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Tea Time with Terrorists

A Motocycle Journey into the Heart of Sri Lanka’s Civil War

Book review by A. S., September 17, 2010

This is an accessible, readable, enjoyable book that will bring back many memories for the Tamil diaspora of our journeys during that period.  As a travelogue, the book definitely succeeds...

Based on his interviews with the pro-government paramilitaries and his initial premises, Meadows does give a definition of terrorism as...'the machinery of symbolic destruction.'

Tea Time with Terrorists: A Motocycle Journey into the Heart of Sri Lanka’s Civil War

Mark Stephen Meadows
Soft Skull Press, New York, 2010

Meadows visited Sri Lanka in what was probably spring 2003, traveling from south to north in a journey that tens of thousands made during the ceasefire.  This is an accessible, readable, enjoyable book that will bring back many memories for the Tamil diaspora of our journeys during that period.  As a travelogue, the book definitely succeeds.

The rationale for Meadows’ visit was to explore issues surrounding terrorism in the post 9/11 world.   About a third or more of the book is devoted to musings on these issues, which bring this traveler into the politics of the island.  Using the term terrorist will raise the blood pressure of the vast majority of Tamils, softened only by the concommitant words ‘civil war.’  The ‘T’ word is also softened dramatically by the kind blurb on the front cover by Greg Mortenson, the co-author of Three Cups of Tea, that the account “Provides an insight into civil strife that is unprecendented in other works.  An excellent undertaking.”  Mortenson is working with US forces in Afghanistan & Pakistan on issues of counter-insurgency, emphasizing that local people need to be listened to and their needs satisfied. 

Meadows begins by showing how he supposedly chose Sri Lanka because it had nothing to do with US interests and 9/11, but had terrorists.  “Terrorists were responsible for everything bad.  But was this fear caused by terrorism, or the media that was spreading terrorism?  If no one had filmed September 11, 2001, what impact would it have had?   What was the link between terrorism and the media?   And what was a terrorist, anyway?”  I cannot say that Meadows comes very close to answering these questions, but he tries.

Why has it taken so long for this book to be published?  One can speculate that perhaps it is now a lot safer to put out books about the LTTE, especially ones that – however mildly – bring up some questions about them that do not completely toe the US party line.  Secondly, there is an acknowledgement given to “Dayan Master (whose lessons echo from cover to cover).”  One might speculate that this refers to Daya Master, the LTTE media spokesman who had a surprisingly easy flight out of the ‘safe zone’ a month before the end and is now living in Jaffna on bail, according to The Sunday Leader.  This would make sense since so much of this book is focused on the relationship between terrorism and the media, however incoherently.  One count against this speculation is that Meadows makes much of the LTTE organizing attacks and other actions for the benefit of the media, which did not happen much.  For better or for worse, the LTTE focused more on military aims than on communication with Reuters, whose correspondent was always Sinhalese anyhow.

Meadows says that “The LTTE’s goals had been to gain attention by destroying public symbols. (p.163)” and ties this to the bombing of the Dalada Maligawa.  That temple was bombed, instead, because the government was planning to hold the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence in front of the purely Buddhist shrine.  The government got the message of the bombing and moved the ceremonies to a more neutral venue, where they went off without hitch.

Meadows does get his facts screwed up rather regularly, something one can usually forgive in a newcomer.  He thinks that the killing of some monks in 1983, the 1985 Anuradhapura attack and the 2001 bombing of the Dalada Maligawa were within a short timeframe, i.e. days of each other (p. 159-161).

Less forgivable is that he does not actually listen to both sides or to the local people.   For an outsider, who you communicate with first and whoever is your ‘arranger’ has a big impact on what headspace you bring to these problems.  All foreigners arrive in Colombo and this colors their entire experience.  The only actual ‘terrorists’ Meadows has contact with are Dharmalingam Siddharthan of the EPRLF, Shankar Raji of EROS and Douglas Devananda of the EPDP, all in Colombo!!  These are interesting interviews and Meadows catches their characters well.  He asks interesting questions about how they initially chose violence, etc., but he has no insight into their role currently as paramilitaries for the government and why Devananda has to live in what Meadows describes as a ‘medieval’ fortress.  He does recognize that they “have been instrumental in decapitating the LTTE, (p.275)” but only notes their political role, not their military one.  Yes, as Sivaram [1] wrote in one of his last pieces, even these guys remain Tamil nationalists in some form, but they have made their peace with the devil to survive and from hatred of the LTTE, which will color their perspective on current events and the conclusions Meadows reaches from his discussions with them.   

Meadows does not actually admit to meeting a single member of the LTTE, other than a border guard with whom he flirts.  He rides his motorcycle from Vavuniya through Kilinochchi to Jaffna and back, but this is one short chapter of 30 pages in a 300 page book.  The most vivid scenes here are of Meadows bouncing on potholed roads, the amusing night dealing with bedbugs in the only public resthouse in Kilinochchi and worrying about landmines while viewing the Tigers’ tank at Elephant Pass.  He is acutely aware of the poverty of the area and after his vivid descriptions of the lushness of the south, one can feel the change in geography he notices.  He does have anecdotal, but pleasant conversations with a teacher in Kilinochchi, some fishermen at Elephant Pass and a boatman in Jaffna, but without fundamental insight, other than people continue to live life with dignity in terrible circumstances.

Of interest is Meadows' feeling that Sri Lanka is the most racist country he’s visited and he comes to this conclusion by observing how people react to his white skin.  His interview with Maj. Gen.  Sarath Karunaratne, at a time when he was doing public relations for the military shows this racism.  In response to the question, what is the difference between Sinhalese and Tamils, Karunaratne answers, “The biggest difference is that the Sinhalese are proud.  We have a better history.  Our language is from Latin and we have Aryan roots.  So there is a big difference culturally.  We have twenty-five hundred years of history, and the Tamil race does not have this.  Inside, we are very different.”  Asked what he means by a ‘better history, he says, “The Sinhala population is eighteen million and we have many people all over the world, and we have a home.  But the Tamils do not have a home.  In Sri Lanka, we have many victories.  In the Tamil race, there are not victories like this.  But in Sri Lanka we have the ancient things, the old things that we have made here.  There is a richness here.” (p. 105-6)  This is scary!!  This is the pride that is being used to politically and militarily force Tamils to be second class citizens of their own country.

One weakness with the book is the lack of reflection on the term terrorist and its relationship to ‘civil war’ and ‘civil strife.’ This is not Meadows’ problem alone and may well be a generational thing, but it would be more satisfying if he would have come out of the definitional blinders that ‘a terrorist is anyone the US government does not like.’  Is terrorist - like communist - a term without any real meaning except as a means to draw a line between ‘us’ and ‘them?’  It is very difficult to find out ‘What is a terrorist’ without going through such an exercise.  Meadow quotes a 2008 RAND report that concludes military means were working against the LTTE because it was “very large, armed and well organized.” (p. 277).  Does this sound like an army or a terrorist group? 

Based on his interviews with the pro-government paramilitaries and his initial premises, Meadows does give a definition of terrorism as “a kind of media art that is used for social manipulation.  It is the art of using military power, usually against civilians, to gain media control, generally with the goal of achieving polticial power…Terrorism is the machinery of symbolic destruction.” (p.279)  Based on events in Sri Lanka, this is gibberish.  This conclusion starts with the Twin Towers, and goes through some elderly Tamil ex-militants earning their keep by mouthing the Sri Lankan government’s line-of-the-moment, without really getting into the heads of those desperate and foolish enough to take up arms against the state.

Similarly, Meadows opines that the Sinhalese population exercised restraint at every provocation of the LTTE, something he must have heard about in Colombo.  A Tamil might say they exercised restraint because the LTTE could retaliate, and now without the LTTE the Tamil population is again vulnerable to pogroms.  Meadows is addressing the US, however, and is talking in the context of the panicked reaction of the US population to 9/11.

Meadows’ (and RAND’s) other conclusion that “terrorist groups were demilitarized when they were brought into the political process” (p. 275) makes more sense. When an alternative to reaching one’s goal through fighting is presented, most people anywhere in the world will grab it.  There must be a real path toward, and possibility of reaching some of the goals one is fighting for, for this to be a viable mechanism.  Purely having negotiations with no substance will have no effect.  Using the rhetoric of terrorism and weakening the non-government side without reflection, unfortunately, is not likely to lead to negotiations in which substantial concessions will be made.

Meadows says that “Around 2003, the LTTE became politically unanchored and the organization was forced to float on its purely military methods.” (p. 274).  Looking at the situation from a slightly different angle from that of Meadows, it might be said say that the inability or unwillingness of the government to fulfill the minimum requirements of what the US always calls ‘the legitimate grievances of the Tamils’ is one of the main reasons for this unanchoring.  The increasing military support given to the government by the rest of the world under the guise of the ‘war against terrorism’ undoubtedly helped this rigidity, along with the increasing refusal to ‘deal with terrorists’ on any level.  Without question, if “it had maintained some mooring with Sri Lankan ministers, such a defeat could never have happened,” (p.275) but which side did the unmooring?  Ministers who spoke up for Tamils have paid the price and are today politically irrelevant.   In addition, the war ended so badly because the LTTE must not have realized that this war against terrorism would change the military balance so thoroughly and trump all other Western and Eastern values, such as that of the sanctity of civilian life.

Meadows thinks that the Tamil issue is not yet solved and that unless it is, militancy may return.   Either that, or the government will have to continue to bivouac the largest military per capita in Asia in the Tamil areas – an army larger than that of Britain’s – ensuring one Sinhalese soldier per Tamil family, paid for by IMF loans and development aid in the struggle by big powers to gain toeholds in the Indian Ocean.

Meadows does a worthy effort at understanding how the issues involved in the war in Sri Lanka relate to those of the wider world, but stumbles on issues of access and the common error that only those events in the news actually happened.  Meadows ends with a mention of democracy and the media under threat in Sri Lanka, something the Sinhalese and outside world have seen much more of since the book was published, but Tamils have been living with for decades.  Sri Lanka is into a new stage in her history.  Who will benefit and who will pay?

[1]See also Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka by Mark P. Whitaker, Pluto Press, 2006