Analysing Mathusa Sivajalingham’s testimony as Tamil asylum seeker

Michael Roberts

Dinouk Columbage of the Sunday Leader revealed commendable initiative on an earlier occasion in meeting and interviewing a Lankan involved in people smuggling. He has recently met and interviewed a Tamil woman, Mathusah Sivajalingham who had been among those on a trawler with asylum-seekers which had been impounded by the SL Navy. Her testimony, supported by the concerns of another Tamil lady whose son had reached Christmas Island, provides invaluable information on facets of the migration process and particularly about the motivations of Tamil Lankans seeking greener pastures today in 2012.

The interviewing process that draws testimony is not a simple exercise. It has delicate aspects. One cannot press informants at certain points and must navigate one’s way carefully. On occasions an investigator may miss a trick or two and fail to ask pertinent questions.[i] It is with such caveats that I address the material extracted (and presumably summarised) by Columbage from Mathusha Sivajalingham (MS) in particular.

Perhaps the most significant body of information provided by the widowed lady MS relates to the imperatives that led to her decision to secure passage on a trawler bound for Australia with her two boy children. This imperative was, so to speak, a “combo of factors”. For one, as a widow who had apparently lost her means of livelihood as a result of the war and its enforced movement, she was finding it difficult to garner a livelihood. Secondly, and critically, a cousin in Britain encouraged her to migrate and to head for Australia because he was also planning to move there.

These are not startling facts. They are commonplace facets which are widely understood by most Sri Lankans who are attentive to anecdotal evidence. They gather extra-significance because the Australian media at large, and thus the Australian public, seem to be unaware of such forces. Australia’s colossal insularity is such that they have permitted the human rights activists, Greens, resident Tamil activists and a corpus of tame media personnel to argue that all Tamil asylum seekers risk death on “leaky wooden boats” because they are subject to oppression. This is the standard generalization that is pressed in sweeping terms in much of the commentary on the topic – a topic centred around the raging debate as to whether tough border control methods will deter “people smuggling.”

As remarkably, the debate in Australia remains blind to what has always been a major factor in the migration process, whether legally or illegally: namely, the pull-push factor emanating from previous migrants to the West who encourage and assist their kinfolk and friends to migrate and who actively support this move with monetary support and/or information. This is the process of chain migration, a process that is as ancient as commonplace. It is also a process that is powerful and unstoppable. Through its blindness to this current of inspiration, the debate in Australia is simply pissing into the wind.

There are other aspects of Mathusha Shivalingam’s testimony that require extraction in point-form so as to highlight them clearly. Not all the “facts’ garnered by Columbage, of course, can be accepted as indubitable facts. We must bracket those which are suspect, unproven or unverifiable. So, here, I separate my work of extraction into two parts: one detailing those aspects of the MS testimony which we can accept as both empirically sustainable and pertinent; and the other segment where doubts are attached to her claims so that they must be kept on hold, so to speak, till we secure more supportive evidence.

In point-form: empirical facts of significance

  • her cousin who was then living in the UK… told me that he was moving to Australia and that I must bring my children and come to live with him that he would provide for us as he did not have a family of his own.”
  • I knew [taking a boat out] was illegal but I had no choice, we had to leave. If we did not, my children would have no future.”
  • The mis-information about Australia fed to MS: “I had been told that those who get to Australia would remain in a camp for two weeks before being released.”
  • After MS contacted a fisherman connected with the illegal trade in smuggling people, she was asked to pay Rs. 200,000 per person – in effect calling upon her to raise Rs 600,000 in cash – which she did by combining her British cousin’s remittances with the pawning of her jewelry.
  • The food provided on the trawler for the hundred odd people crammed therein was “horrible”.
  • Though she seems to have been unaffected, one of her children was sea sick to a degree that frightened her.
  • Once the boat was interdicted, MS “spent three days in police custody, before her friend was able to post bail for her and her children” – in effect heaping further costs upon her previously wasted investment.
  • … and highlighting a fact that few commentators have paid attention to: namely, the costs in money and administrative man-hours imposed upon the Sri Lankan state by the whole process of stopping illegal outmigration. Thus on this occasion GoSL had to find jail accommodation and meals for the 100 people interdicted; and then to process them through the courts. It seems typical of Sri Lanka’s bureaucratic inefficiency that no costing in terms of man-hours involved in this outsourced operation for Australia is ever contemplated by GoSL. Whether this bill is presented to Australia does not arise because no computation is done.

Grey areas in the MS testimony

  • The Australian authorities refused my application for a visa” – probably true; but a claim that requires cross-checking … that is, if it is feasible to breach the walls that the Australian High Commission is likely to erect around such inquiries.
  • Her claim that her “husband was killed by a landmine” in 2006 – possibly true because there may have been occasional deaths among people in the northern Vanni when they stepped on landmines and unexploded ordnance associated with the Eelam War III (1996-2000); but with a stronger possibility that that he may have died in the east rather than in the north because fighting commenced in Sampur and the east in late 2006.

The latter doubt is not without significance. Her husband may have been an LTTE fighter or functionary (something she may conceal from any reporter). From an investigative point of view, therefore, one would benefit from specifics about MS’s natal village of birth and inquiries which determined whether she was among the 100,000 or so people of the Jaffna Peninsula who moved to the Vanni with the LTTE in 1996. These people were mostly staunch LTTE families. If this turns out to be a valid surmise, then, political sentiments may have been an influence on her decision to migrate.

General Issues: Columbage’s work has provided us with rich empirical testimony. There remains the perennial problem of generalization from one or two testimonies, or even a clutch. This issue must be directed at all individual case histories, say those collected by the UTHR collective from Tamil “civilians”[ii]who survived the hothouse war situation in the Vanni pocket in January-May 2009. Testimony is subjective and when it calls for evaluation of complex circumstances, for instance, from where artillery shells originated (Tigerland or government land),[iii] it is not always easy for investigators to determine the veracity of assessments.

However, in Mathusha Sivajalingham’s case there is no reason to dispute her clarification of the motivation of economic self-advancement that induced her to depart and the details that reveal how she accumulated monies for an illegal journey. The misinformation she had received about the amount of time she would spend in Australian incarceration is also a significant fact and is entirely believable.

The issue, then, is this: are economic imperatives of self-advancement the principal impetus today in 2012 for Tamils in Sri Lanka seeking to migrate from the island by legal means or secretive means? Sathis Spencer was ready to affirm that it is the dominant imperative nowadays when he was interviewed by an Australian journalist recently after the trawler from Negombo on which he was one aspirant migrant had been impounded by the SL Navy. He was not speaking only about himself but confidently generalizing for the majority of Tamils. Mathusha Sivajalingham’s case history adds one flag to this mast erected by Spencer.

Columbage is in no doubt about the force of economics in promoting Tamils to move; but gives the government a clout in his slant on this imperative: “growing poverty and unemployment in the former war zones” are presented as the causal factors in a context where the government is accused of doing little to alleviate the peoples’ burdens. Whether this charge is justified is an open question that requires assessments from those who live and work in the north and east.[iv] But his interpretation does underline the weight of economics in spurring outmigration beyond the island shores.

That stressed, one cannot discount supplementary incentives among the Tamil people arising from distrust of the Rajapaksa government and the Sinhala people in general; and a generalized disillusionment with the political processes in Sri Lanka.

Nor can we, of course, extend this set of conclusions backwards to the year 2009; or yet further back to the decades 1983 to 2008. That temporal span is a different ball game. It demands a complex set of answers to match the complex scenario. The oversimplified perspective espoused by the Australian media fed by the Tamil lobby and moral crusaders of human rights hues, which sees “political persecution” by a Sinhala-dominated government as the sole cause for Tamil out-migration does not serve as the whole story even though it is a significant aspect of the disastrous history of Sri Lanka from 1976 to 2009. Indeed, many harrowing Muslim, Tamil and Sinhala life stories are also part of that scenario and provided the impetus for the outmigration of Sinhalese and Muslims and other non-Tamils as well, sometimes by legal pathways, but also illegally on boats or through clandestine aerial and land journeys with false papers.


[i] I know that I have missed a trick or two on some occasions.

[ii] By late 2008 many tiger fighters were not wearing fatigues and as conscription increased the proportions of LTTE personnel engaged in the war without wearing uniform would have increased. The degree to which the category “civilian” I was obfuscated has drawn inadequate weight in most evaluations of the war. It is quite possible that some Tamils conscripted to build bunds etc thought of themselves as “civilian” when in fact they were part of the engineering corps of the LTTE from an analytical point of view. SO, here, subjectivity would be quite misleading.

[iii] Evidence mentioned in passing by Gordon Weiss, the Darusman Report and the Marga evaluation of the UN’s Darusman Report indicate that the LTTE fired artillery at their own body of people –presumably in order to heap the blame on the GoSL.

[iv] I am always cautious about accepting assessments from individuals based in Colombo unless they are frequent visitors to the north and east.


Filed under accountability, life stories, people smugglers, politIcal discourse, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, Tamil migration, women in ethnic conflcits, working class conditions, world events & processes

2 responses to “Analysing Mathusa Sivajalingham’s testimony as Tamil asylum seeker

  1. Pingback: Analysing Mathusa Sivajalingham’s Testimony As Tamil Asylum Seeker | Colombo Telegraph

  2. Tissa Wije

    I have met many breadwinners of families from Sri Lanka. Most say honestly that the many pull factors prime motiveis to settle down in a country where water and electricity are available, health and social security available. Some add in the end – look at my salary now I have beaten Mahinada Rajapaksa in salary – an another revealing statement that can pop out of that man buying the land in the Chekhov play ‘Cherry Orchard’. All is well and good so far. Next stage is alienation from the host society. To come out of that you will find them contributng regularly to LTTE dreaming of a grand return and filling the hordes in the protest march. Surprisingly it is nott against the high caste leaders of their group who for the sake of political leadership kept them out of a shared vision of a country emerging from colonial domination and encouraged bombing buses and trains and dismantling rail lines to build bunkers but against the other side who won them a modicum of freedom from being conscripted soldiers.

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