by Sachi Sri Kantha, November 18, 2018
Note: Whole of last month, I was busy with my move from Gifu City to Tokyo. Uprooting myself and my library collections, from a place where I had lived for nearly 19 years, was a heavy burden to this bibliophile. I had to voluntarily dispose of almost half of my library collections (books, news clippings as well as journals and magazines, that included avidly collected back issues of Time, Economist, National Geographic, New Yorker, American Scientist, Asian Music and Humor) for want of space in my current residence. As such, I couldn’t contribute to this site for nearly 6 weeks. The ‘MGR Remembered’ series, which I had been writing since December 2012, also suffered due to this impending move. I assure the fans of MGR that it will continue, partly due to encouragement offered by a couple of devoted readers of this series.
Meanwhile, I present a brief contribution to this year’s Maaveerar’s Day’s Remembrance. This relates to my critical thoughts on two recently published studies in peer-reviewed journals.
First Study from Netherlands
Niels Terpstra and Prof. Georg Frerks (from University of Utrecht, Netherlands) recently published a paper entitled, ‘Governance practices and symbolism: De Facto sovereignty and public authority in ‘Tigerland’’ in Modern Asian Studies (2018, vol. 52, no.3, pp. 1001-1042). When I read their conclusion, I had some doubts. So, I sent them an email on Oct. 16, which I reproduce below.
“Dear Dr. Terpstra and Dr. Frerks,
I read with much interest your recent lengthy study, entitled “Governance Practices and Symbolism: De facto sovereignty and public authority in Tigerland’” governance_practices_and_symbolism_de_facto_sovereignty_and_public_authority_in_tigerland, published in the Modern Asian Studies, 2018, 52(3), 1001-1042.
I’m a Sri Lankan Tamil, and currently a Japanese citizen. As such, I make the following critical observations on your study’s conclusion, based on what you have provided in the Methodology of your paper.
(1) Gentlemen, will you care to let me know your proficiency in Tamil language, spoken, reading and writing? I assume this is nil. Because, you have acknowledged the help of ‘translators’ in the first page. This constitute the first bias of your study.
(2) You indicate that your research “is based on primary, empirical data collected in 2014, 2015 and 2016 as well as…”. Did you visit the Tamil Eelam territory anytime between 1983 and 2009? If not, your over-indulgence in “secondary research into academic literature and policy documents” is [produces] ephemeral [results].
(3) Your analysis is simply based on a total of “76 interviews, averaging two and a half hours each, with [Tamil] community members”. Will you kindly pass me the questions you had asked these 76 interviewees?
(4) How did you check for the bias that the interviewees were not hiding anything, from strangers like you who don’t speak the Tamil language?
(5) In sum, your conclusion that the empirical manifestation of LTTE governance is more complex than a simple state versus non-state binary would suggest — ranging from mimicry of statehood and parallelism to hybridity — is simply inept and isn’t worth a tuppence!
As of now, I have yet to hear either from Terpstra or Frerks!
Second study from USA, with authors from multiple countries
David Webber (Virginia Commonwealth University, USA) is the first and corresponding author of this study with eight authors (among whom, two are Sinhalese and one among these two, Rohan Gunaratna is a ‘recognized terrorism expert’!). It is entitled, ’Deradicalizing detained terrorists’, and published in Political Psychology this year (vol. 39, no. 3, pp. 539-556). Complete author listing for this paper is as follows: David Webber, Marina Chernikova, Arie W.Kruglanski, Michele J. Gelfand, Malkanthi Hettiarachchi, Rohan Gunaratna, Marc-Andre Lafreniere and Jocelyn J. Belanger.
I sent the following email to Dr. Webber, on October 16.
Dear Dr. Webber,
‘I read with much interest your recently published paper, ‘Deradicalizing detained terrorists’, published in the Political Psychology journal.
I’m a Sri Lankan Tamil, and currently a Japanese citizen. I have some qualms about the analysis you had presented on LTTE fighters and your eventual conclusion of this study. Among the 8 authors of this paper, I recognize two Sri Lankans (and both of them are Sinhalese). Will you tell me, who among the 8 authors are fluent in Tamil language?
One of your co-authors Rohan Gunaratna is well known for his anti-LTTE drivel in the past. How did you eliminate the bias presented by Dr. Gunaratna, in your study?
I look forward to hearing from you.
Unlike the authors of the 1st study from Netherlands, I did hear from Dr. Webber within 24 hours. I reproduce his response verbatim below.
‘Dear Sachi Sri Kanthi,
Thank you for your email. I am confident that the results and interpretations of our findings were not impacted by a possible anti-Tamil bias. Below, I outline a few reasons for this confidence.
First, Dr. Gunaratna was not involved in the study design or data collection. It was through him that we gained access to the LTTE members within the rehabilitation facilities. He had no input on the survey questions used, theoretical background behind the study, hypothesis based on those theoretical grounds, or the analyses of the data. The authors who designed and analyzed the data (myself included) have no personal stake in the conflict, and no subjective bias toward or against either the Tamils or Sinhalese.
Second, our use of a survey methodology prevents researcher opinions from biasing the responses. The responses come directly from former members of the LTTE. They anonymously completed a survey–they were given a packet of questionnaires, and using a pen or pencil, they select a number (like 1-5) that represents how they feel or their attitude to that specific question. For instance, someone who endorsed violent extremism might indicate that they agree (maybe select a 4 on a Likert scale) with an item tapping violent extremism. An individual who disagreed with violence would maybe select a 1, indicating disagreement. In the end, the data is composed of a series of numbers. No subjective interpretation is involved. The data is the data. This is different, of course, from qualitative interview methods or use of open-ended questions. In this case, the answers are open to a greater possibility of subjectivity and bias. Survey methods have other issues (we address some in the paper), but they leave little room for bias.
Third, when we collected data we employed a local team of researchers from Sri Lanka who spoke Tamil, and who were blind to the hypotheses of the study. Dr. Hettiarachchi oversaw this research team, but none of the other authors were directly involved in data collection. For instance, I did not travel to Sri Lanka and interact one-on-one with the participants of the study. The presence of Western researchers who know the expected outcomes would insert bias, so we removed ourselves from the data collection to prevent this.
These three features greatly reduce any possibility of bias. Please let me know if you have any further questions, or would like to continue this dialogue.
Though David had addressed me as ‘Sri Kanthi’, I politely ignored it as an ephemeral typo error, in replacing one vowel with another. But, I did take up his invitation to continue ‘this dialogue’ and send my rebuttal. It was as follows, on Oct. 19.
I respond to your comments as follows.
Your second sentence, that “I am confident that the results and interpretations of our findings were not impacted by a possible anti-Tamil bias”, has to be simply taken on its face value. Your cited references on the Sri Lankan conflict between the SL army and LTTE, proves otherwise. Not a single reference is from a Tamil author, or those who have given the benefit of doubt to the LTTE’s campaign. Why?
You mention that Dr. Gunaratna was not involved in the study design… Well, I notice, one citation to his edited book. Also, you indicate “Dr. Malkanthi Hetiiarachchi (one of your co-authors)”. She is not competent in Tamil, isn’t it? She, in fact is an associate of Dr. Gunaratna, and a Sinhalese. I did check her publication profile from SCOPUS database. She has only 7 publications (including yours). She is the sole author in only one paper. In the rest, she and Dr. Gunaratna shares the authorship billing.
My main criticism is that Dr. Rohan Gunaratna has had links to the SL army, which perpetrated atrocities on Tamil civilians, including sexual abuse of men (and women) held in detention. I cite following neutral references, for your information.
Peel M, Mahtani A, Hinshelwood G and Forrest D. The sexual abse of men in detention in Sri Lanka. Lancet, 2000 June 10; 355: 2069-2070.
McCall C. Sri Lanka’s war wounds run deep. Lancet, 2016 May 14, 387: 1986.
This is why, I critique your sample selection, based on Dr. Gunaratna’s associates in the SL army. Did you verify the trauma level of the LTTE members, before your study was undertaken, with a comparative Tamil population in Sri Lanka, who were not tortured by the SL army?
In the Methods section (p. 542), you mention about “490 beneficiaries of the full-treatment program” and 111 beneficiaries of the minimal-treatment program”. I challenge that these were simple verbal gymnastics, employed by the SL army to mask the physical and mental trauma inflicted on the prisoners.
I also detest your use of the ‘terrorist’ word in the title of your paper. Couldn’t you find a neutral substitute for this nasty word? For Sri Lankan Tamils, the oppressive SL armed forces were terrorists. Did you check the percentage of minorities (especially Tamils) employed in the SL armed forces? The origin of the LTTE derives from this historical fact. Even in Uncle Sam’s army, blacks are marginally over-representative to the general black population. But the SL army is 95-97% Sinhalese, whereas the general population of Sinhalese is in the range of 70-75%.
If you are interested in more facts on the Sri Lankan conflict, I’m more than willing to provide these for you to eliminate the anti-Tamil bias, in your future research.
Now, over a month had passed, and still I’m waiting to hear from Dr. David Webber!