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(DV) Sinnathurai: The Weapons of Misperceptions







The Weapons of Misperceptions
by Fr. Chandi Sinnathurai
October 22, 2005

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It is trendy to view any revolutionary movement worthy of its cause as a bunch of terrorists. This attitude is but a terminally lazy reflection. Should the intelligent impulse to honest enquiry be nipped in the bud in any free and democratic state then the concept of a "free world" becomes slightly more farcical. In any civilized society, the barometer of tolerance has to measure its freedoms (both in speech and thought) inclusive of its civil liberties. At any rate, valid questions will need to be voiced: if humans are essentially inter-related while existing on an inter-dependant globe, what is our moral responsibility in this fractured world? Who is the keeper of the "other"? Or does it all simply boil down to whether your view is not exactly "my cup of tea" and therefore, you could be a potential threat?  

There is a freedom struggle that has gone on for many decades on the island of Ceylon/Sri Lanka. This blood-soaked struggle began in the '50s as a non-violent protest against state hegemony and terror. The Sinhala state has continued systematic suppression of the Tamil-speaking peoples and denied them equal rights -- even the right to decent education and jobs. In the early '70s, Tamil youths were barred from higher education, in spite of their scoring top-grades. The Sri Lankan system of apartheid has employed violence as a primary mode of oppression since 1958. The straw that broke the Tamil camel's back was the "near-miss" genocide in July 1983. [1]

A Shift 

In July 1983, the mind-set of the majority of Tamils shifted. There had been appalling mass serial killings of the dispossessed before -- but things were to be different this time. The killings had gone one step too far and had exhausted the patience of all Tamil youth, opening the eyes of the young middle-class Tamils.  

The climate was now fully ripe for voluntary recruitment to the Tamil armed resistance movement; this was a time when Tamil consciousness even among Westernized Tamil youths was at a peak. Because the Tamil Liberation Movement (LTTE) is a highly disciplined secular movement, its recruitment policies were stringent. The primary goal of the LTTE is to recover the lost sovereignty of the Tamil nation. A compelling alternative available then was to train a large-scale militant force to employ violence in defense and if necessary, in pre-emptive strikes in order to engage in an ongoing battle for the UN–recognized right to self-determination.  


It must be hard for the citizen of a Western democracy to visualize the dehumanization faced by Tamils. Cold-blooded killings of journalists, disappearances of political commentators and human rights activists, and humiliating intimidation of all Tamils are deemed to be the norm in Sri Lanka. It is impossible to comprehend the reasons why the Tamil struggle feels it has to utilize violence as a counter-terror tactic against the government -- which is, in fact, a pretender to democracy. Such brutal forces feed the powerful nations of the West with their disinformation and noxious propaganda: often hiring Western PR firms in order to create seductive persuasions of "make-believe" that these fighters for emancipation are nothing but bloodthirsty terrorists. The foreign ministry of the Sinhala state peddles misperceptions and uses that weapon to manipulate Western democracies to downplay the state’s horrendous human rights abuses. The tragedy however, is that this is done in the name of democracy. We must be mindful of the fact that Sri Lanka has in the guise of democracy a politico-Buddhist police-state dominated by elite Sinhala dynasties. [2]

When was the last time Western citizens had to see their sons being lined up, shot down, and buried in a mass grave? How many times does one has to endure the humiliation of being impotent during the rape, murder, or worse of his daughters and wives? Being forced sometimes to exist with the pregnant trauma -- shunned by society?  One must be careful not to judge prematurely while seated in the relative luxury behind the high moral walls in established democracies.


Three misperceptions that are propagated by the Sinhala State are considered. 

The first misperception is that the National Tamil Question in Sri Lanka is simply a minority grunt. That is being economical with truth.             

The indigenous Tamils have inhabited their traditional homelands from time immemorial. When the Portuguese set foot in Ceylon in 1505, the island was comprised of three kingdoms: in the north, Jaffna; in the centre, Kandy; and in the Southwest Maritimes, Kotte. The invaders secured possession of the southwest districts by 1594.  The annexation of the Tamil Kingdom happened in 1619. 

The Dutch began ruling the maritime districts in 1638. The Maritime Provinces came into the hands of the British on the 1st of January 1802. The first steps toward unified administration of the whole island were taken in 1831 through the Colebrook-Cameron Royal Commission. The so-called unification of Ceylon under the Sinhala majority was a British administrative device. Adrian Wijemanne, a Cambridge-based Sinhala intellectual observed:

The British were well aware that two wholly disparate (and in the past frequently antagonistic) races were thus yoked together under their rule but administrative convenience was all that mattered. [3]

The LTTE seems, quite rightly so, to take a dim view of the portrayal of this conflict as a minority vs. a majority. Some describe the Sinhalese as having a "minority complex of the majority" [4] because the Sinhalas add the South Indian Tamils in Tamil Nadu to their numbers. Such reckoning fosters suspicion and unfounded phobia. The historical fact remains, however, that the Sinhalese have subjugated the Tamils since independence from the British in 1949. Their struggle for emancipation begs for sympathy from the international community.

The second misperception is the propagation of the mode of the struggle adopted by the LTTE in combating state terror. The first question, however, is whether the state (however brutal it might be) has a monopoly on "morally-sanctioned" killing? When a state turns out to be the aggressor and oppressor of its own citizens, what ought to be the response of desperate communities? Is state terror more legitimate than the violent defense of a suffering people? Professor Juergensmeyer (Global Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara) observes that the designation ‘terrorism’ is a subjective judgment about the legitimacy of certain violent acts. [5] One person's terrorist is another person's liberationist.

When a state's own citizens are subjected to systemic racist discrimination and systematic violent dehumanization, what should the dispossessed community’s response be to expose the genocidal intent of the State? Staying passive with only the hope of a 'good Samaritan' international community being parachuted in might be ‘too little, too late.’ Rwanda is a classic case in point! For a young Tamil, the state gives only a couple of options: either you submit to its brutality or you stand against its military might. Such humiliation attracts, perhaps, young minds to become human bombs to draw attention to their suffering! Alarming? Yes; but that's the reality! It's high time for the international human rights community to intervene with a genuine radical edge in order to peacefully end the hegemony of the Sri Lankan state. 

Third, there is the misperception peddled by the state that the Tamil emancipation is part of the global network of terror. Primarily, the Tamils are neither anti-West, nor anti-democracy. [6] They have repeatedly expressed their willingness to negotiate within the axis of peace. The Tamil resistance movement has no religious underpinnings as its motivational rationale. The human bombs used by the LTTE have no religious impetus. It was indeed an 'extreme' form of a desperate response to humiliation; rightly or wrongly -- to protest against the brutal might of the state. One might view that as a political statement written in blood for human emancipation from the clutches of hegemony. It’s not part of LTTE's strategy to encroach into the Sinhala territory. Neither is the LTTE using violence as a means to accrue state power nor to engage in a coup d'etat, such as the failed attempt by the Sinhala Marxists (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna or JVP -- People's Liberation Front) in 1971. The Tamil struggle is against the occupation of the Sinhalese military and the secret colonization in their traditional homelands. The LTTE has not engaged in using violence as a bargaining chip for negotiated settlement. People need to distinguish between the terror of a chauvinistic police state and an armed national struggle with genuine aspirations for self-determination. Western nations may have to revise their posture from confusing legitimate armed struggles as terrorism. Such a quixotic view would still incarcerate Mandela.


This writer is not proposing that violence is right; violence is indeed a delusive and an abusive power. If the international community wants all nation states to abolish the institution of war in order to create a non-violent world, then the Tamils would not hesitate in supporting such a treaty.   Currently, however, the Tamils are deeply concerned about the state violence that is inspired and instigated by state religion and institutional racism. In national struggles against such state terror, violent defense might be a necessary evil! Nonetheless, we need to distinguish so that no ruthless state is allowed to manipulate the argument of global terrorism to their ends. The Sri Lankan state thus far has managed to do exactly this. [7]

The Sri Lankan state is cunningly using the current ceasefire to engage in a pernicious "shadow war." This breathing space for reflection is utilized to liquidate human rights activists and writers (among other leading community leaders). These writers particularly distinguished themselves in excavating tactical stealth enshrouded in geo-politics. In the process, they were equipping the masses through their exposés with tools not just to think astutely but how to think more critically as a dispossessed nation. The state is succeeding in silencing such voices even as I write! The onus of violence, no doubt, rests on the shoulders of the state. The world must realize that the Tamils are responding to the violence against them. [8] The lop-sided justice, nonetheless, is that the international community is keen on seeing the disarming of the dispossessed. Will international pressure be brought to bear equally upon the Sri Lanka state to renounce its violence?

It is imperative that the international community reach a universal Archimedean point from which to leverage Western foreign policies. This must, one hopes, bring into sharper focus the concept of the West relating justly towards developing-world conflicts -- many of which are the legacies of colonialism.

Reverend Sinnathurai, currently reading for his Doctorate, is a Christian priest trained in Canada and the U.K. He traveled extensively in the northeastern Tamil territories post-tsunami for humanitarian work and did a series of interviews with the de facto Tamil state senior officials (LTTE Top Guns). These articles, entitled “Eelam Encounters,” can be read at 

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[1] V. Navaratnam, The Fall And Rise of The Tamil Nation (Tamilian Library, 1995). A comprehensive study of the Tamil Question. 

[2] E M Thornton, Sri Lanka: Island of Terror -- An Indictment (ERO, 1984).

[3] Adrian Wijemanne, War and Peace in Post-colonial Ceylon, 1948-1991 (Hyderabad: Orient Longman Limited, 1996). 

[4] Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, Buddhism Betrayed? (The University of Chicago, 1992). 

[5] Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God (University of California Press, 2003).  

[6] It is useful to remember that the ancient Tamils practised a well-developed form of democracy in which the elders and village headmen, in the presence of the community gathered under the shade of a large tree in order to discuss, gathered to discuss communitarian politics and vital social matters. As a result, they issued judgments on legal, ethical and moral issues with the consensus of the community and settled disputes righteously. Such an upright system later took on the name Panchayam. This practise of democracy might have been a precursor to the Greek Agora. 

[7] S. Sivanayagam, Sri Lanka: Witness to History (Sivayogam, 2005). A Senior Journalist's memoirs. 

[8] The political writings of Taraki at Taraki was assassinated in April 2005.