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The singer might change but the song remains the same: A critical look at Roberts and Sarvananthan ‘outing’ Niromi de Soyza
Published on 10 December, 2011 , Groudviews Email To Friend     Print Version

“….. Everybody believed them to be solid and inanimate – to be true facts. No one yet understood that life would become an uncomfortable, endless walk down a sea shore laid thick with facts of all sizes and shapes. Boulders, pebbles, shards, perfect ovals. No one had begun to imagine that these facts were without any order, opposed or natural – that facts were as meaningful as raw vocabulary without grammar or sentences. A man could pick up any fact he wished and fling it into the sea and make it skip. A practical talented arm could make it skip three, perhaps four times while a lesser limb might make a single plunk with the same concrete proof of some truth or other. Another man might build these facts into some sort of fortress on the shore.


John Ralston Saul[1]

Facts do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain and circulate them.

Edward W. Said[2]

The job of a writer, especially one dealing with matters of historical import, is to make his or her agenda clear to the reader. Michael Roberts[3] and Muttukrishna Sarvananthan[4] do not explicitly deal with the story told by Niromi de Soyza. They are more interested in defending their narrative on the conclusion of the civil war and its aftermath. In doing so, they smother the story de Soyza wants to tell.

The book, as Roberts grudgingly admits, is a captivating read. It is crafted with skill, with each chapter ending on a note of suspense or moment of change in her life world (Roberts, 2011).

Sarvananthan’s rancour gets the better of him and he does not have the grace to even concede that. For him the book is a series of lies, half-truths, evasions and barely concealed plagiarisms. Most of his piece deals with his ‘exposure’ of a sham charity receiving part of the proceeds of the book. (Sarvananthan, 2011)

Before I deal with these contentions, let me elaborate on what I think is the value of the book to the lay reader; rather than to the so-called experts on all things Sri Lankan.

What is not much commented on and written about in histories and narratives about the civil war in Sri Lanka is the huge price paid by civilians, especially women. The choices that non-combatants make inside a war zone are conditioned by that vortex of violence. The book not only provides a feminine perspective on the above, but also throws light on a conservative, caste-bound patriarchal society in the North. It deglamourizes the life of a guerrilla fighter, and in doing so exposes the totalitarian tendencies within the LTTE. To that extent it humanises the minority community and makes its life in wartime more accessible to the majority community.[5]

Niromi de Soyza came to Jaffna as an outsider, the product of a love marriage between an elite member of Jaffna society and a member of an Indian Tamil merchant class much to the disapproval of the former’s family. The Jaffna Tamils claim to, or do, speak the purest form of the Tamil language which they feel sets them apart from other Tamils (de Soyza, 11). Many arranged marriages were alliances to preserve that status quo:

“Jaffna Tamil culture did not tolerate romantic relationships simply because it needed to maintain control on its social hierarchy of caste, education, wealth and religion which was only possible through suitably-arranged marriages.” (de Soyza, 23).

It was also a suffocatingly male culture:

“ … It seemed unfair that men in our society had all the advantages and far less accountability, especially if they were Hindu. In general, they did whatever they pleased; no one expected them to do housework or behave in a certain way that pleased everyone, that they were free to go out any time of the day (curfew permitting), demand respect and dowry from women at marriage even if they were good for nothing.” (de Soyza, 35).

She sheds light on the grinding obsession with study and academic success, which permeated every middle-class household. Enforcing this way of life in the domestic sphere was her Aatchi (maternal grandmother). She and her Amma (mother) had to just endure this (de Soyza, 6-24). Notwithstanding these limitations and travails, life still had joy, gossip, drama, play, friendship and the closeness and love of family. There is much that can be construed as different, but also much we can understand and share. What is missing is the context, the reasons why Jaffna society came to be this way; but this, after all, is a memoir not an academic treatise.

She and her cadres spent most of the time running from the Indian forces with their superior fire power, each encounter resulting in her friends being killed or wounded, and civilians paying for the Indian occupation with the burning of villages and houses. Rather than supporting the LTTE, the people implored them not to fight on their behalf. They knew the price the Indian army would extract (de Soyza, 183-202).

Her naivety about Prabhakaran at the beginning is palpable: ‘He was also passionate about Hinduism; about equality in caste, education and gender; and about building a Tamil nation, where the purest form of the language would be exercised’. (de Soyza, 121) This hero worship made her for a while blind to the flaws of the man and his organisation. But in the end he and the LTTE were exposed as a reactionary brutal dictatorship: ‘From top to bottom in our organisation, everyone did whatever they pleased so long as they could justify it as being for the good of the organisation. I realised that murder and violence against our own was simply part of the culture’. (de Soyza, 280)

Her exposé of the reactionary social mores and critique of the LTTE would make the archetypical well-heeled card-carrying expatriate supporter of the LTTE blanche. He would also choke over his Dhosai (crepes made from lentil and flour) to hear that all he and his ilk had done for Eelam was to get out of the country as fast as they could and fund the mayhem at a safe distance (de Soyza, 93).

So it comes as a bit of a surprise to read Sarvananthan’s piece where he accuses her of indirectly helping the now largely moribund and discredited LTTE, via a charity with the user name sjc87. The acronym refers to the famous Jaffna school, St John’s College. His own research leads him to the conclusion that the charity is a scam; after looking at the promotional video fronted by a white person, he says: It is typical of overseas domiciled LTTE to use host country personnel to advance their cause in whatever form it takes … (Sarvananthan, 2011).

The charity was founded by some of the 1987 batch of classmates and gradually expanded its activities and aims because of the 2004 Tsunami and the end of the civil war in 2009. The charity disputes the claim that de Soyza said that St John’s (a boys’ school) was her alma mater; it insists, rather, that she said she was donating part of the proceeds of her book through her alma mater and the charity it represents.[6]

This of course is rejected by Sarvananthan. In his response, he restates his case and pointedly observes that de Soyza has not responded to his queries. He ends his rejoinder by saying that he welcomes legal action as it will afford him ‘an opportunity to reveal many more evidences in my possession’.[7]  It seems the tired old cliché ‘reds under the bed’ is now being recycled as a LTTE snake in every Tamil based organisation.

Notwithstanding the sensationalist title of Raisa Wickrematunge’s piece in the Sunday Leader, the article itself is much more nuanced. Wickrematunge states that the current principal has heard of the initiative and that it has provided seven scholarships to the school. Of its running he has no knowledge. The local representative of the charity stated it could be possible that Niromi de Soyza was referring to St John’s sister school Chundikuli Girl’s school and that the charity dealt not only with St John’s but a variety of schools in the area. He went on to add that he has not heard of her and has not received any money from her.[8]

Sarvananthan falls prey to very Asian obsession: ‘my qualification is better than yours’. Duelling PhDs?  He questions the PhDs of the committee members and the late Doctor Anton Balasingham, theoretician of the LTTE, whom he calls a ‘quack’.  Of the quality of their academic qualifications I can say nothing. I can comment however, on his rebuke of de Soyza, who ‘might’ have done a Masters in Intellectual Property Rights degree in law, for her admiration of Julian Assange (who in Sarvananthan’s view might be a proprietary rights abuser). Assange is against confidentiality and privacy, he says, so why is she hiding her real identity? How can she support an ‘alleged rapist’ like Assange and at the same time condemn rapes allegedly committed by the Indian forces?

The main cacophony of criticism we get from Wikileaks are from the elites of nation states like America and England whose perfidy, stupidity and other more nefarious activities are now up for public scrutiny via its website. Wikileaks, in fact, has given important information to progressive people across the globe, especially those in the Middle East who are demanding democracy and accountability from their elites. The courts will decide on Assange’s guilt. It would clearly be difficult, and might I add obscene, to equate the allegations of rape laid against Assange, with the violence employed by Indian troops on female civilians. How is it that a researcher like Sarvananthan does not welcome the information that Wikileaks provides?[9]

With regard to plagiarism, there is a thin line between pastiche, memory and paraphrasing. That said, it is up to de Soyza and her publishers to let us know how the biography was vetted, the research involved and the clarification of some of the ‘inaccuracies’ people like Arun Ambalavanar have highlighted.[10] Others have rebutted the inaccuracies in the debate that followed, but I cannot comment on their agendas and the accuracy of their contentions.[11]

Michael Roberts has used his redoubtable command of the English language, his undoubted scholarship and his understanding of modern culture to become the ideological mastiff of the Sri Lankan status quo. His dissection of de Soyza’s memoir is no exception. He cleverly (perhaps maliciously) links the book with two famous counterfeit publications. He praises the writer’s style then attacks the book’s authenticity.

He correctly points out that in the marketing of the book and on its back cover it is erroneously stated that the LTTE was fighting government forces, i.e. the Sri Lankan army. They were engaged in fighting the Indian forces at the time. He fails to mention, however, that the reader of the memoir is left in no doubt that de Soyza and her fellow cadres were fighting and running from the Indian forces.

He puts the memoir into context by giving his summary of the ‘pivotal’ year 1987.  Others might say that 1956 was a pivotal year; but I think we have to go back to the reasons for the 1983 Black July riots and the change from Tamil demands for parity based on parliamentary means to demands based on the gun. Three thousand Tamils were either: burned or raped to death; over 100,000 then moved to the North and Tamil Nadu, into the welcoming arms of the advocates of physical force. The civil war began in earnest in 1984. The Indian government was naturally worried by the number of refugees arriving on their doorstep and it gave them a ‘legitimate’ reason to meddle in the affairs of Sri Lanka. The Indian government either turned a blind eye on the training of guerrillas on their shore or indirectly contributed to it.

They saw the instability in such a strategic area as Lanka as not in their interests and yet had no wish to break Lanka up into competing statelets. Hence the pressure they applied to Jayewardene’s government regarding the signing of the Indo-Lanka agreement. This was done hurriedly and undemocratically, without the consent of powerful members of Jayewardene’s cabinet, the populations of the south and north, the JVP or the LTTE. This resulted in citizens of the South being caught between the security forces and the JVP and the inhabitants of the North and East between the Indian forces and the LTTE. Premadasa (who replaced Jayewardene as President) made a pact with the LTTE and armed them to fight the Indian forces. This left him free to embark on the near annihilation of the JVP and their supporters; then the civil war commenced again, but only after the LTTE defeated or wore out the Indian army. The populations in the North and the South were left battered and scarred.[12]  Niromi de Soyza’s memoir deals with only a sliver of that Homeric tragedy, the entry of the Indian armed forces in the North.

Roberts is right to assert that certain political tactics, like Thileepan starving to death for Eelam and the seventeen fighters taking cyanide capsules, rallied the people behind the LTTE. What he fails to mention is the incompetence of the Indian forces, their increasing barbarity and the fact that the LTTE had eliminated, or was busily eliminating, other Tamil political formations. This left the civilian population free to choose only the devil they knew. Lest we forget, the dance of Lord Siva is marked by ambiguities, paradox and horror.

But that is only the prelude to what Roberts sees as the central issue; nor will he tolerate narratives counter to the official one. De Soyza’s memoir, like Gordon Weiss’s description of the last stages of the civil war[13] and the Channel 4 documentary on the atrocities committed by both sides, have raised his ire because of the damage they do to the victors’ narrative.  Gordon Weiss is a missionary crusader, one of the irritating tribe Roberts calls people of righteousness.

I see them marching forth to cleanse the world of “evil” in the form of carbon pollution, smoke inhalation, et cetera. Human rights extremism is one product of this era of secular fundamentalism.[14]

Both Niromi de Soyza’s and Gordon Weiss’s books humanise the plight of boat people fleeing Sri Lanka: Roberts sees them as economic refugees. His brief visit to the North after the end of the civil war gave him a view of the welfare work done by NGOs like SEEDS, Caritas and Tamils of goodwill like Rajasingham Narendran. He quotes a note he received from Jeremy Liyanage, who had run a number of focus groups in Mannar in the North. These showed that people were conflict saturated, do not want the diaspora to speak on their behalf and have no desire for Eelam. Tellingly they want to live in a united Sri Lanka with equality of opportunity. Roberts is scornful of those who think that Sri Lanka is a dangerous place for ‘anyone who criticises the government’. He thinks such criticism is malicious slander and exaggeration. (Roberts, 2011)

His argument, for all his eloquence, is in the end just as one-sided as the ones he thinks he has demolished. Reality is much more complex than Roberts supposes. Sri Lanka has emerged from a thirty year civil war with an authoritarian democracy with social inequality at its core. The security forces of the state were just as ruthless as their vanquished opponents. Most worryingly there are no concrete offers on the table to deal with the Tamils’ legitimate concerns.

In this scenario, dissent, opposition political formations, a free press, a vibrant trade union movement and human rights (pillars of a democratic state) are seen as dangerous manifestations. Perhaps Roberts feels no unease being one of the more prominent intellectual cheer leaders of the status quo. But if you are an investigative journalist, for example, you might be ‘made to disappear’. Lasantha Wickrematunga was the well-known editor of the Sunday Leader and a critic of the current administration: he was murdered in 2009, the best known example of a long line of journalists who have been murdered, made to disappear or detained for what they have written. In 2009 Reporters sans Frontiers rated Sri Lanka as 162 out of 175 countries in terms of the safety of the press.

If you run against the current president then you are court-martialled and jailed for your temerity, like Former Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka. If you are a trade union member, official or activist and are demanding a just wage, expect to be intimidated and or jailed.[15] There are still 80,000 troops stationed in the North. Extra-judicial killings, abductions and ‘burglaries’ are still too common, despite the presence of tens of thousands of troops.[16] All these show that the state of democracy and the right of dissent are in a perilous state. Perhaps, in retrospect, de Soyza’s non de plume was judicious.

Whether the Tamil Tigress is a ‘fake’; that the accent of the book is not Jaffna-centric enough; that some of the facts are inaccurate; that it is a book cobbled together from books of similar ilk, I cannot comment on. That is up to Ms de Soyza and her publishers to comment on. I can only reiterate that Niromi de Soyza tells an important story, from a much needed feminine viewpoint, in a very patriarchal society.

[1] Saul, J. R. (1992). Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. Vintage Books, 52-53.

[2] Said, E. W. (1995). The Politics of Dispossession. Vintage Books, 254.

[3]Roberts, M. (2011). Forbidden Fruits: Niromi de Soyza’s Tamil Tigress. Norma Kouri and Helen Demidenko.  Groundviews at: http://groundviews.org/2011/08/31/forbidden-fruits-niromi-de-soyzas-tamil-tigress-noumi-kouri-and-helen-demidenko/.

[4] Sarvananthan, M. (2011). Outing a Counterfeit Guerrilla: A tale of lies by Tamil Tigress Niromi de Soyza. Groundviews at: http://groundviews.org/2011/11/19/outing-a-counterfeit-guerrilla-a-tale-of-lies-by-tamil-tigress-niromi-de-soyza/.

[5] De Soyza, N. (2011). Tamil Tigress. Allen and Unwin.

[6] Sarvananthan, M. (2011). Separating Fact from Fantasy on the ‘Research Note’. by the principal available on their website: www.sjc87scholarship.org/Welcome…/SJC_87_Rebuttal_letter.pdf.

[7]Sarvanthan, M. (2011). Reply to the rebuttal of my article by the sjc87 initiative. Groundviews at: http://groundviews.org/2011/11/29/reply-to-the-rebuttal-of-my-article-by-the-sjc87-initiative/.

[8] Wickrematunge, R. (2011). Fake Charity from ‘Tigress’ Author. www.thesundayleader.lk/category/investigation/expose

[9] See Ratnayake, K. (2010). Wiki leaks document exposes US complicity in Sri Lankan war Crimes. Published on 4 December 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2010/dec2010/sril-d04.shtml

[10] Ambalavanar, Arun (2011). ‘The farce of a fake Tigress.’  The Sunday  Leader: www.thesundayleader.lk/2011/08/21/book-review-20

[11] See  Shaun Kumar, August 25 2011, and Kumar68, August 2011, for responses posted  to the above article.

[12] Cooke, M. C. (2011). Rebellion, Repression and The Struggle for Justice in Sri Lanka. Agahas Publishers, 235-294 and 357-370.

[13] Weiss, G. (2011) The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers. Bodley Head.

[14] Roberts, M. (2011). People of righteousness ‘pursue campaign against Sri Lanka with missionary zeal. TransCurrents at: http://transcurrents.com/news-views/archives/1522.

[15] Lanka News Web (2010). Restriction of right to strike and violations of the principles of ILO Conventions – No. 87 and 98 – Sri Lanka. Published on 30 November 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.lankanewsweb.com/news/EN_2010_11_30_009.html

[16] Journalists of Democracy in Sri Lanka (2011). Extra judicial killings, abductions, burglaries haunt Sri Lanka’s North. Published on 7 January 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.jdslanka.org/2011/01/extra-judicial-killings-abductions.html

10-12-2011 , The singer might change but the song remains the same: A critical look at Roberts and Sarvananthan ‘outing’ Niromi de Soyza  

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