A Cautionary Tale on Sri Lankan Refugees

During the final quarter of 2009, a cargo ship called the Jaya Lastari, with 256 Tamil asylum seekers aboard, was impounded off the island of Java by the Indonesian navy. The Tamil asylum-seekers refused to disembark, saying they no longer had a country of their own.

The three-year-old story has relevance today because of the current drama of the Wallenius Wilhelmsen, a freighter with 67 male asylum-seekers on their way to Christmas Island to seek Australian safety. As with the refugees aboard the Jaya Lestari, the clutch of refugees aboard the Wallenius Wilhelmsen “threatened to harm themselves” to secure safe passage.

Three years ago, an earnest, articulate Tamil named Alex Kuhendraraja on the boat with the refugees became their spokesman, appearing on Australian television channels with a 10-year-old girl named “little Brindha” who begged for safe haven. It became a major international incident, with “Alex” pleading for any country anywhere to take the refugees.

“Have a look at this picture you see today and ask yourself one question,” he said, gesturing to the media and the bedraggled Tamils behind him, many staring in bewilderment, “If you had no place, if you had no country of your own, what would you do? And how long would you stay in a boat before you were able to enter a country that will give you asylum?”

There was no allusion to Alex’s Canadian accent in a commentary, and the author accepted the pseudonym “Alex” as entirely reasonable: “His distress was palpable. Alex, purportedly an English teacher frm Jaffna who had left behind his pregnant wife, choked on his words.

‘We are not animals,” he said. “We are not dogs. We are not stray dogs. We are people without a country to live in’.”

Then came a bombshell. In early November the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Canberra claimed that Alex was Sanjeev Kuhendrarajah, a member of the Kannan gang in Toronto who had been deported from Canada 2002 and that that he was part of a people smuggling chain in Chennai, India.

It was only after his mother, identified as Sathia Rajaratnam, arrived that “Alex” admitted that he had been a member of a gang in Toronto. Claiming youthful indiscretion, he nevertheless continued to insist that his wife and several children faced danger in Sri Lanka.

But on Dec. 2, 2009, his mother -- reportedly a “businesswoman” sufficiently endowed to travel to Merak to visit her son -- said she felt guilty over his predicament, having urged him last year to move from Chennai, where he and his wife had a hotel business, to Sri Lanka, where business opportunities looked to be opening after the civil war.

Kuhendraraja ultimately acknowledged to Sean Fitzpatrick of the Australian that he didn’t have a pregnant wife and that she didn’t live in Sri Lanka. Later, according to Fitzpatrick, Alex “quietly admitted to me [that] he ‘made up stuff’ about the fate of the downtrodden Tamil community.”

This note was buried within the Fitzpatrick text, however. There was no highlighting of Sanjeev Kuhendrarajah’s work of deception and the equally stark fact of comprehensive media gullibility extending across major Australian news enterprises. The whole episode must surely enter into the annals of Australian journalism as a failure of skepticism and investigative technique.

It is, on first impression, a tale of gullibility. Or, is it? It could also be a tale of culpability. It is possible that the editorial line favored by The Australian discouraged any questioning caveats because it was adhering to the horror stories about Sri Lanka pressed by The Times group in London and regularly recapitulated within The Australian’s pages since early 2008. Stirring the public and selling news-as-commodity calls for sweeping generalizations and any attention to complexity and intricacy through caveats and detail simply spoils the grand plot.

The Australian media has also suffered from its profound ignorance of the migrant scene. It does not seem to have given weight to the presence of thousands of Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu in India since 1983, presently numbering around 110-125,000. Australian media circles appear to have been unaware that several thousand Sri Lankan males, mostly Sinhalese Catholics from the Negombo region, reached Italy by fishing trawler between 1990 and 2002 until Italy took action to thwart the process.

What this fact does to the easy acceptance of the widespread theory that people will only get unto so-called “leaky wooden boats” because they suffer from political discrimination and persecution cannot be addressed by Australians – cannot be addressed because ignorance is bliss.

It is this outstanding failure that is highlighted by my story about Alex the con man. It is not an unfamiliar shortcoming. The lack of investigative acumen revealed simply replicates the mind-boggling errors of omission displayed by other reporters when they relayed other similarly credulous stories and commentary of individuals who pose as “experts” on Sri Lanka.

Today, "Alex" could also serve as a conduit towards revealing information from all those on the Jaya Lastari who are prepared to tell us more about his role in those crowded days on the ship at Merak. We know that Brindha and 86 others from that ship made it to Christmas Island from Java on another boat. They clearly were not short of cash, resourcefulness or connections. What decisions have been made about this body of people is hidden by the stonewalls surrounding official Australian action (though it seems that Brindha and family have now been accepted as refugees subject to community detention. These refugees could be a mine of information.

They could also aid us in building a fuller picture of Alex. Why not pursue this fascinating character and get more details about his business in Chennai and how he lived from 2003 to 2009? He is a captive soul now, within reach for enterprising journeymen. It seems that he had hidden in Malaysia for quite a while, but was apprehended at Padang Besar on 29 April 2011 carrying a false Malaysian passport. He is now in jail in Thailand unsung, uncelebrated, and hardly benighted.

(Michael Roberts taught History at Peradeniya University from 1966-76 and Anthropology at Adelaide University from 1977 to 2004. He remains an Adjunct Associate Professor at the latter. He has written extensively on Sri Lankan issues.)