Sleeping with the enemy, Tekwani lived with the Tigers

Amanda Ross, 16 November 2010, from

Embedded journalism is a governmental practice of attaching a journalist to a military unit involved in armed conflict to control the information the journalist receives.  Associate Professor with the Asian Pacific Center for Security Studies Shyam Tekwani was not embedded when he reported on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the Tamil Tigers as a photojournalist for an Indian news magazine.  Tekwani titled his talk “Sleeping with the Enemy” to express how he came to photograph the group as an insider. Sri Lankan government officials refused to grant Tekwani and other journalists access to Tamil Tigers areas. So Tekwani entered Sri Lanka illegally, using Tamil Tiger boats from the tip of India to the northern boundary of Sri Lanka and lived with the Tigers for weeks. If the Sri Lankan military had seen him during this time he would have been treated as a Tamil Tiger and killed.TigeTiger fighter with cyanide capsule relaxes in camp –Pic by Tekwani (copy with Roberts)

In a talk to a group of Michigan State University students as part of the Visual Journalists Reporting in Asia Colloquium series, Tekwani explained that the LTTE was considered the most successful terrorist organization due not only to the fact that they are the only terrorist group to have assassinated two world leaders, but that the LTTE pioneered the use of suicide bombers and had advanced media skills.  The talk focused on Tekwani’s work in Sri Lanka covering the ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese, who controlled the government, and minority Tamils. During this war, which lasted for over 27 years, the Tamil Tigers grew from a rag tag group of boys to a highly organized military that included an air force and navy.Working without governmental protection, or even press protection, led Tekwani into dangerous places. At one point, the boat he was in with the Tamil Tigers sank, separating him from the Tigers. A local family took him in and hid him from the authorities to save his life. Yue Xu, a journalism master’s student at Michigan State University said: “His experience is just like a Hollywood big movie! So adventurous!” When Tekwani later visited the family that saved his life they requested he smuggle their son out of the country to save him from being forced to join either the LTTE or the Sri Lankan military. This decision resonated with Xu who said: “I don’t know if he was right or wrong, but it would be hard for any of us to make that decision.” In the end Tekwani guided the young man safely to India.

Velupillai Prabhakaran led the Tigers through force of personality, and by killing anyone he felt threatened his position. He was a secretive man who only met with two journalists during his 30 year tenure at the head of the LTTE. In 2009 the Sri Lankan military killed Prabhakaran and his family.

Michigan State University student, Joyce Walter said of Tekwani’s statement that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”; “It is interesting how this notion must have guided him in reporting on one of the most violent conflicts in our generation, … it must have been difficult to avoid taking a side with or against the LTTE.” During the time that Tekwani was with the Tigers, India sent troops to fight to LTTE. This meant that he photographed the Tigers brutally killing his own countrymen.

“I am a medical school dropout,” Tekwani told the students, “I dropped out after two semesters to because I couldn’t handle the blood and gore.” After dropping out of medical school Tekwani then decided to enter journalism in hopes of being able to make a difference in the world. Although Tekwani began as an editor he soon decided to become a writer since he was sure he could write better than the work he was reading. He then decided to enter photojournalism when he realized photographers always get a “ringside seat to history.”

His first photo assignment was to photograph Mother Theresa. He brought two rolls of film and when he finished the first roll Mother Teresa settled down and presented a perfect photo opportunity.  At that moment, he realized that he didn’t know how to load the film.

“{She} must have uttered a prayer for me after that because after that things looked up,” he said to the students.

Tags:shyam tekwani, ltte, liberation tigers of tamil eelam, michigan state university, visual journalists reporting in asia


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Filed under accountability, authoritarian regimes, Eelam, indian armed forces, Indian Ocean politics, life stories, LTTE, martyrdom, military strategy, power politics, prabhakaran, suicide bombing, Tamil Tiger fighters, terrorism, unusual people, world events & processes

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