Channel Seven’s Documentary on Asylum-Seekers from Lanka exposes New Angles but blunders with Kamahl

Michael Roberts

“Boat after boat after boat …. Tim Noonan has just returned from Sri Lanka where thousands of people are still trying to get to Australia illegally…. As we go to air tonight more boatloads are readying themselves for the perilous journey.”[i]These are the dramatic opening lines in the video documentary presented by CHANNEL SEVEN in Australia on its primetime “Today Tonight” 6.30 show on Sunday 19th August – indelible words set against an initial backdrop provided by the massed drummers and elephants participating in the dramatic Äsēla Perahära in Kandy [which had absolutely nought to do with the topic]. Viewers are also told at an early stage that so far 49 boats with 2369 Sri Lankans have reached Australia this year.[ii]

 Pic from Christian Science Monitor

Founded upon the film-work and investigations by Tim Noonan in Sri Lanka, Channel Seven’s documentary surpasses most of the previous media coverage in Australia in its relative comprehensiveness. Do watch the video on http://au.news.yahoo.com/sunday-night/video/.

“Boat after boat”! The story immediately enraptures viewers by dwelling on Noonan’s footage from a naval patrol boat as it intercepts a small fishing trawler off the east coast of Sri Lanka and discovers 10-12 “boat people” hidden below deck.[iii] Noonan tells us that “last month” the SL Navy “captured” 640 people on 18 boats, all of whom were jailed.[iv] An interview with Commodore Nurajah Attygalle adds grist to this mill by telling us that naval interceptions are based on “intelligence on the ground” or chance interceptions by patrols. In response to Noonan’s query about the recent “surge” in boats leaving, Attygalle surmises that it is because of “indicators” from Australia that the rules are “about to change, so you better come soon.”

The video documentary is to be commended for highlighting the economic imperatives that are presently inspiring Sri Lankans, (inclusive, in my interpellation, of Sinhalese and Muslims who take illegal routes to get abroad, often nowadays through air and land journeys with false documents).[v] The focus in the documentary is on Tamils and it is indicated that most of the aspirant asylum-seekers are males. One English-speaking Tamil tells Noonan that he was “chasing a better life in Australia.” Thereafter, an unnamed Tamil welder, a married man with a 7-year old daughter, who presently earns the equivalent of 200 dollars per month explains to Noonan[vi]why he has already invested money with a people smuggler towards such a trip and what risks he was prepared to face. He is confident he will get to Australia. His face is not hidden and the video scenes as well as his commentary (in translation) are as credible as striking.

Noonan tells us that the “people smugglers” are “making millions, but offer no guarantee of reaching Australia and no refunds if you don’t make it.” Referring to them as “ruthless people,” he introduces the audience to a people-smuggler in a balaclava, who spoke in Sinhala and clarified his manipulations in response to questions.[vii] There is every possibility that Noonan was taken for a ride on this occasion. The authenticity of the commentary from this person must be sceptically viewed, with the evidence kept on hold (air traffic metaphor) for the moment.

In contrast the Tamil welder’s testimony is consolidated by the evidence of an English-speaking Tamil introduced as “Spencer.” Spencer was – and IS – a breadth of fresh air. He had been arrested among a boatload that had taken off from “the west coast” [probably Negombo or thereabouts] and Noonan’s interview was with official permission in some jail. His straight-talking opinions will be a shock to the gullible Aussie human rights advocates and the general readership who have swallowed the tale that Tamils in Sri Lanka today in 2011/12 – whatever the story in the past — are fleeing from persecution. Let me introduce some extracts verbatim or in summary paraphrase.

  • In response to the question why he was prepared to work through “people-smugglers,” Spencer said: “the thing is there is no other way. We must get their help.”
  • And why did he venture thus: “to make money; to live a luxurious life,” said Spencer.
  • It would take 13 days to get to Christmas Island and he had made a down payment of roughly 3,500$ and given his title deeds to the people smuggler as security for the rest of the 8,000$ cost to which he was liable after he reached Christmas Island. But four hours into their journey they were caught off the western coast.
  • He and the others on his boat had expected a “ship” and were shocked to find themselves, 51 people all told, in a crammed space where they later came to know that “there was no enough water and food.”
  • “Oh God it was so tough … I did not know it was going to be so difficult. I thought I was definitely going to kick the bucket.”
  • At some point in his interview Spencer noted that his venture had been “a dream” and when Noonan noted that Spencer and his particular shipload had been apprehended by “the wrong navy” in terms of their goals, both agreed that this ending was “sad.”
  • It was “like a dream” said Spencer ruefully as he pondered the failure of his venture.
  • Noonan also asks Spencer if the Tamils in Lanka are being tortured and persecuted. The response is explosive:  “Bullshit!” says Spencer, He then proceeds to give Noonan a teacher’s lesson: of course, all boat people who reach Christmas Island have to give some answer to explain why they have come … so such a claim, alleging torture and persecution, is the easiest.
  • When asked if he would have given such an answer, Spencer was frank: “yes.”

Spencer does indulge in one or two sweeping generalizations which may require some caveats so his testimony should NOT be taken as the last word on the topic. Outmigration from Sri Lanka is a complex multi-factorial process. One cannot rule out the influence of political dissatisfaction among some Tamils who believe (whether rightly or wrongly) that they are disadvantaged in the competitive search for jobs.

Nevertheless, Spencer’s powerful commentary complements that of the unnamed welder. It is particularly effective in discounting the idea that the deportation of Dayan Anthony recently by Australia will discourage other would-be Tamil migrants. Spencer simply laughed it away (as I have elsewhere for a number of reasons). “It was like kidding … by the time you deport one, ten thousand would have got to Christmas Island,” said he.

One additional embellishment is pertinent here. Spencer is introduced to the Channel 7 viewers as “Spencer” and a “married man” with two children. Well, let me stress that his full name is Sathis Spencer. He is a Tamil businessman from Kandy and his full interview can be seen at http://myapologetics.wordpress.com/2012/07/31/httpvideo-theaustralian-com-au2261808685captured-tamil-federal-government-kidding-on-asylum-acti/. It is a must-see.

So far so good with Today Tonight….. But, THEN, the editorial collective at the Australian end undermined Noonan’s grounded work by playing to the Aussie gallery—depicting war scenes from the recent conflict and then introducing KAMAHL, the well-known singer, as their star turn to summarise the situation of Sri Lankan Tamils today.

“The war may be over but the battle isn’t. Those Tamils suspected, rightly or wrongly, of hoping for a land of their own … they have been literally stamped out. So for them it [Sri Lanka] is the worst place to be … any normal human being would not risk their lives getting on a leaky boat if things were safe.”

Kamahl aka Kandiah Kamaleswaran was born in 1934 in Malaysia and migrated to Australia from Malaysia in 1953. He is thus a Malaysian Tamil, maybe one with lineage roots in Sri Lanka, but with little or no first-hand experience of the island either in the past or the present. For Kamahl to accept his role and pontificate on Lankan affairs with an air of authority was an act of colossal arrogance on his part. But the greatest criticism — and a few choice epithets — should be directed at the Channel Seven’s directorate for selecting him as their local authority on the political situation in Sri Lanka. Since they played a musical score by Kamahl in the background as he pronounced his verdict, the whole effect was surreal fairy-tale to those aware of his background. But, then, how many Aussies knew that he was a counterfeit Sri Lankan Tamil for the purposes at hand? This was dissimulation by Channel Seven.

A blogging comment from Associate Professor Sanjiva Wijesinha of the Medical Faculty, Monash University, has let the Channel Seven readership on line know what he thought of the Kamahl episode within this documentary. I reproduce his note below in full. It reached me via email in a post bearing the headline “The Clowns governing the world.” I believe the description is a hat we can plant on the executives in Channel Seven. Their choice of Kamahl for this particular airing will remain etched in cyber-space as a standing blot in Australian media reportage.

Blog Comment by Sanjiva Wijesinha:

Your Sunday Night programme about Sri Lankan boat people today (19th August 2012) was very opportune, and presented the correct perspective on these “refugees” who appear to be taking advantage of “The System” to get into Australia. Showing the work done by the Sri Lankan Navy in attempting to intercept these people before they get into Australian territorial waters was good – because many folk in Australia do not appreciate that those boats reaching here represent only a small proportion of those that set out from Sri Lanka. However, i felt it most inappropriate for you to feature Kamahl, an Australian of Malaysian origin (he migrated to Australia from MALAYSIA, not Sri Lanka, at the age of 13 — and has made good here) He is certainly a nice, high profile, recognisable person to feature on Sunday Night and get a quote from for your programme. However, although ethnically a Tamil, he has lived in Australia all his adult life, is married to a Fijian lady, and has no connection to Sri Lanka — so to quote his views on the so called “plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils” was ludicrous!!

For a different reading of the documentary, NOTE this comment circulated by SANJANA HATTOTUWA, Editor of Groundviews;

Please take a look at the relatively short video on the top right corner of this webpage, which was broadcast Sunday night on Australian TV –
http://au.news.yahoo.com/sunday-night/video

The programme is interesting on a number of counts, esp. for the disclosure of sums of money involved in smuggling operations. However, it’s rather ill produced. For example,

  • No effort at all is made to      blur the faces of those who are caught in the boats by the SL Navy and      shown on film
  • Ironically, the one human      smuggler interviewed dons a balaclava for his ‘security’ and revealingly,      speaks in Sinhala. There is no visible concern on the part of the      Producers over the identity or privacy of those featured in the programme
  • There is nothing by way      of post-war SL’s human rights context, esp. in the North      and East, and very little on the conflict itself
  • What is obviously SL Navy      library footage is used without any attribution
  • There is no questioning of      the conditions of jails those captured are put in, what they have to go      through, the nature of the questioning, or allegations of torture
  • The programme features one voice, presently in custody, who speaks of fabricated torture claims just to get asylum. Seemingly no recognition on the part of the producers that      someone in custody is unlikely to tell the whole truth, or that which may well put him at greater risk
  • There is no one from the UN,  ILO or civil society interviewed as to why this is taking place. Only the Govt voice (through the Navy) is featured in the programme

It is clear that this programme is an attempt at fear mongering — aimed squarely at the Australian people, and with scant regard over the safety and security of those featured in it, with almost no accurate context, and featuring only the voice and perspective of the SL Govt. The issue is certainly complex, but I doubt programme like this help in addressing the situation. This smacks of the kind of journalism that both the Australian and SL Govt would love to see more of – and perhaps, given the access provided to the producers of it, the result of some bilateral collaboration to stem the flow of boats.


[i] “A perilous journey” – this is a standard Australian view that requires qualification.

[ii] Noonan added that “many more never make it” – an outrageous surmise that caters to popular prejudice by repeating sensationalist understandings.

[iii] Though it was implied that all were Tamils one of those who emerged from the innards was probably a Muslim to judge from his white skull cap. To me this boat looked like a ferry boat ferrying people to a multi-day trawler that can house many more people, albeit in crammed conditions.

[iv] One of the missing dimensions in the Australian commentary on all fronts is the cost to the government of Sri Lanka in man hours of military personnel, jailers, courthouse officials and whoever.

[v] One cluster of Lankans (ethnicity not specified in news reports) were recently left high and dry and stranded in Togoland of all places. Many people in the Negombo locality mostly Sinhala Catholics migrated by boat to Italy during the period extending from the early 1990s to 2002. See the Bernardo Brown article. Take note of this comment from Brown: “the grama sevaka of Wennapua told me that out of 515 households in his district, 213 had people in Italy. I don’t think there is that kind of concentration with Australian migration.” (email, 15 August 2012).

[vi] The man spoke in Tamil and the voice-over dubbing is in good English so it is presumably that of an interpreter. But there are also scenes of a man (same man??) teaching a little girl English and we are led to understand that it is his daughter.

[vii] It is claimed that he sent 4 boats with ‘more than 240 people” to Australia. It is probable that this person was Sinhalese in ethnicity, especially if the interview was in the Negombo locality, though that area has Tamil and Bharatha people who would speak Sinhala.

8 Comments

Filed under accountability, asylum-seekers, australian media, ethnicity, historical interpretation, immigration, life stories, LTTE, people smugglers, politIcal discourse, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, world events & processes

8 responses to “Channel Seven’s Documentary on Asylum-Seekers from Lanka exposes New Angles but blunders with Kamahl

  1. But the most vital question has not been asked: Of all countries in the world why are they comming to Australa?
    The answer is that it is the easisest place to get in.

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