he two articles which appeared in the Phnom Penh Post of Oct 20, 1996, "Tamil
Tigers shopping for arms in Cambodia" and "Eyes of Tamil patriot burn bright
in Phnom Penh," appear to be merely sensationalist journalism to most Sri Lankan
expats, whatever community they might belong to (irrespective of any race), except
those who are biased. The first article suffers from two critical flaws: first, it
is basically a recycling of the Asia Week article cited therein - therefore it has
nothing newsworthy to deserve the front page, and second Mr Imran Vittachi has interviewed
only those Sri Lankan expats who have a one-sided story about the Tamils - worse,
he has not interviewed any Sri Lankan Tamil expats who may have a very different
story to tell.
The reason for emphasizing this is that every Sri Lankan, be he/she Sinhala, Tamil,
Muslim, Burger or others is greatly concerned and involved with the present crisis
in Sri Lanka. Issues such as arms procurement, the number of killings, refugees and
displaced persons are of equal interest and concern to all Sri Lankans. Under such
circumstances, every expat is unconsciously or consciously a party to the civil conflict
that has been ravaging Sri Lanka because his/her views are likely to reflect only
one side of the spectrum.
The second article is a shoddy attempt to demonize all the Tamils by invoking the
image of Raksa and indulging in a juvenile fantasy by making allusions to James Bond
movies. We can only sympathize with such a shoddy performance - the only question
is why a reputed newspaper like the Post would print such gibberish.
It is very clear to any sensible reader that Mr Vittachi's first article is not an
analysis of the Tiger issue but a sensationalist news item unsupported by evidence.
His article details the procurement of weapons and he quotes sources such as "well-placed
sources in the Sri Lankan capital" and "a Sri Lankan diplomatic source
speaking by telephone from Colombo" and he continues to say that "Fernando
[the Bangkok-based Sri Lanka Ambassador] conveyed Colombo's alarm about the Tigers
running armaments". The only document he refers to is a note of September 10
by Iqbal Athas, a Col-ombo-based journalist, and of course the cover story that appeared
last month in Asia Week. He is unable to cite any Cambodian source for supporting
the main contention of his article, namely, that the Tigers have established a base
in Cambodia and are procuring weapons. In fact, the Cambodian sources he quotes expressly
disclaim the possibility that the Tigers are procuring SAMs. The closest he comes
is when he quotes a Cambodian source that some Sri Lankans have been seen in Stung
In the end, he does not quote a single Cambodian source for his contention that Tigers
are procuring arms or that they have set up a base in Cambodia. Is it then professional
and fair journalism to write what Mr Vittachi has done?
To corroborate his wild fantasies, Mr Vittachi also cites Sri Lankan expatriates,
some of whom have lived in Cambodia for long years. Certainly these expats are not
representative of other Sri Lankan expats in Cambodia like us, but again, Mr Vittachi
dose not appear to have a real interest in reporting the truth. Far more dangerously,
Mr Vittachi has completely mixed up the Tamil Tigers with the Tamils and the Sri
Lankans. Towards the end of the first article and throughout the second article,
the operations of the Tigers have been transformed into that of migrants, political
refugees, heroin shippers, gang leaders, etc. In one instance, he mentions that "the
Tamils are suspected to be shipping heroin down the Mekong River from the Golden
To the ordinary Cambodian immigration officials, all Sri Lankan names probably sound
alike and all brown-skinned foreigners look like Tamil Tigers - Mr Vittachi's article
is certainly going to help such generalizations which will result in innocent people
being harassed and victimized. How fair would it be if an article were to be published
generalizing that all Belgians are child-abusers, on the basis of the recent revelations
in the press?
The second article is completely off the mark. Mr Vittachi has tried to make it more
sensational than the previous article and the story has ended up sounding like a
third-rate cheap fiction. He begins the article by saying "His smile is dazzling,
open, avuncular but in contrast to his eyes - black, cold, menacing." He continues
to say "They vaguely resemble those of a Raksa, the devil-mask which has cast
its charm on many a Western wanderer to Sri Lanka." This sorry attempt to demonize
the Tigers - and therefore the Tamils - comes dangerously close to a racist stereotype.
Unfortunately not everyone in the world has beautiful, peaceful Caucasian blue eyes
- the eyes of most Asians are black. In any case, one fails to see how or why this
kind of observation is relevant in a newspaper article. If Mr Vittachi aspires to
be a novelist, he should do it separately. He ends the article saying that "Suddenly,
four Tamils emerged from nowhere and got into the car. One in particular cut a figure
straight out of a James Bond film." The moment he saw the four persons walk
out, he concluded not only that they were Tamils but also that they were Tigers -
all Tamils are Tigers or at least sympathizers and all Tigers are terrorists.
Mr Vittachi seems oblivious to the possible motives of Mr Bhas-ekarenn in talking
to him. It is a well-known tactic of potential émigrés to generate
stories about themselves, to ease their entry into foreign countries as refugees.
It is very clear to any reader that Mr Bhasekareen intends to emigrate to Cambodia
for economic or other reasons, he just happens to have found the gullible journalist
he must have been looking for.
The reality is that all Tamils are not Tigers and all Sinhalese are not out to kill
the Tamils. The majority of Sri Lankans who are Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslim, Burghers
and others like to live in peace and harmony, and are against any type of terrorist
acts and violence. A deep understanding of this social urge in Sri Lanka would have
enabled Mr Vittachi to write a balanced article based on facts. Instead, what he
has published is a recycle of old information, wild assertions based on very sketchy
sources and racist stereotypes. Surely the majority of Sri Lankans, including Tamils,
do not and will not approve of any arms deals or terrorist activities by the Tigers,
not only in Cambodia but anywhere in the world. It is also important to understand
that, as Tigers do not represent the entire Tamil community, a few Sri Lankan expatriates
do not represent the entire Sri Lankan community. This type of reporting increases
antagonism between the Tamils and Sinhalese and provides justification for the war
hawks to increase their military budget to even higher levels, to the detriment of
the development of all Sri Lankans. In addition, this type of reporting also jeopardizes
the credibility of other Sri Lankan expats living or passing through Cambodia and
places them in a critical political situation.
- Name and address withheld
(Editor replies: Since the article's publication, First Prime Minister Prince Norodom
Ranariddh has said that the Cambodian government had received a letter from the Sri
Lankan Minister of Defence "saying that there had probably been sales of surface-to-air
missiles from Cambodia..." As well, one source has since told The Post that
a group of Tamils in Phnom Penh showed him their cache of weapons, of which he said:"To
describe it as an arsenal is an understatement."
The Post articles did not report "wild assertions"; they reported information
from cited sources in Colombo - including a diplomat who spoke of intelligence reports
about the sale of SAMs - the recent Asia Week report and Sri Lankan expatriates,
both Sinhalese and Tamil, in Phnom Penh. All the expatriates, like the author(s)
of the above letter, preferred to go nameless for security reasons.
The articles did not state that "all Tamils are Tigers", nor did they attempt
to malign the credibility of all Sri Lankans living in Phnom Penh; to have done so
would have been strange, given that the articles' writer is himself of Sri Lankan