Kaplan’s Savage Orientalism

by Michael Roberts

2 January 2010

The original version of this article was drafted in September 2009. There was no response from Atlantic Monthly when I sent it to them. Nor did it pass muster with SLATE, Mother Jones, the NY Times, International Herald Tribune and Tehelka. However, HIMAL accepted it, but also made a few editorial changes and suggested some extensions. Their format did not have space for footnotes or citations. The version that is reprinted here is an amalgam of my original piece and the article that appears in Himal,

January 2010.

I here acknowledge the courtesy extended to me by the Editors of HIMAL. See http://www.himalmag.com/pg=index for article and the Comments it drew.


The senior US journalist Robert Kaplan is well-connected and famous, a master of prose. He is versed in wrapping his international forays with word-pictures of place, person and context. His texts may ramble in places, but they are rarely ornate. The ‘word foliage’ displays are designed to be pleasing and are sometimes capped with striking titles – what could be more catchy, for instance, than the title of his Sri Lanka-focused piece in the September 2009 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, “Buddha’s Savage Peace”?[1] But these invitations to buy into his investigations of the political terrain are mixed with dubious contentions. Notably, his recent interpretations of the Sri Lankan political scene are as simplistic as they are misleading.

    Although a longtime reporter, Kaplan was first widely recognised for his striking essay from February 1994, “A Coming Anarchy,” also published in The Atlantic. This article was prefaced by the line, “How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet.” Kaplan is currently a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and his essays regularly feature in leading US newspapers. He has revealed remarkable versatility and has ventured into many battle terrains – authoring several books, including Warrior Politics: Why Leadership demands a Pagan Ethos (2001), Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground (2005) and even a travel book entitled Mediterranean Winter

    Now, 15 years after “A Coming Anarchy”, Kaplan continues to depict images of anarchy by stirring up American fears of the Oriental ‘Other’. When Sri Lanka, normally an obscure place in most American eyes, re-entered the world stage with a showdown war in spring 2009, Kaplan seems to have jumped on board to continue this agenda of fear-mongering. South Asian tales of brutal wars and killings without ethical restraint have now been added to his offerings of looming anarchy. Here, the “morality of the result” (namely, suppression of the ‘terrorist’ LTTE in American eyes) has been conveniently discarded in favour of his dichotomy of the moment.
    Kaplan’s analysis of the Sri Lankan dispensation is not all dross. During his recent travels through the island, he talked at length with Bradman Weerakoon,[2] and mingled with several noted politicians and NGO representatives, such as the activist Kumar Rupesinghe. Kaplan also absorbed riveting arguments between Sinhalese and Tamils in the lounge room of the Indian diplomat who oversees the work of RAW in Sri Lanka.[3] He even dipped into the odd book, for instance one by K. M. de Silva and another by Channa Wickremasekera on Kandy at War: Indigenous Military Resistance to European Expansion in Sri Lanka, 1594-1818 (Delhi, 2004).

    This image of the Sinhalese community in fear is deepened by a trip that Kaplan takes into the past with the aid of Wickremasekera and de Silva. The sturdy resistance to European invasion pursued by the Sinhalese for several centuries is highlighted. Unfortunately, this is done in ways that enable Kaplan to heighten two elements: the present-day Sinhalese political paranoia and the significance of Kandy as a “sacred city”. Thus, sacredness and serenity today are conveyed as being permeated by threads of political anarchy – juxtapositions and contrasts that are crafted into Kaplan’s increasingly Orientalist work in general. 
    These lines of emphasis dovetail neatly with the spin that Kaplan imposes on the contemporary conflict. It is a tale of “a quarter century of civil war between ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils” (emphasis mine). In keeping with his title, the essay drives home an associated point: “Buddhism can be, under the right circumstances, a blood-and-soil faith.” During the brutal war, “the Buddhist Sinhalese relied on a powerful sense of communal religious identity” in order to defeat that “quasi-cult terrorist group” known as the Tamil Tigers, led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, whom Kaplan paints as a sadistic ogre. Thus, the victors in this war drew upon the same “emotional wellsprings as the tradition of worship at Kandy’s tranquil Buddhist shrines.” 
    In this neat manner, Kaplan builds upon his opening travelogue in serene Kandy by depicting a ‘torso’ marked by the awesome bloodletting of a war driven by religious fuel. This is a tactical ploy that, from the time of Edward Said, we comprehend as a standard element within Orientalist strategies. From the eighteenth century, the European literati developed a picture of a static unchanging ‘East’ that served as a foil for its self-affirming construction of a progressive and dynamic ‘West’. This process, of course, admits to various twists: currently, one sees sections of the Western media deploying Sri Lanka as an arena of inhumane war crimes in ways that highlight their own ethical superiority. If one deciphers the plot organising both Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy” and “Buddha’s Savage Peace,” their striking similarity is indicative of an Orientalist framework.

Christian Lacunae

There is a major omission in this analysis, one that has Kaplan presenting a potentially dangerous quarter-truth. Either by design or out of ignorance, Kaplan does not tell his readers that Christian Tamils and Christian Sinhalese participated in the bloodletting on both sides. Most Christians on both sides are Catholic and the Catholic Church of Sri Lanka has been sharply split down the middle as a result of the war. Indeed, any journalist worth his salt would know that Catholic priests have been ardent supporters and important ideologues in the LTTE enterprise;[4] and that Christians of all faiths have been among the Tamil Tigers who have carried out suicide attacks. In 1981, Roman Catholics made up around 41 percent, 12 percent and 15 percent of the largely Tamil districts of Mannar, Jaffna and Mullaitivu, respectively, even outnumbering Hindus in Mannar. Several senior LTTE personnel in the 1980s (such as Victor, Rahim and Lawrence Thilakar) as well as LTTE negotiator Anton Balasingham were raised Catholic.    

    If this is deliberate obfuscation on Kaplan’s part, the question obviously arises: Why such a silence? In fact, this writer would suggest that this needs to be seen as firmly in step with Kaplan’s Orientalism – a branding of the religions (and peoples) of the East as those conducive to ‘savagery’. It is reasonable to contend that any reference to Christian involvement at the heart of the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle would muddy the turbulent seas of the dangerous Orient that Kaplan is carefully moulding.

    In this, Kaplan is not alone. Another American intellectual, the well-known political scientist Robert Pape, has likewise maintained a studied silence on the Christian dimension of the Sri Lankan conflict. In his book Dying to Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism (2005), there is a chapter on the LTTE’s suicide bombers. In setting out the background, Pape notes:

The most prominent factor driving Tamil community support for individual self-sacrifice is fear of Buddhist extremism. Especially since the establishment of the new state constitution in 1972, prominent Tamil leaders have consistently claimed that the Sinhalese government is motivated by the goal to extend Buddhism into the Tamil regions of the island, a religious game plan that justifies treating the Tamil people harshly, which in turn justifies extreme self-sacrifice as necessary to meet the threat (emphasis mine).[5]

Pape drives this point home by relating religious inspiration to the suicide ‘cult’: “fear of religious persecution, not internal dynamics within Tamil society, largely accounts for the pervasive use of suicide terrorism in this case” (2005: 140). Sinhala Buddhist extremism is indeed a problem, but there are also Sinhala Christian extremist voices that sharpen the confrontations. The phenomenon thus becomes far more complex, ultimately boiling down to extreme forms of Sinhalese nationalism. Further, it should be stressed that the term used locally by moderate voices to depict the extremists at both poles of the Sinhalese-Tamil divide is usually “chauvinists,” a label that captures differentiation that is not based on observable racial features.

    Robert Pape’s thesis came out earlier in 2003 as an article in the American Political Science Review.[6] On this occasion, Satchi Sri Kantha, an ardent Tamil nationalist, contacted Pape in order to correct his presentation of the LTTE as a “Marxist group”. In the course of correspondence with Pape throughout 2004, Sri Kantha supplied him with information on the suicide cadres of the Tigers, including the role of Christians within such operations (mostly, I add, battlefront naval acts[7]). But in 2005, Pape proceeded to give an interview to the rightwing journal American Conservative in which he carefully avoided any reference to such facts. He could not escape the remarkable Sri Kantha, however, who got back in contact to ask him why he had failed to include mention of Christian cadres. “Is it because this would offend the sentiments of the American Conservative readership?” he asked.[8]

    Why indeed? These glaring omissions of the involvement of Christian Tamils in militant acts, omissions perpetrated by Pape as well as Kaplan, point towards prejudices and strategies of political import. They underline hidden agendas and political conservatism, as well as their unreflective Orientalism.

All that glitters
It should be noted that Kaplan’s coverage has been far better than that of some other media groups. In the tense period since the end of military action in Sri Lanka in May, some organisations have been criticised for running biased or even concocted stories critical of the Colombo government (the UK’s Channel Four being a foremost example).[9] Kaplan does not go up that path. His ‘deceit’ works instead through half-truths and oversimplifications. He is clearly not always alive to his blunders. This blindness arises not only from inadequate local knowledge and shallow spadework in certain regards, but also because Kaplan appears to be under the spell of his own wordplay.

However, deliberate tunnel vision does seem to intrude when Kaplan enters the realm of international politics. Stark evidence on this count was on display when he was reverentially interviewed in early July 2009 as an “expert” on Sri Lanka by Michael Totten, a high-profile conservative journalist and blogger, for the benefit of an American audience. [10]

Totten: So you just got back from Sri Lanka. What did you see there? What did you learn?

Kaplan: The biggest takeaway fact about the Sri Lankan war that’s over now is that the Chinese won. And the Chinese won because over the last few years, because of the human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government ……

Kaplan then tells us that, by supplying Sri Lanka with arms, China has secured permission to build a deep water port at Hambantota as part of “its string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean — said to be a means by which China can encircle India with various military installations. He then refers to the killing of a “prominent media critic”[11] – eliciting a “wow” from Totten and encouraging Kaplan to proceed thus:

Kaplan: There are a thousand disappearances a year in Sri Lanka separate from the war. Journalists are terrified there. The only journalism you read is pro-government.[12] So that’s one thing they did. …. The government killed thousands of civilians.

MJT: Tamil civilians?

Kaplan: Yes. They killed thousands of civilians in the course of winning this war. It acted in a way so brutal that there are no lessons for the West.

MJT: Would you say it was as brutal as Russia’s counterinsurgency in Chechnya?

Kaplan: Yeah. It was. The U.N. is investigating whether as many as 20,000 civilians have been killed during the last few months. 

So, the Sri Lankan and Russian operations in Chechnya are all of a piece. This is certainly an argument that one can place on the debating table, but there are glaring omissions here once we proceed to the global stage of comparisons: George Bush’s enterprise in Iraq and its subsequent ramifications, the range of American operations in Afghanistan, recent Pakistani-US operations in the Swat Valley for instance. While it may have been Totten who suggested the comparison, Kaplan seems happy to run with it. If Kaplan’s charm calls to mind the proverbial real estate agent, here, then, we find out that he is an American real estate agent.

    Nor is there much pleasure for Tamils in Kaplan’s reading of Sri Lankan events. Interspersed within his replies to Totten, one finds the following comment: “The Tamil Tigers had human shields by the tens of thousands, not just by the dozens and hundreds like Al Qaeda. They put people between themselves and the government and say ‘you have to kill all the people to get to us.’ So the government obliged them.”    

    Later, Kaplan was asked how popular the LTTE was amongst the Tamil population. “Not particularly popular,” he responded. “The Tamil Tigers pioneered the use of suicide bombers. They pioneered the use of human shields, of fighting amidst large numbers of civilians. They had their own navy and air force.”[13] Readers will observe that there is no logical sequence in this response – the second sentence does not follow from the first, and little light is shed on Totten’s question.

    Nonetheless, and predictably, the latter information drew an exclamation from Totten. The LTTE’s military capacities were indeed remarkable and was matched by its ruthlessness and use of suicide bombers. But it is typical that both Kaplan and Totten immediately honed in on the spectacular within its three military arms – namely, the air wing. Glitter evidently draws those without much background knowledge. Any amateur military analyst would have told them that the LTTE’s maritime capacities were in fact a central aspect of the LTTE’s strength, and that the embryonic air wing offered little more nuisance than a mosquito in hardline military terms. (Kaplan, it should be noted, has written well-regarded articles on naval power elsewhere.) From the very outset, during the 1980s, the Tamil Tigers’ coastal smuggling-and-shipping resources made India a safe haven and a steady source of supplies, while simultaneously enabling troop movements of immense strategic value for them. For over 20 years, their ‘brown water’ navy of speedboats was a major thorn in the side of the Sri Lankan military; while its international shipping company was a vital logistical medium for military hardware, as well as an economic asset.[14] Indeed, on one occasion in the 1980s, Prabhakaran himself stressed that “geographically, the security of Tamil Eelam is interlinked with that of its seas.”[15] Kaplan, it appears, is blissfully ignorant of this dimension of the LTTE’s history, though to the detriment of his own analysis.
    As breathtaking, too, is the confidence with which Kaplan can tell the world that the Tamil Tigers were not “particularly popular” among the Tamil people. This is quite erroneous. Without visiting the Jaffna Peninsula, without much background reading, his unqualified response highlights his conceit. But, then, he was presumably addressing an American audience through Totten. To tweak the old saying, in the land of the blind the one-eyed man can play king.
Michael Roberts is an Adjunct Associate Professor, Dept of Anthropology, University of Adelaide. 

[1] Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 2009, http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200909/sri-lanka.

[2] Now retired, Weerakoon was a senior administrator who served at the highest levels, including stints as the right-hand of some Presidents. He is knowledgeable and widely respected.

[3] I was present too on this occasion at one point in late May 2009 and was among those participating in raging arguments. Key figures in this salon-debate included several Tamil parliamentarians, Minister Tissa Vitharana and Kumar Rupesinghe, with the latter often acting as mediator and peacemaker. Kaplan was mostly a listener.

[4] For instance, Bishop Emmanuel (now in Germany), Revd. Chandrakanthan (now in Canada) and Frs. Bernard and Pakianathan.

[5] Pape, Dying to win: the strategic logic of suicide terrorism, Random House, 2005: 146.

[6] Pape, “The strategic logic of suicide terrorism,” American Political Science Review, 2003, 97: 343-61.

[7] See Stephen Hopgood, “Tamil Tigers, 1987-2002,” in Diego Gambetta (ed.) Making Sense of

      Suicide Missions, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005: 43-76 and Roberts, “Pragmatic Action & Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite of commemoration,” Social Analysis, 2006, 50: 73-102.    

[8] See Sri Kantha, “On educating Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago,” www.sangam.org representing the Ilankai Tamil Sangam, namely, the Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in USA.

[9] In late August 2009 Channel Four in UK broadcast a video purporting to show executions of Tamil Tigers by Sri Lankan soldiers as filmed on mobile camera in January 2009, with the qualifying note that it was not authenticated. This video has been analyzed by experts and shown up as a concoction (Asian Tribune, 31 August 2009 and Neville de Silva’s article in Island, 14 Sept. 2009). In fact, one could say that Channel Four has tended to run a campaign marked by a pronounced animus against the Sri Lankan government. One of its journalists, Nick Paton Walsh, was deported from Sri Lanka around 10 May 2009 for filing a video and report on the IDP internment camps that was sullied by hearsay information about horrible conditions. On this issue, see Roberts, “The Rajapakse Regime and the Fourth Estate,” in http://www.groundviews.org, 8 December 2009,

[10] Totten: “A conversation with Robert Kaplan,” 2 July 2009, http://www.michaeltotten.com/ archives/2009/07/a-conversation.php.

[11] Though he is not named, this would be a reference to Lasantha Wickrematunge, Editor of the Sunday Leader, killed on 8th January 2009. Note that 34 media personnel have been killed – and others intimidated – between 2004 and 2009, so this is serious issue and indeed an indictment of the governing order (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2009/07/ 090722 _jds_ journalists.shtml).

[12] This is an exaggeration. The Sunday Leader was, and remains, relatively independent. There are a few English-media newspapers as well as Tamil and Sinhala newspapers/magazines that have some independence, while there are a few vibrant cyber-net sites such as http://www.groundviews. org. All the print media, however, work within a highly intimidating backdrop that constrains comment; while encouraging many independent news channels to cater to Sinhalese – repeat “Sinhalese” not just Sinhala-Buddhist – prejudices. This threatening environment does require emphasis.

[13] Readers will observe that there is no logical sequence in this response. The second sentence does not follow from the first and little light is shed on Totten’s question.

[14] See Roberts, “Ideological and Caste Threads in the early LTTE,” (2009, mss under journal review) and M. R. Narayan Swamy, Tigers of Sri Lanka, Delhi: Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd, 1994: 54, 71, 74, 78 and “Interview [by Ahilan Kadirgamar] with Ragavan on Tamil Militancy (Early Years),” http://kafila.org/2009/02/16/interview-with-ragavan-on-tamil-militancy-part-i.

[15] Quoted by Shyam Tekwani, “The Man who destroyed Eelam,” (http://www.tehelka.com/ home/20090523/default.asp. 2009, p. 10)

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