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Lost and at sea: the asylum-seeker debate in Australia August 14, 2013

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Michael Roberts

Electoral politics have swamped the debate on irregular migrants, the ‘boat-people’ that is, in Australia. There is no change of consequence in the contents of the debate, however. Rudd, Abbott, the Greens and letters to the editors of major newspapers continue to present many of the old shibboleths and oversimplifications that have skewed discussions of this issue for years. The motifs that appear again and again in most quarters also suffer from misinformation, exaggeration and fabrication, and ideological blinkers.

A self-evident fact is often glossed over: migration in modern times, whether legal, humanitarian or irregular, is a complex phenomenon. Given the diverse lands from which migrants have departed  for Australia, it follows that one must attend to regional differentiation in speaking about this topic. Yet sweeping generalizations are continuously voiced – not only by politicians and human rights lawyers, but also by concerned citizens of compassionate heart and, on the other side, by instranigent opponents to ‘illegal immigrants’.

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Outcomes from my think-piece … and thoughts on pictorial imagery August 6, 2011

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Michael Roberts

Michael Roberts notes that pictures are by courtesy of Ministry of Defence – and that images can be read in different ways according to subjectivity and degrees of partisanship.

Critical to any overview of the last stages of the war are whatever authentic images one can recover. I was first led to the value of this kind of data when working on what is conventionally referred to as “communal violence” in South Asia. In particular, two photographs depicting obscene acts of aggression at Borella Junction in Colombo on the 24/ 25th July 1983 captured my attention. These appeared initially in the Tamil Guardian and it was only subsequently that I discovered Chandragupta Amarasinghe, the brave cameraman who recorded these atrocities.

This article appears in full at http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/07/24/outcomes-from-my-think-piece-and-thoughts-on-pictorial-imagery/

‘People of righteousness’ march on for Sri Lanka June 26, 2011

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Michael Roberts

A longer version first appeared here in Transcurrents

The war crimes accusations levelled against the Sri Lankan government at the moment are driven by a complex coalition of forces. In the vanguard are people of righteousness. Such a man is Gordon Weiss. His demeanour as he addresses television audiences is that of a crusader. The iconic picture of himself adopted in his very own website, benignly overseeing a mass of African children, reminds one of a missionary.

The advocates of human rights today are reminiscent of the nineteenth century missionaries in Asia who set out to save the poor benighted ‘natives’ and rid them of idol worship. The moral crusaders of today pursue a different agenda. They are secular fundamentalists marching forth to cleanse the world of “evil” in the form of carbon pollution, smoke inhalation, et cetera. However, like the missionaries of yesteryear, they adhere to an either/or evaluation of the worlds before them.

For Sri Lanka these people of righteousness present a clear picture: Eelam War IV was a brutal war involving atrocities from both sides in the conflict, government and LTTE. It was also ‘a war without witnesses’, a phrase parroted ad nauseam and repeated recently by Weiss in a high-profile ABC interview. This text is self-serving: it renders the spokespersons into the only honest witnesses.

Their witness includes statistics on ‘civilian’ deaths. This is not surprising. We are dwelling in an era captivated by the magical wand of statistics and the impression of precision generated by the imprint of number. So Gordon Weiss told us earlier that his computation of civilian deaths ranged from 15,000 to 40,000. Invariably this sound bite gets twisted in world reportage and is presented categorically in several outlets as ‘40,000’.

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Two Indian Reporters’ Post-War Pictures at the LTTE’s Last Redoubt, May 14-19, 2009 June 10, 2011

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Michael Roberts

Editor’s note: To view the pictures referred to in this article please go to the link here.

The Sri Lankan government kept a tight lid on the foreign media personnel allowed into the war zone. This is hardly surprising. If one was a company commander at the battlefront seeking to best the LTTE forces in front of one’s troops it would be pretty silly to have personnel with mobile phones reporting back in circumstances which could be intercepted and relayed within minutes to the enemy networks.

Because Western media were mostly kept out, a cliché appeared on the airwaves in 2009: Eelam War IV, it was stressed, was “a war without witnesses.” In late May 2011, Gordon Weiss repeated the same phrase in the course of a two-minute interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (a rare privilege for anyone).

This terminology was, and is, not intended to be taken too literally. After all, the same sources cite the testimonies of Tamil witnesses speaking about the bloodletting in the course of the last five months of the war; and a few international and local UN workers have provided some of the evidence utilised by the UN Panel Report and by Weiss in his ‘The Cage’. What is being suggested and highlighted in this popular sound-bite is the fact that the GOSL kept out foreign journalists so that its atrocities (alleged) would not see the light of day. (more…)

Resounding Victories for both Obama and Osama May 9, 2011

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Michael Roberts

Both Obama and Osama are happy.

The killing of Osama bin Laden is a major triumph for President Obama and USA. It is a momentous symbolic victory. “Yes We Can” has been confirmed and underlined. It will boost Obama’s re-election chances immeasurably. The triumphalism displayed on the streets and in media outlets in USA reveals the depths of patriotism as well as the hostility to extreme Muslim fundamentalism. Though Australian human rights crusaders have criticised the action as a “summary execution,” there are no qualms in most of USA. The story of this commando strike is pictured as an “act of justice” not as an “outrage.”

This victory for Obama is also a victory for Osama. Having trod the path of mujahid in the path to Allah, he is now a shahid at the feet of Allah. Sura 9: 111 runs thus: “Allah has bought from the believers their lives and their wealth in return for Paradise; they fight in the way of Allah, kill and get killed. That is a true promise from Him in the Torah, the Gospel and the Qur’an; and who fulfils His promise better than Allah? Rejoice, then, in the bargain you have made with Him, for that is a great triumph” (Cook 2005: 9).

It is no accident, therefore, that the attack on the World Trade centre occurred on 9/11. But alongside this faith in numerology lies a commitment to the “salvific covenant between God and the Muslims” as David Cook has argued in his Understanding Jihad (2005: 9). This “covenant,” stresses Cook, “is presented in contractual terms.” The Muslim believer embarking on the journey that involves a “fight in the path of the Allah” receives an assurance of Paradise at its end. He is before Allah as a monad. (more…)

Omanthai! Omanthai! Succour for the Tamil thousands August 12, 2010

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Michael Roberts

This article first appeared on transCurrents 11 August 2010.

This article was made possible through interviews with Mrs Annet Royce nee Rajajohn (2 June 2010), T. Thamilalagan (3 June 2010) and Peter Voegtli (1 June 2010). I also interviewed Singham of SEEDS, two expatriate executives in UN agencies and two of the Sewalanka officers in Jaffna, Harsha Navaratne of Sewalanka in Colombo and C. Soloman of the Health Ministry (now in UNICEF).  Supplemented by a memo from Lakshi Abeysekera of Sewalanka at the end.

The citizens of Thāmilīlam who struggled out of the inferno of war in the north-east corner of the northern Vanni during the months of January-May 2009 journeyed on foot or boat. During the first few months the escapee refugees got out mostly in dribs and drabs. But circa 20-23 April, and then again in mid-May during the last stages as the LTTE resistance was smashed, two hordes of “Thāmilīlam people” poured out of the confines of the LTTE corral.

These Thāmilīlam people, or TEP as I shall present them in shorthand, included Tiger fighters in civilian attire as well as other Tiger functionaries. It is probable that all the TEP were in a state of exhaustion. Bombs and bullets in that context do not distinguish between age, gender, class, or military/civilian status.

Attending to the needs of the TEP from the month of January 2009 onwards within the parameters of the government’s insistence on security precautions was a feat of considerable coordination for combination of military and government personnel, foreign and local INGO personnel, local NGO functionaries, hired local staff and volunteers assembled for the purpose. My focus here will be restricted to the large body of Tamil refugee people whom these agencies had had to deal with in May 2009 and the special operation to feed them mounted at the former border post at Omanthai.

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Saving Murali’s ‘doosra': Five unsung heroes April 29, 2010

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Michael Roberts

Gunasekara, Wijesinghe, Dhillon, Wijesuriya, Foster. These are five names that should be etched into the commemorative epitaph marking the third stage of the saga around Muttiah Muralitharan.

Muralitharan, best known as ‘Murali’, has been a cricketing-weapon extraordinaire for some time and, as such, is a national icon in Sri Lanka. His survival in the frontlines of cricket has faced three major challenges. In effect, he has been subject to ‘triple jeopardy’ in the ‘courts of cricket’, something unprecedented in international law.

The first massive effort to get rid of him on charges of being an illegal ‘chucker’ was in 1995-96; while the second was in early 1998 Oval. Both were Australian-led. On both occasions the Sri Lankan authorities (led by Dharmadasa and Sumathipala respectively) stood firm; while Arjuna Ranatunga stood out on the second occasion because the resistance was played out in front of a huge crowd at Adelaide (among them this author). (more…)

Boat people as blanket categories April 19, 2010

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Michael Roberts

The Australian government’s decision to embargo the processing of asylum-seeker applications from Afghans and Sri Lankans is widely attributed to electoral posturing. But it can also be read as a continuation of the control philosophy that has been the bedrock of Australia’s border policy for decades. The fact is that the number of refugees admitted in the last two to three years has been a tiny tithe of the total number of migrants (for example in the year 2007-08 roughly 6 per cent relative to the 206,135 “permanent migrants” [Graeme Hugo, “Refugee and Humanitarian Settlement in Australia: Recent Trends,” presentation to Symposium on Child Refugee Health and Wellbeing, National Wine Centre of Australia, Adelaide, 29 October 2009]

By emphasising the increase in the number of boats penetrating Australian waters, but avoiding any reference to the proportion of such boat people in comparison with (a) refugees officially admitted and (b) permanent migrants under the skilled and family reunion categories, the media has catered to the fear-mongering pressed by some politicians. In sum, therefore, one can surmise that the hoary Australian paranoia about ‘Asian hordes’ and foreign ‘contaminants’ permeates the hardline position in an insidious fashion.

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

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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. (more…)