Robert Kaplan is a well-connected Jewish American author and journalist. As one he travels widely and chose to visit Sri Lanka as a newshound in mid-2009 just after the Sri Lankan government forces had vanquished the Tamil Tiger forces and rescued about 280-290,000 Tamil ‘civilians’ who had been deployed as a defensive barrier and bargaining chip for about 15-17 months by the LTTE as they, the Tigers, were forced into a west-to-east retreat in the northern Vanni.
Situation Map on 23rd December 2008 & then on 8th March 2009
As it happened, I was in Sri Lanka from mid-April 2009 because my sister Estelle’s 90th birthday was looming in early May …. and stayed on till June 2009. At this point of time, over several years I had been researching the total commitment to their cause displayed by the Tamils aligned with the LTTE. This work was pursued under the rubric of the concept “Sacrificial Devotion” and I had already fashioned several essays on that topic. My work was comparative and included studies of the Japanese kamikaze operations during World War Two and the jihadist actions of Palestinians and other Muslims.
Thus informed, I even feared that the LTTE would inspire and stimulate many of their civilian supporters and hostages to commit mass suicide with them as the battle turned against them. Some essays in Groundviews and in Transcurrents presented in the first months of the year 2009 were devoted to warnings about this possibility. As events turned out, many Tiger personnel and some of their civilian auxiliaries fought to the bitter end (and a few may have committed suicide). However, many Tamils revealed that they were not ready to face annihilation. Towards the end of 2008 a few escaped from the LTTE’s stranglehold. From January 2009 the numbers fleeing their hopeless situation increased– with some slipping through the battle lines on foot and others using fishing boats to escape northwards or southwards. The pitch-black nights were their cover.
In the final result, around 280-290,000 Tamil ‘civilians’ and Tamil Tiger personnel survived the collapse of the LTTE regime.Roughly 12,000 of these personnel were deemed to be Tigers by the GoSL and were sequestered in special security camps set up by the SL Army to manage their “re-education”. Therefore, by May/June/July 2009 circa 278,000 Tamils were deemed IDPs (internally-displaced persons) and were detained in special camps set up in the Manik Farm area in Vavuniya District as well as the Jaffna Peninsula – a process that began in January 2009 [possibly earlier]. These camps were serviced by a combination of local NGOs, International NGOs and SL Army units in what turned out to be a remarkable set of operations spanning two years or more.
Based in Colombo from mid-April to mid-June, my energies in the academic field were directed in part by interaction with Muralidhar Reddy, a journalist located in Colombo and reporting for The Hindu and Frontline run from Madras. I had met Murali in Delhi in 1995 at Sanjay Srivastava’s house; and now in Colombo in 2009 Murali invited me to write articles for Frontline – a challenge I took up.
Murali in the recaptured Nandikadal Coastal Pocket–circa 15 May 2009
In the meantime, my long association with Ananda Chittambalam, an entrepreneur and well-connected socialite, brought me into contact with a wide range of upper-class personnel in Colombo city. One evening Ananda took me along with him to a soiree at the Indian Ambassador’s house in Thurstan Road — an assembly which included Tissa Vitharana (a Leftist) and Kumar Rupesinghe (an INGO man with wide connections) whom I knew well. Among the personnel present was Robert Kaplan – an American political analyst and journalist of Jewish lineage. Ever affable, Kaplan was a keen observer of the brisk conversations taking place in the different little circles in the ambassador’s sprawling grounds.
Ana & Nafeeza Chittambalam … & Kumar Rupesinghe
Kaplan, as I discovered later, had wide-ranging links with powerful agencies in the US world. His interpretations of the Sri Lankan war eventually reached the world in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly – assuring him a wide circulation. In my reading his perspective was honeycombed with the arrogant conceptions of the Asian/Eastern world generated and sustained in the Western world for centuries following the West’s incursions and dominations in the era of imperialism dating from medieval times.The lineaments of this body of thought had been spelt out by the Egyptian intellectual Edward W. Said and identified by the label “Orientalism” – the title of a book that Said presented in 1978.
My reaction to Kaplan’s powerful essay was caustic. This reading was based on a substantial background of research on the phenomenon identified as “suicide missions.” I had consistently refused to label these commitments as acts of “terrorism” and adopted the term “sacrificial devotion” to embrace such actions and quite deliberately included theatrical acts of self-immolation in political protest within this framework of analysis – thereby encompassing the fiery self-immolation by Jan Palach in Prague on 16th January1969 in condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslavakia and the Vietnamese monk Thich Quan Duc’s flaming suicide in condemnation of the South Vietnam government’s pro-Catholic pursuits on 11th June 1963.So, by 2009, I had indulged in a wide array of reading on suicide missions and written five or six articles on the topic; so, I was hardly a novice in this terrain.
Jan Palach & Memorial cast at Wenceslas Square in Prague
However, my critical analysis of Kaplan’s reading did not carry weight with any of the mainstream digital journals devoted to public affairs and I had to be satisfied with my own little web-medium, the one entitled “sacrificial devotion” (launched earlier with aid from a student from Sydney named Daniel Nourri following an international symposium in Adelaide that had focused on suicide attacks and/or protests). This was an obscure website; and my article would not have seen much exposure. Nor would it be visited these days (the website has been dormant for years). So, for what it is worth, I am proceeding to present my slashing criticisms of Kaplan the Robert in 2010 once again in the channels associated with Thuppahi.
The original version of this article was drafted in September 2009. There was no response from Atlantic Monthly when I sent it to them. Nor did it pass muster with SLATE, Mother Jones, the NY Times, International Herald Tribune and Tehelka. However, HIMAL accepted it, but also made a few editorial changes and suggested some extensions. Their format did not have space for footnotes or citations. The version that is reprinted here is an amalgam of my original piece and the article that appears in Himal, January 2010…..AND can still be accessed at https://www.himalmag.com/kaplans-savage-orientalism/
The senior US journalist Robert Kaplan is well-connected and famous, a master of prose. He is versed in wrapping his international forays with word-pictures of place, person and context. His texts may ramble in places, but they are rarely ornate. The ‘word foliage’ displays are designed to be pleasing and are sometimes capped with striking titles – what could be more catchy, for instance, than the title of his Sri Lanka-focused piece in the September 2009 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, “Buddha’s Savage Peace”? But these invitations to buy into his investigations of the political terrain are mixed with dubious contentions. Notably, his recent interpretations of the Sri Lankan political scene are as simplistic as they are misleading.
Although a longtime reporter, Kaplan was first widely recognised for his striking essay from February 1994, “A Coming Anarchy,” also published in The Atlantic. This article was prefaced by the line, “How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet.” Kaplan is currently a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and his essays regularly feature in leading US newspapers. He has revealed remarkable versatility and has ventured into many battle terrains – authoring several books, including Warrior Politics: Why Leadership demands a Pagan Ethos (2001), Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground (2005) and even a travel book entitled Mediterranean Winter.
Now, 15 years after “A Coming Anarchy”, Kaplan continues to depict images of anarchy by stirring up American fears of the Oriental ‘Other’. When Sri Lanka, normally an obscure place in most American eyes, re-entered the world stage with a showdown war in spring 2009, Kaplan seems to have jumped on board to continue this agenda of fear-mongering. South Asian tales of brutal wars and killings without ethical restraint have now been added to his offerings of looming anarchy. Here, the “morality of the result” (namely, suppression of the ‘terrorist’ LTTE in American eyes) has been conveniently discarded in favour of his dichotomy of the moment.
Kaplan’s analysis of the Sri Lankan dispensation is not all dross. During his recent travels through the island, he talked at length with Bradman Weerakoon, and mingled with several noted politicians and NGO representatives, such as the activist Kumar Rupesinghe. Kaplan also absorbed the riveting arguments between Sinhalese and Tamils in the lounge room of the Indian diplomat who oversees the work of RAW in Sri Lanka. He even dipped into the odd book, for instance one by K. M. de Silva and another by Channa Wickremasekera on Kandy at War: Indigenous Military Resistance to European Expansion in Sri Lanka, 1594-1818 (Delhi, 2004).
This image of the Sinhalese community in fear is deepened by a trip that Kaplan takes into the past with the aid of Wickremasekera and de Silva. The sturdy resistance to European invasion pursued by the Sinhalese for several centuries is highlighted. Unfortunately, this is done in ways that enable Kaplan to heighten two elements: the present-day Sinhalese political paranoia and the significance of Kandy as a “sacred city”. Thus, sacredness and serenity today are conveyed as being permeated by threads of political anarchy – juxtapositions and contrasts that are crafted into Kaplan’s increasingly Orientalist work in general.
These lines of emphasis dovetail neatly with the spin that Kaplan imposes on the contemporary conflict. It is a tale of “a quarter century of civil war between ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils”(emphasis mine). In keeping with his title, the essay drives home an associated point: “Buddhism can be, under the right circumstances, a blood-and-soil faith.” During the brutal war, “the Buddhist Sinhalese relied on a powerful sense of communal religious identity” in order to defeat that “quasi-cult terrorist group” known as the Tamil Tigers, led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, whom Kaplan paints as a sadistic ogre. Thus, the victors in this war drew upon the same “emotional wellsprings as the tradition of worship at Kandy’s tranquil Buddhist shrines.”
In this neat manner, Kaplan builds upon his opening travelogue in serene Kandy by depicting a ‘torso’ marked by the awesome bloodletting of a war driven by religious fuel.This is a tactical ploy that, from the time of Edward Said, we comprehend as a standard element within Orientalist strategies. From the eighteenth century, the European literati developed a picture of a static unchanging ‘East’ that served as a foil for its self-affirming construction of a progressive and dynamic ‘West’. This process, of course, admits to various twists: currently, one sees sections of the Western media deploying Sri Lanka as an arena of inhumane war crimes in ways that highlight their own ethical superiority. If one deciphers the plot organising both Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy” and “Buddha’s Savage Peace,” their striking similarity is indicative of an Orientalist framework.
There is a major omission in this analysis, one that has Kaplan presenting a potentially dangerous quarter-truth. Either by design or out of ignorance, Kaplan does not tell his readers that Christian Tamils and Christian Sinhalese participated in the bloodletting on both sides. Most Christians on both sides are Catholic and the Catholic Church of Sri Lanka has been sharply split down the middle as a result of the war. Indeed, any journalist worth his salt would know that Catholic priests have been ardent supporters and important ideologues in the LTTE enterprise; and that Christians of all faiths have been among the Tamil Tigers who have carried out suicide attacks. In 1981, Roman Catholics made up around 41 percent, 12 percent and 15 percent of the largely Tamil districts of Mannar, Jaffna and Mullaitivu, respectively, even outnumbering Hindus in Mannar. Several senior LTTE personnel in the 1980s (such as Victor, Rahim and Lawrence Thilakar) as well as LTTE negotiator Anton Balasingham were raised Catholic.
If this is deliberate obfuscation on Kaplan’s part, the question obviously arises: Why such a silence? In fact, this writer would suggest that this needs to be seen as firmly in step with Kaplan’s Orientalism – a branding of the religions (and peoples) of the East as those conducive to ‘savagery’. It is reasonable to contend that any reference to Christian involvement at the heart of the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle would muddy the turbulent seas of the dangerous Orient that Kaplan is carefully moulding.
In this, Kaplan is not alone. Another American intellectual, the well-known political scientist Robert Pape, has likewise maintained a studied silence on the Christian dimension of the Sri Lankan conflict. In his book Dying to Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism (2005), there is a chapter on the LTTE’s suicide bombers. In setting out the background, Pape notes:
“The most prominent factor driving Tamil community support for individual self-sacrifice is fear of Buddhist extremism. Especially since the establishment of the new state constitution in 1972, prominent Tamil leaders have consistently claimed that the Sinhalese government is motivated by the goal to extend Buddhism into the Tamil regions of the island, a religious game plan that justifies treating the Tamil people harshly, which in turn justifies extreme self-sacrifice as necessary to meet the threat (emphasis mine).”
Pape drives this point home by relating religious inspiration to the suicide ‘cult’: “fear of religious persecution, not internal dynamics within Tamil society, largely accounts for the pervasive use of suicide terrorism in this case” (2005: 140). Sinhala Buddhist extremism is indeed a problem, but there are also Sinhala Christian extremist voices that sharpen the confrontations. The phenomenon thus becomes far more complex, ultimately boiling down to extreme forms of Sinhalese nationalism. Further, it should be stressed that the term used locally by moderate voices to depict the extremists at both poles of the Sinhalese-Tamil divide is usually “chauvinists,” a label that captures differentiation that is not based on observable racial features.
Robert Pape’s thesis came out earlier in 2003 as an article in the American Political Science Review. On this occasion, Satchi Sri Kantha, an ardent Tamil nationalist, contacted Pape in order to correct his presentation of the LTTE as a “Marxist group”. In the course of correspondence with Pape throughout 2004, Sri Kantha supplied him with information on the suicide cadres of the Tigers, including the role of Christians within such operations(mostly, I add, battlefront naval acts). But in 2005, Pape proceeded to give an interview to the rightwing journal American Conservative in which he carefully avoided any reference to such facts. He could not escape the remarkable Sri Kantha, however, who got back in contact to ask him why he had failed to include mention of Christian cadres. “Is it because this would offend the sentiments of the American Conservative readership?” he asked.
Why indeed?These glaring omissions of the involvement of Christian Tamils in militant acts, omissions perpetrated by Pape as well as Kaplan, point towards prejudices and strategies of political import. They underline hidden agendas and political conservatism, as well as their unreflective Orientalism.
All that glitters
It should be noted that Kaplan’s coverage has been far better than that of some other media groups. In the tense period since the end of military action in Sri Lanka in May, some organisations have been criticised for running biased or even concocted stories critical of the Colombo government (the UK’s Channel Four being a foremost example). Kaplan does not go up that path. His ‘deceit’ works instead through half-truths and oversimplifications.He is, clearly, not always alive to his blunders. This blindness arises not only from inadequate local knowledge and shallow spadework in certain regards, but also because Kaplan appears to be under the spell of his own wordplay.
However, deliberate tunnel vision does seem to intrude when Kaplan enters the realm of international politics. Stark evidence on this count was on display when he was reverentially interviewed in early July 2009 as an “expert” on Sri Lanka by Michael Totten, a high-profile conservative journalist and blogger, for the benefit of an American audience. 
Totten: So, you just got back from Sri Lanka. What did you see there? What did you learn?
Kaplan:The biggest takeaway fact about the Sri Lankan war that’s over now is that the Chinese won. And the Chinese won because over the last few years, because of the human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government ……
Kaplan then tells us that, by supplying Sri Lanka with arms, China has secured permission to build a deep-water port at Hambantota as part of “its string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean — said to be a means by which China can encircle India with various military installations. He then refers to the killing of a “prominent media critic” – eliciting a “wow” from Totten and encouraging Kaplan to proceed thus:
Kaplan: There are a thousand disappearances a year in Sri Lanka separate from the war.Journalists are terrified there. The only journalism you read is pro-government. So that’s one thing they did. …. The government killed thousands of civilians.
MJT: Tamil civilians?
Kaplan: Yes. They killed thousands of civilians in the course of winning this war. It acted in a way so brutal that there are no lessons for the West.
MJT: Would you say it was as brutal as Russia’s counterinsurgency in Chechnya?
Kaplan: Yeah. It was. The U .N. is investigating whether as many as 20,000 civilians have been killed during the last few months.
So, the Sri Lankan and Russian operations in Chechnya are all of a piece. This is certainly an argument that one can place on the debating table, but there are glaring omissions here once we proceed to the global stage of comparisons: George Bush’s enterprise in Iraq and its subsequent ramifications, the range of American operations in Afghanistan, recent Pakistani-US operations in the Swat Valley for instance. While it may have been Totten who suggested the comparison, Kaplan seems happy to run with it. If Kaplan’s charm calls to mind the proverbial real estate agent, here, then, we find out that he is an American real estate agent.
Nor is there much pleasure for Tamils in Kaplan’s reading of Sri Lankan events. Interspersed within his replies to Totten, one finds the following comment: “The Tamil Tigers had human shields by the tens of thousands, not just by the dozens and hundreds like Al Qaeda. They put people between themselves and the government and say ‘you have to kill all the people to get to us.’ So, the government obliged them.”
Later, Kaplan was asked how popular the LTTE was amongst the Tamil population. “Not particularly popular,” he responded. “The Tamil Tigers pioneered the use of suicide bombers. They pioneered the use of human shields, of fighting amidst large numbers of civilians. They had their own navy and air force.” Readers will observe that there is no logical sequence in this response – the second sentence does not follow from the first, and little light is shed on Totten’s question.
Nonetheless, and predictably, the latter information drew an exclamation from Totten. The LTTE’s military capacities were indeed remarkable and was matched by its ruthlessness and use of suicide bombers. But it is typical that both Kaplan and Totten immediately focused on the spectacular within its three military arms – namely, the air wing. Glitter evidently draws those without much background knowledge. Any amateur military analyst would have told them that the LTTE’s maritime capacities were in fact a central aspect of the LTTE’s strength, and that the embryonic air wing offered little more nuisance than a mosquito in hardline military terms. (Kaplan, it should be noted, has written well-regarded articles on naval power elsewhere.) From the very outset, during the 1980s, the Tamil Tigers’ coastal smuggling-and-shipping resources made India a safe haven and a steady source of supplies, while simultaneously enabling troop movements of immense strategic value for them. For over 20 years, their ‘brown water’ navy of speedboats was a major thorn in the side of the Sri Lankan military; while its international shipping company was a vital logistical medium for military hardware, as well as an economic asset.Indeed, on one occasion in the 1980s, Prabhakaran himself stressed that “geographically, the security of Tamil Eelam is interlinked with that of its seas.” Kaplan, it appears, is blissfully ignorant of this dimension of the LTTE’s history, though to the detriment of his own analysis.
As breathtaking, too, is the confidence with which Kaplan can tell the world that the Tamil Tigers were not “particularly popular” among the Tamil people. This is quite erroneous. Without visiting the Jaffna Peninsula, without much background reading, his unqualified response highlights his conceit. But, then, he was presumably addressing an American audience through Totten. To tweak the old saying, in the land of the blind the one-eyed man can play king.
Michael Roberts is an Adjunct Associate Professor, Dept of Anthropology, University of Adelaide
 Now retired, Weerakoon was a senior administrator who served at the highest levels, including stints as the right-hand of some Presidents. He is knowledgeable and widely respected.
 I was present too on this occasion at one point in late May 2009 and was among those participating in raging arguments. Key figures in this salon-debate included several Tamil parliamentarians, Minister Tissa Vitharana and Kumar Rupesinghe, with the latter often acting as mediator and peacemaker. Kaplan was mostly a listener.
 For instance, Bishop Emmanuel (now in Germany), Revd. Chandrakanthan (now in Canada) and Frs. Bernard and Pakianathan.
 Pape, Dying to win: the strategic logic of suicide terrorism, Random House, 2005: 146.
 Pape, “The strategic logic of suicide terrorism,” American Political Science Review, 2003, 97: 343-61.
 See Stephen Hopgood, “Tamil Tigers, 1987-2002,” in Diego Gambetta (ed.) Making Sense of Suicide Missions, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005: 43-76 and Roberts, “Pragmatic Action & Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite of commemoration,” Social Analysis, 2006, 50: 73-102.
 See Sri Kantha, “On educating Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago,” www.sangam.org representing the Ilankai Tamil Sangam, namely, the Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in USA.
 In late August 2009 Channel Four in UK broadcast a video purporting to show executions of Tamil Tigers by Sri Lankan soldiers as filmed on mobile camera in January 2009, with the qualifying note that it was not authenticated. This video has been analyzed by experts and shown up as a concoction (Asian Tribune, 31 August 2009 and Neville de Silva’s article in Island, 14 Sept. 2009). In fact, one could say that Channel Four has tended to run a campaign marked by a pronounced animus against the Sri Lankan government. One of its journalists, Nick Paton Walsh, was deported from Sri Lanka around 10 May 2009 for filing a video and report on the IDP internment camps that was sullied by hearsay information about horrible conditions. On this issue, see Roberts, “The Rajapakse Regime and the Fourth Estate,” in http://www.groundviews.org, 8 December 2009,
 Though he is not named, this would be a reference to Lasantha Wickrematunge, Editor of the Sunday Leader, killed on 8th January 2009. Note that 34 media personnel have been killed – and others intimidated – between 2004 and 2009, so this is serious issue and indeed an indictment of the governing order (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2009/07/ 090722 _jds_ journalists.shtml).
 This is an exaggeration. The Sunday Leader was, and remains, relatively independent. There are a few English-media newspapers as well as Tamil and Sinhala newspapers/magazines that have some independence, while there are a few vibrant cyber-net sites such as http://www.groundviews. org. All the print media, however, work within a highly intimidating backdrop that constrains comment; while encouraging many independent news channels to cater to Sinhalese – repeat “Sinhalese” not just Sinhala-Buddhist – prejudices. This threatening environment does require emphasis.
 Readers will observe that there is no logical sequence in this response. The second sentence does not follow from the first and little light is shed on Totten’s question.
 Not surprisingly, in the circumstances then prevailing in the first five months of 2009, the figures provided by the Government and/or NGO organizations for the number of people within the declining pocket in LTTE hands or in the IDP camps that were being set up in GoSL space must be taken as approximate. Camp inmates were able to slip out and, within a few months the LTTE operatives in GoSL space had teamed up with local profiteers to escape routes. A sting operation by the Sunday Times circa September 2009 revealed one such operation. See Setunga 2009a, 2009b and 2009c & Roberts, 2014: 22-34.
Up to that point of time I had published six articles in reputed journals: Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Social Analysis, and Anthropology Today (se Bibliography).
 There were six articles presenting this set of interpretations: four framed within the title “Suicidal Political Action” and another four under the title “LTTE and Tamil People.” See Select Bibliography framed under the heading “AT THE COALFACE”.
 The figures are approximate because some of these personnel were able to slip out of the camps and make their way to India with the aid of friends and agencies set up by LTTE operatives working in the Vavuniya and Mannar Districts held by the GoSL.
 I had met Sanjay in Australia when he was teaching in Melbourne. When I spent four months in Delhi in early 1995 working on communal violence in India, we touched base again.
 “Realities of War” appeared in Frontline vol 26 on the 9 May 2009 AND “Some Pillars for Sri Lankas Future” on 19 June 2009.
 The late Kumar Rupesinghe had married Sunethra Bandaranaike in his youthful days (circa 1969/70); but they had then parted company. He was a human rights activist who became a leading figure in the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo in the 1980s before becoming Secretary General of International Alert from 1992-98 (see …………………………………………………………………… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kumar_Rupesinghe). He lived in a mansion near the parliamentary complex at Battaramulla at one point of time in recent decades. In brief, he was a mover-and-shaker of consequence in the Sri Lankan political circuit.
 The Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslavakia in August 1968 In August 1968 to crush the liberalizing reforms initiated by Prime Minister Alexander Dubcek’s government during what was known as the Prague Spring. Jan Palach sacrificed himself in protest of the invasion and set himself on fire, in Wenceslas Square, on 16 January 1969 – see ……………….. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Palach
2007 “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,” Studiesin Conflict and Terrorism, 30: 857-88.
2007 “Blunders in Tigerland: Pape’s Muddles on ‘Suicide Bombers’ in Sri Lanka,” Online publication within series known as Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics (HPSACP), ISSN: 1617-5069.
2008 “Tamil Tigers: Sacrificial Symbolism and ‘Dead Body Politics’,” Anthropology Today, June 2008, vol. 24/3: 22-23.
Thuppahi's Blog · This web site presents the interventions of MICHAEL ROBERTS in the public realm with reference to Sri Lankan political affairs. It will embrace the politics of cricket as well. ROBERTS was educated at St. Aloysius College in Galle and the universities of Peradeniya and Oxford. He taught History at Peradeniya University and Anthropology at Adelaide university. He is now retired and lives in Adelaide.