Just a reminder: Sri Lanka is still there
For an oppressed group, the opportunity to obtain the attention of the international community lasts for a very short time. So it has proved for the Tamil community of Sri Lanka.
Indeed, the threats and oppression in Sri Lanka extend to anyone who might dare to criticise the government.
In mid May, as the Tamil Tiger (“the LTTE”) resistance came to an end and government forces shelled areas full of civilians, the world was outraged and demanded that the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa seek conciliation with the Tamil community of the South Asian island nation.
To emphathise the point, Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, visited Sri Lanka to demand that the displaced citizens be treated humanely. He was appalled by what he saw, telling reporters: “I have travelled around the world and visited similar places, but this is by far the most appalling scenes I have seen. I sympathize fully with all of the displaced persons.”
But oppression by governments around the world moves on and it is hard to remain focused on issues that, even six weeks ago, demanded our urgent attention. Iran rigged an election and suppressed the protests that followed. Now the Chinese government is reaping but trying to suppress the logical results of what it sowed by decades of suppression of the minority population of north west China, the Uighurs.
Despite the fact that we have new horrors to capture our imagination, very little has improved in Sri Lanka and hundreds of thousands of civilians remain behind barb wire in the same camps that caused Secretary General Ban so much heart ache.
Lydia Polgren reports in the New York Times that, apart from a few elderly people who have been allowed to leave, no progress is being made on the President’s promise that more than eighty percent of the population of the camps would be freed by the end of this year.
As Ms. Polgren reports: “Diplomats, analysts, aid workers and many Sri Lankans worry that the historic chance to finally bring to a close one of the world’s most enduring and vicious ethnic conflicts is slipping away as the government curtails the rights of Tamil civilians in its efforts to stamp out the last remnants of the Tigers.”
The government excuses, that they are vetting camp residents for hidden LTTE fighters raises more concern about further human rights abuses. What happens to those civilians who are removed from the main camps, where at least some minimal scrutiny is available, from aid workers and foreign journalists, to other places where no outsiders have access?
Human rights abuses have been common in Sri Lanka well before the recent military successes against the LTTE created large numbers of displaced persons. Toleration of dissent was minimal even in the areas always controlled by the government well before President Rajapaksa came to power. Assassinations, bombings, arson, beatings, other violent attacks and disappearances have continued to occur in the south along with the pursuit of a military solution in the north of the country.
Much of the violence has been directed against journalists and other media professionals. On 8 January, this year, respected editor of the Sunday Leader (and former barrister), Lasantha Wickrematunge, was murdered in his car by gunmen on motor bikes as he drove to work.
Mr. Wickrematunge not only predicted his death at the hand of government agents, he wrote an editorial to be published after it occurred.
In that editorial, he addressed the President, also a long time friend, in words as notable for their haunting beauty as the courage with which they were written:
Sadly, for all the dreams you had for our country in your younger days, in just three years you have reduced it to rubble. In the name of patriotism you have trampled on human rights, nurtured unbridled corruption and squandered public money like no other President before you. … Although you are now so drunk with power that you cannot see it, you will come to regret your sons having so rich an inheritance of blood. It can only bring tragedy. As for me, it is with a clear conscience that I go to meet my Maker. I wish, when your time finally comes, you could do the same …
As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man. And I have not travelled this journey alone. Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me: most of them are now dead, imprisoned without trial or exiled in far-off lands. Others walk in the shadow of death that your Presidency has cast on the freedoms for which you once fought so hard. You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch. As anguished as I know you will be, I also know that you will have no choice but to protect my killers: you will see to it that the guilty one is never convicted.
When the wife of Lasantha Wickrematunge, Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge, on 8 April, accepted the 2009 UNESCO World Press Freedom prize on behalf of her husband, she pointed out that her husband was just one of 16 dissident media professionals murdered in Sri Lanka since President Rajapaksa came to power in November 2005.
She also compared the state terrorism of the Sri Lankan army and government on the one hand to the LTTE terrorism on the other. She described the Sri Lankan government as perhaps the only one on this planet that persists in bombing its own citizenry.
As Lydia Polgren’s New York Times article points out, much more bombing of Sri Lanka’s citizens took place in the final weeks of the military offensive when both the LTTE fighters and thousands of the civilians, many of whom are now interned, were isolated on a narrow strip of beach. Despite government denials at the time, evidence continues to emerge of the slaughter that took place from the bombing.
Ms. Polgren quotes witnesses who described battlefields covered with bodies and satellite pictures showing huge craters evidencing the scale of the ordnance used in that small area. One woman is quoted as saying: “We had to walk over dead bodies. There were hundreds of bodies everywhere.”
President Rajapaksa is, no doubt, hoping that the world has moved on to other tragedies in other places. There are hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people who hope otherwise.
There are some brave journalists who will continue to put their life on the line to keep their citizens and the world informed. Hopefully, we can honour both groups.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
Australia. Where you die for your country and get a rest area named after you http://t.co/hO6LpfwDvI
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…