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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Of Tamils, Sri Lankans and Tigers

Of Tamils, Sri Lankans and Tigers

The Editor,

T

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

Treng.

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

Triangle."

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

descent.)

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