Brian Senewiratne, Australia
"Behind the Tamil Tigers" and SBS Television Program in Australia
2 November 2000
On October 4, 2000, the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in
Australia aired a program on their current affairs flagship program, “Dateline”,
on how the Tamil Tigers raised funds to support their war in Sri Lanka. It was
Dateline’s most expensive program ever, costing the Australian taxpayer some
$100,000, with filming in Britain, Sri Lanka, Israel, Canada and Zimbabwe. It
was done by Graham Davis, who joined SBS two years ago after an acrimonious
departure from the commercial Channel 7’s ill-fated “Witness” program, which
ended up in Court.
Davis was better known for his explosive displays of temper. In London, filming
the Dateline program, his cameraman walked off after an altercation with him,
leaving Davis to complete the filming with pick-up freelance crews.
In one of his not infrequent tirades, he shouted abuse with the copious use of
the ‘F’ word which was heard all over the open plan news and current affairs
area of the SBS. It was even heard in the office of the Director of Television,
Peter Cavanagh. More importantly, Angie Kenyon, a librarian, who happened to be
the SBS’s Harassment Officer, heard it. When Kenyon objected, she was told to
“F… off”. After she lodged a complaint, Davis was suspended, just 13 days before
the Dateline program was to be broadcast, with the storyline neither written nor
edited. The Executive Producer, Mike Carey, asked at least two Dateline
journalists if they would write the story. Not surprisingly and commendably,
they refused, claiming, quite rightly, that they did not have adequate knowledge
of the subject. In the end, Carey had to write the story himself. When it was
finally broadcast, it was a curious production, with Carey reading voice-overs
and Davis doing the interviews. One experienced current affairs practitioner is
said to have described the program as “a dog’s breakfast”. It was a rather
expensive “dog’s breakfast” costing some $100,000 of taxpayers money, part of
which was mine since I pay a substantial income tax which is being squandered on
I am not a Tamil, a Tiger, nor a “Terrorist”. I am an Australian of Sinhalese
descent, a consultant physician and associate professor of medicine, and not a
politician nor a quasi-politician. Despite my heavy involvement in medicine and
teaching, I have, over the past 50 years, had a ringside seat of the mounting
chaos in Sri Lanka. I am appalled by the destruction, not only of the Tamil
areas, but also of the Sinhalese areas – a destruction of life and property, and
the colossal waste of money as both sides pursue an unwinnable war. As a lover
of Sri Lanka, and unable to return to the country of my birth even on a visit, I
find it deeply traumatic.
The Sri Lankan ethnic conflict is a highly complex problem which involves
historical (including, and especially, the legacy left by the colonial British),
ethno-religious, geo-political, and economic factors, intertwined with local
power politics and complicated by the supply of arms and aid to both sides which
enables the killing and destruction to go on. It is too complex a problem for
the ‘casual journalist’ or the TV reporter in search of a sensational story.
The people of Sri Lanka (Sinhalese, Tamil and Moors) are facing a critical
problem. The President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, is facing a serious problem in an
attempt to resolve this conflict. She has already lost her famous father,
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and her visionary husband, Vijaya Kumaratunga, both of
whom were assassinated, not by Tamil Tiger terrorists, but by a Sinhalese
Buddhist monk in one case and in the other, a Sinhalese gunman hired by a
political opponent, who was later to become the president of that country. We in
the International community have a responsibility to help in sorting out the
mess – not to inflame one side or the other by producing partisan and
I doubt if the SBS Dateline program has damaged the Tamil Tigers as it was
intended to do. What it has done is to unite the Tamils (both Tiger and
non-Tiger supporters) in a union not seen before. If that was the objective of
the program, then it was a roaring success – manna from heaven for the Tigers.
What the Tigers could not achieve all these years has been achieved by the SBS
in just 45 minutes!
The program has also damaged the reputation of the SBS. It is incredible that a
program as one-sided as this should have been aired. Some of the comments made
on our Federal Health Minister Dr. Michael Wooldridge and Professor C. J.
Eliezer A.M., and derogatory comments on the Australian Honours Committee are
The positive contribution that the program has made is to remind Australians
that there is a place called Sri Lanka where a major civil war is raging. They
seem to have forgotten, just as they had forgotten that there was a place called
East Timor until the slaughter began.
Before I deal with the SBS program, let me clearly and unequivocally state that
I am not trying to defend the Tamil Tigers. I neither support nor oppose them.
What I do support are steps to end the conflict and this I have done in a series
of publications from 1983 onwards.
I am married to a Tamil. Before you say, “Ah - that explains it all”, let me
assure you that my views on the problems in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), date back
to when I was only 10 years old, when I first visited the Tamil north and saw
the gross neglect and underdevelopment of the area. I saw the result of the
Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms (1831) instituted by the colonial British to control
the repeated uprisings of the Sinhalese people, especially in the Kandyan area.
What these reforms did was to centralise administrative power in the Sinhalese
south, Colombo. I thought even then (1942 when I first visited the Tamil
territory), and I continue to believe in 2000, that devolution of power to the
periphery (both to the Tamil periphery and the Sinhalese periphery) is essential
if the country is to develop. I have published numerous articles and books and
have given countless talks across the world on this. There are no ‘skeletons in
the cupboard’ nor do I have a ‘Hidden Agenda’.
The SBS program starts with some Tamils taking part in one of the holiest days
in the Hindu calendar when the Temple God takes to the streets. Davis says,
“It’s a ceremony that gives members of the ‘untouchable’ caste their only access
to the deity…”. And where is this? This so-called ‘investigative reporter’ says,
“This isn’t South Asia - its Wimbledon, South London….” Come off it. I was
trained in medicine in that country and spent nearly two decades there. I still
visit Britain frequently since my sister lives there. I have yet to see an
‘untouchable’ in England or anywhere else. This is sheer sensational nonsense.
We are next entertained to the Sri Lankan Government forces firing massive
shells against it’s own people. The obvious question is not asked – “Who is
supplying these weapons and why. What happened to the “end-user certificate”
which is necessary for the trans shipment of weapons?”
Davis goes on to talk about the ‘60,000 lives’ that the Sri Lankan Government
has ‘sacrificed’. He says nothing of the 100,000 plus Tamil lives that have been
lost by the indiscriminate bombing and shelling by a succession of
Sinhalese-dominated Governments who have unleashed a reign of terror in the
North and East of the country.
Dayan Jayatilleke, a ‘political commentator’ commenting on the Tamil Tigers says
that they “Get away with serial assassinations of democratic leaders…”. Our
‘investigative reporter’ Davis, should then have reminded Mr. Jayatilleke that
the democratically elected leader, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (the current
President’s father) was not assassinated by a Tamil Tiger but, a Sinhala
Buddhist monk. The President’s husband, a man with a vision for Sri Lanka, who
was assassinated by a Sinhalese gunman, hired by a presidential aspirant, for
whom Mr. Jayatilleke worked as an adviser. Mr. Jayatilleke certainly has a short
Davis goes on to refer to the Tamil Tigers as ‘a shadowy terrorist group’. I
really cannot see anything ‘shadowy’ about them. The current President seems to
have had no problem in finding this ‘shadowy terrorist group’, when she visited
the North with her late husband. Nor did the International Monitoring Committee
consisting of Lt. Col. Paul Hendry Hosking from the Netherlands, Major General
Clive Milner from Canada, Johan Gabrielsen and Audun Holm of Norway who were
visiting Jaffna, nor did the ICRC delegate in Jaffna, Ms. Mary Perkins or Mr. K.
Balapatabendi, the secretary to the current President, Chandrika Kumaratunga.
There is nothing ‘shadowy’ about this group. They have openly taken on the Sri
Lanka Government – but calling them “shadowy” makes it much more exciting. This
is sensational journalism – nothing more, nothing less.
Davis goes on to say that “The Tamils, an ethnic minority, wanted an end to
discrimination”. At last he has got it right but it did not last long since he
goes on to say, “the rebel groups slaughtered thousands in their push against
the Government”. Mr. Davis, you need to do a lot more homework. For every person
slaughtered by the rebels, the Sri Lanka Government forces, the so-called
‘Security Forces’, have slaughtered ten. That is why more than half a million
Tamils have fled the country and are now living in Canada, Europe, U.S.A,
Australia and New Zealand.
Davis goes on, “The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam remain the only rebel group
that refuses to come to the negotiating table”. Mr. Davis, your reading is
seriously at fault. They have been to the negotiating table and back, including
the one organised by the Indian Government in the Bhutanese capital Timpu. They
have been to many negotiating tables, including the ones organised as recently
as 1995 by President, Kumaratunga.
“They say they will not talk if they’re not promised absolute independence”.
Yes. I am afraid it has come to that – as it has recently been in East Timor and
will, sometime in the future, be in Fiji, which is following the Sri Lankan
example. The Fijian Indians recently went to the “negotiating table” (as the Sri
Lanka Tamils have done for the past two decades). It did not get either party
Davis then asked the interesting question. How did “a tiny guerrilla force” grow
into “a full-time army capable of fighting a conventional war?” and then asks “…
how could such a small group, confined to an island in the Indian Ocean, build
such a massive military infrastructure?”
The question was not answered but I can answer it for Mr. Davis. The answer is
that the LTTE have built up this formidable force thanks to Western Governments,
which are pouring weapons into the hands of a poorly organised Sri Lanka
Security Forces, which has neither the capacity, the will, nor the ability to
fight or even protect the weapons they are given. All that the LTTE have to do
is to overrun one of the Army bases as they did in Mullaitivu in 1996 and
recently in Elephant Pass at the entrance to the Northern Peninsula, and they
have got all the weapons they need for the next ten years. As Sherlock Holmes
would have said, “Simple - my dear Watson”.
Our journalist goes on to comment on the $4 million a month, which goes into the
LTTE leader’s “ruthless machine”. Dr. Rohan Gunaratne, a supposed expert on the
Tamil Tigers, says that this money is collected from “a standard tax from every
working Sri Lankan Tamil” abroad. Come, come – Dr. Gunaratne, you are talking
nonsense. I have scores of patients here in Brisbane who are ‘working Tamils’
and I know of scores and scores of Tamils in Australia and in every major
country in the world who have either been my former students or my friends. Most
of them are in lucrative jobs. I have yet not heard them say that they were
forced to pay ‘a standard tax’; neither has my wife ‘a working Tamil’.
In any case, how is the Sri Lankan Government paying for this costly war? The
answer is that they do so by levying a tax (income tax) in Sri Lanka. Do you
think that the Tamils in Sri Lanka voluntarily pay this tax to have bombs and
faeces dropped on their people in the North? If it is all right for the Sri
Lankan Government to levy a compulsory tax on the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri
Lanka, it must, by the same token, be acceptable for the opposite side to levy a
tax on their people outside Sri Lanka, if they choose to do so. The Sri Lankan
Government tax is an involuntary tax; at least the LTTE tax is a voluntary tax.
And where is Rohan Gunaratne being a ‘world authority’ on Tamil Tigers? In St
Andrews University in Scotland! Don’t make me laugh. I did not realise that I
was watching a comedy show. I am not entirely a stranger to this ‘world
authority’s’ writings. I spent my hard – earned dollars to buy his ‘War and
Peace in Sri Lanka’ when he was working in the ‘Fundamental Studies Institute’
in Sri Lanka in 1987. A waste of money? Not entirely, I once met David
Selbourne, that outstanding Englishman who campaigned so hard for the rights of
the Tamil people to live with equality and dignity. He held a position in Oxford
University and was a reporter for the Manchester Guardian newspaper in London.
David made a most important point about listening to nonsense. President
Jayawardene and his Minister of National Security, Lalith Athulathmudali,
invited David to Sri Lanka in the 1980’s to report on the situation in Sri
Lanka. Lalith and David were law students in England. With the link between them
being the old school tie, David asked Lalith “Well Lalith, what is the solution
to the Tamil problem”. Lalith’s answer, “To bash Tamil heads.”
David quotes a Canadian press conference where President J.R. Jayawardene was
asked why Sri Lanka could not have a federal set up such as existed in Canada,
Jayawardene replied “It is easy for you because all your people are Canadians”.
David’s point is that if the President of Sri Lanka cannot see all the people of
Sri Lanka (Tamil, Sinhalese and Moors) as Sri Lankans, and his Minister for
National Security (David preferred ‘Minister for National Insecurity’) thinks
that the answer is to bash Tamil heads, how can we expect a solution to the
problem that is just and equitable? We are being totally unrealistic. The point
he was making was that whatever nonsense is said or written, it must be listened
to and read – so that our expectations will be realistic.
Mr. Davis asks a Tamil from the Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils
whether he supports the LTTE. The response is “We support it as a means of
getting our rights and our right to self-determination…” Davis goes on to ask
the question “and presumably you also support the principle that the means
justifies the end...”. There was no straight answer to this, but I can provide
one. The means does justify the end if the ‘end’ means a cessation of this
futile and unwinnable war, which is destroying the entire country and reducing
it to a ‘basket case’.
Mr. Davis, on his extravagant globetrotting tour, now goes on to the Mackenzie
Institute, ‘respected for its research into Canada’s organised crime,’ and
interviews the Director, John Thompson. Thompson makes some spurious comments on
the LTTE. It would have been informative to ask whether this ‘respected’
Institute in Canada also looked into the organised crime in 1983 when some 3000
Tamil civilians were butchered in Colombo and in the South – a blot in Sri
Lankan history for which the past President, J.R. Jayawardene and members of his
Cabinet and their bands of Sinhalese hoodlums were responsible.
Thompson also makes no comment on the ‘organised crime’ currently in full swing
in Colombo, where arms dealers and drug traffickers are having a ball and that
it is these people and sections of the Armed Forces who stand to benefit from
the continuing war. Mr. Thompson, I think you should wake up to the realities of
life in Sri Lanka or not comment at all.
I think the disparaging reference to the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO)
is obscene – this is gutter journalism. I cannot find any other word to describe
it. The TRO was set up by a group of doctors, several of them former students of
mine, when I was Professor of Medicine in Kandy, Sri Lanka. This is an
organisation set up to look after refugees, the orphan children and others whom
no one seems to care about. Whether these unfortunate victims of this senseless
war are in the LTTE-controlled areas is not the question. The question is, “who
is looking after them?” I’m glad the TRO is. My initial reaction to this gutter
reference to the TRO was to ignore it and not give it legitimacy by a response.
However, my blood boils at this attempt to denigrate an outstanding body, which
is doing a magnificent job in impossible conditions, - something no one else
seems to be interested in doing.
As for the comments by the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia, H.A.
Bandara, I have no problems. He is doing what he (and others of his ilk) is paid
to do – to justify, or try to justify, the unjustifiable. I have sympathy with
him and other outstanding Sri Lankan High Commissioners, Mr. Moonesinghe
(formerly the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Delhi and now in London).
Moonesinghe, a Sinhalese (like the author of this article), and, like the
author, married to a Tamil, must have a traumatic time trying to defend the
indefensible. The alternative which these people face would be to condemn what
is going on and face a certain end to their diplomatic careers.
I might add that these top quality diplomats sent by the Kumaratunga Government
are in striking contrast to some of the political stooges and dimbats sent by
the previous (UNP) government. However, this may not last long. Chandrika
Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance (PA) party failed to win an overall majority in
the just-completed election and has been able to form Government only by
concluding some horse-deals with a Muslim Party (4 seats). They have offered
their support to form a Government provided that several Cabinet posts and, even
more alarmingly, several Ambassadorial positions are available to these
I thought the interview of the ageing and much respected Professor C. J.
Eliezer, one of the most outstanding Tamils alive, degrading, in fact, obscene.
As Mr. Davis knows (he said so), Eliezer is a brilliant mathematician and a
former Professor of Mathematics in Australia’s La Trobe University. After a
brilliant career in Cambridge, he became the youngest professor to hold a Chair
in Mathematics, at the age of 34. His work in Australia has been recognised and
our Australian Government has awarded him an Order of Australia. How dare a tin
pot journalist and a so-called ‘world authority on the LTTE’ insult not only
Professor Eliezer, but also Australia’s Honours Committee. I will not legitimise
this part of the program by an attempt to defend Eliezer – a former Professor of
mine and someone who has international standing. I might say that when I entered
Cambridge University to do medicine in 1954, I was hailed as someone who came
from the same country that produced Eliezer. I assured them that the comparison
should end right there and that Eliezer, much respected in that red brick
University, was in a different league to the new arrival.
I also found the criticism of our Federal Health Minister, Dr. Michael
Wooldridge, irritating to say the least. He was criticised for attending a
ceremony in recognition of Professor Eliezer who was presented a medal by Tamils
in Sri Lanka for his outstanding services to their community. Dr. Wooldridge
declined to be interviewed. Good on him. I would have done the same. He did the
right thing in going to the ceremony organised by his constituents, where
Professor Eliezer was honoured. Dr. Wooldridge does not need to defend that.
As for the comments of Dr. Wooldridge’s colleague – Alexander Downer, the
Australian Foreign Minister, the less said the better. Downer says that he
“won’t see any Tamil group in Australia unless they indicate to me in writing
that they condemn the terrorist activities of the LTTE”. Hypocrisy in the
extreme. I hope Downer does not see any Sinhalese groups either, who do not
condemn the terrorism of the Sri Lankan Security Forces. He seems to have no
difficulty in sitting down with terrorists in Fiji, in the Solomon Islands, in
Indonesia and several other places. This is duplicity with a vengeance. Perhaps
Laurie Brereton, the Shadow Foreign Minister, will do a better job. I’m sure he
will have his chance in the not-too-distant future.
We get on to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 – something I have never
agreed with. However, I did warn Gandhi of the danger of allowing the
unscrupulous J.R. Jayawardene to suck him into the Sri Lankan mess in 1987. The
ink had hardly dried on the Gandhi-Jayawardene (Indo Sri Lankan) Agreement when
I produced a document to set out why it simply could not work. I faxed a copy to
Gandhi and when I heard that he was going abroad, I followed him, to warn him of
the dangerous consequences of sending irresponsible Indian Jawans to kill the
women and children in Jaffna and do lasting damage to the crucial role that
Gandhi’s important country, the major regional power in the area, could play in
solving the Sri Lankan mess. Unfortunately he could not see the light of day,
and even more unfortunately, paid a price for it.
We move on to the diversion of funds and the supply of weapons (to the LTTE)
under the guise of selling tea. Perhaps Mr. Davis should read Ostrovsky’s book
‘The Art of Deception.’ Ostrovsky was an Israeli Mossad agent allocated to cover
Sri Lanka. He describes how World Bank and IMF aid to Sri Lanka for the Mahaweli
Diversion Scheme (a major irrigation scheme) has been diverted to the purchase
Our ‘Terrorist authority’, Rohan Gunaratne, is quoted as saying that an arms
dealer signed a false ‘end-user certificate’ to supply arms to the LTTE (an
end-user certificate is needed for the trans shipment of weapons around the
world). The interesting question was not asked as to whether the Sri Lankan
Government had a valid ‘end-user certificate’ to import weapons to bomb and
shell its own people and if they had, whether it was, or rather should have
been, a valid one. Come off it, Mr. Davis, this is sheer nonsense. Arms dealers
across the world are shipping arms to both sides to destroy each other and the
civilian population. The question of the ‘end-user certificate’ does not arise
in Sri Lanka or in many other countries where this practice is rampant. A piece
of paper does not prevent the irresponsible use of destructive weapons.
We now move on to the joke of the century. Davis refers to “the extraordinary
capture of an entire shipment of mortars” ordered by the Sri Lankan Government
and shipped from Zimbabwe. The 30,000 mortars and other armaments ended up in
the hands of the Tamil Tigers. In a recent talk I gave on this, I drew a
parallel. Mr. A is about to shoot me but does not have a gun. He asked Mr. B to
bring him a gun. I’d be a fool, a damned fool, if I did not intercept this and
grab the gun from B and turn it on A before he got it and turned it on me. I
find Davis’ logic fascinating.
Dayan Jayatilleke then describes the terrible situation in Colombo – a city with
“a landscape of death”. I had to reach for tissues, indeed a handkerchief, to
hear of the “terrible situation” in Colombo. I hope Jayatilleke and the others
in Colombo now realise what the Tamils in the North and East have had to endure
for the past 17 years, not knowing when they will bombed or shelled or simple
arrested and ‘go missing’. Perhaps as the situation hots up in Colombo and those
in the South get a taste of what the Tamils in the North and East have been
through all these years, there might be a little more pressure exerted by them
on Sinhalese extremists, the extremist sections of the Buddhist clergy, and the
political opportunists, who have made President Kumaratunga’s job so difficult,
if not impossible.
In conclusion, we have a serious problem in Sri Lanka where a disastrous Civil
War is wrecking the country, its people, its economy, and its very future.
Irresponsible, one-sided sensational journalism, some of it gutter journalism,
will not settle this problem. It will only fan the flames of an already roaring
fire. We do need to get Sri Lanka back on the front pages and on the TV screens
but this has to be by a constructive program aimed at addressing the basic
issues involved and the possible solutions to stop the blood-bath and
devastation. Neither the SBS report, nor any other report that I have seen in
the past 25 years in this country, has been able to do this.