On Stephen Champion’s Collaboration with Amnesty International in 2008

Gerald Peiris[1]

From the recent correspondence[2] between you and the ace photographer Stephen Champion, (published in your Thuppahi blog), I came to know about a composite event staged in London in July 2008 consisting of an exhibition of photographs recorded by Champion “while travelling around Sri Lanka Sri Lanka for over twenty-two years”, and the launch of an album containing such images, and a published report of an interview intended to publicise the exhibition and the album conducted by Saroj Pathirana for the BBC Sandēsaya programme. For several reasons I found this event quite interesting and relevant to an understanding a type of external intervention in Sri Lanka’s conflict situations and decided to respond to your request for my observations. What I find it necessary to say ought to be prefaced with a note that I have not met Champion, nor seen either the aforesaid exhibition or the album, and not listened to the Sandesaya broadcast. In my search for background information on Champion I came across three Internet image galleries titled, respectively, Colours of Change, Dharmadeepa and Portraits. Though I am no connoisseur of this or any other form of art, I did admire his black & white creations in the Dharmadeepa collection.[3]

Producing an enchanting image was a rare achievement in the old ‘rat-trap’ box-camera days. But now, with up-market DLSRs available, even rank amateurs can produce classics through trial and error. Photography, in my view, should thus be placed in the periphery of creative arts. Moreover, I believe that photographs seldom provide irrefutable evidence of what they are intended to ‘prove’, because they could be digitally doctored (as, for instance, in that widely circulated group photograph of Bin Laden watching his own assassination with several others including Obama and Hillary Clinton), and/or produced in cinema studios as in Nick Broomfield’s film, Battle of Haditha. There is, in fact, a belief among the discerning here that the sordid movies aired by ‘Channel 9’ included cuts produced in Chennai’s ‘Kollywood’. These facts, needless to stress, are only of marginal irrelevance to our present concern.

One of the main reasons for my interest in the event referred to stems from the fact that Champion, having enjoyed not only the hospitality which Sri Lanka usually offers VIPs from the ‘West,’ but also the access which scholars and journalists sometimes had to all parts of the island even during the ‘War’, decided to collaborate with Amnesty International (AI) in an exercise intended to rubbish his host country on the pretext of a sanctimonious commitment to peace and the promotion of human rights. Champion is not the only distinguished visitor to the island who has done that on similar pretext.

According to Champion, successive governments of Sri Lanka from as far back as the mid-1980s, were excessively brutal in their attempts to suppress two “liberation struggles” – one, by Sinhalese youth, and the other, by Tamil youth. Moaning in despair and disgust, he claimed that, while President Premadasa used “murder squads” to annihilate thousands of Sinhalese youth in the late-1980s, President Rajapaksa resurrected them (“with the press of a button,” as it were) to annihilate Tamil youth. Champion thus made it clear that there is no ethnic bias in the tears he sheds. In July 2008 when he made this damning accusation, Premadasa’s alleged atrocities were a  thing of the past; but not those by Mahinda Rajapaksa who, following the failure of the genuine peace overtures he made in the early stages of his presidential tenure, was  preparing for a concerted military effort to end the LTTE menace. So, Michael, the timing of Champion’s contribution to the AI could not have been coincidental.

Let’s remind ourselves of the timing and the venue of Champion’s humanitarian concern. He had, in the course of his visit to the Tiger stronghold in the north in 2007, not only seen Prabhakaran’s manic displays of aparājithō, but also sensed the panic among the abducted cannon fodder in his guerrilla army that had been evicted wholesale from the Eastern Province in late 2006, the bravado notwithstanding. Soon thereafter, Prabhakaran’s attempts to regain control over parts of the northern peninsula with the type of weaponry (MRLs) that was not in display earlier had also failed with costly losses. Meanwhile, by July 2008, the Rajapaksa government had taken the initiative towards a battlefield victory in that “unwinnable Eelam War” – placing several regiments of the army along the south-western and the north-eastern periphery of  “Thamil Eelam”, while strengthening  the navy and the air force to perform a vital supplementary role for a well-planned trans-Vanni army effort.

These facts were known to the puppeteers of the “Eelam War” who commanded the allegiance of their activists among expatriate Sri Lankan Tamils domiciled in the West, constituting numerically large communities especially in cities like London and Toronto. In London of mid-2008, the AI thus had the potential to play a different ballgame from what it pathetically did at the Kensington Oval in 2006 (sic).[4] For Champion, what better market could there be for his display of Premadasa-Rajapaksa atrocities intended to generate royalties, revulsion and fury?

Am I being unfair to Champion? I beg to deny this thought. The extracts from a letter addressed by him to Michael Roberts in 2020 reveals an interesting facet of his persona:

“AI and several others had become so ‘corporate’ and awash with huge salaries anddonations (tax deductible) that it became a circus. … The organisation was founded in the 1960’s and had 7 staff members and a budget of £17000. By the time Martin Ennals resigned (i.e. 1991) there were 150 staff members and a £2 million budget. Goodness      knows what (its) budget is now but it perhaps got way to(o) big as did the six figure salaries”.

Implicit in this extract is the fact that when Champion collaborated with AI in a pro-LTTE propaganda event in 2008, he was fully aware that AI had become a “circus“. Moreover, there is no indication in any of my sources that the event was anything other than an unqualified condemnation of successive governments of Sri Lanka in its primary function of safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation, and a concealment of the atrocities committed by the two terrorist outfits proclaiming ‘liberation’ as their objective.

Champion was reported to have told the so-called “murder squads” (but not to the insurgents): “Put that gun down … You don’t resolve any war situation until and unless you put the gun down”. There is no mention anywhere in the course of this event of the four spells over which the government forces downed their arms and were confined to their barracks in order to conduct  peace negotiations, and no reference to the fact that it was the LTTE that terminated the ceasefires with a spate of attacks on security forces of the government and on various civilian targets involving, among other things, assassination of political leaders (India’s Rajiv Gandhi being the most famous among them), mass murder, destruction of key economic assets, large-scale ethnic cleansing and displacement of entire communities, and the forced abduction of children for conscription. The targets and the victims are too well documented in detail to warrant repetition here. Did Champion make at least a passing reference to these in any of his presentations in July 2008? Regrets in retrospect in a personal communication are of no avail.

There is no doubt whatever that unidentified gangs, some of which are likely to have consisted of security services personnel in mufti, with the assumed backing of the Premadasa government, engaged in what was referred as “extra-judicial executions” (see Final Report of the ‘Commission’ of Inquiry’ appointed by President Kumaratunga; Rohan Gunaratne’s A Lost Revolution;  C. A. Chandraprema’s The Years of Terror …; and Dharman Wickremaratne’s Sinhala monograph titled  Jăvipé Deveni Kärälla).

A closer look at this phenomenon shows, however, that it was part and parcel of a desperate measures permitted by a democratically elected government in order to stall the threat to the nation’s survival from: (a) the JVP insurgency aimed at no less than the capture of state power through terrorism; (b) the massive Indian intervention which entailed an induction of a large ‘Peace-Keeping Force’ (IPKF) to the ‘North-East’ of the island; and, (c) in that area, being compelled to confine the nation’s security forces to their barracks, in the face of the LTTE forging ahead in a trail of bloodshed towards its avowed goal of establishing an “exclusive Tamil nation-state” extending over a large part of the island.

That the departure from the ‘Rule of Law’ was permitted over a relatively brief spell in order to suppress the JVP as the only option available to the government as the first surgical step towards saving the nation from the worsening internal malignancies and India’s continuing intervention in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. In the Premadasa agenda, the later steps included a negotiated peace settlement with the LTTE (over which he personally toiled for 14 months), and an eviction of the IPKF from the island through negotiations with New Delhi. It was never a strategy endorsed by President Premadasa any of his successors in order to overcome the secessionist challenge of the LTTE.**

Finally, Champion should be told as gently as possible that there no need for him to teach the natives here the need for peace. Many others — others like the Buddha, Jesus Christ, the author of Bhagavat Gita, Aristotle and Gandhi — have attempted to inculcate the identical values.

Peiris Note: ** Security forces performing their legitimate duties — while many thousands among them lost their lives — cannot be referred to as “murder quads” in the guise of promoting peace. In formulating its military offensive, paradigms of the Rajapaksa government appear to have approximated the utilitarian ideals advocated by John Stuart Mill according to which: “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by exertions of better men than himself.”

PEIRIS: A NOTE on the JVP Insurrection of 1986-90

In the period leading up to the ‘JR-Rajiv Pact’ (July 1987), there was an almost imperceptible shift of the JVP strategy from being driven by socialist (samājavādī) impulses (which was what it had claimed to be since the late 1960s), to a patriotic (dēshaprēmī) offensive involving murder, arson, plunder and a unique ‘poster war’ waged island-wide, intended to proclaim their demands from the government and their appeals to the people, the latter including the slogan “JR maramu” (let’s kill JR). By about early 1988, it commanded obedience of the people in most parts of the country to its peremptorily enforced ‘total curfews’. It had accumulated a stock of arms through raids on several government arsenals. Its assassination targets included heads of universities and schools, activists in mainstream politics, several in the ‘pop arts’ (Vijaya Kumaratunga, Premakeerti Alwis), and the bombing of a UNP parliamentary group meeting the victims of which included several ministers.

Meanwhile, the all-island election conducted at the end of 1989, though substantially disrupted by the insurgents, enabled Premadasa to take over the presidential reins of office. At that stage of political proceedings the JVP leadership appears to have been guided by a sense of utmost self-satisfaction in its progress towards a “capture of state power”. Numerical estimates of its record of murders alone vary from, say, Rohan Gunaratne’s (Sri Lanka: Lost Revolution, 1990) 117, to an official count published in 2014 of an overall total of 5,999, comprising  “487 public servants, 342 policemen, 209 security personnel, 16 political leaders, and 4,945 civilians of other description”, cited by D.B.S. Jeyaraj (Daily Mirror of 25 April 2020).

Sensing proximity to its final goal, the JVP decided to escalate its offensive by focusing its terror on families of the security forces, in the expectation that it would induce mass defections of the rank and file, ideally with their arms and ammunition! That, in retrospect, appears as a suicidal blunder. The army and the police promptly expressed their outrage in a widely proclaimed announcement that read: “Twenty of theirs for one of ours“. This sledgehammer response was demonstrated is several ‘search & arrest’ operations at JVP hideouts. It was this retaliatory offensive that brought about the final demise of the JVP within about twelve months of gruesome confrontation.



AFP “Tamil Tigers Call for Sporting Boycott of Sri Lanka,” 10 April 2007, https://www.espncricinfo.com/story/_/id/22958705/tamil-tigers-call-sporting-boycott-sri-lanka
Asian Tribune: “Tamil Tiger agent invaded the cricket pitch in Grenada to support Amnesty International campaign against Sri Lanka,” 20 April 2007, http://www.asiantribune.com/index.php?q=node/5382
Mango “Jim Macdonald and AI boxed into a corner by Mango in 2009,” 10 August 2011, http://thuppahis.com/2011/08/10/3133/
Saroj Pathirana: “Champion’s Photographic Lens on Sri Lanka’s Travails, 1988-2008,” 20 April 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/04/20/champions-photographic-lens-on-sri-lankas-travails-1988-2008/#more-41798
Gerald H. Peiris: Twilight of the Tigers. Peace Efforts and Power Struggles in Sri Lanka, Oxford University Press, 2009

Gerald H. Peiris: Sri Lanka. Challenges of the New Millennium, Kandy, 2006

Michael Roberts: “Generating Calamity, 2008-2014: An Overview of Tamil Nationalist Operations and Their Marvels,” 10 April 2014, http://groundviews.org/2014/04/10/generating-calamity-2008-2014-an-overview-of-tamil-nationalist-operations-and-their-marvels/
Roberts, MichaelA Drama in Four Acts: Dishonest Reportage by Amnesty International and Aussie Journalists remains Unmasked,” 2 September 2015, https://wordpress.com/post/thuppahi.wordpress.com/17560
Michael Roberts: “Nationalist Studies and the Ceylon Studies Seminar at Peradeniya, 1968-1970s,” 2 October 2018, https://thuppahis.com/2018/10/02/nationalist-studies-and-the-ceylon-studies-seminar-at-peradeniya-1968-1970s/
Michael Roberts: “Reading Stephen Champion’s Photo Event in 2008 …. Today 2020,” 28 April 2020,  https://thuppahis.com/2020/04/28/reading-stephen-champions-photo-event-in-2008-today-2020/#more-42012
Michael Roberts: “Fun Runs. Protest Runs, Winning Runs,” 24 August 2015, https://cricketique.wordpress.com/2015/08/24/fun-runs-protest-runs-winning-runs/


[1] My association with Gerald Peiris goes back a long way. He was one year senior to me at Ramanathan Hall in Peradeniya University and part of my dining room table set. When pursuing my Doctoral dissertation at Oxford I visited him at Cambridge University on several occasions. Thereafter we were colleagues in the Arts Faculty of Peradeniya University from 1966 to 1975. When the Ceylon Studies Seminar series was launched in 1968 Gerry was a steadfast participant …  and readers here are invited to absorb the item ….. https://thuppahis.com/2018/10/02/nationalist-studies-and-the-ceylon-studies-seminar-at-peradeniya-1968-1970s/

As vitally, Gerald Peiris was a central hand assisting PTM Tissa Fernando and myself in launching the journal Modern Ceylon Studies in 1970 as one arm in Peradeniya University’s outreach research to the people of Sri Lanka.

[2] In contrast to all the personnel sent the Thuppahi item about the July 2008 Exhibition in London penned by Saroj Pathirana, Gerald Peiris had also received the email correspondence from Champion (initiated out of the blue) in March 2020 (soon to be placed in Thuppahi with my own reflections).

[3] Champion was among those who attended an ICES Seminar in Kandy in mid-2019 where I was the Speaker with Gerald Peiris in the chair. Champion raised a few questions and I acquired his email address afterwards; but Gerald Peiris would not have known who he was or spoken to him.

[4] Peiris is referring here to the active participation of Amnesty International in the protest cricket pitch invasion by an enterprising Tamil Canadian named Mayoorian when Sri Lanka were fielding in a high-profile World Cup cricket match vs the Australians at the St Georges Ground in Grenada on the 17th April 2007 – see Asian Tribune 2017. When linked to this event, Amnesty International’s role at the Photo Exhibition plus a whole series of protest interventions indicates that this eminent organisation was an active collaborator in the “Tamil liberation struggle” under LTTE command and thus complicit – eventually – in the Tiger strategy of building up a picture of “an impending humanitarian calamity”  by deploying its civilian populace as shields and hostages. Also see Mango 2011 and Roberts, “A Drama in Four Acts,” 2014.

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