From the Chomsky appeal to Amnesty International: Revisiting AI’s tactical faux pas during the 2007 World Cup

Michael Roberts

Sharp criticisms have been levelled at the reasoning and timing of the attempted boycott of the Galle Literary Festival mounted from behind the scenes by Reporters Without Borders (RB) and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) with celebrity intellectuals at their masthead. When world-renowned intellectuals meddle in domains that they have limited knowledge about, they need good advice and good sources of information. Without such background they are likely to permit their crusading emotions cloud whatever judgment they have.

 Those who need to bear the brunt of criticism are the hidden JDS hands who manipulated these celebrities and my two friends, Cheran and Rampton, who cannot plead ignorance of ground conditions. I will return to my charges in another round when time permits – while noting that this site has already reproduced several critical reviews of the ham-handed intervention.

 Pics from 2008 GLF

 One of these was a slashing counter-thrust by Sanjana Hattotuwa borrowed from groundviews, a site maintained by the Centre for Policy Alternatives which has been at the coalface of human rights protests in Sri Lanka – from within Sri Lanka mind you. Interestingly, Sanjana’s alluded to a similar tactical error on the part of Amnesty International when they endeavoured to mount a selective campaign against Sri Lanka during the Sri Lankan cricket team’s matches at the World Cup in the Caribbean in 2007. The criticisms of Amnesty International on that occasion were spearheaded by Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu in an essay entitled “The Amnesty Campaign: Taking the Eye Off the Ball.It so happened that I too penned a critical essay on the topic then in April 2007. A heavily edited version even appeared in Himal South Asia. Since we are on the eve of another cricketing World Cup, it is appropriate to re-visit Amnesty International’s faux pas on that occasion through my perspectives then.

Some sidelights are thrown up in this act of recall, sidelights that may even be viewed metaphorically as “no-balls” and “wides.” Tactical failure was not confined to Amnesty International. The government also got its knickers in a twist and overreacted. So did a few cricket fans and bloggers who let their enthusiasm and patriotism cloud their ability to appreciate dark humour.


Amnesty International (AI) are utilising the occasion of the World Cup in cricket to mount a propaganda campaign called “Play by the Rules” which involves sending white cricket balls to Australia, Bahamas, Bermuda, India, Nepal and UK for concerned individuals to sign them and through this method to argue for independent monitors to visit Sri Lanka to oversee human rights issues. These signed balls will then be delivered to both the SL government (SLG) and the LTTE.

AI personnel are modern missionaries: secular, rational, well-intentioned and firmly attached to the individuated epistemology of modernity, with the primacy of the autonomous individual atom taken (problematically in my view) to be a principle of universal applicability. In a world bedeviled by atrocities committed by powerful or even weak states and terrorists and freedom fighters alike, such an organisation is much needed. This does not preclude questions about its excesses of a missionary sort – not least the promiscuous and/or vague use of the world “child” by AI and other like agencies in their campaign against child soldiers to include those over 15/16 years, a sociological category that I, as dogmatically as the best AI ‘missionary,’ would describe as “teenagers” rather than children; and point to the fact that in many Western countries teenagers over 16 are routinely armed with a lethal weapon, namely, the automobile.

    That is an opening aside. In its missionary zeal the AI chose to use cricket as an engine of pressure on both SLG and the LTTE. They may have been inspired by the example of FIFA, the international soccer agency, which innovatively and brilliantly campaigned against racism in sport and in general during the World Cup matches. But FIFA followed a policy of uniformity and universality. It did not name names or culprit governments. It was also acting within its own realm and field of jurisdiction.

    But on this occasion AI was simply using the conventional image associated with cricket, the idea of fair play, to mobilise support for its cause, a highly specific cause directed at the two protagonists in Sri Lanka. Moreover, the International Cricket Council was, and is, not a partner in this campaign so that AI has no rights of propaganda within any of the cricket grounds in the Caribbean. However, as soon as the Sri Lankan Government got wind of this advertisement campaign in favour of human rights, they mounted strident protests – writing to the ICC as well as various governments.

    This seems to have been a knee-jerk reaction in keeping with the increasing paranoia prevailing among some segments of the Sinhalese population and especially within governing circles if one can go by reports from friends and observers in Colombo. Protests must always be mounted with full information of the context and must be directed at the correct agencies. The fact that the ICC was approached indicates how ill-informed the Sri Lankan Government (SLG) has been. The fact that AI could not enter the grounds also means that it would not directly affect the performance of the SL players (one of the complaints directed against AI). Moreover, the very stridency of the state’s reaction has enhanced the AI’s propaganda in ways that hurt the government more than LTTE.

    The knee-jerk protests have not been restricted to the SLG. Sri Lankans, including cricket fans, have also been aroused to make irritated comments. One argument is that hackneyed one: no one, including AI, should allow “politics to be brought into a sports field.”

    Such a contention simply cannot be sustained and is plain silly. It bespeaks a narrow view of politics as activity pertaining to the formation of governments and acts of governance. Politics, on the contrary, is about relations of power. It also occurs within homes and in everyday human interaction.

     Indeed, sports fields are one of the prime arenas of politics today. A well-established branch of academia deals with the topic of “sports nationalism.” The Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London recently assembled a number of analysts to discuss politics and race issues in the field of cricket, while the journal Sport and Society has recently brought out a special issue entitled “Cricket, Race and the 2007 World Cup” (Vol. 10, No. 1, January 2007). As we all know only too well, race and colour issues still intrude every now and then in contretemps within and around the cricket field, though White domination does not prevail in such a pronounced degree as in the not-so-distant past.

    What is ironic about the trigger-happy reaction among some SL cricket fans to this piece of news is the fact that the Sri Lankan teams of the last few years, as indeed the 15 men in the Caribbean, represent a fair cross-section of the ethnic and religious groups in the island. Taking the players who have represented the top XV and the A Teams over the past two years, you find Sinhalese, Tamils, a Moor, a Moor-Sinhalese, a Sinhalese-Malay, a Burgher and a Colombo Chetty (patrilineages have been placed last for mixed marriages); and among the religions: Buddhists, Catholics, Muslims and one Protestant. No other country can claim such a mix.

    In avidly participating in the discussion in the Dilmah Cricket Forum over the past 3 years, moreover, I can affirm that the vast majority of the posts have been free of ethnic bias. The campaign of protest in favour of the Burgher player, Michael Vandort, when he was dropped on several occasions was quite vigorous, and came from blokes who were patently non-Burgher. There also is mix of ethnic groups among those penning comments, that is, Tamils are among those who avidly follow SL’s cricket fortunes.

     Conservatism and prejudice still lurk within the Dilmah website however. When I inserted a joke circulating in Australia that linked the recent stunning raid on Katunayake air force base by slow and low flying Tiger planes to Sri Lanka’s most famous six-hitter, the reaction was, well, to me anyway, shocking.

    The joke runs thus:

After the AIR ATTACK ………………  

Call to SL Air Force chief at 1.00 am from Katunayake Base. 

“Sir, gahanawaa, gahanawaa [hitting, hitting] …….. udin  gahanawaa [hitting from above].”  

Air Force Chief: “Kawda Jayasuriya da?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  

 Katunayake Base: “Naa naa Sir Kotti [Tigers]”

Air Force Chief:  “Match eken passé call ekak denne [send a call after the match]”

    To me this was characteristically “Sri Lankan” humour, not side-splitting, but still amusing. This was not so for several Dilmah regulars, several living abroad: their response was one of horror — with shouts of “Shame” directed at me. This was – and remains — a revealing eye-opener. It displays the degree of conservatism and a deep-rooted Sinhalaness (the only two who challenged the response are a Tamil named Niranjan and a Moor, Omar Nawaz, both older generation) that still permeate popular thinking among Sri Lankans of relatively moderate positions.

    This was, to be sure, an extreme situation in the sense that the bravado of the LTTE strike surprised many people and the shock generated extreme reactions: anxiety among those partial to the existing order and elation among LTTE supporters as well as non-LTTE Tamils, so that monies flowing to the LTTE from the diaspora increased (as they normally do after a major victory on battlefield).

    In fact the air attack was nothing more than a smoke bomb, dramatic but having limited effect of a material kind. WLD Mahindapala (a vicious communalist normally, but on the nail in this particular case) and Gerald Peiris have revealed this quite clearly. DBS Jeyaraj has weighed in and argued that the international fall-out for the LTTE will make that raid counter-productive.

    Still, the psychological ramifications developing from this event, as displayed on the Dilmah Cricket Forum website, induce me to digress in this direction. Let me further underline the psych-effects arising from dramatic events of war by referring to another big event that transformed sporting friendship in sharp ways.

    That event was the invasion of Jaffna Peninsula in mid-1995 by the Sri Lankan armed forces. During the period of Eelam War II, mid-1990 to 1995, the SLG forces had maintained a large beach-head at Palaly airbase in the extreme north of the island. But in mid-95 they stormed out and took over the Peninsula. It was clear to me as an armchair amateur ‘general’ then that this move was a strategic mistake of enormous import: it created massive logistical problems of supply and immobilised 40,000 troops in the north, while severely weakening capacities in the south.

    But that was not widely recognised then – in mid-late 1995. On the government side everyone was beaming. On the side of the Tamils it was the reverse. Among Tamils everywhere, even those with reservations about the LTTE regime, this was a body blow, adding a deeply traumatic dimension to what was already a sorry tale. Their symbolic centre and heimat heart had been rent asunder.

    It immediately transformed cricket relations among migrants in England. From way back the various migrant peoples from Sri Lanka who were captivated by cricket had assembled at a cricket carnival in London over a summer weekend. There on the playing fields of London, cricket-elevens composed of alumni from various schools battled for supremacy in the shorter form of the game in amiable spirit. Indeed, Jaffna schools were often victors, beating better known schools from Colombo in the process. Throughout the early 1990s, though SLG and the Tamils of the north under the thumb of the LTTE were engaged in Eelam War II, this friendly rivalry was sustained.

    Following the invasion of the Peninsula and the psychological shock arising from its complete occupation, the cricketing Tamils broke away. They started their own tournament. This moment highlighted more sharply than ever that, for the most part, Tamils and Sinhalese abroad are two different nations. This replicates (in larger measure perhaps because of the character of migrant life) the condition of the hearts, collectively assessed in conjectural manner, pulsating within Sinhalese and Tamils living in Sri Lanka [in 2007].

 This article was written on 6 April 2007 while I was at Centro Incontri Umani at Ascona in Switzerland.

1 Comment

Filed under historical interpretation, political demonstrations, Sinhala-Tamil Relations

One response to “From the Chomsky appeal to Amnesty International: Revisiting AI’s tactical faux pas during the 2007 World Cup

  1. Michael,
    One of the GLF boycott organisers, an Aussie hack called Antony Loewenstein was ‘honoured’ to participate in the boycott. Anyone who disagreed with him including Sanjana were ‘nationalists’!

    Even better, Loewenstein says ‘well done’ to the pro-LTTE diaspora instigated, Sri Lankan textiles boycott in Europe.

    His Twatter (sic) feed glories in his power and influence.

    He’s a keen supporter of ‘Tamil Homelands’, arch hypocrite (free speech is OK but not for Sri Lanka), pro GSP+ suspension and SL cricket team boycotter.–-master-of-doublethink/

    To be lectured on press freedoms from the likes of Loewenstein is like being given child care tips by King Herod.

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