Monday, September 20, 2010

Sri Lanka: The flood gates are wide open

By Frederica Jansz | The Sunday Leader

“It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.” — Voltaire

Where do we go from here? The paranoia increases by the day. First came the reported disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda (missing since January 24 this year), then the statement made recently by reinstated Deputy Minister Mervyn Silva who reportedly stated at a function held in Kelaniya on Thursday, September 9 that “journalists should not write in a way which would ultimately force them to be hanged.”

Threats on another newspaper – The Sunday Leader, this time by the first brother, who told the BBC’s Anchor Stephen Sackur of Hard Talk that it was his right to have this newspaper shut down for having allegedly defamed him — caused a flutter of concern, again to be quickly forgotten. The white vans appear and disappear and people taken by them disappear, usually for ever. Bodies appear in swamps, people die in police custody. Or children are shot dead in cross-fire by police who are not only the most corrupt in this land but also the most inept.

And then there are the arrests. Emergency regulations, coupled with recently introduced anti-terrorism regulations are a blank cheque for authorities to ‘officially’ apply pressure on whomever they choose. There are many ‘lesser mortals’ who suffer in this manner, but let us consider a few of the better publicized cases.

Last week, The owner of J & J Printers, Jayampathy Bulathsinhala was detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, for printing ‘anti-Mahinda’ posters in opposition to the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. The office of Sarala Graphics (also owned by Bulathsinhala) in Nugegoda, was raided on the night of September 7 (Tuesday) by a team of policemen from a special unit at the Mirihana police. Finding that Bulathsinhala was not present, they arrested the eight workers present at the time — one of whom is a woman. Bulathsinhala is to be detained for a period of three months.

Chandana Sirimalwatte, Chief Editor of the Sri Lankan weekly newspaper Lanka, was detained by police around noon on January 30, this year. Lanka, the weekly Sirimalwatte edits, was closed down by the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) for several days around the same time he was detained, but was ordered reopened when staff appealed to a local magistrate. Soon after he was detained, the BBC reported that it was told by the director of the CID that Sirimalwatte was being held under unspecified emergency regulations, because a recent article might have violated rules on government inquiries into terrorism. It did not specify which article was at issue.

The government has continued to put pressure on the media in the post-election period, especially on outlets linked to the opposition party. Several web sites have been shut down and remain inaccessible within Sri Lanka.

These regulations are measures through which attempts have been made to arrest and indict journalists and are in effect a damning blanket censorship imposed by the state over matters related to human security and human rights. Furthermore, it restricts the space for and ability of civil society organisations to engage in conflict transformation.

In the past year, since the government announced victory over the LTTE in May 2009, reports have drawn attention to the detention of more than 10,000 persons on suspicion of having been involved with the LTTE. Human Rights Watch reported that it “documented several cases in which individuals were taken into custody without regard to the protection provided under Sri Lankan law. In many cases, the authorities have not informed family members about the whereabouts of the detained, leaving them in secret, incommunicado detention or possible enforced disappearance.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross was reportedly barred from the main detention camps for displaced persons. Amnesty International expressed the same concern about an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 individuals suspected of ties to the LTTE who are or have been detained incommunicado in irregular detention facilities operated by the Sri Lankan security forces and affiliated paramilitary groups since May 2009.

The defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 created an exodus of refugees from the shores of Sri Lanka. Tamils, who have been held in detention centers with fist-tight security by Sri Lankan armed forces, have been escaping the centers to seek protection. Also, others who were already released, but live in their relatives’ homes or temporary shelters, risk their lives. They fear they will get arrested by the security forces again.

Since 1983, Tamil refugees have been seeking new homes to protect their lives and that of their families in foreign climates.

Tamils would not have risked their lives in the seas if they were allowed to live in peace with freedom in their homeland. They have no choice but to seek out to Western countries, so that they can experience equality and freedom. These asylum seekers do not reach other countries to exploit their resources or cause harm to the security of these countries. These people are genuine asylum seekers.

Among those arrested and detained have been the friends of the government, those who brought it into power. Those who helped it win a dastardly war. The Greek poet Aeschylus spoke of that poison that, in the end, springs in every tyrant’s heart; that he cannot trust a friend. That end the poet spoke of appears to have arrived sooner than anyone thought possible. And if ‘friends’ cannot be trusted, what can the rest of us expect?

Added to the boiling pot are reports attributed to a political bikkhu that this country should cast aside all thoughts of democracy and look for a dictator who will restore democracy! Hopefully, this observation by the sangha will not be seen as legitimisation for that particular move to be made.

This country is sliding towards anarchy and tyranny at an alarming pace. Bearing in mind the statement of the ancient fabulist that those who voluntarily put power into the hand of a tyrant must not wonder if it is at last turned against themselves and while it is dangerous to be right where the government is wrong, it is necessary for those who will speak out to do so. We have been too close to the brink too often to let this trend continue to its logical conclusion.

The flood gates are wide open. If we displease the government, we will all be accused, sooner or later, of being ‘unpatriotic’, regardless of whether our names are Mutthusami, Velupillai, Seneviratne or Outschoorn.

© The Sunday Leader

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