A grieving Tamil couple … and credulous Australians

Michael Roberts

The headline picture in The Australian was — and remains — gut-wrenching, harrowing. It is a tale of searing suffering: a  young Sri Lankan Tamil couple have just lost their ten-month old infant after a boat with asylum seekers that had set off from Java sank off shore. Take Peter Alford’s story filed from Java yesterday.
    Hard line unheard or unheeded by asylum-seekers

    The Australian·20 hours ago   

    A baby boy and a 10-year-old girl are believed to be among the dead after an asylum boat sank off Java. THE asylum-seekers from the latest sinking tragedy….

The two are Antony Jayaseelan and Rose Anu Resana, Tamils of Catholic background. They were among the 204 people on board on a boat that had left Cidaun in Java on Tuesday and then floundered in the sea, leaving 44 missing and 4 confirmed dead. It would seem that these asylum-seekers were not aware of the new Rudd-government’s hardline policy. Said Jayaseelan: “We didn’t know but even if we did know we could not stay in Sri Lanka.”

The depth of their suffering is palpable, though even though one cannot quite enter the same wave-lengths of grief from the outside. But, as intended by the reportage, the tale is meant to strike home among those with compassionate hearts and humane disposition who regard the new Rudd policies as well as the hardline Abbott stance on boat people as unacceptable and inhumane. Those so inclined, whether GREEN, refugee advocate or person of humane disposition, will simply lap up the tale.

They will see it as a confirmation of the exploitative pathways of “people smugglers” — a verdict on which  they are aligned with both Rudd, Abbott and most Aussies. The “people smugglers” are everybody’s kicking butt.

So is Sri Lanka. In many quarters,  especially those Green, humane, civil libertarian, refugee advocate. lawyer and ill-informed. Yes, ill-informed…… or rather, inadequately informed. The story above in yesterday’s Australian filed by Peter Alford in Java is a case in point. It feeds the conventional view that Tamils in Sri Lanka tout court are “persecuted” — a view that was also presented by some of the panelists  at a recent Q and A session with Tony Jones. That type of sweeping conclusion is fed by piss-weak journalism which does not explore background and probe the claims of every asylum-seeker, even deeply suffering ones such as Jayseelan and Resana.

Any claim of “persecution” or the inability to return  to one’s land must be evaluated through initial questions and, where possible, by a probing of the circumstances revealed by the answers.  For the Jayseelan and Resana couple  there are hard questions before any one swallows their claim.

* how long have they been in Java?

* by what route and what means did they get there?

* did they come from the Sri Lankan refugee camps in India or get to Java directly from Sri Lanka?

* In which locality in Lanka were they born? and work?

* … in what occupation?

In Sri Lanka today the recent census indicated that there were 2,270,924 Sri Lankan Tamils (differentiated from “Indian Tamils”) who make up 11.2% of the total population of 20,263,723; with 1,597,276 residing in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and some 673,648 or 29.7 per cent residing in other regions, with a large concentration in Colombo city and its immediate environs.

AUSSIES CHECK A-S Lankan as-seekers-march 2013

Any asylum-seeker’s claim of political difficulties –as distinct from economic problems — must be placed on hold till further information is elicited by the set of questions spelt out above. On the basis of the preliminary answers, then, one can place each claim in one of three categories: “probable”, “possible” and “improbable” before pursuing further avenues.

However, that preliminary set of questions, and the  preliminary background thereby discovered, together constitute an essential prerequisite for any reporting on each case. Without such measures one’s retailing of such testimony by an aspirant asylum-seeker means that the journalist as well as reader or commentator are saying that some two and a quarter million Tamils in Sri Lanka, irrespective of class or regional location, are subject to persecution. Such facile reasoning defies belief. It is poor social science and simplistic thinking of an incredulously gullible kind.

Yet more: the failure to ask basic questions from any asylum-seekers indicates an abnegation of responsibility and/or a gullible mind-set. In many instances my inference –and it is an inference I stress – is that it is the former aspect that guides such work. Reporters and commentators avoid awkward questions because it suits their own interests to  place a particular accent on each tale. They are, in other words, taking their readers and listeners for a ride. They are no better than Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott.

gERALDTON A=S -BOAT tamil refugees O-viking -- Reuters

APPENDIX: Peter Alford would do well to remember how some of his predecessors were taken for a ride by two passengers on the “Jaya Lastari” in late 2008 when it was interdicted by the Indonesian Navy and its passengers refused to leave the ship. I refer to the nine-year old, “Little Brindha,” and the young man “Alex.” Speaking in lucid English Brindha told her world-wide viewers that her family had trekked through jungles at the start of their [heroic] flight. Speaking in Canadian accent Alex said his name was a pseudonym because he had to protect his wife and children in Sri Lanka.

231206-brindha + alex 584896-sri-lankan-negotiator-alexWell, we know now that Alex was (is) Sajeeva Kuhendrarajah, a migrant to Canada who had been expelled because of gang-related activity but had the wherewithal to set up a jewellery business in Chennai. His wife remained in Chennai (with the business perhaps?). He had set out from Tamilnadu for Malaysia where he had boarded the ship together with the other Tamil asylum-seekers.

Guided by Stephen Fitzpatrick of The Australian some Australians of humane disposition bought these two stories hook, line and sinker. But subsequent events resulted in Sajeeva Kuhendrarajah ending up in a Thai jail for passport fraud. But “little Brindha” and family have beaten the system by eventually making it to Christmas Island and then, presumably, gaining asylum (as far as I know albeit in speculation). There is no reason to deny that they will be upright and useful Australian citizens in the near future.  But there is good reason to suspect that they were Tamils seeking economic self-advancement rather than being a family threatened with harassment or worse. This assertion, clearly, is a surmise.  One requires the sort of detail that I have asked reporters to secure from every which asylum-seeker before reaching tentative conclusions.

Without such information – that is without probing questions — reporters of the Alford kind are simply catering to  those ideologically hidebound and to those dwelling in ignorance. They thereby sustain simplistic perspectives on a complex issue.


Filed under asylum-seekers, Australian culture, australian media, cultural transmission, economic processes, ethnicity, historical interpretation, immigration, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, legal issues, life stories, people smugglers, politIcal discourse, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, slanted reportage, sri lankan society, Tamil migration, truth as casualty of war

2 responses to “A grieving Tamil couple … and credulous Australians

  1. Pingback: Profound sorrow. Selvamalar and Balamanokaran lose their son at sea off Java | Thuppahi's Blog

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