CRUDE REASONING, FALSE IMAGES: SRI LANKA’S REFUGEE CAMPS
This article was presented under a shortened title in ABC UNLEASHED on 7 November 2009 and is reproduced here with acknowledgement of this privilege. There were 36 COMMENTS entered in response to this article and I myself responded to four.I append a selection of these comments at theend of the article, dividing them into twosegments, those deemed Dinkum Australians and those deemed Migratnt Australians.
For the original set of comments, see http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2736651
Ever since the war in Sri Lanka moved towards a devastating climax early this year the propaganda war hotted up. With many arms all over the world the pro-Tiger elements have easily bested the government of Sri Lanka in this rhetorical game. If one spins lies, it is wise to take up half-truths, and then embellish and mix them with a couple of enormous fabrications. Then repeat these tales ad nauseam. Reiteration is the modus vivendi of sharp advertisement.
Given the emotional turmoil of so many Sri Lankan Tamils in many places, it is not surprising that they absorbed these tales and then purveyed these “truths’ with great fervour. In consequence Australians have accepted some tales as fact.
I focus here on one arena: images that have been circulated about the internment camps for the Tamil refugees — both civilians and tigers in civilian attire – who emerged from the battlefields. They numbered roughly 288,000 in May, with roughly 10,000 identified as Tigers and removed to separate “rehabilitation camps,” though the government suspects that more Tiger personnel are hidden among the remaining IDPs.
Australians value individual autonomy. Imprisoning people is anathema to liberals even if they are ‘enemies within’. No Australian today has taken the reflective step back to their own history and the principles that guided the erection of internment camps for some Italian and German Australians during WW II.
These Australian camps had two rows of barbed wire. Those in Sri Lanka have one row. But media personnel such as Tony Jones and Amanda Hodge insist on referring to the restraints as “razor wire.” This little act of massaging the message is quite significant in its awesome implications.
The weight of condemnation is then expanded exponentially by depicting the IDP camps as “concentration camps” in the novel “Demonising the Victims?” It is compounded by gross errors of fact perpetrated by David Feith in the Sydney Morning Herald where he states categorically that “All international media and non-governmental organisations have been locked out of the camps” and that the camps were marked by a “shortage of food and medical facilities.”
Palitha Kohona recently contradicted the first of these fabrications by indicating that 54 NGOs had access to these camps. When I challenged Rajiva Wijesinha about his recent statement in India (9 October 2009) critical of INGOs, I received a reply where he lauded the work of local NGOs and particularly cited CHA, Sarvodaya, Sewalanka and Caritas; while noting that “ the Catholic one has been a model of quiet commitment.”
As critically, I have a young relative who has worked for an UN organisation both in Kilinochchi and now in the camps. A quick email this week from the depths of one camp said: “Sarvodaya, Seed, Shade all work in the camps and are good.” Many local NGOS, I stress, work in association with foreign ones. There seems to be a touch of the old colonialism however in some Australian comments that demand a foreign hand or voice as authentic source.
Teams associated with the Friend-in-Need Society have fitted 257 artificial limbs on IDPs over the past few months. The tsunami disaster team of medics was diverted to attend to the camps from the outset. There are now 20 primary health-care dispensaries within the camps – reduced from a previous maximum of 27. Specialists visit the camps on rotation. The death rate initially was 5-6 a day, but is now down to 2-to-3 on average. Eighty percent of these deaths have been old people.
There are shops and banks within these IDP camps. The A Level examinations were held for those eligible recently in some camps. All this reads as quite remarkable for a “concentration camp.” As for the barbed wire pictured as “razor wire,” the containment leaked like a sieve. Though a government minister said that only 2111 had escaped, a journalist friend provided a flat contradiction: “about ten to twenty thousand left the camps by ‘buying their way out of the camps with the help of some pro-government Tamil parties, human smugglers and sections of the security forces. Many of these escapees are believed to be LTTE cadre or those with connections with the wealthy sections of the Diaspora.”
There are several black areas in the government’s record, most notably the long history of intimidation of media personnel. Such instances should not be mechanically extended as a blanket characterisation to the IDP camps. Some Australians have displayed incredulous gullibility in this field. In any event there is no excuse for responsible scholars to indulge in the erroneous statements that I have highlighted in this essay.
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THOSE DEEMED DINKUM AUSTRALIAN
Veedhur on 18 Nov 2009 10:57:43pm
Lazy reasoning. A good example of selectively arraying facts and quotes to fit ones perception. To quote Rajiva Wijesinghe to buttress the arguement is incredible.
It is not only those who champion individual liberty that oppose the internment camps, but also those who oppose collective punishment.
Don: 18 Nov 2009 7:54:11pm
Sticking to tradition of a good researcher Michael has written from his own experience and info gathered from reliable sources. Good to hear at least occasionally an unbiased version of events. It is sad to realize the so called free journalists here in Australia and elsewhere moving among public only shouting they are wearing emperror’s golden clothes!
Anne : 18 Nov 2009 12:40:13pm
I will never again vote Labour after this sorry mess with the illegal immigrants on the Oceanic Viking. I may as well have voted for the illegal immigrants- they have charge over the Prime Minister.
Maree for Anne: 18 Nov 2009 2:31:55pm
What would youi have had him do Anne? Let’s see – leave them to drown as Plan A? Certainly avoids any problem with survivors. Maybe force them off the ship at gun point as Plan B. Now the problem is Indonesia’s but our relations with Indonesia might have to take a battering, not to mention our reputation as a nation. The there’s Plan C – take them straight back to Sri Lanka and hand them over the the Sri Lankan authorities (no doubt this would also involve forcing everyone off the ship at gun point.) At least they wouldn’t be our guns but the images of women and babies being man-handled off the ship into the clutches of the very people they were trying to escape from might have had some ramifications for Australia’s reputation as a civilised society.
But what the heck, in our cosy white bread lounge rooms what do we care about our reputation not to mention the plight of displaced refugees!
Paul for Maree: 18 Nov 2009 7:12:16pm
I’m Sorry Maree, but you like lots of other Australians seem to have fallen into the trap of gullibility. These people are not displaced persons, rather the majority of them are ‘economical refugees’ who are simply looking for greener pastures. They seem to have figured out the best way to an Australian visa is to jump a boat and hold a government to hostage, rather than go through the legal channels, where they stand little chance of getting approved.
edgeways : 18 Nov 2009 10:25:10am
Yes, there have been inaccuracies in the media – is there a situation where there are not?
Yes, there has been considerable spin by the LTTE over the years; but hasn’t the Sri Lankan govt. also used spin (and control of access) over the years?
Yes, Australians have sometimes been gullible in accepting some of this spin; I would suggest the gullibility meter has been overworked in a great many more instances than Sri Lanka…
But Michael, without actually saying anything specific, your commentary implies that (1) the LTTE has spun the truth (2) the camps are fine (3) the Sri Lankan govt has always treated Tamils with respect.
What the less careful reader – or the supporter of the Sinhalese govt – takes from this that Tamil criticisms of the Sri Lankan govt and the Tamil aspirations for independence are invalid.
I would suggest that the Tamils have, generally speaking, been discriminated against for decades, and they have legitimate reasons for wanting independence.
Rather than hiding behind inference and side issues, Michael, perhaps you could give us your views on the legitimacy of the Tamil struggle for independence (which is not the same as the legitimacy of the LTTE).
eric for edgeways: 18 Nov 2009 12:12:55pm
edgways, I don’t think one can come away from Michaels article believeing the “camps are fine” or that the “Sri Lankan Gov has always treated the Tamils with respect” to draw that conclusion is a bit silly. We have all seen camps, on the news, as they exist all over the world and none are even nice places.
The Sri Lankan Gov will not have always treated the non Tamils with respect either. But Civil war achieves nothing but death and destruction and further desire for revenge.
Michael Roberts for Edgeways:
Edgeways, I stayed within the theme selected by the Editor and space constraints prevented attention to Tamil grievances. On discrimination and resentment see my comments as hurled back at me by Colin Andersen in http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/taken-in-by-tamil-tall-tales/story-e6frg6zo-1225794053578. Also see my article “The Tamil Movement for Eelam,” E-Bulletin of the International Sociological Association No. 4, July 2006, pp. 12-24 if it is accessible; or relevant segments in Confrontations (Colombo: 2009). Better still read the books by two scholars based in USA, namely, Lakshmanan Sabaratnam (Palgrave, 2001) and Neil de Votta (Stanford Uni Press, 2004). As their names indicate they are not Sinhalese. There is also the work of Nira Wickremasinghe, whose political stance is liberal-moderate.
Azrael : 18 Nov 2009 5:16:06am
Without at all justifying the Tigers’ methods, I think you’ll find that one reason for the double-standard is that we are far more sympathetic towards a group who are fighting for independence over their own land than we are towards people establishing their state at the cost of the local residents.
Yes, we are massive hypocrites in this regard, as our own colonisation did EXACTLY that to the local Aborigines, razor wire and all. But unlike many countries who did similar things, we at least have recognised that what our ancestors did was abomnible, ranging from neligently imposing the policies of the time while turning a blind eye to the harm, to outright intentional persecution.
So we’re no angels. But again, we see that this was wrong, as a cross we have to bear. I think if the Sri Lankan government was to make a similar admission, saying that they recognise that (like Australia with the Aboriginal people) they clumsily and brutally established a state on top of a pre-existing culture. That they used superior firepower to use disproportionate force against people trying to protect their homeland – just like we did.
Take that step of honesty, and you’ll find plenty of people here who recognise that our ancestor’s errors can’t be undone overnight, and that finding a way to undo them at all is an ongoing struggle. You’ll find that we will sympathise with you tremendously, knowing what a heartbreaking time that experience is for a nation.
But we can’t do that while we see you making the same mistakes that we made, that continue to haunt the consciences of those of us who know history and care about its modern injustices.
Maybe take our criticism not as a rejection or a put-down, but as advice between friends. Friends warn each other when they see a friend walk heading down a bad road that their friend has already walked. We’d be a much worse friend if we said nothing. Knowing first hand how much economic, social and moral misery we have suffered from similar policies – how could we not make every effort to warn you of the same.
Goffa : 17 Nov 2009 7:16:19pm
Ah, I just love it when a another voice of reason and truth adds to the weight of evidence we have before us, rather than relying only on those in the media who would promote the sensationalist and one sided stuff that is their stock in trade.
More power to you Mick, and all others like you. Speak out and let us decide for ourselves
Marilyn : 17 Nov 2009 3:51:44pm
Perhaps then we should ignore the US state department report of war crimes, the Human rights watch and Amnesty reports, the vision we saw with our own eyes and listen to this Israeli style shill.
Have the Sinhala been joining in with the Hasbara machine.
Singhalese for Marilyn: 17 Nov 2009 5:09:59pm
Marilyn – Everyone has a right to say a different side of the story. You can’t just shut them up. Anyway it is up to you. My innocent brother was killed by a Tiger suicide bomb. I have got over that and I wish both the ordinary Singhalese and Tamils well and start reaching out to each other as both communities have suffered enough. There are people out there who really don’t care two hoots about 20 millinon people living Sri Lanka. It is so easy to criticise sitting in from of a computer screen thousands of miles away. There are lot of people out there who trying to help the Sinhalese, Tamils and other races come together in Sri Lanka. All the power to them. Anyway wish you well and peace be with you.
TheWarIsOver for Marilyn: 17 Nov 2009 6:40:02pm
Marilyn. The US report is only from such sources. Only alledged and more allegations against the Tamils. The camp the UN visited has improved by all accounts.
It is probbaly more politically driven as is always the case with China backing Sri Lanka and the west taking their eye off the ball in this regrd and being outfoxed by other emerging super powers.
The main point would be the final months of fighting but I am sorry, the Tamils chose to financially fund a terrorist organisation that used dirty tactics. You cannot have one side play by the rules, but not the other. Not once did I hear any real push from Tamil disapora requesting the Tigers play by rules. In fact they kept sending money for them to keep it up, even when it was hurting their own. Never complained, so they lose moral authority in my eyes. I see they brought much upon themselves through their choices.
Some people just love jumping on other people war bandwagons and all it does it create more division, more hate and more death.
The war is over.
Michael Roberts for both Singhalese and Marilyn, late November
Singhalese, thanks man. I especially appreciate your moderate tone of reconciliation at the end. Quite uplifting. For further encouragement, go to http://www.transcurrents.com and read “Sinhala and Tamil: Let’s get together and reconcile” on 31 May 2009. The initial memo was from MOHAN SEKARAM a Tamil in Sydney but the facilitator was DBS Jeyaraj who needs no introduction to Tamils and to many Sinhalese. The posts generated by this article revealed that the world was not populated by extremists alone. There were 364 posts so….
I encourage Australians too to dip into that material. It will open your eyes and indicate that there is no black and white chasm dividing Sri Lankans of the diaspora – there are quite a few ready to talk and to embrace each other.
Marilyn, please do not rely solely on the pontifications of ‘clerics’ in cloistered offices. Go to http://www.transcurrents.com for a range of conflicting descriptions about the camps. Given the diversity of camps and different subjectivities they underline the difficulties we face in reaching conclusive generalisations.
My generalisation was a more simple one because it was a case of negation: to destroy Damien Kingsbury’s characterisation of the IDP camps as “concentration camps.”
For some interpretations of IDP camps, some generalised and others reporting “what I saw,” READ
1 . Veronica Shanti Chelliah, “IDPs in Sri Lanka: An eyewitness report Exploring the realities,” Daily News, 25 August 2009.
2. Kath Noble, ““A Two-Day Trip to the I.D.P. Camps in Vavuniya and Chettikulam,” ww.transcurrents.org, 30 June 2009.
3. Seneviratne, “the IDP situation in Sri Lanka,” http://www.groundviews.org, 29 June 2009.
4. Noel Nadesan, “Internally Displaced Persons in sri Lanka, Speechat Murl Room, Canberra,http://www.lankanewspapers.com/news/2009/11/49937_space.html
5. Lilani Jayatilaka nee Appadurai in Sunday Island 1 nov.2009
Pyce: 18 Nov 2009 7:53:09am
Dirty tactics? Superior military forces always want the fighting to be done in the open because they know they have overwhelming strength. Opponents are forced to either surrender or change their tactics. Unsurprisingly the choice is usually to change tactics.
How is a superior military force using their superior weaponry to destroy a lesser “less dirty”?
We see the same arguments trotted out in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Taliban/Insurgents use of IEDs are decried as “dirty tactics” but the coalition’s use of helicopters shooting off rockets from kilometers away is apparantly clean.
As for the assertion that Sri Lanka played by the rules, wake up and smell the roses.
War is dirty. History shows us that in any conflict all parties commit atrocities (including Australia). That doesn’t make it right but singling out isolated atrocities is not the ideal method to form an opinion on which side is “right”.
THOSE DEEMED MIGRANT AUSSIES
Ram: 2009 : 18 Nov 2009 7:51:39pm
Thank you Mr Roberts for pointing out the misrepresentations that appear in the “Western” press. At times they are out of ignorance, but on most occasions deliberate. The good name of the little island had been tarnished by those who obtained a free education there funded by the common man (Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim among others) with calculated lies spread via the gullible “journalists”.
Fernando : 18 Nov 2009 1:27:23pm
Michael, Thank you very much!!!
Ruban : 18 Nov 2009 12:25:19pm
Every one deserved second chance. If any one watched Channel 4 reports obtained from sinhalese media personal how those young tamil men and women are executed by the srilankan military personal. every day young men and women taken by srilankan forces from the IDP cams and never return. Srilankan government is missing the last opportunity to reconcile with the tamils. International community should force the srilankan government to come with right proposal and implement to the tamils. thats is the only thing will stop the tamils fleeying tamils. Before many agreemnts were signed by tamil politition(Before tamil tigers period) and those never been implemented. If they don’t consider these issues and do something seriously srilanka will be like another IRAQ(Dont forgot the Bush’s Mission accomplished ) and whats happening now. May be one pirabakaran died but the current acts will create thousands of pirabakaran’s. Pirabakaran is creation of the past history. As a tamil i don’t want to see that again. We are peace loving people. and want a peace and bright future for us and our next generations.
Paul for Ruban:: 18 Nov 2009 7:15:28pm
Ruban, the video you mentioned was never proven either way to be factual or fictional.
S V Kasynathan : 18 Nov 2009 1:19:52pm
There is a story that used to be well known in Sri lanka and Michael may also have heard it. It is about five blind men who wanted to know what an elephant was like and felt different parts of the elephant’s body and produced very different descriptions of the animal.
The story is most probably of Jain origin ans illustrates the strong emphasis in their epistemology about the dependence of one’s beliefs and therefore of one’s world on one’s point view, inclination, attitude and even allegiance etc.
A video clip, I chose at random chosen from the many in the net on the IDPs in Sri Lanka, shows barbed wire fences, razor wire strands and rolls of razor wire in different parts of the camp perimeter. Given that writers are very often in some kind of hurry or other, “fenced in with barbed wire”, “…razor wire” or “…. barbed and razor wire” are all possible descriptions. And yes, it depends on your point of view and the aforementioned etc.
What should be one’s point of view to find one strand of barbed wire and men with guns more tolerable or humane than two strands of razor wire?
The video clip I saw is titled “Sri Lankan Tamils detained in so called welfare Camps! Act Now!” and the roll of razor wire can be seen from 4.31 minutes.
cristophles for Kasynathan: 18 Nov 2009 3:42:38pm
Very emotive video. There’s nobody sadder than the loser of a war is there.
Michael Roberts for Kasynathan; late november
Kasy, the still images I have are from items hostile to the govt and were taken in May. I have now looked at the video you refer to and the majority of pictures therein show single rows of barbed wire. There is one series with rolls of barbed wire and one shot of a child behind razor wire with no wider context [surprise, surprise].
Dr Susiri Weerasekera sent this note:
I spoke to Dr Hemantha Herath …The IDP camp barb wire are the everyday type of ‘katu kambi’ wires which we use to cordon our own gardens with. They are double strand, like rope. There is a barbed wire fence round the doctor’s quarters too there.
Hemantha has seen people form one camp cross over to the next camp (while soldiers watched) through the wire cordon so as to buy things from the shop at the next camp.
No rolled wires. No razor wires.
Poeple who leave camps do so by getting transferred to Vavunia Hospital and scooting off … reportedly supported by agents who charge money for the service.
Rolled wires are seen round detention camps for those who were active combatants.
So we have both types and we are both partially correct. It is not an issue of subjectivity so much as ….
Anyway folks you should see that video at
Note the last captions: we now know where David Feith got his ‘FACTS’ from, erroneous fabrications.