Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Impressions of Sri Lanka: Total suppression of dissent and a family rule

photo courtesy of Sri Lanka Guardian

An interview with Tapan Bose - Everybody thought that after the defeat of the LTTE the situation would improve in Sri Lanka. That was the overall opinion. However, there was a lot of information that the war itself was constituted of human rights violations and war crimes. These have been documented and are a matter of concern to the UN.But nonetheless there was also appreciation in the neighbourhood, in countries such as China, Iran, Cuba etc., that Sri Lanka had shown the way to defeat a very, very strong terrorist organization.

The other side of the story was that now that Rajapakse had defeated such a powerful enemy it was time to rebuild. I think that the first signs of what awaited came when he did not change or withdraw the emergency laws.

The second sign was when he continued to enforce the restrictions on the media. And then we as human rights organizations in South Asia started receiving requests from journalists and media people, both from the state sector and the private sector, to help them relocate to safer places because living in Sri Lanka was becoming dangerous. As the International Federation of Journalists stated, Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places for journalists. And these were not just Tamil people from the north but also journalists based and working in the south.

Until now, 33 Sri Lankan journalists have left the country and more are coming. Actually they are all waiting to return home but the question is, when can they do this?

I just received a letter from a journalist friend of mine, a man of great repute in Sri Lanka, who has now been living in Geneva for almost six months. He wrote to me to wish me a Happy New Year and he said that he wondered when he might go back home. In this you can see the sense of longing and desolation and fear. None of these people left Sri Lanka because they wanted a better life; they were forced to leave Sri Lanka. And this continues.

You know during my recent visit I was, fortunately or unfortunately, there on the day when General Fonseka was arrested, although neither of us knew it at the time. I met at around 3pm and was with him for around two hours before he was taken away most brutally.

I wrote a small piece about it which included my discussion with him and it appeared in the newspapers. During my stay at that point I myself became a victim of police surveillance. It was nothing very obvious but in a sense they were always around and there were also attempts to look at my laptop. But that was also the time when we learned about the Chinese team arriving in Sri Lanka to set up telephone, cell phone and internet surveillance. So nothing is safe in Sri Lanka today in the sense that there is no privacy, you can't afford to write anything that might construed as against the state. You cannot afford to speak or show a picture to anyone that may be seen as offensive to the state.

You see, it is the worst kind of police state. In the Soviet Union there was the practice where only a very few people were allowed to have a typewriter and you had to return the typewriter ribbon in order to get new one so that they could be examined to see what you had written. It is worse than that in Sri Lanka today because technology services have become all powerful. There is no privacy, there is no safety and this is something that the world outside is not realising. The level at which the rights are threatened is terrible. Rights don't exist in Sri Lanka today and the unfortunate part of it is that no institutions function.

There is no use going to the judiciary if your rights are violated. As you can see the AHRC has done so many cases and the judiciary does not respond. The judiciary is either not willing for its own reasons or does not care, I am sorry to say this but this is the case. The police are absolutely powerful and there is a whole history of abuses and these include the JVP problems and the soldiers in the south and the thousands of people that were killed. Much is known about the killings in the north. However, little is known about the systematic killings in the south in the 80s and 90s. There were three presidential commissions, several visits by UN Rapporteurs and other representatives, several promises made by the state which they did not keep that the violators would be punished.

You will remember that Janaka Perera who was one of the architects of the killings was made an ambassador to Australia rather than being punished. There is a whole history of killings, police abuse or protecting the security forces whether it be the police or the army and that has become the worst because today we have the absence of the rule of law.

When you are in a country which does not have rule of law it is no use talking about human rights and teaching people human rights.There are no institutions that can uphold it. To hold an opinian is a great right but if there is no one to protect it, what can we do? Knowing the bill of rights backwards and forwards still does not make any sense.

So this is the reality of Sri Lanka. I have learned this morning that the government party MPs this morning we were talking about arranging a three-day seminar with MPs to discuss the minority protection issue. I received a message today from a close friend that none of the MPs want to leave the country because the government has told them that they must not go without clearance of the government. If this is the state of the MPs you can imagine the state of the ordinary people. The people are so afraid that they don’t want to speak.

I have a lot of friends in Sri Lanka, so I asked one of them to have an informal meeting in one of our homes, so that we can talk. Very few came. Even my close friends. Others sent apologies. One of them told me, Tapan, this the first time we are having a meeting like this since May, 2009. It may be seen as a threat. Even if 10 or 15 people get together for a party, it may be seen as a threat. So this is the level of control by the government.

His son and Gotabaya and Basil, his wife, family, brother-in-law, everyone is in the government. His son has now become an MP. He runs a paramilitary force called the Blue Brigade. What the Blue Brigade does, we all know. They are being trained by the Sri Lankan army. So there is a situation on one side as total suppression of dissent and on the other side, you have a family rule which is worse than what Suharto of In Indonesia did. And this is something that will take a long time to correct.

Some of the countries like India, China, Pakistan and Iran for their short term interests are making deals with the Rajapakses. In the long or even mid-term, this is going to boomerang on all of us because the Sri Lankan interests cannot flourish. Sri Lanka is a bucket without water. Unfortunately Sri Lanka does not have oil and natural gas like Burma. If it did, it would be a different story. So this is something that has to be deal with.The point is the Rajapakses may have billions of dollar abroad already. They will go away but what will happen to the Sri Lankan when they leave. And that is what the international community has to start worrying about. And if there is any commitment to rule of law and human dignity, this the time for the international community to intervene.

Tapan Bose is the Secretary of the organisation "The Other Media" in Delhi. He is a leading human rights activist in India and has been working with the human rights movement and indigenous peoples in India for 15 years.

© Sri Lanka Guardian

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