Frontline World


Sri Lanka, Living With Terror, May, 2002



Read through archived FRONTLINE/World conversations around this story, including responses from the reporter.

Thushara Therrien - Rockville, Maryland
Thank you PBS, for highlighting some important aspects of the war and for offering a more balanced perspective of the situation in Sri Lanka. As you have correctly pointed out, the problem is very complex because both parties to this issue are in the wrong. However, over the last two decades or so, the LTTE capitalized on world sympathy towards minority problems to inaccurately highlight that all sinhalese were against the Tamils and that minority Tamils were severely marginalized. Sri Lanka is a poor country and the problems a poor sinhalese faces is no different from those faced by poor tamils. In a country where resources are scarce, job opportunities are few and development is painstakingly slow, a good majority of Sri Lankans suffer the same fate. That our politicians (both Sinhala and Tamil) are hugely self serving does not help either.

Since 1983, when signs of communal violence erupted, several Tamils took advantage of the friendly hand offered by developed countries and fled Sri Lanka. Some cases were genuine. But most are not - my own friends who were born and raised in Colombo and had virtually no problem living safely in our country turned into opportunists. They entered countries like Canada and Britain and lied through their teeth, fabricating stories of torture that never happened to them. It is people like this who want to continue telling the world a story that is riddled with untruth. It is these people who do not want a peaceful settlement and want to see that the war continues. Because it is in their selfish interests. They fear that, if the war ends, they must give up their comfortable lives in developed countries and return to Sri Lanka.

The LTTE has for years enjoyed power without responsibility and have tortured and killed their own, in an an effort to spread their empire. They have ignored several sincere efforts by successive governments in Sri Lanka to solve the problem because they do not want to end the reign of terror. It is against their interest. The only reason the LTTE is even considering the recent peace talks is because they are losing the international support they once enjoyed. And that is because more and more countries and organizations are now beginning to see that there are two sides to the story - not merely that of the LTTE and some opportunistic Tamils.

Ontario, Canada
To whom it may concern,

For a program that claims to give full exposure and support to fresh ideas from a broad spectrum of perspectives, the broadcast of video journalist Joe Rubinís report titled, Sri Lanka; Living With Terror, on May 24th, 2002 was disappointingly lopsided.

The lackadaisical coverage of the situation in Sri Lanka and the inaccurate portrayal of the Tamil Tigers is a grave disservice to the Tamils of that island. Firstly, the programís categorization of the Tigers as a terrorist organization reflects very poorly on the impartiality of PBS and its inability to differentiate between legitimate people-endorsed liberation movements from terrorist entities. Your labeling of the Tigers as one of the worldís most notorious terrorist groups, particularly at a critical juncture of the conflict like now, undermines all progressive efforts that have been taken so far in bringing peace to island. It fosters a climate of antagonism and destructive thinking. Often, it is the Sri Lankan Stateís propaganda machines that resort to these disparaging designations to malign the Tamil Tigers and it was surprising to see a reporter from PBS invoking the same defamatory rhetoric.

For all your genuine interest to report about an island that is besieged by terror, there was nary a mention of one of the many instances of state-terror practiced by successive Sri Lankan regimes. There was no mention of the indiscriminate aerial bombings of Tamil areas of the island by the Sri Lankan Air Force, the use of death squads and paramilitary units by the government to coerce and terrorize the people, the unlawful detainment and torture of Tamil youth by the Sri Lankan security forces, the chronic disappearances of Tamils and the mass graves.

Your disregard for the Tamil view of the situation in Sri Lanka will force any informed viewer to question the motives behind your reporting. It seems like Mr. Rubin and the PBS circle that produced Living with Terror were more interested in serving journalistic vanity rather than the truth. The media will ultimately determine public perceptions and attitudes. Hence, it is important for programs such as FRONTLINE WORLD and its executives to show fairness in their reporting.

Furthermore, your lionization of men like Rajan Hoole and organizations like the UTHR will only place you in the leagues of the Sri Lankan regimeís propaganda machineries. Mr. Hoole is despised by the Tamils of the island because of the lies and deceptions that he engineers. His talent for implicating the Tamil Tigers for anything and everything that goes awry on the island is only topped by his skill in exploiting benevolent and humanistic guises in his efforts to appeal to Western intelligentsia and the de-nationalized Tamil diaspora. He has clearly pulled the wool over Mr. Rubinís eyes. By elevating him as a human rights crusader, the PBS only risks tarnishing its reputation.

I strongly urge executives of the PBS to take the necessary step to undo this stigma on the PBS that has been caused by the airing of, Living with terror.

Frontline/WORLD responds:

Thank you for writing about our segment on Sri Lanka, "Living with Terror."

We take all criticism and comments seriously, and appreciated your thoughts on the subject. Part of the mission of FRONTLINE/World is to cover places and events often given scant attention in the U.S. media. The tragic civil war in Sri Lanka clearly falls in this category.

No story of fifteen minutes in length could possibly address all the issues critical to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, but we always strive to be accurate and fair in what we report. We also understand that Sri Lanka is going through the early stages of a peace process, and our intention was to air some of the key issues that must be dealt with in any serious peace negotiations.

We agree with you that without question the conflict in Sri Lanka is a two-sided affair, with culpability on both sides. While the focus of our story was the scourge of suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, something we make no apologies for covering, we also made it clear to our viewers that Tamils have legitimate grievances in Sri Lanka.

Our story talked about the Sinhala race riots that started the war and killed thousands of Tamils. And in visiting the government run camps for internally displaced Tamils, we made note of the poor conditions in the camps, and how the mistreatment of Tamil refugees prolongs the conflict.

You take issue with our description of the LTTE as a terrorist group. This is not merely the judgment of the reporter, Joe Rubin. The U.S. State Department includes the LTTE or "Tamil Tigers" on its official list of "Foreign Terrorist Organizations." The British and Canadian governments also regard the LTTE as terrorists. International experts on terror often cite the chilling fact that the Tamil Tigers have conducted more suicide bombings, by far, than any other organization in the world.

Your characterization of our web story about Rajan Hoole was not accurate. We did not, as you say, lionize Mr. Hoole's work. The UTHR is a respected source of information about abuses of human rights, frequently cited by groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UNICEF. Even a cursory glance at the UTHR web site ( shows that UTHR has over the years been harshly critical of the Sri Lankan government as well as the LTTE.

The story we broadcast was in one sense a story about tolerance within the Tamil movement itself. As we reported, many Tamils have been targeted by the LTTE simply for having differing views from the LTTE. One wonders how the peace process can succeed unless there is tolerance for the opinions of others, and unless human rights monitors like Rajan Hoole can operate freely and without fear for their safety.

Again, thanks for writing and contributing to the robust debate we hoped the story would generate.


Hudson, Massachusetts
The animosity that the British cultivated in the territories they ruled is the primary reason for thousands dead in countries like Sri Lanka [and] India.
The British sowed the seeds of hatred and we see it go into a vicious cycle that seems unstoppable.
I think Britain should take the lead in tendering a public apology (there is precedence to this - Japan apologizing for its war crimes and British rule in many ways waged a war against human psyche in the territories they ruled) to bring about a reconciliation. Just sending armed forces doesn't help.

Ronald Bracy Reston, Virginia
To Whom It May Concern:

I recorded your show and was looking forward to watching it. Frontline does an excellent job of reporting stories. This is why I was very disappointed during the first two minutes of the show during which upbeat music was being played which the camera focused on a severed hand and other body parts from the aftermath of a terrorist bombing. I appreciate the fact that there was a disclaimer about the graphic nature of the program, but this does mean that you must show the most grisly details about people being murdered. I realize that various body parts lying in the street is a reality after such a terrible tragedy, but it seems to me that you are sensationalizing some people's misery. Whatever information this show was going to present to me has been lost because I stopped watching, and I do not plan to watch any part of this series. Furthermore, I am big fan of PBS and NPR, and I am financial supporter.


Ronald Bracy

Basil Beshkov ≠ Los Angeles, California
This fact that people separate themselves from one another vexes me. How can we not identify with this? I had a hard time opening my eyes to this terror. We must care for everyone even if they are 3000 miles away. We are all on earth together, it's like a big boat. To say that you do not care for that part of the boat is very stupid in the long run. Be friendly to all those who canít open their eyes.

Samuel Pleital - San Francisco, California
This is a very graphic story. While I was very impressed with the well-constructed piece, I don't admire the use of violence to attract viewers. It was very touching to see the artists painting the streets where the killing occurred, but filming the accident and remains of the victims seems similar to the thoughtless journalism of commercial television.

Emma Rossi – Wibaux, Montana
Film footage of body parts is incredibly disturbing-and it should be. Perhaps if more of us saw the actual carnage suicide bombers leave in their wake, folks all over the world, not just Americans, would be so outraged that all support for the likes of the Tamil Tigers and Hamas/Islamic Jihad would immediately disappear. It is sad that folks live in conditions akin to what we've seen in Palestinian refugee camps and the Tamil camps, however, that is not an excuse to perpetrate mass murder. Nor will these people ever see an end to their miserable living situations, so long as they continue to inflict pain and suffering on others. Any government that rewards terrorists with any form of recognition will only guarantee their methods of barbarism carry on.

Merlene Robb – Los Angeles, California
Thank you for the update on a conflict that has slipped off the radar screen since the attacks 9-11. It was a bloody, vicious war there when I last saw a documentary about Sri Lanka well over a year ago, and, clearly, nothing has improved with time. The newspaper editor is a very brave man, indeed. I have no idea what it is going to take to heal that horrible civil strife, but obviously with the passage of time, 20 years now and counting, it is just getting worse, i.e. Tamil Tigers capturing children for its fighters and recruiting/trng. for suicide bombers. The day is not far off when a fanatic group, somewhere, will obtain WMDs (take your pick) & inflict thousands if not millions of casualties, into adjacent areas not currently involved. The result will be an immediate escalation of the violence into heavily populated surrounding countries, be it India, Asia, or the Middle East as the WMD debris is carried on the wind, and the resulting fallout will be a run up to WWIII.

Muthevel Chelliah – Columbia, Maryland
After watching your story on Sri Lanka on Frontline-World today, I have never been so ashamed of PBS. I am even more ashamed that I am in a little way, as a member of PBS, paying for the production of this inaccurate Frontline piece. As an Indian Tamil living in the US, I am closely following the struggle of the oppressed Sri Lankan Tamils for over 20 years. BBC has a better understanding of the conflict and countries like Norway has a better appreciation for the history and conditions of Sri Lankan Tamils and LTTE. Shame on you PBS and shame on that reporter's very very shallow reporting.

No name given
I am a Sri Lankan and I was happy to see the terrorist issues in our country finally getting some exposure. The Tamil Tigers have built up a persuasive cause for themselves through the last 20 years portraying themselves as the saviors of the Tamil people. Ironically the very saviors have now turned into the oppressors. The LTTE exploit the people they claim to represent. They have also engaged in cleansing of other ethnic groups in the areas they claim as their historic homeland.

The Sri Lankan society is a multi-cultural one where Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers (descendants of the Dutch and Portuguese) coexist and freely partake of one another's cultures and religious practices. The discriminatory practices the Sri Lankan government is accused of is mainly the result of outdated laws and negligence. These are being addressed. The potential for permanent peace also promises to eliminate other practices relating to security measures. It must be noted that the LTTE has historically used the Tamil people as a protective shield.

The current cease-fire is a step in the right direction. It remains to be seen however if the people in the affected areas would be allowed to participate in the negotiations as the LTTE has appointed itself as their sole representative. It is also important that the rights of other groups such as Muslims and Sinhalese living in the North-East be taken into account when the LTTE takes over the administration.

Thanks to Joe Rubin the piece on Sri Lanka accurately portrayed the terrorism we have lived with for the past 20 years.

Neil Hammer – New York, New York
Great piece of the Terror that Sri Lankans are living due to this war.

Interesting to learn that unlike Al Qaeda, Tamil Terrorists have killed more than 8000 of their own, yet they claim to the world that they are fighting for the freedom rights of Tamils.

The Sri Lankan problem is not ethnic, it is 100% Terrorist. Many Tamils and Sinhalese are living side by side where there are no Tiger Terrorism.

Kathir Ravichandra – Canberra, ACT
It is absolute nonsense to suggest that the Tamil Tigers are using children as 'human bombs.' In the politico-military struggle of the Tamils in Sri Lanka that came about as an inevitable consequence of the denial of all other avenues of agitation for their fundamental and collective rights, young Tamil men and women joining a guerilla movement is expected. There had been no evidence to date that any of the suicide bombers were 'children' under 18. It is truly unfortunate that persons like Prof. Rajan Hoole who had been previously critical of the blatant and systematic violations of the successive Sri Lankan governments of the past has joined the forces of evil to demonize a freedom movement thus undermining the Tamil cause for what appears to be some prejudice against Tamil Tigers. The effort of UTHR (J) can be only described as an act of treason because their reports, whilst being seriously questioned by politically conscious Tamils are being exploited by the brutal oppressor and the Sinhala extremists.

Toronto, Ontario
I watched your story last night. It is a one sided government supported story. There is one truth, when you reached the Vavania, that is how far you were able to go, but they never let you further is not because you cannot go, it is what the government do not want you to see. I am a victim of the war, living abroad, I am not against the majority which is run by the government, both side, people want peace, but the politicians kill the minorities, and the minorities who live in the south sided by the government want to feed their kids and live a life are forced to say bad about the rebels. It all started, when the government burned down the libraries of the Minorities, because the universities built by the British was populated by the Tamils (minorities) and they were the educated, so the government increased the passing grade to Tamils and decreased the passing grade to Sinhalese (majority) to accommodate 60% to 40% Tamils in the university). Then the war escalated...

Tamil tigers do not use humans as bombs, and it is wrong. I am a victim of the war, and it is the government who killed the fathers and raped the mothers let their children to kill and fight back. Imagine, you have a son, and your husband is shot dead and you are raped and left to hang yourself, what do you think your son will do after you are left in the street camps where there is no food to eat and nothing to drink? The only choice is rather than hang yourself, they want to take revenge

C. Martin West Chester, Ohio
As I read through these posts, it becomes clear that possibly both sides of this story have not been told. But for a future peace to be realized, the situation as it exists must be a starting point.

I believe a UN Resolution could provide such a starting point or at least reveal the true intentions of the Sri Lanka and world governments:

"Educate the Tamil children, starting with the youngest, alongside the Sinhalese children in public schools. Oversight, transportation and schooling costs to be provided by funding and services from UN member nations."

I know it sounds naive, but what other options really exist? These future citizens of Sri Lanka don't have any chance at more than basic survival otherwise; or certain death at a young age... This would be a chance for the Tamil people in the "concentration camps" (PBSís own words in the broadcast) to at least see some hope for their children.

Rejection of this idea by the UN member nations or the government of Sri Lanka would reveal true intentions.

Elaine Hunter - Berea, Kentucky
In 1994 I lived in Sri Lanka for 6 months. There were four small bombings while I was there. I'd been to three of the places and lived one mile from the fourth. How I coped with the threat of terror was to remind myself of various Psalms to remind me of my protection from the Creator.

I was working in an acupuncture clinic, mostly with children with neurological damage, such as cerebral palsy and having excellent results.

The bombings since them have been much more serious, and I've been to most of the places that got bombed. When 9/11 happened terror I think was already very real and painful in my heart. Yet Sri Lanka is the only place I've ever lived that I have been homesick for. For year I have prayed for an equitable peace in Sri Lanka.

I wish you would do a story which features the healing ways in Sri Lanka. Heaven knows I'd happily do it if I had the where-with-all.

Steve Riplinger - Algonquin, Illinois
Watched the show last night and found it very interesting. I have been watching developments there for many years and this is the first in-depth report on the situation in Sri Lanka that I have seen in American media. Thanks for showing it in these "terror" filled times we find ourselves in. The painting in the streets as homage to the victims was touching. It is interesting to see that the terror movement around the globe apparently knows no bounds in it's veracity and disgust to civilized human beings, but sorry to say, it looks like they are succeeding as our ability to strike back at them is limited. I would like to see where in the world, we are having any measure of success against these anti-human forces. We are indeed living in dangerous times, and I thank PBS for bringing it out to the public, where everyone can be aware and possibly help to combat these dark, evil forces that are running rampant around the globe.

Ramalingam Shanmugalingam - San Diego, California
Your program on Sri Lanka aired tonight is a typical one-sided sensational journalism. It is not balanced as the sufferings of the Tamils since 1958 to date is totally absent. Token Tamils like King and Manoranjan are not the true representatives of the Tamils. Violence is not to be condoned. But what do people whose non-violent approach to regain their dignity and honor have to do? Manoranjan talks about 8000 Tamils killed by the Tamils. How about the several thousands of Tamils killed and the millions worth property damaged and opportunities lost to Sinhala thuggery by Sinhala thugs in SARONGS, Yellow Robes and Khaki uniforms in the periodic race riots since 1958. How about the death and disappearance of over 65,000 Tamils in the several air, land and sea shelling? It is hypocritical to equate a genuine freedom struggle with international terrorism and create sensational journalism. This can only exacerbate the situation. If the situation is to improve, a fair reporting is vital.

Rebecca Ratney
It's been reported in the last few weeks that after 20 years of civil war, the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers are beginning peace talks this summer. I'm curious to see how your piece portrays the Tamils, as terrorists or revolutionaries, or somewhere in between. Most reporting lately has focused only on the atrocities of the suicide bombers, and not the government's repression of the thousands of Tamils. I can only imagine that the Sri Lankan people are eager for peace, but the world climate (in particular in the U.S.) dictates that terrorists are not to be negotiated with, but bombed back and jailed. Where would this leave Sri Lankans eager for an end to the war?

Catherine Huang - San Francisco, California
How do we comprehend what is happening around the world? I don't think Westerners will ever fully understand what living in constant terror is like. Or the desperation that will drive people to kill themselves, each other and their children. We think that these wars and this violence has nothing to do with us. But we don't understand how our foreign policies and global economies connects us. Involves us. And ultimately - implicates us. We can no longer afford to sit quietly or ignorantly back -- watching (or ignoring) the horrific events happening around the world. How can we use our compassion to effect social change, within our own country, and reaching abroad?

Luna Gee - Long Island, New York
The pattern of an oppressed group fighting back against the dominant culture by brainwashing and exploiting children to serve as their martyrs is horrific. The chain of abuse is perpetuated and it is hard to believe that any peace could evolve out of such extreme tactics. Using kids who are easily manipulated as pawns in adult games of power - under the guise of religion, patriotism, devotion or loyalty is one of the sickest means to instill terror. Using these methods in war will ensure that the resulting society will continue to be based on the abuse of power.

Faye Greenstein - Seattle, Washington
I was horrified to read on the site that the Tamil Tigers are using children as "human bombs." That guerrillas would steal children away into the jungles in order to brainwash and use them as disposable weapons is more than I can imagine. Thank you for bringing this important crisis to light for Americans.