Young Tamara Kunanayakam in Central Europe, 1970s-to-1980s

Michael Roberts

 With Tamara Kunanayakam what you see and hear is what you get: no subterfuges, straight-talking without frills or obscurantisms. Seeking to explore the events in Geneva from 2011 when she was our Permanent Representative there for a short spell, I met her in her rented home in Battaramulla in June 2016 in the convivial presence of her French husband and their dog Hombrito.[1]

I believe in deep history and the biographical touch so my initial questions were about her upbringing. That is a long and fascinating tale which I will present at another moment and in due course. A coincidence of little consequence emerged: we had been at Heidelberg University at the same time in 1976, myself as Humboldt Fellow at the Südasien-Institut and Tamara as a student following economics. That we had not met is no surprise: the Südasien-Institut is located at Nuenheimer Feld away from the city centre, while her institutional needs were in the Alt Stadt in the heart of that magnificent city.

Heidelberg University in Alt -Stadt

Her biographical story demands a lengthy exposition. For my purposes here,, suffice it to say that she was born into a cross-caste Tamil family: a union between a Karaiyar man and a Chettiyar lady who was herself of mixed lineage. Since her father Geoffrey Kunanayakam was a Leftist and trade-union activist, this is not surprising.

While her parents sent her to Ladies College, they raised their children without religion and discouraged accumulation, so that the children “lived out of a suitcase” (in Tamara’s words). Geoffrey Kunanayakam was fluent in Tamil, Sinhala and English. He also nourished his children as “Ceylonese.” But he died of cancer in 1971 when Tamara was 17. A little later she determined to pursue her education abroad in the Netherlands and headed for Europe with brother Indraraj and a friend (Tony) via plane and train flights across the Indian subcontinent and hitch-hiking journeys from Afghanistan through to Yugoslavia and thence to Switzerland.

Their last lift by hitch was from a Scotsman named Steve Mackie who worked for the World Council of Churches. He encouraged the young trio to head for Geneva. The Kunanayakam family had counted Revd Niles, a WCC man, to be among their dearest friends in Sri Lanka. So, it is with the World Council of Churches in Geneva that Tamara secured her first real job. Savings accumulated in this employment then enabled her to fund her university course in Heidelberg.

Given her father’s Leftist background, it is not surprising that Tamara joined anti-racist student movements in Germany and participated in anti-Apartheid discussions and rallies. From Heidelberg she moved on to jobs at the UN Development Programme, the UN Centre for Human Rights, the International Labour Organisaton and other in international organisations in Heidelberg and Geneva. In the mid-1980s she represented the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF), an organisation representing the Student Christian Movement in 90 countries including Sri Lanka.

The WSCF participated in the 43rd Sessions of the UN Commission on Human Rights in February 1987 and presented a memorandum. Miss Tamara Kunanayakam served as the anchor-woman reading this corporate submission. While focusing on the structural roots of human rights violations in several countries, it focused on these dimensions in Sri Lanka in “the context of the government’s failure to address itself to the legitimate grievances of the Tamil people stemming from socio-economic and political causes.”

This specificity, however, was a situated within an emphasis on the failure of judicial processes island-wide and a reference to broader socio-political processes that resulted in the victimisation of “a wide range of opposition groups including members of some political parties, trade unions, women, student and human rights organisations.”

This WSCF Memorandum has been deployed against Tamara Kunanayakam in several quarters, albeit with different slants. My intent here is to highlight tendentious interpretations and manipulations that occur in the course of political contestation.

One misreading of the WSCF memorandum came from no less a person than the former Foreign Affairs Minister for Sri Lanka, Mangala Samaraweera. Appearing on a Rathu Era (Red Line) TV programme in the channel Swarnavahini in March 2014, he referred to his surprise “that a person who functioned as a member of the pro-LTTE organization called ‘World Christian Council’ ..… is now pointing her fingers at others saying ‘pro-LTTE persons’.”[2]

In this reading she was a Tiger sympathizer in the late 1980s and thus someone to be shunned. At about the same time, however, in February 2014 the American freelance journalist and antiwar activist, Ron Ridenour, rode his white horse into the internet fields of Sri Lanka via the Colombo Telegraph to tell us all that Kunanayakam was now an “Uncle Tom Tamil” because she had led the Sri Lankan government’s case at Geneva.

In support of this thesis Ridenour refers to Kunanayakam’s stance in the 1980s in protest against the anti-Tamil pogrom in her role as “consultant at the World Council of Churches” and the fact that President JR Jayewardene had branded her “a terrorist agent.” Referring specifically to her representations before the Human Rights Commission in 1987 (namely, the WSCF Memorandum), Ridenour highlights her opposition to the Prevention of Terrorism Act in Sri Lanka then.

In Ridenour’s radical and rabble-rousing mode of presentation,[3] therefore, Kunanayakam’s 1980s politics was praiseworthy and on the spot. Whereas, recently, in 2013/14 she is compromised and an element in a “chauvinist government” – that led by Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Such differentiated readings in the height of political presentations of self (by Samaraweera and Ridenour in these instances) can be better understood when set within the lengths to which Tamil activists in the world today go in propagating the cause of Tamil Eelam and exposing the evils committed by the government of Sri Lanka. Besides the magnification of death tolls and atrocities committed by GSL during the recent war, these efforts extend to (a) the denigration of any studies that qualify or question such readings; and (b) the insertion of lies in the biographies of individuals. Thus, the information of Tamara Kunanayakam in Wikipedia is contaminated by gerrymandering and falsehoods inserted by some assiduous web-site forgers.

This is truly a marvel is it not: that there are vengeance-driven and committed activists for cause – in this instance the cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils – who have the time and capacity to manipulate cyber-world data in little corners (i.e. Sri Lanka) about little people in ways that enhance their project.

*** ***


Asian Tribune 2012

Gowan, Richard 2014  “A Hardline R2P Interventionist? An American Analyst’s Assessment of Samantha Power in April 2014,” 23 April 2014,

Hattotuwa, Sanjana 2016 “Chaotic Pluralism in Sri Lanka’s Polity Today,” 2 October 2016,

Johnstone, Diana 2016 “Smart Power International Machinations from the Hilary Clinton Camp,” 26 September 2016,

Jeyaraj, DBS 2017  Tamara Kunanayakam: Fighting for Lanka in Geneva,” 20 March 2017,

Kunanayakam, Tamara 2012  “Vested Groups’ Intention of Interfering In Sri Lanka’s Internal Affairs Exposed,” 3 June 2012,

Kunanayakam, Tamara 2016  “Tamara K’s Forecast in 2015 … Evidence Today on USA’s Penetrative Thrusts,” 9August 2016,

 Kunanayakam:, Tamara 2015 “A System Change and A Trojan Horse accepted by Ranil-Sirisena Combo,” 15 September 2015,

Kunanayakam, Tamara 2016  Ä Tour de Force by Tamara Kunanayakam in reviewing THE RAJAPAKSA YEARS,” 23 February 2016,

Kunanayakam, Tamara 2017 “Sri Lanka’s New Constitution: A Neo-Colonial Project?” 9 September 2017,

Kunanayakam, Tamara 2018 ‘ “Tamara Kunanayakam slams Western Intervention in Lanka’s Political Order…. and evokes Egyptian Comparisons”,31 October 2018,

Kunanayakam, Tamara 2018   “1983 and 2018: Kunanayakam’s Warnings suggest US-UNHCR-Yahapālana Machinations,”  15 March 2018,

Roberts, Michael 2015 Populist Authoritarianism. Why Mahinda Rajapaksa will abdicate the Reins: A Forecast in 2012,” 12 January 2015,

Roberts, Michael 2015 “Targeting Sri Lanka by playing ball with Tamil Extremism,” 24 July 2015,

Roberts, Michael 2015 “Ambassador Blake in Never-Never-Land: Misreading LTTE Capacity in Early 2009,” 26 August 2015,

Roberts, Michael 2015A Drama in Four Acts: Dishonest Reportage by Amnesty International and Aussie Journalists remains Unmasked,” 2 September 2015,

Roberts, Michael 2017Revisiting Critical Issues in Eelam War IV: Summarizing Citizen Silva’s The NUMBERS GAME,” 10 November 2017, summarizing-citizen-silvas-the-numbers-game/

Roberts, Michael 2018“The Gash Files III: Trapped Tamils out by Sea,” 20 April 2018,

Roberts, Michael 2018Reflections: Interpreting the Gash Files IV,” 29 April 2018,

Roberts, Michael 2018The Western World’ Cumulous Clouds of Deception: Blanketing the Sharp Realities of Eelam War IV,” 16 October 2016,

Zuhair, Ayesha 20152 “We çannot afford to underestimate the dangers we face, -‘Q and A with Kunanayakam,” 6 December 2012,


[1] This article was drafted in late 2016 and intened to be oneessay inaseries. That intention was overtaken by other events …but I hope to return to Tamara’s biography and especially the events in Geneva in her spell there.

[2] Samaraweera also thrust a male-chauvinist rapier at Kunanayakam by referring to her as a “frustrated woman.”

[3] This is my initial reading, but Kunanayakam contends that he is a “pseudo-liberal”.


Filed under accountability, american imperialism, authoritarian regimes, centre-periphery relations, citizen journalism, disparagement, doctoring evidence, female empowerment, governance, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, Left politics, life stories, modernity & modernization, news fabrication, performance, politIcal discourse, power politics, Rajapaksa regime, reconciliation, Responsibility to Protect or R2P, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, travelogue, truth as casualty of war, UN reports, unusual people, vengeance, war reportage, women in ethnic conflcits, world events & processes

2 responses to “Young Tamara Kunanayakam in Central Europe, 1970s-to-1980s

  1. She may have had different phases in her life, but internationally she defended Sri Lanka admirably.

  2. Pingback: Swiss Power Plays: A Violation of Sovereignty | Thuppahi's Blog

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