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‘Alex’ Kuhendrarajah and the Australian media January 20, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Roberts, Michael, Sri Lanka , trackback

Michael Roberts

The waves of boat people in October 2008 made headline news in Australia. So did ‘Alex’ of the Jaya Lestari. The Australian media stirred the pot: they ran with both the hares and hounds. They catered to the sympathy for these people among Australians of liberal disposition who regard all asylum-seekers as victims of intolerable situations. In the same breath they promoted opposition to illegal immigrants by underlining the surge in numbers of these “queue-jumpers.”

Alex is at the heart of this conundrum. He also underlines the ‘double act’ performed quite deliberately by some arms of the media. Investigative reporters at Merak, where the Jaya Lestari is berthed, chose initially to present his voice without probing deeper. Alex became the face of the poor persecuted Sri Lankan Tamil people fleeing their homeland. The details attached to this message  included: (a) they had embarked in Malaysia and were heading for Australia; (b) passages could have cost as much as $15,000; (c) Alex himself, as befitting his Canadian accent, had been educated abroad, but was deploying a pseudonym because his wife and children would be in danger from the Sri Lankan government.

As the Oceanic Viking added to the furore, The Australian’s reporters chose to dwell at the shallow end of the pool: they did not elaborate on the implications attached to the fact that some of the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees on both ships have been refugees in southern India and/or Malaysia for quite some time.

Time passed. Then in early November Sri Lankan sources revealed that Alex was really one Sajeev Kuhendrarajah, a 27-year old ex-criminal from the Kannan Gang in Toronto who had been deported from Canada. Alex immediately fronted up and presented his past as youthful indiscretion, et cetera et cetera.

This was striking news – giving oxygen to those hostile to the acceptance of boat refugees. Indeed, Suvendrini Perera within the liberal camp birched Alex for doing his fellow-passengers “a huge disservice by concealing his identity.”

Boat people disappeared from the front pages for a while. Suddenly, The Australian, outshone their competition: on 2 December  2009 they carried a captivating image of Alex squatting before an attractive sari-clad woman, his mother Sathia Rajaratnam, aged 45 and a businesswoman from Canada who had traveled to Merak to meet her son. (‘End Tamil boat sit-in, pleads mother of Alex,’ The Australian 2 Dec. 2009, page 9.)

As reported, Ms Rajaratnam “said she felt guilty over his predicament, having urged him last year to move from Chennai in India, where he and his wife had a hotel business, to Sri Lanka, where business opportunities looked to be opening after the civil war [emphasis added].”

To any reader with a decent memory this was a startling revelation that highlighted Alex’s gross fabrications. His family was in southern India and Sri Lanka did not necessarily represent a place of generalized persecution for Tamils – the standard picture painted by Sara Nathan and others. But The Australian did not highlight this fact. Then, quietly one month later, Stephen Fitzpatrick notes in passing that Alex “quietly admitted to me [that] he ‘made up stuff’ about the fate of the downtrodden Tamil community.’” (‘Asylum-seeker stand-off became an international circus’, The Australian, Monday 4 Jan. 2010.)

Why, one can ask, did The Australian gloss over such tall tales and not pursue obvious lines of investigation? Conjectures are in order. To do so would reduce the black marks around Sri Lanka that has been a consistent picture built up by the editorial line they have pressed in step with the policies pursued by The Times group in London, whose horror stories concerning Sri Lanka have been regularly recapitulated within The Australian’s covers since early 2008.

For the public in Australia such media failures may be of limited significance. From their viewpoint the more critical lapse is The Australian’s editorial decision to obscure the fact that there have been thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamilnadu since 1983. Presently there are roughly 125,000; but at one point there were perhaps 200,000. All fled the crucible of war and in a minority of instances the threat came from the Tamil Tigers rather than the government. As such, they are mostly political refugees; but there are also complexities that indicate the influence of economic motivations in some instances.

The crux of this tale is that some of the Sri Lankan Tamil boat people assailing Australian waters are probably second stage migrants stepping forth from India. This background factor has been consistently submerged in Australian media circles. It would seem that the media personnel are either not intelligent enough to decipher the implications of this fact or believe that their readers cannot cope with complications to simplified story lines that help sell newspapers.


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