How (and How Not To) Talk About Sri Lankan Civil War and M.I.A. in the Same Sentence


Yesterday, the government army in Sri Lanka effectively brought an end to the long-running civil war in that country, declaring victory over the Tamil Tiger militants they’d been fighting for over 25 years. The defeated Tigers agreed to lay down their arms, although leaders also vowed to continue their fight by other means, and also left open the door to further action, affirming a “fearless and unending commitment to this cause.” An appalling amount of people–mostly, ethic Tamils–died in the conflict, especially towards the very end, when the army got serious about finishing the Tigers off. Heavy government shelling on an immobile civilian and refugee population–which the Sinhalese majority army claimed was being held hostage by Tigers, who they alleged were using bystanders in the northeast part of the country as shields–will do that. The New York Times‘s The Lede blog has an excellent piece up entitled “Outside Sri Lanka, Tamil Diaspora Not Ready to Surrender,” which does an excellent job of putting in perspective the noise surrounding this issue from people around the globe, not least M.I.A., whose increasingly intense Twitter posts have lately gotten a lot of media play. As the Times writes:

    Like many other separatist movements, the armed struggle for an independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka has been supported for years by a passionate, vocal diaspora living outside the country. Just as, at different times, Irish, Jewish or Palestinian militants would have had a hard time carrying on without support from emigrants abroad, far-flung Tamil communities in Britain, Canada, Australia and even Norway have pushed hard for the creation of a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka.

For years these communities have rallied around the flag of the Tamil Tigers, officially known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Now that the Sri Lankan military’s final assault on the L.T.T.E. seems to have finished them as a military force, Tamils outside Sri Lanka are left to figure out how to continue their struggle to stop what they consider a “genocide” against Tamils by the Sinhalese majority on the island.

The most famous member of the Tamil diaspora, the singer Maya Arulpragasam, known as M.I.A. — who famously boasted in her first hit single “Like P.L.O. I don’t surrender” — told Tavis Smiley in an interview this year, that the stakes for Tamils were too high to consider settling for anything less than an independent homeland, since, she said, “there’s a genocide going on.” On Sunday she reiterated that message on Twitter for her 31,000 followers, writing: “THE WAR IN SRI LANKA IS NOT AGAINST THE TIGERS, ITS AGAINST THE TAMIL PEOPLE!”

M.I.A.’s position on the war in her country turns out to be complicated. Her main political angle, from the very beginning, has been to protest civilian casualties in the country, which have been vastly and disproportionately inflicted on Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. But she typically does this by downplaying LTTE depredations, of which she is surely aware (and which she has basically condemned at various other points in her career). At a sensitive moment, at the end of a civil war, the rest of us would do well to follow her lead and separate Tamils from Tigers. Which her heated claims at this particular moment–see the above, among many others–don’t make it particularly easy to do.

Discussions about the war in Sri Lanka tend to be elaborately coded. As the Times piece’s writer, Robert Mackey, writes: “most arguments about what is happening in Sri Lanka boil down to an exchange of these two words, “genocide” and “terrorist,” which are both, in a sense, meant to close down debate and assign blame solely to one side.” Sinhalese tend to stop listening after they hear the word “genocide.” Ditto with many Tamils and “terrorist.” There are likely elements of truth to both allegations, but the precise balance between them is unknowable by outlets as well-informed as our government, which has generally demurred from assigning blame and instead repeatedly called for a ceasefire. This doesn’t mean blame can’t be assigned–it’s just that no reputable outlet has been willing to unequivocally do so, although many will point out the horrid asymmetry of force that was deployed in the country over the past few years. No one doubts the Tamils–Tigers and otherwise–got by far the worst of it. But, as in Palestine, there are people in the majority government who will claim an equal right to self-defense–LTTE, after all, were effectively the inventors of the suicide bomb.

M.I.A. is a brilliant spokeswoman for her cause, and it’s because of her that thousands of Americans like this writer have even the faintest idea of what’s going on in Sri Lanka. Her courage in putting her success and fame on the line to use every opportunity and avenue possible to remind Americans and people around the globe of this conflict is pretty much the most admirable thing going in pop music. But she’s also a partisan–as, given her bloodline and her politics, she has every right to be. As media pundits go, she’s actually way more informed than the rest of us put together. And that’s a reason for caution.

As far back as 2005, Robert Christgau felt the need to warn other journalists about “applying “freedom fighter” and other cheap honorifics to M.I.A.’s dad,” who is a member of the LTTE. More importantly, Christgau noted that “M.I.A. has no consistent political program and it’s foolish to expect one of her.” By which Christgau meant she had opinions, passions, and pet grievances, but nothing so reliably coherent that an otherwise uninformed spectator could follow her lead. This is as true now as it was then. We should all be wary in the extreme of extrapolating from M.I.A.’s public statements or passing them along entirely uncritically. There are literally no independent journalists in Sri Lanka: they’ve been barred by both sides, and further discouraged by the incredible and constant danger of the war zone in Sri Lanka. So no one knows what is going on there. In the aftermath of a bloody war, with a ton of facts yet to reveal themselves, we would all do well to remember that before picking a side–even if that side is M.I.A.’s.