Today, Alistair Burt, a Senior British Foreign Office Minister, begins a visit to Sri Lanka. Before we react, dissect and analyse the trip in full, consider this article. This will hopefully put into context Mr. Burt’s trip and the political reactions and media analysis that will follow in the near future….
Fours years ago, the ‘Killing Fields’ began. The ‘Fields’ was a tiny area of land in North-Eastern Sri Lanka where the final months of fighting took place between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers. The ‘Killing’ is what the UN now estimates at around 40,000 to 70,000 people killed in the final months and weeks of battle. Tamil civilians were amongst those indiscriminately killed by Sri Lankan Government forces, many were bombarded by shells whilst they hid en masse with families and friends. The four year anniversary will be used to remember those who died, but this anniversary will also be used to reveal the ongoing situation in Sri Lanka.
In the four years that have passed since the Killing Fields began, Sri Lanka has continued as a country that subjects its Tamil population to military detention and arbitrary arrest, and attacks any journalist who speaks their mind failing to tow the majority line. For a Tamil or a Sinhala, many democratic procedures have, like the northern tip of Sri Lanka, been turned into dust.
Sandya Ekneligoda is somebody who has suffered since the war ended. Three years ago to this month, her son, a journalist and political cartoonist, vanished.
“We live in a state which believes that disappearing people is a tool that is essential to govern a country effectively”. She has not given up hope as no Mother would, but speaks with absolute clarity on the post-war situation in Sri Lanka, a country run by, she says are, ‘racists’.
“The current regime does not know what the fundamental meaning of what democracy is”. The Tamil areas in North, she said: “It’s a society of survivors of genocidal massacres”.
It might surprise you to hear that Sandya, and her lost son, are not Tamil, but Sinhala. Four years on, Sri Lanka is fighting a new war that goes beyond the simple narrative of Tamil against Sinhala, the ethnic group whom the President Rajapaksa belongs to. The war is now based on those who seek democracy or those who promote the ruling government, run essentially by the Rajapaksa family. They are a tyrannical gang of cronies and war veterans intent on quashing the Tamil population, denying the war crimes that the army committed and suffocating press freedoms.
These are four areas of concern that are happening now, four years to the month on from when the Killing Fields began:
The militarization of the North
Earlier this month, the army recommended to the government that the North-East of the country should remain under military occupation. This is the area where the final moments of the war were fought and where thousands of Tamil people remain homeless and poor, living without relatives and friends some they know to be dead, but many unaccounted for. The continued military presence also directly contradicts a UN enforced Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation document that stated that Tamil areas should become run by democratically elected civilians.
The Freedom of the Press
In a recent survey by Reporters Without Borders, Sri Lanka was voted 162 out of 179 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. This is below Burma, Russia, Iraq and Zimbabwe. This position is woefully low for a country that has been welcomed into the global economy since the war. January was remembered as ‘Black January’ by journalists in Sri Lanka for the high number of journalists killed or abducted in that month over the years. In the last four years, since the war finished, an editor has been killed and a television station attacked and set on fire.
Unlawful arrest and the control of civil activism
Only last month at a peaceful protest at the largely Tamil University of Jaffna, four students were detained as part of a military crackdown on anti-government protest. Pro-democracy protests are frequently dealt with by force by government forces. Under the guise of arresting terrorists or former LTTE fighters, the group who were at war with the government, government forces have the power to lock up anyone they like. Many are held at notorious Vavuniya Terrorism Investigation Division camps that are known for torture and ‘disappearances’. In a vicious cycle of threats and fear, many journalists who report on events such as this risk being imprisoned themselves.
In the last year, it has been reported that the Government has been triumphantly advertising trips for tourists into the region where the end of the war was fought. Described by one writer as ‘Killing Fields Tourism’, the President has proudly opened up a teak lodge that is in the heart of the area where thousands of people died. These were the civilians who were the victims of war crimes that the President Rajapaksa has refused to concede ever happened. This typifies the government’s stance towards the Tamil people. He is not prepared to give the north political freedom, provisions, housing or financial help but he is willing to build expensive holiday villas for tourists to essentially bask in the ‘glory’ of war. It begs the question, should Sri Lanka be British Airways top destination for 2013? This Huffington Post article doesn’t seem to think so citing the myriad human rights abuses and also a shocking rise in the number of rapes and episodes of sexual violence.
I cannot here, for lack of time and evidence, catalogue the incidents that have happened in Sri Lanka to prove the Government’s violent stance towards a number of its people. But the few things I have flagged up, happened in the last month or so. Proving that oppression and violence have become a part
of the everyday in Sri Lanka for anyone the government may perceive as a dissident.
The shadow of the ending of the war still looms over Sri Lanka and that shadow has been hijacked by the Sri Lankan government. Peace has been heralded and used as an instrument to encourage foreign investment and tourism. It has also been used as a chance to suppress a number of its people. Until the government admits to the human rights abuses the army committed, approaches the Tamil people as equal and releases its iron fist over the media, the country will be fractured for decades to come.
As Sandya Ekneligoda said, Sri Lanka, “It is a weird country where the perpetrators can become judges and hangman can sit on the jury. So, I have absolutely no hope about any justice at all.”
Follow Alistair Burt on Twitter for live coverage of his trip. https://twitter.com/AlistairBurtFCO
For more information:
The Sri Lanka Campaign – the British group dedicated to Sri Lanka.
Disclaimer: The views on these sites do not necessarily reflect those of this one.