Remembering Thillainayagam Theeban (1990 – 2007)

Thillainayagam Theeban (1990 – 2007)
Since we started Children of Tsunami media project in early 2005, as a citizen media response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami, I have introduced it to dozens of audiences of many and varied kinds in different parts of the world. But presenting our documentary, Children of Tsunami: The Journey Continues to the 15th DC Environmental Film Festival at the World Bank headquarters yesterday (16 March 2007) was perhaps the most difficult of all.

No, this was not a cynical audience – far from it, they turned out to be a very appreciative one, as I describe in my other post. But this was the first public introduction I had to make after we lost Theeban, the Sri Lankan boy who was one of eight children whose recovery story we tracked and filmed for much of 2005.

Theeban was murdered by unidentified gunmen who stormed into his ‘temporary’ tsunami shelter on 3 March 2007. The death is linked to spiralling political violence that is once again sweeping across Sri Lanka.

When the shocking news reached us three days later, our Sri Lankan camera team at Video Image and we at TVE Asia Pacific just couldn’t believe it. We were all in tears, and some of us were also angry. Theeban, who survived the killer waves 26 months ago (but lost his mom and kid brother in the disaster) suffered many indignities in displacement. And now, he is gone. 

It’s now two weeks since Theeban was killed, but I still can’t speak about it without a lump in my throat.

That’s why I was nervous in introducing the film yesterday at the festival: I knew I was just seconds away from being stuck for words, and overcome with emotion.

My friends in the audience later said I had managed reasonably well. This is what I said as I ended my brief introduction:

“We ran out of funds to sustain our monthly filming beyond end 2005. By then we found that our film crews and we ourselves had become attached to our participating families, and especially the children who worked so closely with our film crews. We remain interested in their personal progress, even if we can no longer publish their stories.

Earlier this month, we received the devastatingly sad news that the Sri Lankan boy we filmed has been murdered –- by unidentified gunmen, right at the ‘temporary’ camp in Eastern Sri Lanka.

Thillainayagam Theeban survived the killer Tsunami waves and endured 26 months of extreme hardship in displacement — only to be swept away by the wave of political violence currently sweeping Sri Lanka.

We still don’t know who killed Theeban, and for what reasons. He was abducted by an armed group a few months ago, from whom he escaped earlier this year. It is believed that Theeban was killed as a punishment — and as a warning to all others.

He was 16 years at the time of his death. We don’t know if his killers would ever face justice.

I want to dedicate this screening to Theeban — and thousands of young people like him who are still languishing in temporary shelters, struggling to rebuild their futures.”

After the screening, there was some sympathy and empathy in the audience about Theeban. But on the whole this particular development didn’t inspire too many questions or remarks. The predominantly American audience seemed more intrigued by our journalistic documentation of how evangelical Christian groups rushed to tsunami-struck Asia, offering relief support coupled with religious conversion. (Find out more about this by watching the film online.)

Ah well, everyone takes away something different from a film like Children of Tsunami. It has so many facets and elements mixed together.

We set out asking lots of questions, and found only a few answers. We still have lots of questions in search of answers…and new ones emerging.

Thillainayagam Theeban (1990 – 2007)

TVE Asia Pacific official statement on Theeban’s death

My personal tribute to Theeban, published by MediaHelpingMedia, UK

My tribute to Theeban, published by UCLA Asia Media

Children of Tsunami go to Washington DC


I was at the World Bank headquarters in Washington DC on Friday, 16 March 2007, introducing our documentary film, Children of Tsunami: The Journey Continues.

This was part of the 15th Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, held at multiple venues showcasing a total of 115 films from all over the world. Good friends at the World Bank had recommended and sponsored the screening of our film.

Despite rains lashing the US capital and in the freezing cold, close to 80 people turned up to see the film, which was very encouraging. The compact auditorium was virtually full, and practically everyone stayed for the entire one and a half hour event. At the end, many of them made supportive remarks or asked good questions. It was very gratifying to present our work to such an appreciative audience.

Nalaka Gunawardene introducing Children of Tsunami

Introducing the film, I said:

“Children of Tsunami is different from most other films in this festival. It’s not an environment film, nor is it a wildlife film. Yet it’s all about wild…life!

This film is about the aftermath of a mega-disaster, when life itself went wild, shattering the futures of hundreds of thousands of people across South and
Southeast Asia.

The Asian Tsunami of December 2004 triggered one of the biggest humanitarian relief efforts in history. It also inspired an unprecedented volume of donations and aid to the affected countries and people.

Our film begins when the media frenzy had begun to die down. We take over after most news cameras left the scene.

Indeed, Children of Tsunami started out in some anger and frustration. We were deeply concerned that most news media coverage focused on death and destruction, or doom and gloom. For sure, it was a large scale tragedy, but there were stories of courage and resilience, which we felt didn’t get the coverage they deserved.

In most post-tsunami media coverage, the affected people were portrayed as ‘victims’ rather than survivors. They were also reduced to nameless, faceless statistics. Whole countries or regions were reduced to simple blips on a map.

And then, after a few days and weeks of saturation coverage, the news media started to move on to other breaking stories. That’s the nature of our media.

But we who live and work in Asia knew the story was far from over. We knew the recovery stories would unfold for months and years to come. We wanted to keep these stories alive. We were keen to stay and move with the stories.

So in mid January 2005, we started the Children of Tsunami media project….”

Here’s the text of my full remarks:

Introducing Children of Tsunami at DC Environmental Film Festival, 16 March 2007

See synopsis at the film festival website

Visit Children of Tsunami website where you can watch this film – and many other related films – online