THE POLITICS OF DANCING: When One Man’s Terrorist Is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter

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NEW YORK TIMES: To many Americans, Maya Arulpragasam, known as M.I.A., is the very pregnant rapper who gyrated across the stage at Sunday’s Grammy Awards. Yet in Sri Lanka, where she spent her childhood years, M.I.A. remains virtually unknown. And some who do know her work say she is an apologist for the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels fighting in the country’s long-running civil war. M.I.A. — who has been nominated for an Oscar for the song she co-wrote for the hit film “Slumdog Millionaire” — has branded herself through music videos and interviews as the voice of the country’s Tamil minority. In the video for her song “Bird Flu,” for instance, children dance in front of what looks like the rebels’ logo: a roaring tiger.

“Being the only Tamil in the Western media, I have a really great opportunity to sort of bring forward what’s going on mia-face-tiger.thumbnail.jpgin Sri Lanka,” she said in an interview on the PBS program “Tavis Smiley” last month. “There’s a genocide going on.” But her political views rankle some people at a time when most Sri Lankans are clutching to the hope that the rebels, branded by the United States and European nations as a terrorist group, are on the verge of military defeat by government troops. “Frankly, she’s very lucky to get away with supporting, even indirectly, perhaps the most ruthless terrorist outfit in the world,” said Suresh Jayawickrama, a songwriter based in Colombo. […]

Meanwhile, M.I.A.’s claims that the government is carrying out a genocide against Tamils place her on the outer fringe mia-face-tiger.thumbnail.jpgof opinion about the conflict. Although the government has brutalized and killed Tamil civilians over the past 25 years, human rights organizations spread the blame around, estimating that 70,000 people on both sides have been killed in the fighting. “This is a conflict in which both sides have terrible human rights records,” said Yolanda Foster, a specialist on Sri Lanka with Amnesty International in London. “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. was born in Britain but moved to Sri Lanka when she was 6 months old so that her father, an engineer and a mia-face-tiger.thumbnail.jpgleader in the Tamil separatist movement, could help fight for an independent Tamil homeland. Her childhood took her across northern Sri Lanka, wracked by insurgency, to India and back to Britain, where her mother and siblings settled into a public housing project outside London. Her father remained in Sri Lanka. She now calls New York home. Sri Lankans who have seen her videos say they interpret some parts as showing support for the Tigers, or at the very least glorifying their cause. But for those not familiar with the conflict, they might come across as generic third-world scenes.

“I kind of want to leave it ambiguous for my fans,” she said in the PBS interview, referring to the lyrics of her song mia-face-tiger.thumbnail.jpg“Paper Planes,” which was nominated for record of the year at the Grammys but did not win. “Paper Planes,” which compares international drug dealing with selling records, drew a reaction from DeLon, a Sinhalese rapper based in Los Angeles, who made a video remix in which he interspersed images of people being blown up by Tamil Tiger bombs and subtitles about M.I.A. being a terrorist. MORE

DELON: Paper Planes

WARNING: Graphic Content

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