In Defence Of MIA

This is the second time I am writing to ‘defend’ MIA. The first time was in 2009. When she spoke out against the war, instead of getting a warm welcome as a major public figure using their fame to bring attention to the plight of Tamils, she received a rebuke. A Tamil ‘economist’ based in Sri Lanka decided to give her a ‘maths lesson’. Apparently she didn’t understand numbers – according to him she exaggerated the number of people being killed! That same ‘economist’ had claimed (in a meeting in 2008 as I recall) that the world economic crisis was nothing and would pass quickly – that’s another story. I had to defend MIA then because like many Tamils I felt powerless and forced to watch in silence when ‘millions of Tamils were being killed’.

It feels like every time MIA speaks out against the Sri Lankan government, people volunteer to correct her. They advise her to stick to ‘what she does best’ and avoid politics or they attack her as an ignorant maniac. What makes these people uncomfortable is what makes me and others want to defend her. Sure, many of us could do a ‘decent’ in-depth political commentary – and then be forced to sit on it forever. How many media outlets are out there which would publish the views of the oppressed sections in society? (Hats off to Colombo Telegraph on this). This is why at times we do seek ‘celebrity endorsement’. Accusations that millionaire Russell Brand is only trying to make more money out of talking ‘radicalism’ or that MIA’s trying to boost her own ratings do not concern us. Instead it is what these celebrities say, what side they take, and the audience they bring to such matters that is most important. If we argued they were a substitute for mass action that would be another matter. We don’t. It’s worth noting that those who don’t hesitate to criticise MIA are not arguing for any strategy for the fightback.

That she brings a larger audience’s attention to the plight of Tamils is the key factor here. Yes, it is true that media channels like Channel 4 could have given opportunities to other ‘intellectuals’ and ‘political commentators’ as well. But that’s not a realistic expectation within the capitalist media. It is Alan Keenen, mouthpiece of the ICG and the whole of western establishment who gives lectures to Tamils on what they should and should not do. When Callum Macrae stood up to tell the truth, he also faced an avalanche of accusations that he is not impartial.

In the face of the massacre how can one be impartial? MIA could have been ‘inaccurate’ on some facts and figures. Lefties always strive for accuracy – but does that render her comments useless? At a time when the president and the defence secretary of Sri Lanka were claiming that ‘there are no minorities in the country’, ‘not a single person has been killed’ and that the war was the ‘biggest hostage rescue operation’ – how can people be not expected to cry ‘genocide’ and ‘massacre’. At the time of the war, how many of you ‘intellectuals’ – ‘artists’ clearly came out against the war? There are those who wanted to be ‘neutral’ – there are those argued like Romesh Hettiarachchi that the LTTE should have stepped down and released the hostages to save the Tamils! (I have written a polemical book on this for those who can read in Tamil).

We don’t accept the ‘hostage rescue’ arguments and pretended ‘neutralities’. Leon Trotsky once pointed out that in the time of major social upheavals “standing on the wall involves great danger. Moreover, in times of alarm the priests of ‘conciliatory justice’ are usually found sitting on the inside of four walls waiting to see which side will win”.

In this light there is nothing more irritating than hearing that the war could have been avoided or the massacre could have been prevented only if the LTTE decided to lay down their arms. In response to the interview with MIA on Channel 4, thambi Romesh Hettiarachchi argue that: “Many lives would have been saved if the Tigers laid down their arms in February 2009”! This is mentioned without any hint that it justifies the brutal onslaught of the Sri Lankan military. The 2009 massacre was not brought down on the Tamils by their own actions but by the brutal chauvinist regime. This slaughter, though much more brutal than previous times, is not entirely new. There is a long history of discriminations, and attacks against the Tamils in Sri Lanka. The birth of the LTTE and their growth as a military organisation must be seen as a by-product of this ongoing attack and the geopolitical situation.

The methods of the LTTE are well known since their fight against the Indian army. We are not ready to buy the propaganda that the government did not know in advance of the war how the LTTE would strategically move among the people and aim at the military – after all they are known as guerrilla fighters. In my understanding and experience, the majority of Tamils don’t support any attacks on civilians by the LTTE. Despite ongoing discriminations, the majority of Tamils are not prepared to tolerate attacks on the Sinhala population either. They never condoned attacks in civilian places in the south. This contributes to the relative low level of such attacks in Sri Lanka in comparison to other conflicts. Almost all the diaspora groups now accept that the LTTE hierarchical control collapsed during the last phase of war, and they carried out a number of attacks against the fleeing Tamils. The Tamil diaspora groups always accepted the war crimes investigation against both parties – but to treat both the same would be absolutely ridiculous. Government personnel knew all too well that the war would more or less be over by March 2009. What took place for the next two months was a brutal hunting of the wounded Tigers with no regard for the refugees. There is ample evidence available and enough has been written on this.

But the point is this – even if the LTTE carried on with their military actions, the government should have stopped the war and refrained from massacring tens of thousands.

What MIA is saying now is shared by tens of thousands of Tamils in the diaspora. Apart from the empty shells such as the GTF (also note here that, it is their ‘moderate’ view that gets media attention regardless of the fact that they don’t have any support on the ground), the majority of the diaspora organisations express no trust in Maithri. But our position did not draw out people like Romesh, because we don’t get enough audience. But MIA should be silenced because she brings the embarrassment of Sri Lankan state to millions.

In the south, people are led to believe by the Sinhala ruling elite that all their problems boil down to only one thing – that it is the existence of the LTTE. Unfortunately the arguments such as above add to this ignorance. A huge number of Tamils stopped flying the flag of Sri Lanka for a long time – a phenomenon that started before the LTTE came to be. It is all too easy to brand those who raise these problems as ‘terrorists’ or sympathisers of terrorists’ actions. This is the line that the former Sri Lankan government took when they banned people from entering Sri Lanka. MIA cannot go to her country for this reason. But it’s not just MIA. I was banned from going to Sri Lanka last year by the defence ministry. What was my crime? Did I ever hesitate to oppose the faults of the LTTE (or any movements for that matter)? Or did I advocate terrorist activity of any kind? Or did I brand all Sinhala people as enemies. No. I spent most of my life arguing the contrary. And yet the ban came. The only reason, I assume, is that I dare to oppose the brutal regime and that I am a Tamil. I expect my experience is not unique and it’s no surprise then if you have a myriad of Tamil activists and artists (including MIA) speaking out in total mistrust of all governments of Sri Lanka.

Besides, the argument of ‘I have Tamil friends so I know what they think’ argument is so silly. Romesh, you don’t need Tamil friends to understand the suffering of Tamils in general as much as I don’t need ‘Sinhala friends’ to understand the poor and oppressed masses in the south of Sri Lanka. It reflects your squeezed view of politics – personalised experience in itself is not enough to understand the laws that govern society and the dialectical motions of history. We must do away with these sorts of ‘identity politics’ if we are thinking about creating a just society in which all can live without fear of discriminations and divisions.

By TU Senan