“Alex” Kuhendrarajah and the Australian Media

Michael Roberts

Courtesy of SOUTH ASIA MASALA where it was inserted on 20 January 2010 http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/blogs/southasiamasala/home-2/

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 breadth they promoted opposition to illegal migrants 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, victims of persecution. 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.

As the Oceanic Viking added to the furore, the Australian’s reporters chose to dwell at the shallow end of the pool: they did not elaborate on the implications attached to the fact that some of the SL Tamil refugees on both ships have been refugees in southern India and/or Malaysia for quite sometime.

Time passed. Then in early November Sri Lankan sources revealed that Alex was really one Sajeev Kuhendrarajah, a 27-year old criminal from the Kannan Gang in Toronto who had been deported from Canada. Alex immediately fronted up and presented his past as youthful indiscretion, et cetera etcetera.

This was striking news — giving oxygen to those hostile to the acceptance of boat refugees. Indeed, Suvendrini Perera within the liberal camp birched Alex for doing his fellow-passengers “a huge disservice by concealing his identity.”[1]

Boat people disappeared from the front pages for a while. Suddenly, the Australian, outshone their competition: on December 2nd 2009 they carried a captivating image of Alex squatting before an attractive sari-clad woman, his mother Sathia Rajaratnam, aged 45 and a businesswoman from Canada who had traveled to Merak to meet her son.[2]

As reported, Ms Rajaratnam “said she felt guilty over his predicament, having urged him last year to move from Chennai in India, where he and his wife had a hotel business, to Sri Lanka, where business opportunities looked to be opening after the civil war.”

To any reader with a decent memory this was a startling revelation that highlighted Alex’s gross fabrications. His family was in southern India and Sri Lanka did not necessarily represent a place of generalized persecution for Tamils – the standard picture painted by Sara Nathan and others.. But the Australian did not highlight this fact. Then, quietly one month later, Stephen Fitzpatrick notes in passing that Alex “quietly admitted to me [that] he ‘made up stuff’ about the fate of the downtrodden Tamil community.”[3]

Why, one can ask, did the Australian gloss over such tall tales and not pursue obvious lines of investigation? Conjectures are in order. To do so would reduce the black marks around Sri Lanka that has been a consistent picture built up by the editorial line they have pressed in step with the policies pursued by the Times group in London[4] whose horror stories re Sri Lanka have been regularly recapitulated within the Australian’s covers since early 2008.

For the public in Australia such media failures may be of limited significance. From their viewpoint the more critical lapse is the Australian’s editorial decision to obscure the fact that there have been thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, in Tamilnadu since 1983.[5] Presently there are roughly 125,000; but at one point there were perhaps 200,000. All fled the crucible of war and in a minority of instances the threat came from the Tamil Tigers rather than the government. As such, they are mostly political refugees; but there are also complexities that indicate the influence of economic motivations in some instances..

The crux of this tale is that some of the Sri Lankan Tamil boat people assailing Australian waters are probably second stage migrants stepping forth from India. This background factor has been consistently submerged in Australian media circles. It would seem that the media personnel are either not intelligent enough to decipher the implications of this fact or believes that their readers cannot cope with complications to simplified story lines that help sell newspapers.

[1] See http://newmatilda.com/2009/12/15/clear-message-people-smuggling.

[2]End Tamil boat sit-in, pleads mother of `Alex,” Australian 2 Dec. 2009, page 9.
[3] “Asylum-seeker stand-off became an international circus,” Australia, Monday 4 Jan. 2010.
[4] “Roberts, “The Rajapakse Regime and the fourth Estate,” http://www.groundviews.org/2009/12/08/the-rajapakse-regime-and-the-fourth-estate/#comments
[5] Roberts, ”Tamil Migration within and beyond Sri Lanka,” http://thuppahi.wordpress.com

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