the government…Minority communities, especially tamils are wounded souls.. not necessarily of their own fault.. LTTE’s peak was infact the by product of SL policies and naiveness of the tamils..and these have to be reversed as a matter of priority by both communities.. A military victory alone does not solve a political problem that has languished over several decades in one form or the other. what is needed is progressive policies and visionery constituitions akin to other successful country for example like singapore. All communities must be a stake-holder in re-building the country. Both the tamil and sinhalese communities take a look at themselves and ask the question: we have to live in this island (where we lived for the 2000 odd years under several forms of rules) for the forseable future (unless some thing like a tsunami strikes..) and there fore we have to find a way to be masters of our own destiny.. after all the measure of a society’s progressiveness must be measured how it accommodated and co-existed with other’s not the other way around…may it is time to introduce “good citizenship” lessons as grassroot levels..A brand new contituition acceptable to all at the MACRO level would be the answer.. then at the micro level and political structures all shades of aspirations could be accommodated depending on the areas of rule..All it would take imagination and compromises by all..
  • #
    4 July 2009 @02h30
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Excellent article. If only more western journalists would bother to report on the ground realities……..

    Thank you!

  • #
    4 July 2009 @02h36
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    A beautifully written article. In my view, well balanced, and I agree with it 100%.
  • #
    4 July 2009 @03h23
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    It is a rare unbiased artile. As a Sinhalese I believe that Sri Lanka is a country belonging to all its people – regardless of their ethnicities. The issues in Sri Lanka today are common to poor people in the country – has little to do with ethnicities. Sinhala though is the official language, the private sector, recognised as the engine of growth will employ capable people who can communicate in English. Henc,there is no descrimination.
  • # Padraig Colman :
    4 July 2009 @05h54
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Thank you to all those who have made further comments.

    MahamahaRaja , who accused me of “regurgitating terrorist propaganda”, also said “Wanting colonial era privileges to be maintained for them, in the home of the Sinhalese into which they were brought like slaves, which they achieved through unwavering servitude and sucking up to their colonial white masters, is UNACCEPTABLE!”

    He seems to be confusing two types of Tamils here.

    The British indeed stole the land of the Sinhalese in order to create plantations to grow coffee, tea and rubber for the profit of the British Empire. Not unnaturally, the Sinhalese were not too keen on helping the British turn a profit on the stolen land. The British solved their labour problem by importing indentured labourers from South India to labour on the plantations and pluck the tea and work in the factories. After independence these people were deprived of citizenship by Sinhalese-dominated governments.

    The involvement of plantation Tamils in politics has mainly been restricted to trade union matters. The main thrust for a separate state for Tamils, and subsequently terrorism, has come from the Tamils in the north who have lived in Sri Lanka for many centuries. The British played a role here also because they used divide and rule tactics, as they commonly did all over the Empire, and were felt by Sinhalese to favour educated “Jaffna Tamils”.

    Plantation Tamils have very little to do with the diaspora or with terrorism. Saying that Tamils who were “brought like slaves” are “wanting colonial era privileges to be maintained for them,“ makes no sense at all. What privileges do slaves have? Do some research Mahamaha.

    Mohan said: “A military victory alone does not solve a political problem that has languished over several decades in one form or the other. What is needed is progressive policies and visionary constitutions”. I agree wholeheartedly. I would like to say to Mohan that I agree with him that progressive policies are essential if further conflict is to be avoided.

    I am limited by the space available here and was mainly focusing in this particular piece on western hypocrisy. I am working on further articles to cover Mohan’s concerns.

    Also, I have already dealt with many issues relating to Sri Lanka at great length and in great detail on another blog at Open Salon, for example:

    http://open.salon.com/
    blog/padraig colman/
    2009/02/26/
    tamil separatism in
    sri lanka part 1

  • # Ranjith V.A. Embuldeniya :
    4 July 2009 @07h10
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    While I personally agree with the article published in the Le Monde I think it would be the same with any sane minded Sri Lankan.

    Apart from the tribute we pay to the gallantry displayed by the members of the Armed Forces and the political will displayed this time in bringing this curse which was on Sri Lanka to an end, I hope and pray that successive governments will also choose their diplomats in the future in the likes of Professors Dayan Jayathilleke and Rajiv Wijesinghe who have the ingredients in them beyond any measure to represent Sri Lanka at any foreign forum.

  • # Sunil :
    4 July 2009 @07h37
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    As many others have done I wish to thank you for what I honestly believe is a truthful and extremely balanced assessment of the facts.I have no doubt that the Real Tamils of Sri Lanka ,that is the Tamil people who live there and have chosen to do so against all odds must be grateful their ordeal has finally come to an end.It is not the outcome they set out to achieve in the first instance.Thank heavens or ones Karmic forces if one is agnostic, that it’s not the outcome that the selfish and selfserving Tamil Diaspora tried to force upon them.Had that come to fruition it would have meant the death knell for the sons and daughters of thousands of innocent Tamil and Sinhalese Mothers for another 30 years whilst the diaspora parents pet and pampered their own offspring in comfortable Western climes.
  • # Ruveni :
    4 July 2009 @09h29
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    It is indeed refreshing to read a balanced presentation after reading foreign corrospondents writing with a colonial neurosis.The problem is they do not concentrate on being objective but opines views to further the interest of their own country or agenda often fashioned by their sponsers or paymasters or whom they meet in Colombo’s alienated society called the Colombians.

    I have decided not to believe BBC or Al Jazeera or CNN after following reports on Sri Lanka.So I disbelive them on Iran whereas previously some reliance would have been placed.They misled the world and themselves in supporting the terrorists and finally got egg in the face when they lost out.In shame, with the defeat of their pet poodles,they are becoming more vituperative.The real issue consequent to misreading and misinterpreting, is falling into the losers column as in Afghanistan and Iraq.So it is jealousy against a small nation for achieving which they are still trying to follow and cntnue to fail.They will never understand how to handle an issues until they know the aspirations of a wide spectrum of opinion within a country.

    Please write objectively on other conficts too.Your name is now recognised and read with respect.

  • # shanie :
    6 July 2009 @07h15
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    This blog received so many responses because in the western media there are so few objective writings.Most are subjective according to the gospet they preach.West is not interested in the truth but in the vested interest of the west,
  • # ruwan :
    11 July 2009 @07h54
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    Maham’s email address tells the tale.It reads www.tamilnation.org.He needs no further introduction.
  • # Padraig Colman :
    11 July 2009 @13h39
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    I followed the link that Maham recommended to me. I see that there is much interesting reading there which will inform work I am doing on the general subject of nationalism. I was struck by a quotation from a Tamil poem at the top of the page.

    “To us all towns are one, all men our kin.

    Life’s good comes not from others’ gift, nor ill.

    Man’s pains and pains’ relief are from within.

    Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !.”

    Those are wise words which should serve as an inspiration to all of us.

  • # MahamahaRaja :
    25 February 2010 @10h30
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    To the writer, you can moan as much you like, but the majority of Tamils in the country were brought in illegally. You still do not explain how they are “discriminated” or “marginalized.” It is you who is confused, and It is you who should do some research. Poor attempt at a straw man there with talk of “different types of tamils” as if that has any relevance whatsoever to the issue at hand.

    The entirety of the island was ruled by one Sinhalese King for the entirety of history, before the interference of colonialists, who used Tamils as a battering ram against the Sinhalese who would not bow to them, the Sinhalese who refused to learn their language, and the Sinhalese who would not convert to the whites’ religion – all these things were done by the Tamils in order to gain some power. If they had anything worth protecting, such as the Nation that the Sinhalese had, they would have fought and died for it rather than sucking up to foreign barbarians. The Sinhalese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Aborigines, Maoris, Zulus, and Native Americans all fought against foreign barbarians. Not the Tamils though. Why? I wonder.

    Stop spouting terrorist propaganda, and go sort out the problems in the banlieus before coming to talk about Sri Lanka.

  • # Prashan :
    18 April 2010 @09h02
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    Great article! But must remember Tamils are not at all discriminated in Sri Lanka. Tamil is official only in Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu means Tamil homeland where 55 million Tamils live but yet Tamil is not official there. I hope great journalists like Padraig Colman are used by BBC for interview and not Tamil diaspora terrorists like Suren Surendiran.
  • # Padraig Colman :
    1 May 2010 @07h57
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    MahamRaja – why are you sending me off to the banlieues? I write about countries that I know. I have lived in UK, Ireland and Sri Lanka. I have never lived in France so I will not attempt to write about French issues.You have a very confused picture of Sri Lankan history. I would be happy to discuss any matter with you by e-mail. contact me on spikeyriter@gmail.com. I am always happy to be corrected on matters of fact and to have a civilized, adult discussion about matters of opinion.

    Prashan I am afraid that cannot agree with you fully. I will be in touch through Facebook or e-mail. Thank you for your interest.

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.

http://colombotelegraph.com/2012/02/06/did-mia-really-shock-the-super-bowl/

 

 

 

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.

http://open.salon.com/blog/alaska_progressive/2010/05/02/new_mia_video_banned_on_youtube

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

http://agonist.org/padraig_colman/20100414/democracy_in_sri_lanka

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?

Paul Murphy MEP

This was my first article for The Nation newspaper, published on October 23 2011. It has disappeared from their website.

My compatriot, Paul Murphy MEP, an Irish member of the EU Parliament,  wants to visit Sri Lanka to lecture the government about democracy.

He is  a prematurely balding twitchy 28 years old, (There are many videos on You Tube showing Murphy ranting to an empty hall  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjToY8jULCY and demonstrating that he cannot pronounce “Sinhala”).

He has never had a proper job and has been an MEP for around eight months. No-one ever voted for him to be an MEP.

He  has been complaining about Sri Lanka in several media outlets.

“The idea to travel to Sri Lanka came from the meeting I hosted in the Parliament a few months ago about the massacre of Tamils in Sri Lanka. My wish to go was strengthened by the many meetings I have had with the Tamil Diaspora, and others active on the issue of Tamil rights, in the recent period.”

“I will continue to highlight and speak out against what I consider to be war crimes of the Rajapaksa regime and to defend the right to self determination by the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. I will also continue to speak out against the ongoing militarisation of Sri Lankan society and against the repression used against any opposition to the Sri Lankan regime. The whole of the working class, poor farmers and poor people, Sinhala and Tamil, are victims of this repressive government in my opinion.”

As well as complaining that he was refused a visa to visit Sri Lanka, he is raising the issue of an Irish citizen, Gunasundaram Jeyasundaram,  whom he says has been held prisoner by the Sri Lankan authorities without charge for four years.

Other than the assertions of Murphy himself. I have been unable to find much  information about Gunasundaram Jeyasundaram. All I know is that the man studied polymers at Queen Mary College in the 1970s.

I asked the Irish Ambassador in New Delhi, Kenneth Thompson, if any representations  had been made to him about this case.  I was  fobbed off by one of His Excellency’s minions. The press office of the Foreign Ministry in Dublin told me: “The Department is aware of this case and all possible consular assistance is being provided to Mr. Gunasundaram Jayasunderam’s wife and family through the Consular Assistance section in Dublin, the Embassy of Ireland in New Delhi and the Honorary Consul of Ireland in Sri Lanka.”

I have asked Paul Murphy himself for more information. He has not responded.

I would greatly appreciate it if  any readers  point me in the direction of some information about Gunasundaram Jeyasundaram. (I can be contacted at spikeyriter@gmail.com.)  Is he in custody in Sri Lanka? If so what has he done?

I was sorry to hear that Paul Murphy was  unable to get a visa to visit Sri Lanka. I understand that he  wished to visit the north of the country. It will be  a pity if he does  not get an opportunity to do so. I do not think he has  visited Sri Lanka before. If he  had, he should  be impressed by the changes that have occurred all over the country since the Tamil Tigers were defeated.

Paul Murphy wants to teach Sri Lanka about democracy. How many people voted for Paul Murphy? President Rajapaksa, despite a strong  animosity expressed in some papers, notably the Sunday Leader, and despite anxieties about the economy and worker unrest,  has  generally won the confidence of voters and he currently seems unassailable. A recent Gallup found that more than nine out of ten Sri Lankans approved of the president. Mainly, Sri Lankans of all ethnicities are grateful to President Rajapaksa that their children can go to school without fear of being blown to giblets.

Joe Higgins of the Irish Socialist Party won the Dublin EP seat in 2009 but gave it up when he was elected to the Irish national parliament on the wave of voter disgust with mainstream Irish parties.

There was criticism that Higgins was being less than transparent: “He deliberately kept people in the dark about the fact that if he got elected to Europe he would throw in the towel at the first smell of a general election and that in truth people were not electing him but some unknown entity”. There was a great deal of high-minded debate about how the Socialist Party would choose a successor to Higgins but none of this seemed to involve consulting  the electorate.

Paul Murphy worked for Higgins and took over Higgins’s EP seat. The above comment is from the website politics.ie. Here are some more:  “He [Murphy] is known to nobody outside of his small party and has never sought election…This appointment of Higgins’s assistant is complete cronyism despite the tripe being written by the hard-line socialists.” “The people voted for a list that named Ruth Coppinger as the replacement for Joe Higgins, in the present circumstances. For the Socialist Party to instead appoint a crony of Joe Higgins is a sign of contempt for democracy.”

How many votes did Paul Murphy get? None! How many votes did President Rajapaksa get?

Paul Murphy, in his infinite compassion,  wants to get involved in everyone’s problems and spreads himself thin. The British satirical magazine Private Eye has been bursting bubbles of pomposity since the early 60s. One of the Eye’s great comic creations is the all-purpose lefty agitator Dave Spart. Spartism has entered the English language. The Urban Dictionary defines a Spartist as: “An individual who observes Marxist theory to the exclusion of all else. Often condemns most things in society and the world with meaningless far left-wing dogma, and often ends up in logical cycles and jumping to conclusions in the process. Such people claim to be progressive, but are as backward thinking, unimaginative, hare-brained and colourless as the leaders of the former Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe.”

There is a lot of Spartism on Paul Murphy’s website: http://www.paulmurphymep.eu/

Paul is a feisty little fellow. His tireless ecumenical activism tempts me to rename him  Daibhéid Ó Speartáin. Murphy is supporting striking Kazakh oil workers, unionists in Columbia, Syrian revolutionaries, Bahraini and Chinese dissidents, oppressed Palestinians (he took part in the flotilla to Gaza), he protested against a high speed rail link in Italy, he feels for the homeless all over the world. The Chinese government must be trembling to know that Daibhéid Ó Speartáin has them sussed.

There are many problems to be solved in Ireland.

Ireland has a reasonable international image when it comes to human rights and global charitable works. However, it has to be noted that the Irish government (not the current one) allowed Shannon Airport to be used by the CIA for extraordinary rendition flights. That means anonymous people held without charge were being flown all over the world to be tortured with the complicity of the Irish government.

This was not Paul Murphy’s fault, of course. He was not a member of the Irish government. He has never been elected by anyone. He has no power or influence. Murphy certainly has no mandate from the Irish people to take on the entire world’s problems.

Lest we accuse Paul of neglecting problems back home in dear old Ireland, it should be noted that he is suing the Irish police for assaulting him when he was protesting at the Shell gas plant at Corrib. He protested  against cutbacks at Tallaght Hospital. He is active in Free Education for Everyone. In 2009, he was working on a PhD thesis titled “Does socialist law exist?” In Ireland,  he has been prominent in campaigning for young workers rights, holding a series of public meetings throughout Dublin as part of the “Jobs not Dole” campaign. Paul Murphy has also been vocal in opposition to the EU/IMF bailout of Ireland and austerity measures being carried out by the government including the proposed “Household Tax”.

Mind you,  he has not got a mandate from the Irish people to address those issues either. He has no electoral mandate at all.

Writing in the October 2011 issue of Lanka Monthly Digest, Amantha Perera reminisces about his grim visits to Vavuniya during the war. He finds the North as a whole transformed for the better, with Vavuniya a particular revelation. The Tampa hotel is providing better facilities for journalists than five-stars in Bangkok and a boisterous crowd gets drunk around the pool. The next morning Perera chats to some students one of whom says he is sleepy because he studies late into the night. “I am not scared to study alone at night, there are no more loud noises”.

This reminded me of something my friend the Reverend Harold Good said in 2008 when receiving his  award from the Gandhi Foundation for his role in the Northern Ireland peace process. A child wrote: “I want to grow up in a Northern Ireland where you can look at a sunset without wondering what they are bombing tonight.” Harold commented: “Today our children see sunsets instead of bombs. As a community we have faced and accepted realities; engaged in dialogue; achieved consensus; accepted compromise and witnessed the signs and symbols of peace.”

Is amnesia more conducive to reconciliation than truth? Do we need a young Dublin jackeen who has never set foot on Sri Lankan soil  and has very little experience of life in general to remind us that horrors have occurred in this land?

Don’t be a begrudger,  Paul. Let Sri Lanka continue to enjoy the peace we have had for over two years.

Death of an Editor

On 8 January 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed on his way to work in Sri Lanka.

He died after three hours of brain surgery by a team of twenty surgeons. It was initially assumed that he died of gunshot wounds to the head but there was later speculation that the immediate cause of death was a metal spike rammed into his brain through his eyeball.

Lasantha started out as a  lawyer but turned to journalism and politics. His Good Morning show on  Sri Lankan MTV was very popular. Wickrematunge was founder and editor of the Sunday Leader  newspaper. The Sunday Leader had a reputation for in-depth investigative reporting and fearless exposure of corruption. He  told Reporters without Borders in an interview that his aim as a journalist was to “denounce the greed and lies of the powerful.”

He was 51 years old and the father of three children, Avinash, Ahimsa and Aadesh. He had only recently married his second wife, Sonali. He was in his car driving to the Sunday Leader office at Templars Road, Mount Lavinia from his residence at Nugegoda when assassins on motorcycles blocked his car in rush-hour traffic about 100 metres from an air force checkpoint near one of the city’s airports.

Eye witnesses told police that two of the men stopped their motor cycles at a distance and watched for a while. The assailants smashed the window of his car with a steel bar before shooting him at close range in the head, chest and stomach. He was shot at around 10.45 am at Attidiya Road, Ratmalana. After the first man shot him, a second man bludgeoned him with a blunt instrument and fled the area.

The victim was rushed to the hospital by the police with the assistance of residents of the area. Wickrematunge had severe brain damage at the time he was admitted to Kalubowila Teaching Hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries at around 2pm.

Police said that there was evidence he had been trailed by his killers all the way from Nugegoda and pounced on after he reached the particular spot near the Malagala Model School on Attidiya Road, which is “a lonely area”.

“For a number days, Wickramatunge’s movements to and from his office had been followed by certain elements,” police said.

Previous Threats

There were many suspects. Wickrematunge was an exceptionally brave man who had made many enemies. He managed to upset all the political parties, presidents, ministers, corrupt businessmen, criminal elements and all the various factions of the terrorist groups. The paper exposed internal rifts and sexual scandals in the Marxist JVP.

A few years before his murder Wickrematunge was assaulted by an unidentified gang which blocked his vehicle on a narrow lane when he was returning after work. On another occasion, gunmen attacked his house.

The printing press of the Sunday Leader media group, which is in a high security area near Colombo, was destroyed in an arson attack by a group of gunmen in November 2007.

Wickrematunge told Reporters without Borders at the time that the attack was “a commando operation supported by the government.” The police promised a thorough investigation but the result is still awaited.

Wickrematunge was often the target of intimidation attempts and libel suits. The most recent lawsuit had been  brought by the president’s brother, defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who got a court to ban the newspaper from mentioning him for several weeks. President Rajapaksa called Wickrematunge a “terrorist journalist” during an interview with a Reporters without Borders representative in Colombo.

According to police, Wickrematunge had complained that he had been threatened with death over the phone on a number of occasions.

Tributes  [i]

Prabath Sahabandu

Prabath Sahabandu, editor of another Sri Lankan newspaper, The Island wrote a moving editorial.

“The tragic death of Editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge has diminished us beyond measure. Our sorrow and consternation know no bounds. Gone is a fearless newspaperman who did not give a damn about his personal safety in putting forth his bold views and taking on the high and mighty.

Having cut his journalistic teeth on political writing at a relatively young age, Lasantha stood political writing on its head in this country and made an invaluable contribution to The Sun, The Island and The Sunday Times before moving on to edit the Sunday Leader.

An exuberant maverick, he represented the new vitality of Sri Lankan journalism, braving the political turbulence and social upheavals of his times. His penchant for controversy was monumental and he made waves of tsunami proportions in political and journalistic circles, sailing as he did at times close to the wind. His racy style was truly remarkable and made him stick out like a sore thumb. His pungent columns spiced with juicy gossip, trenchant comment and caustic criticism were the hallmark of the paper he edited with a zealous passion.

In a country embroiled in a protracted conflict which has brought about a culture of intolerance, violence and impunity, bravery comes with an exorbitant price. Lasantha, therefore, had his fair share of enemies. He became a target of several goon attacks during the past two decades. He was roughed up, his house bombed and his press burnt.

Investigations into those despicable incidents predictably drew a blank. But, he was unstoppable. Each time an attempt was made to frighten him into submission, he bounced back more fiercely than ever much to the disappointment of the sinister forces that sought to break his will.

There may have been people who had problems with the brand of journalism Lasantha practised. But, none of them had a right to silence him violently. We don’t intend to indulge in prejudgment but we have reason to believe that Lasantha was felled because of what he wrote.

The government has undertaken to probe Lasantha’s violent death. We only hope at least that investigation will be conducted to a successful conclusion. Since there were some government bigwigs among those who were at the receiving end of Lasantha’s scathing criticism and sensational exposes and launched venomous attacks on him, the government will remain a suspect in his killing, until and unless his assassins are brought to justice and it is proved that they are without government links.

Unfortunately, two acts of barbaric violence committed by unidentified gangs in quick succession this week in the South – the arson attack on the MTV and the brutal killing of Lasantha – have come to eclipse the spectacular victories the country is achieving in its war against terror in the North. Hence, it behoves the government hunt down Lasantha’s killers and the arsonists responsible for the attack on the MTV, if one is to believe that it has nothing to hide.

Goodbye dear friend, Lasantha!” [ii]

Rajpal Abeynayake

Rajpal Abeynayake is currently editor of Lakbima News.

“My initial encounter with Lasantha was when I was working in The Island. We were both very new to the field then but even as a young reporter, he showed much promise. Even at that time, he was showing tendencies of reporting many controversial stories.” As a journalist, he was very much of an inside player and was very popular for his own brand of investigations. Whatever he worked on, he did it with a lot of passion and energy. He brought out a lot of issues and his objective was to expose the misdeeds of the country. His greatest strength as a journalist was the drive which he possessed to go to any length in order to obtain a story.

This assassination will certainly have a tremendous negative impact on the field of journalism. First, it was the abduction of Keith Noyahr and this year it’s this assassination; a cold-blooded murder in broad daylight. It is evident that the situation keeps getting worse. After this point, every journalist will certainly think twice about publishing a controversial topic and the news stories would often becensored, after all everyone is concerned about his life.” [iii]

Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Handunnetti once was a Sunday Leader staffer but now writes for Ceylon Today, a new Sunday paper founded by wealthy businessman Tiran Alles, who is negotiating to get former Army commander Sarath Fonseka released from prison.

Handunnetti  described Lasantha thus: “A buoyant and mischievous editor with the largest heart and a brilliant mind, the heartbreaking fact is that while his many colleagues were becoming statistics, it was Lasantha who would not let the targets of media violence die without cause by creating a fiery media debate around their murders. To most, that is why he was the elixir of hope and an antidote to their woes.

Lasantha was an epoch-making investigative journalist, the fiercest government critic and the most courageous man I ever knew. The man who single-handedly revolutionized Sri Lankan journalism and made a conscious decision to lose much advertising revenue in the name of the Sunday Leader’s motto: to write Unbowed and Unafraid…. This editorial room is silent today, ominously so. We do not hear his infectious laughter. But the journalists resolutely go about doing their daily work with a body language that strangely appears to signify that his spirit still lingers: Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten.” [iv]

DBS Jeyaraj

David Jeyaraj is a freelance  journalist in Canada. He is a Christian Tamil from Sri Lanka’s northern province who has been critical of the government but also received death threats from the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) and a beating in which his leg was broken.

Jeyaraj wrote: “Lassie Boy, as I called him, was one of the bravest journalists I ever knew. It was he who single-handedly changed the nature of journalism in Sri Lanka. Lassie belonged to that dwindling tribe of scribes who believed in speaking truth to power. His death or the way in which he was killed has brought about a great void in Sri Lankan journalism. Yet the Sunday Leader follows the path chartered by Lassie ‘unbowed and unafraid’. The staff remains loyal to his principles and memory and continues amid very difficult circumstances.

Lasantha’s brother Lal is now the managing Editor while Frederica Jansz (another gutty journalist) has taken over as Editor.” [v]

Rohan Pethiyagoda

Pethiyagoda is a biologist, founder of the  Wildlife Heritage Trust of Sri Lanka and Cambridge graduate who also has written for the Sunday Leader.

“Lasantha Wickrematunge often referred to the well-known warning of German pastor Martin Niemoeller-who fell victim to Nazi forces-on the consequences of inaction and passivity in the face of fascist terror….In the 1980s, some Sinhalese (JVPers) were being hunted by pro-government vigilantes, he wrote about them and earned the ire of an all-powerful personality at that time who promised him to be ‘garlanded with a necklace of burning tyres.’

He had to flee the country at that time but came back soon. He consistently stood up for ethnic and religious minorities who were victims of the war on terrorism. That was a cardinal sin in the eyes of many. He exposed bribery and corruption, nepotism, racketeering, gangsterism in all its forms, bureaucratic lethargy and corruption under which the public suffered and even judicial misdemeanours…. Wickrematunge in effect became a one-man opposition to government. He warned the public of the possibility of an impending dictatorship and the need of an unfettered media to prevent such moves.” [vi]

Dayan Jayatilleke

Dr Jayatilleke is currently Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Paris.

“Lasantha had guts, which is more than I can say for the cowardly barbarians who murdered this unarmed man….

“I do not know who killed him, but I must disclose that I do know something about his killers and those who ordered the killing. They were cowardly barbarians. They were cowards because they killed an unarmed man, and anyone who intentionally kills an unarmed man or woman is a coward. They were barbarians because they expressed their disagreement with what Lasantha wrote and did, not by opposing his ideas with the same weapons of words, but by butchering him. That conduct places one outside the borders of humanity and universal values of civilization.”[vii]

Malinda Seneviratne

Seneviratne has been a prolific freelance journalist and is currently editor of the Sunday newspaper The Nation. He wrote a moving poem about Lasantha’s death.

“And I, hardly a friend or fellow-traveller,

salute him,

for I prefer word to silence

in the matter of political engagement.

There is a finger that is itching to point,

let us point it at ourselves

at least in the manner of a question.

Who are we, who am I in these times

of omission and commission?”[viii]

“I lament the death of a fellow journalist but more so a citizen whose assassination says something serious about the law and order situation and possibly says a lot about our political culture.”

Manik de Silva

Currently editor of the Sunday Island: “I don’t think that anyone else has created more waves in contemporary journalism than him. He attracted a lot of information and I think his legal training as a lawyer also drove him into venturing deep into a story. However there is this perception that he was a politically partial journalist, with which I do not agree since I believe that he was politically neutral.”

Frederica Jansz

The current editor of the Sunday Leader: “The public view of Lasantha the journalist differed from the very private man. He was fun to be around with and was constantly making people laugh. Never one to pull rank in office, Lasantha would often whistle out of pitch to make his colleagues giggle. Though a teetotaller himself, he would offer his friends and colleagues a tipple from his vastly untouched but well stocked bar at home. He would give his last penny to people in financial distress nary a thought.”

Posthumous Editorial

After Wickramatunge’s death, the Sunday Leader published an editorial purporting to be a prediction of his own death. In it Wickrematunge quotes Pastor Niemoeller:

First they came for the Jews

and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists

and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists

and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

He  addresses President Mahinda Rajapaksa as his friend of long-standing: “In the wake of my death, I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too depends on it.”

The editorial drew international attention and was movingly read by actor distinguished actor Bill Nighy on the BBC.

Rajpal Abeynayake is convinced that Lasantha did not write that editorial: “So why not Rohan Pethiyagoda the ghost writer of the ‘They are going to kill me soon’’ so-called Lasantha Wickrematunge editorial, (written of course by Pethiyagoda categorically after Wickramatunge’s death…) now come out from his hiding place and ghost write another editorial for Fred about not bowling to the fielding side? Shoosh! Entire factories of corny humbug — only at that silly rag they are capable of it.”  No-one, to my knowledge,  has challenged Abeynayake’s assertion, although some have said it does not matter who wrote the editorial.[ix]

Handunnetti wrote: “Lasantha Wickrematunge wrote a powerful editorial which was published posthumously. It does not matter if he wrote the whole of it or only a part of it or even none of it – the style, spirit and panache of it is unmistakeably Lasantha Wickrematunge.”

Dissenting Voices

Dayan Jayatilleke

“Let’s say it straight out. Lasantha’s paper was, in stridency of tone, a tabloid masquerading as a broadsheet. More controversially, he and his paper were not merely soft on the LTTE but were arguably pro-LTTE. None of that justifies his murder. Lasantha did not kill anyone. He did not even carry a weapon. If his paper was objectionable, it should not have been read. Perhaps it should have been boycotted. If his writing was distorted, as indeed it often was, it should have been subject to withering criticism in writing. If he had dubious connections and was engaging in political conspiracy he should have been exposed. If he was acting subversively he should have been taken into custody and prosecuted in accordance with our tough anti-terrorist laws. Nothing he said or did warranted his murder, nor can be used to justify it.”

Rajpal Abeynayake

“He was a young man who was very ambitious and energetic. As he was once working as the Private Secretary to Sirimavo Bandaranaike, [the world’s first female prime minister and leader of the left-wing SLFP] he had a lot of political contacts and was actively involved in politics. While he was working, he even contested [as an SLFP candidate] in the elections in Colombo North. ..I personally do not agree with his idea of journalism because I feel that he was partial and only exposed one side of a story. I would call him more of a politician than a journalist. But there were people who agreed with it and all these things should have space in society.”

Ajith Randeniya

“The fact that Wickrematunge belonged to the Christian fundamentalist cult ‘The Assembly of God’ was kept secret from the public until the day before his burial. People in the US will be well aware that the ‘Assembly’ is a cult often attracting attention due to questionable ‘heretical’ belief systems and allegations of child sexual abuse and forcible fund collection. Disgraced tele-evangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were the fronts of this cult in the 80s.” [x]

Peter Casie Chetty

“In my time I have always wanted proof of some nature before I went into a story that was questionable of libellous. Something that Lasantha and Frederica Jansz never thought of. They ruffled a lot of feathers and then sold out. Frederica is still alive thanks to the regime she was trying to topple. She is not nor, is Lal with pro LTTE ideas fanned by a spineless opposition, change anything as long as the poor man hears what he wants to hear and sees the development in the land. Lasantha died for a cause. Unfortunately it was the wrong one.” [xi]

Blog comments

“He did not believe in confronting this evil [LTTE terrorism] or exposing its true nature to the world. Instead he believed in negotiating with evil, compromising with evil, appeasing evil, and actually covering up evil behind NGO terms such as ‘confidence-building’. If any of you truly support what Lasantha W. stood for, then I advise you not to condemn his murderers but to advocate co-habitation with them. If you don’t like Mahinda or Gotabhaya, write platitudes about how the only way to neutralize them is to flatter and co-opt them. If you’re afraid of getting killed, sign a CFA with Fonseka and throw away any shred of self-dignity to save your skin.”

“This guy was no saint. He represented gutter journalism and he was asking for this end for long time.”

“At a time when the government is engaged in a battle that could determine the future of Sri Lankans of all persuasions and backgrounds for a long long time to come, the Editor seemed singularly and purposefully determined to denigrate and discredit the efforts of the government to bring an end to this misery and curse that has visited us and ruined our lives for decades. To that end I would always remember the man as an unpatriotic person driven by other people’s agendas and not genuinely the welfare of our nation to which he also belonged.”

Who Did It? Who Didn’t Do It?

According to the Sri Lanka Sunday Times: “In Parliament, UNP and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe went to the extent of saying that there was a separate unit in the Army that was carrying out these strikes against the media. He asked the Cabinet of Ministers themselves to be careful. What was patently noticeable to parliamentary lobby correspondents was that there were no denials or protestations from the front benchers of the Government.”

Mangala Samaraweera, a former foreign minister in the Rajapaksa government, now an opposition politician, voiced the widespread suspicion that it was the Defence Ministry or the Army. “It’s an open secret that there’s been a killer squad in the Defence Ministry for the last two years.”

Dr Jayatilleke absolved the government: “Lasantha wasn’t running for office and the incumbent President is hugely popular. Lasantha posed no threat to him. As for exposes of financial turpitude, Lasantha’s English-language and therefore limited circulation newspaper had little effect. Another writer had opined on how perfect the timing of the killing was, oblivious to the irony that the factor of timing works precisely against the hypothesis of high level governmental guilt. On the one hand, the wave of military successes and the prospect of electoral triumph rendered utterly needless any violent measures against domestic dissenters and critics while on the other hand, the murder could only dull the glow of the President’s success and work to his discredit.” [xii]

In July 2009 controversial government minister Mervyn Silva held a meeting where he publicly stated “Lasantha from the Leader paper went overboard. I took care of him.” [xiii]

Police arrested two suspects at five a.m. on Saturday 31 January 2009. The first suspect, a 22-year-old three wheeler driver, was taken in with Wickrematunge’s  mobile phone in his possession. Under interrogation, he  revealed that he purchased the phone from the second suspect for Rs. 4,000, the police said. Police Spokesman SSP Ranjith Gunasekera said both suspects were under interrogation by a special team. The second suspect, he said, had a history of drug peddling and murder. Asked whether the police could rush to a conclusion that the suspects in custody were responsible for Wickramatunge’s murder just because the victim’s phone had found its way into their hands, SSP Gunasekera said he could not comment further as investigations were continuing. “This is all the information we have got so far,” he said, “and we expect more vital clues as interrogation proceeds.”SSP Gunasekera said the phone recovered from the suspect contained telephone numbers of key ministers and VVIPs. Nuwara Eliya garage owner Pichchei Jesudasan, who was remanded for alleged involvement in the assassination died of a “heart attack”  at the National Hospital in October 2011 while in police custody. Jesudasan was arrested after CID stated that he had purchased five SIM cards which were allegedly used by the assassins using his national identity card.

Seven soldiers belonging to the Sri Lanka Army’s Military Intelligence Unit were detained as investigations and  held for further questioning by the Terrorist Investigations Department and the Criminal Investigations Department. The seven soldiers were separated from an original seventeen taken into police custody as evidence unfolded which may link the soldiers to the murder of Wickrematunge. All the soldiers were eventually release because of lack of evidence.[xiv]

Fonseka and the Sunday Leader

On President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 66th birthday, November 18 2011, former Army commander Sarath Fonseka was sentenced to three years in  prison in what has become known as the White Flag case. Fonseka  was accused on three counts including inciting violence by  violating the Public Security and Emergency Regulations Acts. In an interview given to Frederica Jansz of the Sunday Leader, published on December 13 2009, Fonseka claimed that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had ordered Brigadier Shavendra Silva (now Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the UN) to shoot LTTE cadres surrendering with white flags during the final stages of the Sri Lankan armed forces victory over the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).

The role of the Sunday Leader has been puzzling in the extreme. No-one has been charged with the murder of the Leader’s founder, Lasantha Wickrematunge. There have been strong rumours that a shadowy military unit was responsible and that Fonseka was involved. Fonseka was also alleged to be behind the assault, which almost killed him, on Keith Noyahr, deputy editor of The Nation Sunday newspaper, and assaults on Namal Perera of the Sri Lanka Press Institute and Mahendra Ratnaweera, of the British High Commission. The Leader has been thought of as a UNP paper and Lasantha was thought to be close to UNP leader Ranil Wickramasinghe. Ranil told the Working Committee of the UNP that Lasantha’s murder was carried out by a special team reporting directly to Fonseka. Ranil and Lasantha were considered to be close friends. Despite this, Ranil agreed to Fonseka being the opposition candidate for the presidency.

It would be extremely unlikely that those running the Leader today had not heard rumours of Fonseka’s involvement in Lasantha’s death. Nevertheless, the paper supported Fonseka’s presidential campaign.

During the White Flag trial, Frederica Jansz, the current editor of the Leader, said that she had directly asked Fonseka if he knew who had killed Lasantha and could not get him to give an answer.

This did not  come out in Jansz’s answers under cross-examination in the High Court. On the 6th of October 2010, according to the Sunday Times (October 10 2010), she said she went to the interview with Fonseka accompanied by a “trainee reporter” (she denies this, saying it was Raknish Savan Wijewardene, a journalist at the time and not a trainee), a photographer and Lal Wickrematunge , chairman of Leader Publications (Lasantha’s brother). The “trainee journalist” had “taken down notes of the interview, except on the question about the ‘white flag’ issue”. (My emphasis.)

At one point, [Lal] Wickrematunge had asked Wijewardene and the photographer to leave as he wanted to raise a personal issue with Fonseka. Lal asked Fonseka who was responsible for killing Lasantha. Jansz said in response to questioning in the High Court that she “did not pay attention to what was said by Fonseka in response to that question”. (My emphasis.)

Ms Jansz is a very experienced investigative journalist who over the years has been the scourge of many a corrupt businessman and many criminals. Her paper has been running a long campaign to bring to justice the killers of Lasantha. Lasantha’s brother directly asked a man linked with the crime who killed his brother and Frederica drifts off like a distracted teenager!

She said that she normally did tape recordings of interviews but the paper’s recorder had been given to someone going to interview the Western Provincial Council minister. Does the paper’s budget not run to buying a second recorder? Is the interview with the provincial minister more important than an interview with a presidential candidate who is accusing his own soldiers and government of a war crime and who is also suspected of involvement in the murder of the paper’s editor?

Jansz said in an article of 6 June 2010 was that the management of the Sunday Leader that the UNP was paying the newspaper one million rupees a week to increase the number of copies printed in order to support Fonseka’s campaign . This contributed to Fonseka’s conviction. Jansz claimed: “The financial transactions of a privately owned newspaper/publishing house is nobody’s business.” [xv]

No Conclusion, No Closure

Three years have passed and no-one has been charged with Lasantha’s murder. This is what the Sunday Leader says on the third death anniversary:

“The country grieves for the apathy shown  by the law enforcement authorities in bringing the perpetrators to book. It is evident to all and sundry why the investigation is at a standstill. They whisper but dare not speak out loud.”

“The investigation into his death is floundering. Kandegedara Piyawansa, a soldier with the Sri Lanka Army Intelligence Unit taken into custody together with Pitchai Jesudasan,  was released on bail after he accused senior officers in open court. A statement he made in chambers to the magistrate prior to being granted bail by a higher court was forwarded to the Inspector General of Police for a report which is yet to be filed. Pitchai Jesudasan died in remand custody and the JMO has returned an open verdict. Fifteen army intelligence officers held previously by the TID handling the investigation were released when an adviser to the government informed high officials that the soldiers would ‘sing’ about other operations by the Army.”

Lasantha’s daughter, Ahimsa Wickrematunge writes: “I believe my father could have achieved and done so much more if only his life had not been so cruelly taken. I have so many unanswered questions. Not a day goes by that I do not think of him. It breaks my heart that my little brother will grow up without a father. But I believe he is watching over us. They say it gets better with time but it has not got any easier. I miss him every day, and today especially, I share the pain of loss with my mother and my two brothers who loved him so much.”[xvi]


[i] An array of tributes in many forms was presented on the blogsite Groundviews: http://groundviews.org/in-memoriam-lasantha-wickremetunge-editor-in-chief-sunday-leader/

Salem’s Lot

A version of this article was published in the print edition of Lakbima News on Sunday 25 September. Unfortunately, it does not appear on the online edition even though it is listed in the Lakbima News contents.

Why does the Salem News hate Sri Lanka so much? The Salem News website carries ads saying “Check the label. Boycott Sri Lanka”.

Oregon

Oregon is a beautiful place. I spent happy times there.

US state capitals can be surprising. You would expect Portland to be the capital of Oregon – it has a cosmopolitan feel to it. Culture abounds, the great Powell’s bookshop – although there did seem to be a lot of drunken Native Americans in the gutters when I was there. If you felt a bit clever you might guess Eugene to be the Oregon state capital. But no, the capital of Oregon is Salem, the county seat of Marion County, population 154,637. They have two universities, Willamette and Corban. Two famous people came from Salem. The great guitarist John Fahey was known for his coarseness, aloof demeanour, and dry humour – but hell he could play guitar. Carmella Bing is known for- well, I’m not sure. She is described as a “pornographic actress”. I know nothing of such things.

You would have thought Salem News  would be mainly interested in goings-on in the state of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. They claim: “Serving the community in very real terms, Salem-News.com is the nation’s only truly independent high traffic news Website.”  They have global, rather than local, ambitions.

Salem News’s Global Mission

“Salem-News.com is the premiere Independent Online Newsgroup in the United States. Salem-News.com is setting the standard for the future of news.

Truth
Justice
Peace

 

Salem News boasts 96 writers in 20 countries. It is somewhat difficult to negotiate the rather messy site – almost as bad as Lakbima News. One of the contributors is Gilad Atzmon, the Israeli jazzman, novelist, and activist whose musical work I greatly admire (he used to play with Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Robert Wyatt described him as a genius.)

Embedded – in Bed with Ronald McDonald

The editor of Salem News is Tim King, “a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com’s Executive News Editor. Tim spent the winter of 2006/07 covering the war in Afghanistan, and he was in Iraq over the summer of 2008, reporting from the war while embedded with both the U.S. Army and the Marines.” When he set off to be  embedded with the 41st Combat Brigade of the Oregon National Guard in Kabul,  Salem News called for local businesses to sponsor his trip. “McDonalds Restaurants of Salem provided $1,100 toward the trip to Afghanistan. We hardly know how to thank them enough, but we know this is one organization that sees the value of bringing the stories of our Oregon soldiers home.”

It is somewhat bizarre that a libertarian news outlet should be grovelling in this manner to a bastion of global capitalism. I  am confident that Tim would have  condemned US war crimes that he witnessed but wonder if he has queasy feeling of complicity from the very fact of being embedded with good old boys from Oregon who are slaughtering Afghan civilians under the sponsorship of Ronald McDonald..

US War Crimes

Tim  certainly criticised the USA in an article about WikiLeaks revelations of an Apache helicopter attack on a group of unarmed Iraqi civilian journalists that showed the U.S. Army “absolutely decimating a group of eight, with apparent enthusiasm, and a desire to lay waste to the people on the ground. The helicopter crew continually asked for permission to attack the people, who were in no way acting a like a military force. The journalists had no reason to suspect that an American helicopter would actually attack and leave them all dead. The Apache crew fired at the wounded and chuckled over the results, while insulting the dead as they lay on the ground. I don’t say this often, but the government of the United States of America is as corrupt and wrong as any that has ever existed, whether Americans themselves can appreciate that or not. We have broken the world in ways that can never be mended and when we aren’t doing it militarily, we are behind environmental devastation, economic depression; you name it. Capitalism as a concept has run a bad course and western people leading sheltered lives have no idea what on earth they have been paying for. Thanks to groups like this, the truth does come forward. The importance of that can never be underestimated.”

Israel

King  came under criticism for Salem News’s line on Israel: “Reading Tim King’s response, it becomes clear, however, that editorial standards are somewhat confused at the Salem News.” He responded vigorously: “I guess taking other people’s land leads to endless problems, and that is the story of Israel. I view it all as a huge entitlement problem.”

Loose Talk Costs Lives

I am not going to argue that the Salem News is an apologist for the US government. I am not going to argue that Sri Lanka should not be criticised. However, one obvious flaw in the Salem News line is its somewhat loose use of the English language. You will note that in his piece on the killing of journalists in Iraq he wrote: “the U.S. Army absolutely decimating a group of eight”. “Decimate” used to mean “to select by lot and kill every tenth man”. How is that possible with a group of eight? Was the death toll really 0.8 people? In these decadent times the word decimate has become devalued. Because it sounds similar it has come to mean devastated or even mildly depressed.

Language is an organic thing, meanings change,  but I do get a bit “decimated” myself when the currency gets debased. Genocide is a  word that Salem News uses a lot in relation to Sri Lanka.

Genocide

“Our report on Sri Lanka’s genocide of the Tamil people and war crimes against Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam (LTTE), came at a time when the wagons of the Sri Lankan government are tilting over on their sides.” Again this is an example of the English language being abused. What does  it mean?

Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent coined the term. Genocide is generally defined as “the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial or religious group.”

Has this been happening in Sri Lanka? Has there been a systematic plan to eradicate the Tamil race?

At the end of the war, David Begg of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions managed to find the time in his busy schedule of dealing with the disappearance of the Irish economy down the toilet – redundancies, and pay and benefit cuts for his members – to urge the then Irish Foreign Minister, Mícheál Martin (he has since been consigned to the toilet) , to apply sanctions to faraway Sri Lanka as a protest against “genocide” and “concentration camps”. Begg’s letters seemed to suggest that he thought that all Sri Lankan Tamils had been confined to a narrow strip of beach to be shelled by government troops and then herded into extermination camps. This suggests a certain ignorance about Sri Lanka’s history and of the current situation. Trinity College, Dublin hosted a two-day hearing by the Permanent People’s Tribunal which delivered the judgement that the Sri Lanka government was guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The tribunal was further pondering the issue of genocide.

Genocide is a  word that Salem News uses a lot in relation to Sri Lanka.

“Our report on Sri Lanka’s genocide of the Tamil people and war crimes against Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam (LTTE), came at a time when the wagons of the Sri Lankan government are tilting over on their sides.”

Again this is an example of the English language being abused. What does  it mean? You notice that they are not talking about crimes against innocent Tamil civilians but crimes against the LTTE.

Has this been happening in Sri Lanka? Has there been a systematic plan to eradicate the Tamil race? As P{resident Rajapaksa said, why would he be providing camps, whatever the shortcomings of the IDP camps,  with food, health care, education, banks (with ATMs) if his plan was to exterminate the Tamil race in Sri Lanka?

Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?

Salem News says: “It carries with it a potential to reveal the truth about the Tamil people and their tragedy in seeking independence from the Sri Lankan government. Interestingly, and importantly, the Tamil people represent different nationalities and religions; they are diverse and not easily categorized. They have experienced grave suffering as a result of their ambitions to seek political independence in Sri Lanka since 1983, the year the 16-year long Civil War began.”

There is a certain element of tin ear about this. “Seeking independence from the Sri Lankan government” is not a usual formulation neither is “since the 16-year long Civil War began”. It was more than 16 years. Civil war may not be an accurate description.

Freedom  fighters have often been described as terrorists. Salem News says: “This is used by the Israelis against the Palestinians they displace; the Americans describe Arab freedom fighters trying to repel an occupation that has claimed over a million civilians on their soil with this word; it is the term China uses when describing Muslim ethnic minority Uyghurs seeking equal rights, and the list goes on. It is high time we stop describing those who fight for human freedom; against military occupations that violate international law, with this ugly, branding word.”

The LTTE were not the same as the oppressed Palestinians. Tamils live all over Sri Lanka. Except in the areas controlled by the LTTE, they had rights and freedom. Tamils held  positions of influence. The Sri Lankan army was the legitimate force of a democratically elected government.

According to Salem News: “The story of the Tamil Tigers LTTE may the most overblown in the usage of the word ‘terrorism‘ ever, and that is really saying something.” Again not very elegant English. I do not need to spell out to Sri Lankan readers that the LTTE were really terrorists.

I wonder how many members of the Tamil diaspora are providing funding for Salem News. There are certainly Tamils being offered up for marriage in Oregon.

“Preeti is sensitive, broad-minded and an outgoing individual. She has a passion for travel and enjoys listening to music. She likes hiking and has also completed 2 half marathons. She is a cheerful caring person who enjoys being surrounded by her family and friends. She has fantastic appreciation for art, culture, people and has a positive outlook towards life.”

I advise Lakbima News readers to set up a Google alert to find out what Salem News is saying about us. I advise Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Washington to comment on Salem News biased coverage of the country he represents.

Anti-Semitism and Critical Thinking

Some time ago, I wrote a post on Open Salon which used the topic of Anti-Semitism to examine various facets of critical thinking. Recent exchanges with Ajit Randeniya prompted me to revisit it.

Let me emphasise:

  • I am not an anti-Semite
  • I am not a racist
  • I have nowhere questioned the right of the state of Israel to exist
  • I have nowhere condoned the actions of the PLO, Fatah, Hamas, Hezbollah, IRA, UDA, LTTE, FARC or any other terrorist organisation you can think of.

There were  many lengthy comments on my post, many of them off-topic and many of them angry. There was a lot of to and fro, a lot of tit for tat and the main point got lost along the way.

My main purpose was to highlight  certain tendencies I had noticed during the nearly two years that I had been blogging on OS (I served almost three years before giving up). These tendencies were brought out particularly by a debate on anti-Semitism.

The particular issue was whether criticism of Israel constituted anti-Semitism. My interlocutor, whom I will here call K,  seemed to be saying that it was possible to  criticize Israel and not be an anti-Semite. However, the upshot was a third party, DL,   called me an anti-Semite merely for using the word “sneakily” about K’s shift of ground in his argument, and an Israeli citizen  called me a hate-monger for trying to conduct a rational conversation.

Tu Quoque- the Companions in Guilt Ploy

“Don’t look at me–look at them. It reduces the debate to schoolchildren in the yard pointing fingers at each other. It is childish and self-destructive.”

Defenders of Israel tend to use a category of rhetoric known to philosophers of critical thinking as tu quoque or “the companions in guilt move”. This is brought into play in order to dilute the force of an argument by demanding a spurious consistency that the arguer may not feel is germane. Some people use it  to excuse bad behaviour on the grounds that other people also behave badly. Just because many people do something that is wrong , that does not make it right or less dangerous – for example, the defence that everyone has driven while under the influence of drink. First of all not everyone really has done so and, more importantly, it would be very dangerous if everyone took that as permission to drive under the influence.

K says that he does not think criticism of Israel by itself constitutes anti-Semitism and then  goes on to widen the definition of anti-Semitism. You don’t qualify as an anti-Semite purely for criticising Israel but you do qualify if you fail to state strongly that others, particularly Arabs and  Muslims, are as bad as Israel and probably much worse.

Straw Men

Another stale old rhetorical device is  the straw man. There is this lefty, bleeding heart, NGO, do-gooder, who hates Israel and turns a blind eye to the iniquities of Arabs and Muslims who just love to kill innocent children.

K said: “I do not believe that anyone who thinks that walking into a pizza parlor with a bomb, noticing that half the people in the pizza parlor are kids and detonating the bomb anyway should be condoned under ANY circumstances has any moral authority. I will not treat such a person’s views of right and wrong as having any validity until such time as they change their view on this. What anyone else does is beside the point – this action is intrinsically always wrong on its own. Period. I do not believe that your enemy’s moral standards should determine your own.”

That is not terribly well-expressed  or lucid  but I think it means that because Palestinians blow up innocent children in  pizza parlors they have no moral authority. Notice he does not say the particular Palestinians who set off the bombs. He says Palestinians which implies that all Palestinians lack moral authority. I suspect that the moral condemnation is extended to include those who do not condemn the action. Does “moral authority” refer to the bombers or those who condone their actions or fail to condemn? The phrase is dangling somewhat at the end of the sentence. “What anyone else does is beside the point” – what does that mean? I’m stumped!

“I do not believe that your enemy’s moral standards should determine your own.” Does that mean that the bombers have allowed their enemy – Israel- to determine their conduct? Is K condemning the bombers because they are, in killing innocent children, adopting the low moral standards of Israel? Or does it mean that, just because Palestinian terrorists kill innocent children, that Israel should refrain from killing innocent children? Israel seems to have failed morally on that score.

Opinions divorced from facts or knowledge.

Voltaire said  “prejudice is opinion without judgement”. Opinion without knowledge, truth or logic can also foster prejudice.

My meta-intention was to deal with an aspect of blogging.  (It also happens in ‘real-life’.) Before I started blogging, I used to read in the Guardian Review  a weekly summary of what was going on in  the literary blogs. I was astounded to read one self-important blogger  pompously stating: “I haven’t read X’s latest book but what seems to me to be the crucial issue is…” This seemed to be saying that whatever time, effort, imagination  and literary skill poor old  X had put into his latest tome, it paled into insignificance beside the uninformed opinions of some nonentity of a blogger.

This post came out of a general dismay at people putting forward opinions without the knowledge to back them up and proceeding with specious arguments based on faulty logic and fallacious premises. I have encountered similar tactics in relation to my posts on Sri Lanka. Someone with “Progressive” in his blog name  said that he did not know much about Sri Lanka but it seemed to him that… and proceeded to accuse me of being bigoted against Tamils (while displaying his ignorance of the reality of the situation for Tamils, a subject on which I am an expert). In his view, the fact that I lived in Sri Lanka was not relevant because he believed the Sri Lanka government controlled information.

People who are blogging clearly have access to the internet. A few minutes on Google and Wikipedia should prevent basic  errors of fact.

I quoted the Cambridge philosopher, Jamie Whyte: “You are entitled to an opinion in the epistemic sense only when you have good reason for holding it: evidence, sound arguments and so on. Far from being universal, this epistemic entitlement is one you earn. It is like being entitled to boast, which depends on having something worth boasting about.”

Leaps of logic

My chief interlocutor, K,  was a decent man with whom I got on well.  I thought him misguided in his arguments about Israel. He persistently claimed that he himself is critical of many aspects of Israeli government policy and of government actions. He claims that he has no objection to people criticizing Israel and that such criticism does not, in his view, constitute anti-Semitism.

If we unpack his actual words he was saying something quite different.

K said: “For most of my life, I drew a sharp distinction between antisemitism and antizionism. Over time, however, my opinion has changed as a result of a litmus test I now use.”

“If your standards for how Israel should behave are substantially different from your standards for how other nations should behave, chances are that you’re antisemitic.”

I don’t think he really means a distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. He seems actually to be talking about a distinction between antisemitism and criticism of Israel.

My objection to his litmus test is that he gives permission to criticize Israel only if one criticizes other culprits.

“Because there’s only one factor that really differentiates the Israelis from everyone else and we all know what it is.”

I take it that he means that Israel is Jewish and anti-Semites hate Jews therefore those who criticize Israel are anti-Semitic because it is a given that they will not criticize other  regimes.

Although he denies it (and perhaps he does not realize what he is doing) he is still saying that criticism of Israel constitutes anti-Semitism.

Israel’s right to exist

DL (with whom I got on well in other contexts) said: “The topic, as Padraig Colman framed it, is the meta-debate. His launching point, you’ll recall, is his disagreement with K as to the boundary between antisemitism and antizionism. That isn’t about Israel’s conduct; that’s about responses to Israel’s conduct.”

Another problem that occurs in discussions like this is people make false assumptions about their interlocutors. This was not a disagreement about the boundary between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.  That was not my point at all! That is a completely different discussion.

At one point, K said: “I make the connection and state that antizionism under those circumstances is antisemitism by another name.“

People often talk of a distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism as if the former is vile but the latter  is acceptable. I don’t think DL would approve  if I denied being anti-Semitic but proudly admitted being anti-Zionist. Wouldn’t being anti-Zionist mean that I did not recognize Israel’s right to exist? Wouldn’t  that put  me in the same box as Iran?

History

Israel uses Hamas, Fatah and Hezbollah as justification for its own violent actions. Does anyone remember Haganah, Irgun, Lehi, Palmach? These groups were official, semi-official and unofficial paramilitaries that split and reformed into different alliances in a kaleidoscopic fashion, fought with the British and against the British and, mainly, against the Arabs. Many would  class them as terrorists. Future prime ministers Menachim Begin and Yitzhak Rabin and current president Shimon Peres served in these groups. In 1946, there were 91 people, Arabs, Jews and British, killed in the bombing of the King David Hotel, 46 injured in the hotel with further casualties outside. When the King David Hotel bombing was mentioned, Chaim Weizmann started crying heavily. He said, “I can’t help feeling proud of our boys. If only it had been a German headquarters, they would have gotten the Victoria Cross.” Netanyahu described the bombing as a legitimate act with a military target, distinguishing it from an act of terror intended to harm civilians. Civilians were harmed.

Another future prime minister Ariel Sharon, was commander of “Unit 101,” an Israeli special forces unit. On October 14, 1953, in retaliation for the killing of two Israeli civilians, Unit 101 executed sixty Arab men, women, and children in the border village of Qibya. Anyone remember Shatilla? Estimates of the dead civilians vary between 800 according to international sources to 3,500 according to Palestinian sources. Robert Fisk estimated 2,000 bodies as did Israeli journalist, the late Amnon Kapeliouk in  Le Monde diplomatique : http://mondediplo.com/2002/09/08sabra. (See also articles on Sri Lanka by the estimable Padraig Colman: http://mondediplo.com/_Padraig-Colman_) In 1982, an independent commission chaired by  Irishman Sean McBride (son of WB Yeats’s muse Maude Gonne) concluded that the Israeli authorities or forces were, directly or indirectly, indubitably involved. The Israeli government established an investigation, and in early 1983 it found Israel indirectly responsible for the event, and that Ariel Sharon bore personal responsibility for the massacre for allowing the Phalangists into the camps. The UN General Assembly condemned the massacre as an act of genocide.

History and Truth

K said:

“Jews were not the only people who migrated to the area in the half century before Israel was founded and it’s a little disingenuous to assume that one population was completely indigenous while the other was completely foreign – neither contention is true.”

K and  I agreed that the territory on which the state of Israel now sits was not empty in 1948. The fact that some of the sitting tenants  were Jews is not particularly relevant. Even if, as K says, a majority were Jewish  and had been there for thousands of years – that  also is not particularly relevant.

Israeli historian Tom Segev says, in a footnote, that the term yishuv  was used because, as well as “settlement”, it meant the opposite of “wasteland”, suggesting, consciously or not, that Zionist settlers were living in a wilderness devoid of other human beings, that is, Arabs.

According to Segev, in the 1840s, “Palestine was a rather remote region of the Ottoman empire with no central government of its own and few accepted norms. Outsiders began to flock to the country towards the end of the century, and it seemed to awake from its Levantine stupor. Muslims, Jews, or Christians, a powerful religious and emotional force drew them to the land of Israel. Some stayed only a short time, while others settled permanently. Together they created a magical brew of prophecy and illusion, entrepreneurship, pioneerism and adventurism – a multicultural revolution that lasted almost a hundred years. The line separating fantasy and deed was often blurred – there were charlatans and eccentrics of all nationalities – but for the most part the period was marked by drive and daring, the audacity to do things for the first time. For a while the new arrivals were intoxicated by a collective delusion that everything was possible”.

There was huge influx of new Jewish settlers from Europe for whom room had to be found. This was bound to alter the balance. This happened even before the state of Israel was born. Segev writes: “Tens of thousands of people, most of them Jews, came from Eastern and Central Europe. Among them were courageous rebels searching for a new identity, under the influence of Zionist ideology”.

Founding father  Ben Gurion said:  “I am in favour of an obligatory transfer, a measure which is by no means immoral.” Around 800,000 Palestinians were forced into exile between 1947 and 1949 and lost their land and property.

Benny Morris and Illian Pappé confirm that it was the Israeli authorities who forced the Palestinians to flee their land through blackmail, threats, brutality and terror. Israel had been granted more than half of Palestine. The rest was to be returned to the indigenous Arabs. However, some Jews thought  the territory earmarked for Israel  too small for the millions of immigrants its leaders hoped to attract.

Moreover, 405,000 Palestinian Arabs would have lived there alongside 558,000 Jews, who would have accounted for just 58% of the population of the future Jewish state.

In 1948, Ben Gurion was able to put his relocation plan into action. In a few months, several dozen massacres and summary executions were recorded; 531 villages out of a thousand were destroyed or converted to accommodate Jewish immigrants; eleven ethnically mixed towns were purged of their Arab inhabitants.

On Ben Gurion’s instructions, all 70,000 of the Palestinian inhabitants of Ramleh and Lydda, including children and old people, were forced from their homes at bayonet point in the space of a few hours in mid-July 1948.

Yigal Allon and the future prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, ran the operation. Numerous refugees died of exhaustion en route, as they were driven towards the Transjordanian border.

There had been similar scenes in April 1948 in Jaffa when 50,000 of its Arab citizens had to flee, terrorised by particularly intense artillery bombardment from the Irgun, a militant, some might say terrorist, Zionist organisation.

In total 750-800,000 Palestinians were forced into exile between 1947 and 1949 and lost their land and property.

Avi Shlaim, a fellow of St Anthony’s College, Oxford, and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (Allen Lane and WW Norton, 2000) has demolished yet another myth: that of an Israel devoted to peace but confronted with belligerent Arab states bent on its annihilation. Shlaim recognises the legitimacy of the Zionist movement and of Israel’s 1967 borders. “On the other hand,” he says, “I entirely reject the Zionist colonial project beyond that border.”

Truth Matters- National Myths

In their book Why Truth Matters Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom write:

“History is not simply a narrative about the past; it is a research-driven form of empirical enquiry. Mythic or invented or ‘wishful’  history is thus not history at all, but a different thing – a branch of literature or story-telling. History is not propaganda, myth-making or a self-esteem inflation device, though it has often been pressed into service for those tasks. History is highly interpretative, to be sure, but it is always, when done properly, grounded in evidence. The questions are empirical ones, and the interpretation is of evidence, not of daydreams or fantasies. There has been quite a lot of glorious past-invention in the name of history recently”.

It seems that to found and sustain a nation, “glorious past-invention” is essential. Benedict Anderson has dealt better than I, with my limited powers, can with the “imagined communities” that are nations. The philosopher AC Grayling has written: “Nations are artificial constructs, their boundaries drawn in the blood of past wars. And one should not confuse culture and nationality: there is no country on earth that is not home to more than one different but usually co-existing culture. Cultural heritage is not the same thing as national identity”.

Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University, has argued that the Jews are neither a race nor a nation, but ancient pagans – genetically,  in the main Berbers from North Africa, Arabs from the south of Arabia, and Turks from the Khazar empire – who converted to Judaism between the fourth and eighth centuries CE. He believes that the Palestinians are probably descended from Hebrews who embraced Islam or Christianity.

Sand was quoted in Haaretz. He   was pessimistic about how his work would be received in Israel: “There was a time when anyone who claimed that the Jews had a pagan ancestry was accused on the spot of being an anti-Semite. Today, anyone who dares suggest that the Jews have never been, and still are not a people or a nation is immediately denounced as an enemy of the state of Israel.”

I have written about nationalist myths in greater depth at:

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/a-nation-once-again-%E2%80%93-invention-and-amnesia/

Confusion between explanation and approval

DL: “I am referring here to your extended list of episodes of Jewish violence against Arabs, whose contextual import you left dangling before readers, thus inviting them to fill in the blank with respect to Arab violence against Jews.”

What DL left dangling is whether he defends the listed acts of violence against Palestinian civilians. I ask him plainly .”Do you deny that  acts of violence such as those listed were carried out in the furtherance of the establishment of the state of Israel?”

I hereby state  quite plainly that I do not believe that acts of violence against Palestinians by Jews justifies the blowing up of Jewish children in pizza parlors.

The actions of the Jewish paramilitaries have a bearing on the current situation and help to explain Palestinian discontent.

When I tried to explain in another article how Tamil militant separatism took hold in Sri Lanka and described Tamil grievances, I was condemned by some as a terrorist sympathiser. Explanation is not the same as justification or approval. I wrote: “Where is the proportionality between unfair university admission quotas and a thirty year war and 100,000 dead? What was the connection between discrimination against Tamils and extortion and drug trading? How did the Sinhala-only language policy lead to the assassination of Tamil politicians and the maiming of small children? How can a recurrence of such conflict be prevented?”

Disagreement is not the same as censorship

I have encountered this in real life as well as on blogs. People with whom one disagrees proclaim their rights under the first amendment. If I tell  someone I think they are  wrong they can get back and tell me how I am wrong. Disagreeing is not a form of control. I have enough trouble controlling myself without trying to control anybody else.

Someone else commented:  “Out in big boy blog world, bloggers are always challenging each other’s opinions and writing. The idea that all criticism is attacking another person , that only praise is allowed, is just idiotic.”

DL  ‘whinged’ about me accusing him of stifling debate by promiscuous use of the epithet “anti-Semite”. This is a sticks and stones kind of thing; this is not censorship in the extreme sense of having an iron-spike shoved into one’s brain through the eyeball. At the very least, though, it is a serious devaluation of the currency of language. It will not make me shut up but more timid souls might be reluctant to participate for fear of being unjustly accused of the horrible evil of anti-Semitism. Shame on you, DL!

Debasing the currency of language.

My feeling was that  K seemingly gave permission to criticize Israel and then withdrew it. I said that he had ‘sneakily’ changed his  ground. Perhaps I  should have said something about sleight of hand, or prestidigitation. DL  seemed to call me an anti-Semite for using the word ‘sneakily’. He changed his ground a little when I challenged him. He  said: “At the very least, I’d think that one would want to be highly conscious of the language one chooses when addressing topics as sensitive to Jews as antisemitism. Is Padraig an antisemite? I have no way of knowing, but I do know now that he is willing to toy with rhetoric that dances right up to the edge — and he is too clever a writer not to know just what he was doing.”

I sought further clarification and he told me: “’Sneakiness’ is part of the standard antisemitic stereotype of Jews, whether you like it or not. You are far too sophisticated to pretend unawareness. I don’t assert that you ‘must’ be an antisemite on this basis. I call it out as evidence of a willingness on your part to play around with some decidedly ugly rhetoric. Own it or not, but you deserved to be called on it.”

I honestly did not know that I could be seen as  employing a stereotype. When I said I had never been called an ant-Semite before he said: “You haven’t been called one now. I’m inclined to reserve my accusations of antisemitism for cases where the evidence is strong. I was quite clear in what I was accusing you of: rhetorically toying (flippantly, as you put it) with ugly stereotypes. Really, if you find it so wounding to be charged with such a thing, the simplest way to avoid such a charge is not to do the thing.”

I was not “rhetorically toying (flippantly, as you put it) with ugly stereotypes” I was flippantly using the word “sneakily”  without the slightest awareness that it was a stereotype that would offend a Jew. The particular Jew that I was addressing has not told me that he was offended, although we have had many friendly exchanges.

As soon as DL  suggested that the word was offensive to him,  I deleted it and told him so and asked him if he was happy. He replied: “Yes and no. Deleting what you describe as the inessential ‘sneakily’ in effect acknowledges my assessment of it as gratuitous, so, yes. But you also strenuously resist acknowledging the initial offense itself, so, no. Even Joe Biden had to acknowledge that his clumsy characterization of then candidate Barack Obama as ‘clean’ strayed into very dicey territory, whether he meant it to or not.”

Can’t do right for doing wrong!

As GB Shaw said to Zionist David Eder: “I cannot explain my position to you. There is something inherent in your germ-plasm which makes you congenitally incapable of understanding anything that I say. I have explained in writing over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over  and over and over  and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over with the most laborious lucidity.”

K and I agreed that analogies can be misleading and even dangerous. I’m going to try one anyway. Back in the last century, I worked for the Department of Health in London in the area of child protection. The leading charity in the field conducted a number of shock horror campaigns to raise public awareness of the problem of the sexual abuse of children, to raise its own profile and to raise funds. According to the “evidence” the charity presented it seemed that just about everybody had been a victim of sexual abuse as a child.

This strategy was not helpful. Ordinary members of the public were surprised by the statistics. A lot of people thought, “I never experienced sexual abuse as a child and I don’t know anyone who has.” The charity seemed to be blaming the government for not doing more to curb the incidence of abuse. Ministers were not pleased because the charity depended for its existence on an annual grant of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money as well as further grants for a number of one-off projects. Not surprisingly we began to look at the raw data. Members of the public thought sexual abuse meant rape and sodomy. We discovered that the charity had widened the definition to include accidental exposure to soft porn, inappropriate language, flashers in the park and loving relationships between teenagers who were legally below the age of consent. The currency was devalued.

Child abuse is evil. Racism is evil. The Israeli citizen said: “it puzzles me why people focus so much on questioning the Jew and his Land?” I am not doing that. “Don’t take us back to the Inquisition or the Krystall Nacht. That is regressive and not progressive.” “Anti-Semitism came and stayed.” If he is  saying that anti-Semitism still survives, I agree. How does one define anti-Semitism? Neo-Nazi parties are on the rise all over Europe. I did my bit campaigning against them in England by taking part in Anti-Nazi League marches and supporting the organization Searchlight which took great risks investigating and exposing fascist thugs. The National Front became very scary in England during the 70s (the play Destiny by David Edgar whom I knew at university was produced at the National Theatre to great acclaim). Today the British National Party has representatives in the European Parliament. I do my bit to counter the forces of racism in Sri Lanka.  Anti-Semitism is evil. Do not devalue the currency of language by absurdly widening the definition of anti-Semite or racist to include me.

What to do?!

Prime Minister Netanyahu  published  a book in 1993 called A Place among the Nations. In it he wrote that Israel had made enough concessions, by which he meant that it had abandoned its claim to Jordan which he believes should have been part of Israel. He repeatedly compares  Palestine’s  hopes for statehood with Nazism because  claiming territory for such a state resembles Hitler wrenching  Sudetenland out of Czechoslovakia. Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank would be accepting a “ghetto state” within “Auschwitz borders”.

Peter Beinart argues in the NYRB that the current coalition government is the result of trends that have come to characterize contemporary Israeli society: ultra-Orthodoxy is growing, the settler movement is becoming more radical and more influential in the government and the civil service and the army,  Russian immigrants are prone to anti-Arab racism. 77% of recent Russian immigrants support encouraging Arabs to leave the country. More than 80% of religious Jewish high school students would deny Israeli Arabs the right to be elected to the Knesset.

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/jun/10/failure-american-jewish-establishment/

and Abraham Foxman’s response:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/jun/24/failure-american-jewish-establishment-exchange/

Acceptance that Palestinians have a right to stay and that settlements should be dismantled might would be a good basis for working out a solution for the future but what is being done? Many do want to expel the Palestinians and the settlers are radically recalcitrant. I am not arguing that the state of Israel should be destroyed,  but its own actions may not help its survival. The Roman Empire once seemed indestructible, as did the British. I remember my history teacher saying that the Soviet Union had survived so many setbacks in its early days that it would probably last forever. It died at the age of 72. Apartheid South Africa seemed rock-solid until it wasn’t. Israel is two years younger than me and I feel a bit shaky. As the Buddhists say, “Anicca”, impermanence is all.

Recommended reading

I would like to recommend a few books that have helped me to clarify my thinking:

Bad Thoughts – Jamie Whyte

Critical Thinking: an Introduction – Alec Fisher

Thinking from A to Z – Nigel Warburton

A Rulebook for Arguments – Anthony Weston

The Meaning of Things – AC Grayling

Keywords – Raymond Williams

Why Truth Matters  – Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom

Lying – Sisela Bok

Truth – Simon Blackburn

True to Life – Michael Lynch

Sri Lanka Healthcare better than US?

I wrote this for Open Salon back in January 2010. I see that my friend Jonathan Wolfman is posting on Open Salon on a relatd subject.

I can’t join in on OS but come over here and comment Jonathan.

Sri Lanka Healthcare better than US?

Will Obama, or anyone else, succeed in providing as effective a health service to poor and middle- income US citizens as Sri Lanka provides for its citizens?

When I told English friends that I was moving to Sri Lanka one said: “How can you risk leaving behind the National Health Service?” As it turned out, I found the Sri Lankan health service to be excellent whenever, which fortunately was not often, I had to use it. When I had a head injury, I was promptly and effectively dealt with free of charge at Bandarawela general hospital. In similar circumstances in England I have had to wait for hours in Accident and Emergency in the company of violent drunks (patients not doctors) and screaming children, eventually to be dealt with by a condescending junior doctor who had probably not slept for days.

My wife had a brain scan at a top London hospital some years ago when she was suffering severe headaches. Nine years on, she has still not received the scan results. Her civil efforts to get the results caused her to be reprimanded by her London General Practioner (GP) for harassing her staff. Sri Lanka is far superior to England in the matter of diagnostic tests. Here it is easy to get the tests done at a reasonable cost and get the results quickly.

The Sri Lankan authorities responded far more effectively to the 2004 tsunami than did US authorities to Hurricane Katrina. Sri Lanka’s past investments in a broad-based public health system and community awareness of basic sanitary and hygienic practices ensured that there were no disease outbreaks. Essential medical aid, emergency food, and other relief supplies were mobilized within a day. It was possible to feed, clothe, and shelter survivors; provide the injured with medical attention; and ensure that the thousands of bodies were quickly cremated or buried.

Susantha Goonathilake wrote in his book, Recolonization, about the influence of foreign NGOs on Sri Lanka: ‘While NGOs stood wringing their hands or trying to mobilize funds only from international sources, Buddhist temples around the country were the quickest to respond. Those affected by the tsunami rushed into temples where they were received with warmth. These temples along the coast became havens of shelter, not only for Buddhists, but also for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. There are innumerable stories of the incredible generosity of these temples. Monks gave up their robes to bandage victims, looked after their children and babies, fed them from whatever little provisions they had, and comforted them. Illustrative of the genuineness of this response was the remote Eastern province temple of Arantalawa. Here LTTE (Liberation tigers of Tamil Eelam) death squads had once hacked to death young Buddhist monks. Now Arantalawa opened itself to nearly 1,000 refugees, most of whom were from the Tamil community and may well have included the very assassins who had hacked the young Buddhist monks’.

Despite international criticism the health services more recently coped well with the closing stages of the war against the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam)and the aftermath of the 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). The extremely dire outbreaks of disease in the IDP camps predicted by foreign NGOs just did not materialize.

Prime Minister Wickramanayaka has claimed that public financing for healthcare began in Sri Lanka more than 2,000 years ago when Buddhist kings established public hospitals and maintained them with royal revenues. Ancient records show that 18 hospitals were established by King Dutugemunu in the second century B.C. This tradition was strongly influenced by Buddhist culture which accords high priority to actively caring for the needy, the poor and the sick, he said.

According to the World Health Organisation, a modern health service can be said to have started in Sri Lanka in 1858 with the creation of the Civil Medical Department under a Principal Civil Medical Officer (PCMO). The department initially concentrated on the establishment of new hospitals in large towns. Primary care facilities at village level were initiated in 1877. Initially, preventive medicine was confined to measures aimed at preventing the spread of major communicable diseases.

Today, management of all healthcare institutions, other than private hospitals, teaching hospitals and field services, is the responsibility of the provincial councils but funding is provided by central government from general taxation. There have been significant increases of manpower in the public sector. The government health service is absorbing all the medical graduates graduating from the medical faculties. In 2006 there were six doctors per 10,000 of population and 14 nurses per 10,000.

A wide disparity in the regional distribution in Sri Lanka of health personnel is evident. The Colombo district has a high concentration of most categories of health personnel except public health staff. In 2001, 35 percent of the specialists were concentrated in the Colombo district. The Districts of Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Mannar (these areas were controlled by the LTTE) did not have a single specialist.

Reintroduction of private practice for government doctors, liberalization of drug imports and service provision deficiencies in some government hospitals have resulted in the growth of private hospitals in urban centers. There is a thriving private sector in health in urban areas and particularly in Colombo, which boats a number of modern, well-equipped and well-staffed hospitals such as Apollo, Asiri, Nawaloka and Ninewells Gynecological Hospital.

However excellent Colombo’s private hospitals may be, research by Oxfam shows that scaling up government-provided health services is the only proven route to improving life chances in poor countries. Parts of the US are very third-world. Despite serious problems in many countries, publicly financed and delivered services successfully reduced child deaths by between 40 and 70 per cent in a decade in Botswana, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Malaysia, Barbados, Costa Rica, Cuba, and the Indian state of Kerala.

Recently, I suffered severe pain as a result of an ear infection and a perforated eardrum. I went to my GP, who has a clinic in a small private hospital. He normally charges me about 300 rupees ($2.62) but on this occasion did not charge anything as he referred me to a specialist at a private clinic. He does not charge poorer patients anything. The private clinic charged 460 rupees ($4.02). The clinic was overcrowded, noisy and none  too clean. There was a very long wait but the consultant when seen was sympathetic, approachable and competent. He quickly and correctly diagnosed my condition but suggested that, as he did not have the appropriate technology at his private clinic, I should see him the next morning at the general hospital where I would be seen free of charge.

Most specialist who provide services free at the general hospitals dash around all day from private clinic to private clinic. The patients at these clinics are by no means rich but the charges are not high. A new GP clinic has set up in a private home near our temple. The doctor there also works at the general hospital. In Colombo there is an excellent service where one can pay an annual membership fee to have an ambulance with doctor and paramedic call at one’s home when the need arises. They also call at one’s home to take blood tests and deliver the results. The doctors operating this service also work at the government general hospital.

Badulla general hospital has recently opened a magnificent, huge, new building which is extremely clean with spacious wards, modern lifts and equipment. Unfortunately it was opened to the public before they put up any signs so there are a lot of dazed and confused people wandering about at the mercy of vague security guards. We ended up on the maternity ward looking for our eighty-year-old male friend who was being treated for a broken arm.

The MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) have set the agenda for social development in developing countries for the 21st century. In the health sector, it encompasses reducing maternal mortality, under-five mortality and malnutrition; halting and reversing the HIV/AIDS epidemic; reducing the incidence of malaria and tuberculosis; provision of access to affordable essential drugs; to halve by 2015 the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation. (Sri Lanka’s MDG scorecard can be examined at http://www.mdg.lk/)

An article in the January 2010 issue of Le Monde diplomatique by Allan Popelard and Paul Vannier describes the hell that is Detroit. In the course of the article, the authors discuss the inadequacy of health provision in that city. General Practitioners have not been persuaded to stay in the inner city to tend the poor but have migrated to the suburbs where they can make more money. Although the city has some of the best hospitals in the country, only the rich can afford to use them. Popelard and Vannier say “The health indicators for the local population are equal to those of a developing country: infant mortality is 18 per 1,000 [live births], three times higher than the rest of the US and the same as Sri Lanka.”  It is interesting to note that in 2003-05, the infant mortality rate (IMR) in the US as a whole for African Americans was 13.6; the rate for White Americans was 5.7 per 1000 births. IMR is generally seen as an indicator of a nation’s level of health development and is a component of the physical quality of life index. IMR is generally considered to correlate very strongly with, and is among the best predictors, of state failures.

Popelard and Vannier’s statement jarred with me. Sri Lanka has many problems but to one who has lived in the country for over eight years it does not feel anything like a “failed state”. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that Sri Lanka’s health indicators are improving all the time.

True, the CIA Fact Book puts Sri Lanka’s IMR at 19 but perhaps the juxtaposition of “CIA” and “Fact” constitutes an oxymoron.

According to WHO’s website, Sri Lanka’s IMR was 11.2 in 2003, significantly better than Detroit today and somewhat better than the US IMR for black citizens. I checked with WHO on 25 January 2010 and they told me that the provisional IMR figure for Sri Lanka for 2006, based on data from the Registrar General (RG) Department, is 10 per 1,000 live births. IMR for 2005 was 11.2. (The source for that is a statistical abstract published in 2008 by the Department of Census and Statistics using RG data.) WHO regards this as a great success and attributes it to “effective and widely accessible prevention and primary healthcare strategies including treatment of minor infections”.

WHO believes that  Sri Lanka’s “Maternal Mortality Ratio of 2.3/10,000 live births in 2000 is an exceptional achievement for a developing country with an income level of about US $ 800 per capita. The improvement of these indicators is attributed to the maternal and child healthcare programme implemented nationally as an integral component of the state healthcare system.” Not just good luck then, but planning, hard work and dedication by selfless professionals who might make more money in other countries.

Life expectancy in Sri Lanka has risen steadily. In 1946 (when the Brits were still running the show) it was 43.9 for males and 41.6 for females. Life expectancy in 2001 for males was 70.7 years; for females, it was 75.4 years. (Life expectancy for black US males was 70 in 2003; the average life-span of an African-American in New Orleans is 69.3 years, nearly as low as life expectancy in North Korea, according to www.measureofamerica.org September 17, 2009).  Sorry if I seem to be picking on Louisiana here. The state does unfortunately seem to come in at number 50 among US states on many quality of life indicators. I had a serious eye condition when I was in Louisiana and received excellent care at a clinic in Baker. However, going to a clinic on Frenchman’s in New Orleans proved to be a traumatic experience that I do not intend to repeat.

WHO says: “Sri Lanka has achieved extraordinarily good health outcomes compared to the level of spending on health.  … During 2001, the provision of public expenditure on health services was 1.6 percent of the GNP and 4.9 percent of national expenditure. The per capita health expenditure was Rs 1,222 ($13.71) in 2001. Recurrent expenditure amounted for 81 percent of the total expenditure.”

In 2001, patient care services utilized 66 percent of health expenditure, while community health services utilized only 8 percent. While the UK has been, since the early 90s, putting more emphasis on primary care in the community to divert patients away from acute hospital care, Sri Lanka’s state services are characterized by a very busy and overcrowded system of national, provincial, general and (Army) base hospitals and a widely-spread network of district hospitals and healthcare units. Sri Lanka reported 0.2 per capita in-patient admissions in 1997. This heavy demand may be due to a number of factors including patients being admitted to hospital when, with better primary care, they could have been treated as out-patients.

My perhaps superficial impression is that Sri Lankans from all social classes are hypochondriacs. Better-off people are always talking about their bowels and their blood-pressure and everyone knows their sugar-level and lipid count. Poor people seem to get validation by going to hospital for minor ailments like the common cold (which they call “fever”) and judge a doctor’s competence by the number of pills they get. I was recently at the birthday celebration of a 96-year-old friend (a good advertisement for the health service – she has survived many serious ailments) where a catholic priest was telling me that his new doctor was much better than his previous one because he had given him eight different pills for his chesty cough rather than the mere seven he had got before.

This is not to say that there are not harsh critics in Sri Lanka of the way the government runs the health service. The Sri Lankan health service is not perfect. There have been public concerns about the quality of drugs imported from India and China and there have been some deaths of children during immunization programs. There are complaints about broken equipment not being replaced and in any system there will be inefficiencies and sloth and torpor. Always in Sri Lanka there are dark hints about corruption. However, the WHO indicators give encouragement that future problems will be addressed. Black citizens of Detroit or New Orleans might be impressed by the health service offered in Sri Lanka.

Dr. Godfrey Gunatilleke, Chairman Emeritus Marga Institute, a private think tank, warned recently that 20% of the world’s population belongs to the elderly category. Sri Lanka’s birth rate is not meeting replacement requirements and the nation’s population is ageing. A strategy for treatment of non-communicable diseases among the elderly needs to be different to the way maternal and infant communicable diseases are addressed.  Gunatilleke said that primary healthcare for ageing revolves around “treatment for morbidity.”  Mental health is one of the non-communicable diseases that have been on the increase. He said that market economics which treat health as a commodity would have to be reconsidered. “When poverty declines, life expansion increases,” he said.

This echoes the findings of an Oxfam study published in a 2009 report entitled Blind Optimism: Challenging the myths about private health care in poor countries. Anna Marriott, author of the report, says  “Thanks to increased state spending on health in Sri Lanka, for instance, women can now expect to live almost as long as those in Germany, despite an income ten times smaller,” Marriott said. “The World Bank and other donors need to put their blind optimism about the market behind them. To achieve universal and equitable access to health care, the public sector must be made to work as the majority provider.”

Although health services are available free of charge to anyone regardless of ethnicity or religion, the Tamils living in the north and east have not been getting the welfare services that they were entitled to. This was not because they were discriminated against by the central government. Even during the fierce fighting at the end of the war the government was trying to get medicines to civilians but was thwarted by the separatist rebels. Possibly the biggest challenge is to re-integrate into the national health service those areas previously controlled by the LTTE. In spite of the millions of dollars flowing to that organization from the Tamil diaspora, LTTE stewardship did nothing for the infrastructure of the de facto statelet and did nothing but undermine the welfare of its people.

Perfect Fright

Michael Roberts’s discussion of “Niromy de Soyza’s” book reminded me of  a book I read in which the author also tried to make money out of the Sri Lankan situation while displaying a tin ear for matters Sri Lankan –  Peter Grimsdale’s Perfect Night.

I am often disappointed when I spend my hard-earned money after reading a delusional book review. The Guardian misled me. Martin Lewin said:  “Peter Grimsdale can tell a convincing story with writing that is cliché-free and utterly enthralling”. I like thrillers (although I often afterwards have to clean my brain of bad writing by reading the cold heartless prose of the likes of John Banville or Samuel Beckett). The idea of a thriller based in Sri Lanka was (mildly) thrilling. When I was pottering about in Barefoot, the normally excellent Laurence handed me the book and recommended it.

The author, Peter Grimsdale, worked for the BBC as a documentary producer and visited Sri Lanka in?  His first novel Perfect Night was based on that experience.

Before moving on to the wider implications of this kind of work let us examine Matthew Lewin’s claim that the writing “cliché-free”. The brilliantly strange Iris writer  Flann O’Brien produced a “Catechism of Cliché”.  “A unique compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing. Compiled without regard to expense or the feelings of the public. A harrowing survey of sub-literature and all that is pseudo, mal-dicted and calloused in the underworld of print.”

Orwell wrote that a writer could shirk responsibility by throwing the  “mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. “

After a while I got somewhat bored with noting the clichés in Perfect Night but here are a few from the beginning of the book. Well here is a dollop of stale language from page one. “It was like the tide coming in…I was engulfed”. “I was more of a risk-taker then.” “The opportunity I had been desperate for.” “Laid up with a stomach bug.” “Thick cloud pressed down on Colombo.” “I felt my mouth go dry.”

The narrator Nick Roker first arrives in Sri Lanka to be met by the beautiful Tamil, Anita Jeyarajah. Her job is to educate him about the country but this irritates him. In this he could be the epitome of many western journalists. His excuse about just wanting to rest after his flight is not convincing. “Over the next two days she delivered a continuous monologue on the marvels of the island and her faith in the peace process as we criss-crossed Colombo by tuk-tuk. After the sixth meeting I called a halt. I grabbed her clipboard and drew a line through all the other appointmenrts. ‘No more old farts. I can’t make a film about peacemakers if I can’t see the war’ “.

Do you see how representative this is. Like many western journalists he is not interested in the positive aspects of Sri Lanka that enthuse a Sri Lankan. He wants the glamour of war,  not boring peace. Incidentally, Roker’s previous experience was making holiday programmes. This nicely underlines the link between the fantasy world of tourism and the delusions of “serious” journalism”.

I wonder how many of you out there, including journalists,  get as irritated as I do when films and novels, often written by journalists taking up the trade of fiction,  glamorise the exploits of journalists.

The reporter Roker is working with, Greer Harmon, is a cliché enigmatic, charismatic, (so we are told) glamour-journo that one might expect to see in a  “major motion picture”. Here’s some more from the cliché cabinet: ”Her combats were caught at the waist with a wide belt, tightly fastened. A bleached shirt with epaulettes completed the dressed-for-action look. Her hair, a dusty golden blonde, cascaded over her shoulders. She took off her sunglasses. Her eyes were a shade of grey-green that I didn’t think eyes came in”.

Years later Roker asks Edgington, the producer, why he had sent Harmon to Sri Lanka. “She travelled a lot. I let her. She was good at finding stories..Greer said she wanted to do something about the peace process with the Tamils. I couldn’t see it myself.” Note that this is not peace talks with the Tamil Tigers but with “the Tamils”.

I understand that HRF Keating wrote most of his Inspector Ghote books, with the aid of a Bombay street map and telephone directories, without actually visiting India. I do not doubt that Grimsdale did visit Sri Lanka, but it does not seem like the Sri Lanka I know. He might have benefited had he consulted a street map and a telephone directory.

Some examples of faux Sri Lanka:

  • Greer and Nick are having dinner and wine at a hotel populated by cliché annoying European tourists (you know, not adventurous types like our hero or our author).  A small girl appears at table the selling ball points. I have encountered this on the trekking trails of Nepal but not in a Colombo hotel catering to Europeans. “A throng of children crowding round, hands outstretched, unsmiling faces engaged in the serious business of extracting cash from new arrivals too polite to shoo them away”. I have encountered this kind of thing in many countries but never in Colombo.
  • There are references to the “British Consulate” in Colombo. Was it not the High Commission in 1995? It was when my father-in-law was working there alongside Anton Balasingham in the 60s.It is the High commission today.
  • A boatman charges 50 rupees to take them out to a cruiser almost in open sea. Nick was “in too much of a hurry to haggle”. Some foreigners are notoriously stingy in their transactions with “the locals” but in 1995 50 rupees was worth half a British pound.
  • There is a photographic business whose address is “Witjerwarra Chemist. 310 Galle Road Colombo 7.” Galle Road is very long but none of it goes near Colombo 7. According to Arjuna’s Street Guide the postal address is Colombo 3.
  • Greer has what seems to be meant as  harrowing journey from the hill country to Colombo because her “driver was detained at a roadblock near Kandy”. Would that have been harrowing even in 1995?
  • There is a reference to the “Northern Territory”. Isn’t that in Australia?
  • Dr Sivalingam smokes a “bindi”. In Indian restaurants bindi  is “lady’s finger” or okra. An odd choice of smoking material but I have seen people trying to get high smoking bananas! Bidis are smoked by Tamil estate labourers but it is unlikely that a Tamil doctor would smoke them.
  • I always sense that a writer is hovering between ignorance and condescension about the land of Johnny Foreigner when I read references to “tuk-tuks” and “the locals”.

There’s more of this kind of stuff but I don’t want to bore you. The general effect is the familiar one of parachute dilettantes exploiting our country for local colour for their own fantasies.

Perfect Night is not actually about Sri Lanka. I will not spoil the plot for you (actually I have read the book twice and can’t  explain the story). It seems to be about  international terrorism, Palestinians, Mossad, CIA, government cover-ups involving multiple murders. There is a silkily sinister British spook called Tanager (a role made for Ian Richardson). Tamil terrorism is not seriously addressed. It is just a sideshow. People are dropping like flies (pardon the cliché) all around Nick but neither the Tigers nor the GOSL seem to be to blame –  I can’t  tell you why they are dying.

Nick’s  second visit to Sri Lanka comes a decade after the first one. In those  few days of the first visit he made a big impression on Anita and also, seemingly, on the course of Sri Lankan, and, indeed, world  history. Tanager tells Nick: “No government would want you loose on the streets”. Anita drools about him making a difference and “sighed. ‘Your energy. Your determination. That’s what I loved in you.’”

Thriller writers sometimes use their heroes to project a more exciting version of themselves. Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta books started off well but deteriorated badly as she projected onto Scarpetta and every thing in the entire universe seemed to relate to her. Does Grimsdale see himself in Nick Roker, who blushes when Greer says she imagines he could have his pick of pretty girls. Harmon is noted for not taking an interest in men but, inevitably, she hits the sack with Nick. Does Grimsdale see himself doing this? Look at his photograph.

It is possible to be a successful author without being a very good writer. There is a certain style of best-selleritis. On a blog Grimsdale writes this: “More than my fare share of happiness”.  “Whatever I did next would be total emersion”. Spelling is obviously not his forte but editors can deal with that.

Some of Grimsdale’s purple prose is worthy of Barbara Cartland. “I had barely touched a man before. I had so many tears stored up and once they’d started, that was it…everything was different”. “I didn’t care about Greer and Malik anymore. All that mattered was in my arms.” “I tightened my grip on Anita and whispered,  ‘I love you’. It was something I should have said a long time ago. “

They should be able to deal with fact-checking also. In his acknowledgements Grimsdale  thanks Chantal Krishnadasan and Shirani Sabaratnam for vetting “all the Sri Lankan and Tamil material”. They have failed you badly Mr Grimsdale.

Perfect Night is just fiction, just entertainment. I have no objection to a writer trying to make a few bob writing about Sri Lanka. I am concerned  about  the infantilising nature of delusion generally in the media, both in fiction and “reportage”. It gives me a queasy feeling when real and tragic events are served up as entertainment and little effort is made to get beyond simplistic stereotypes or to bother with accuracy.

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