No Easy Answers: M.I.A. and the Politics of War

by Deepthi Welaratna

When I first heard about M.I.A., the Sri Lankan Tamil rapper from London, it was in 2004 ago amidst the buzz about her forthcoming debut album Arular. I was instantly intrigued -- a Sri Lankan musician being featured in Pitchfork? What was her style? Was I going to like it? I wasn’t born in Sri Lanka, a beautiful island with a turbulent political past and present, but most of my extended family still lives there. M.I.A. spent a lot more time there than I did, but her hybrid upbringing in Sri Lanka and London combined with a musical background that included support from Justine Frischmann and Peaches assured me that I was going to connect with her sound.

I instantly took to M.I.A.’s music, which incorporates as many far-flung styles as possible from Bollywood disco to Brazilian baile to Jamaican dancehall and more. But her lyrics puzzled me -- sometimes they sounded like nonsense, sometimes they sounded like they were supposed to be politically charged. But I didn’t hear a cohesive agenda or message, beyond, “this is underground, yo!” I knew she was making a lot of references to the Sri Lankan civil conflict, but I couldn’t tell whether her references told a story or not. There’s no doubt, though, that her music, imagery and media interviews have attracted mainstream attention to the country of Sri Lanka, and have publicized her experience of Sri Lanka’s civil war based on an upbringing that took her from Britain to Sri Lanka to India and back again to Britain as a refugee.

Messages of Conflict

M.I.A. has proudly positioned herself in numerous media interviews as an artist motivated by her background as a refugee of Sri Lanka’s decades-old civil conflict. In her music and associated imagery, M.I.A. drops references to her life story, political ties, and other minority stories to straddle a hybridized cultural and political identity that subverts and rejects mainstream Western narratives of gender and politics. She’s forged a complicated identity for herself as both a cross-cultural pop musician and political spokesperson for the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, and she has explicitly acknowledged her power to educate people about the conflict. By scanning music blog postings across the web, it is clear that she is an influential disseminator of information, not just music, to audiences (Bennet, Harthun, Starbury).

I can’t say I agree with Plagenhoef’s sentiment that raising a topic is more important than what is said about the topic. But then, I grew up with the topic in question and have been hearing about the death tolls for over a decade. When I was five, my family spent our summer in Sri Lanka, arriving in time for a series of riots that perpetrated horrific violence against Tamils in the city of Colombo. One day, I saw the shop across the street from my grandmother’s house being attacked with torches by a shouting mob. One of my older cousins, vibrating in her fury, wanted to throw rocks at the crowd around the smoldering building. Later, my mother explained that it was not the local residents, but a traveling gang who had targeted the Tamil shop. We didn’t go back to Sri Lanka for another eight years. I’m ethnically Sinhalese, from the roughly 70 percent majority that dominates the country, while M.I.A. is Tamil and a member of the next largest ethnicity on the island at about 20 percent. So in the mainstream Western media’s understanding of the conflict, it’s ostensibly our peoples who are at war against each other. Of course it’s far more complicated than a simple case of ethnic conflict, but more on that later.

One of M.I.A.’s acknowledged influences is her largely absentee father, who was a member of a Tamil separatist group historically aligned with internationally proscribed terrorist group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). M.I.A’s art school past informs her self-created album, video and live show art, which features tigers, tanks, palm trees, and other symbols of the Sri Lankan conflict. The tiger imagery is commonly interpreted as a nod to the LTTE, the only Tamil separatist group to feature a tiger in their name. When asked about these visual references in one interview, M.I.A. responded, “How come people are allowed to say M.I.A. equals a tiger print shirt equals suicide bombing? If anyone else wears a tiger print shirt, it means nothing. Converse has put out a tiger print shoe and I wore it in my video and that means terrorism” (Cosyns).

This is arguably a disingenuous way to avoid explaining the significance of the reference, as M.I.A. is clearly a politically engaged musician and performer. A tiger print or image, situated within the rest of her visual symbols, is hard to accept as signifying “nothing,” although the significance is not necessarily positive. For example, one of her videos features children dancing in front of a tiger, which could be interpreted as a reference to child soldier recruitment, known to have been practiced by the LTTE. But M.I.A. has declined to acknowledge any signification at all -- and to what end? I still don’t understand.

Another Sri Lankan rapper named DeLon has revived the controversy through a Youtube video remixing her popular single Paper Planes, juxtaposing violent imagery from the LTTE bombings and other violent acts with images of MIA performing and posing. His rhymes over the melody ask why tiger imagery is so common in her works if she doesn’t support the LTTE. M.I.A. has dismissed his video as “self-promotion” and her label Interscope Records has served DeLon with a cease-and-desist, claiming the video endangers "M.I.A.'s reputation as a freedom fighter" (Starbury).

Plagenhoef’s argument back in 2005 was that as a musician, M.I.A. should not need to explain why her art contains references to not only the conflict generally but the LTTE specifically. Today, it is much harder to make the case that M.I.A.’s references to terrorism and revolutionary politics do not need to be interrogated for deeper meaning, as she’s become the most prominent Sri Lankan in mainstream media and has also identified herself as “being the only Tamil…in the Western media,” seeing it as a “great opportunity to … bring forward what’s going on in Sri Lanka” (M.I.A.). In the same interview, she states, “I’ve turned into the only voice for the Tamil people…the twenty percent minority in my country.” Understanding the importance of her role requires visiting the Sri Lankan civil conflict.

The Sri Lankan Civil Conflict

Sri Lanka is a small island country with a bloody history. A civil conflict along ethnic lines has slowly emerged and intensified since the country gained independence from British rule in 1948. During British rule, a strategy of promoting English-speaking Tamils to leadership positions within the society created state, commercial, educational and other professional sectors that were dominated by Tamils (Bowen). In the wake of independence, a Sinhalese nationalist movement combined with laws intended to rectify imbalances created by British policies resulted in widespread discrimination against Tamils, and inspired the Tamil separatist movements of the 1970s (Bowen).

Since then, most of the distinct Tamil movements were destroyed by the LTTE through assassinations of Tamil political leaders who participated in the democratic process or through consumption into the LTTE, who then turned to suicide bombing and other violent means to make their case. The Sri Lankan government attempted to create local power sharing structures to entice the LTTE to lay down arms and transition into a legitimate political organization, but with no success.

Today, the war is between the Sinhalese-dominated majority government and the LTTE. By their account, the Tigers are fighting for regional autonomy for the Tamil population. By the Sri Lankan government’s account, which is now dominated by Sinhalese nationals, the LTTE has been terrorizing the country for decades and needs to be destroyed if the country is to move forward. According to a report from the Council on Foreign Relations, the LTTE is blamed for a dozen high-level assassinations and over two hundred suicide attacks (Bhattacharji). The same report estimates that that the LTTE has murdered approximately 5,000 people just since 2006. And in recent months, the LTTE is accused by the Associated Press among others of using Tamil civilians as human shields and firing at civilians as they flee the area (Mackenize, Nessman).

While one front of Sri Lanka’s civil war is being waged on the ground between the national army and the LTTE, another front has been intensifying in a theater with a much larger scope—the media. In part due to its small size and minor role in the global economy, Sri Lanka has never been heavily or consistently covered by international media services (Gabony). But another factor has been the Sri Lankan government’s hostile attitude towards journalists, both international and domestic, which has made it impossible to report from the frontlines. Reports are instead confined to a few sparse details and casualty numbers reported by spokespeople for the LTTE and the government, whose reports almost always directly contradict each other (Buerk 2008). The BBC, the only media source with significant coverage of the conflict is reviled on both sides for its bias in favor of the opposing side (Gabony). With so many lies and halftruths it is near impossible to discern the full story.

M.I.A. and the Genocide Movement

It is into this contentious space that M.I.A. offered her assessment of the conflict. On January 28, 2009, M.I.A. appeared on the Tavis Smiley show, an LA-based PBS news magazine with a national audience and online distribution. Given the opportunity to educate the primarily US-based viewers of the show, the majority of whom know little to nothing about the conflict, M.I.A. spoke extensively about the plight of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, repeatedly referring to the war as a “genocide.” She stated that from the time that she left the country to now, “there’s been a systematic genocide” and that “Tamils make up twenty percent of the country and they’re getting wiped out.” In another interview with The Daily Beast two days later, she calls the situation “systematic genocide, ethnic cleansing” and compares it to Nazi-Germany. In a recent assessment of that claim by the New York Times, Thomas Fuller writes that “M.I.A.’s claims that the government is carrying out a genocide against Tamils place her on the outer fringe of opinion about the conflict.” In the same article Fuller quotes Yolanda Foster of Amnesty International, who observes, “The Tamil Tigers have a long history of child recruitment, hostage taking, forcing civilians to the front lines. It’s complicated to assign blame.”

M.I.A. is not alone in assessing the conflict as a genocide; newly formed Tamil groups in the diaspora have initiated efforts to reframe the conflict as a genocide. Significantly, high profile efforts to have the conflict officially recognized in the US and in India date back to around the same time as her interview. The group Tamils Against Genocide has been in existence at least since August of 2008, when their legal representative Bruce Fein contributed a commentary to the Washington Times comparing the Sri Lankan conflict to Nazi-Germany and the Bosnian genocide of the 90s. NGOs have been formed in the United States and in India to push the genocide framing through both media and legal channels, with most of the activity taking place in January through March of 2009 (see sidebar).

SIDEBAR The Genocide Movement Timeline

  • August 20th 2008 – Bruce Fein, legal representative for Tamils Against Genocide, publishes commentary in Washington Times. The commentary compares the Sri Lankan conflict to Nazi-Germany and the Bosnian genocide of the 90s and introduces Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s Defense Secretary, as a US citizen who should be investigated for war crimes.
  • January 26th 2009 – In India, Dr. Ramadoss, founder and president of the Pattali Makkal Katchi party, a Tamil political party in the Indian government, gives a press conference urging the Indian government to recognize Tamil Eelam as the only solution for the Sri Lankan Tamil population.
  • February 5th 2009 – Tamils Against Genocide files charges with the US attorney general charging both Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Sri Lanka's Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka, for genocide, war crimes and torture against Tamils in Sri Lanka.
  • February 9th 2009 – Mr. Fein publishes a second commentary in the Boston Globe.
  • February 13th 2009 – Dr. Ramadoss describes the conflict as “a clear case of genocide” of the Tamil population.
  • February 14th 2009 – A new NGO announced in India called Indians Against Genocide
  • February 20th 2009 – Tamils Against Genocide holds a genocide rally in Washington DC.

Interrogating the Genocide Claim

Genocide is defined by the UN as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” There are significant numbers of Tamils living in Sri Lanka in state-controlled areas without danger. Colombo, the largest city in Sri Lanka, is populated by every ethnic group in the country. Daily life is peaceful and involves much mixing between the groups. In a response to M.I.A.’s interview, Dr. Palitha Kohona, Foreign Secretary for the government of Sri Lanka, notes, “In Sri Lanka, fifty-four percent or more of the Tamil population does not live in the areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers. They live in the south, in and around Colombo, [in areas] under government control.” At this time, the majority of Tamils who were initially part of the LTTE are now participating in building a political process in the East and the North with the Sri Lankan government, belying the claim of widespread discord between the two ethnic groups. The Mackenzie Institute in Toronto which studies political instability and terrorism writes, “Genocide is not happening in Sri Lanka…. Anybody who takes the charge seriously betrays a highly annoying ignorance about the state of affairs between Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).”

The Sri Lankan government is by no means blameless. It has been heavily criticized for its lack of transparency, hostility towards media, and breaches of human rights. Currently, as tens of thousands of civilians are trapped in the conflict zone, reporters, aid agencies, and humanitarian efforts are banned from entering the area (“last Tamil Tiger town”). The Sri Lankan government claims this is because they cannot guarantee anyone’s safety, but such secrecy is inexcusable. The Sri Lankan military, too, has a lot to answer for in the conflict—in the past, both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military were accused of engaging in abductions, extortion, conscription, and the use of child soldiers (Bhattacharji).

The Final Countdown

After an aborted 2002 peace treaty during which the LTTE rearmed, the army has launched a no-holds barred attempt to destroy the LTTE once and for all. Down to the final months, atrocities are being perpetrated left and right by everyone involved. According to the BBC, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Navi Pillay has described the level of civilian deaths as "truly shocking", and called on the two warring sides to suspend hostilities immediately. The Sri Lankan government refuses to pull back, fearing that as soon as they do, the LTTE will immediately re-arm, as they have repeatedly done. Neither side will let up, which leaves the trapped Tamil civilians nowhere to go but to the grave. We also have no confirmed numbers about how many people are caught up in the fighting, since all numbers come from either the government or the LTTE media machine.

So what do we call this situation? I call it a futile tragedy of epic proportions. I don’t know if M.I.A. is aligned with the LTTE’s objectives, but I do know I am with her in wanting the world to protest the deaths of innocent people, Tamil and Sinhalese both. Sri Lanka is searching for a way to end the conflict permanently, but there is no easy solution here. Suspending hostilities means the LTTE can recover and keep spreading violence through suicide bombs and other terrorist means. Continuing the assault means that civilians in the war zone keep losing their lives. But a genocide? This is not a term to be taken lightly, overused or misapplied. I want the international community to know and care about what is happening in Sri Lanka, but not by framing it as something it is fundamentally not. Diluting the meaning of the word borders on an immoral act by diminishing the true genocides taking place, ones the world has already turned away from and populations who urgently need international intervention.

Do I think M.I.A. is a terrorist? I seriously doubt it. But I think she is irresponsible with her words through her passion for her people. I want M.I.A. to choose her words as carefully as her beats. Give up a little of that swagger in favor of a more nuanced and historically accurate representation of the Sri Lankan conflict.