Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Foreigners barred from travelling North

By Janith Aranze | The Sunday Leader

As we approached the Omanthai checkpoint I knew that this was the last check we would be put through. The last stage of a mammoth eight hour journey from Colombo which began at 9 pm the previous night.

The early morning sun was relentless; however the thought of finally arriving in Jaffna was enough to make it bearable. As the bus stopped at the checkpoint and the army officer boarded to check ID cards, perhaps naively, it had never occurred to me that holding a British passport would signal the end of my journey. After all, the war was over, Sri Lanka had been ‘liberated,’ when going on trips to Kandy, Trincomalee and Sigiriya my British passport had never caused a problem, so why should it now?

Ominously the female officer told me to get down from the bus and wait while she went to discuss with her peers what do with my passport, which was beginning to be looked at with some disdain by other army personnel at the checkpoint. Again naively, I presumed they would simply ask me the reasons and objectives for my journey and grant me permission to continue on. However I was mistaken, after a lot of phone calls and gesticulating from army personnel at the checkpoint, I was informed that foreign passport holders cannot go beyond the Omanthai checkpoint without Ministry of Defence clearance.

A number of questions were buzzing around my head but the over-riding ones were why shouldn’t a foreigner be allowed to go to Jaffna? What’s the need for MOD clearance? I clearly wasn’t a threat so what’s the problem? These were all questions I had plenty of time to ponder whilst on the eight hour long bus ride back from Vavuniya to Colombo.

Since the civil war ended in 2009, the government has made it as difficult as possible for tourists and foreign media to go up North and visit the conflict areas. Those hoping to go up to Jaffna and other parts of the North will find that if they are in possession of a foreign passport, it will be a decidedly arduous process for them to advance any further than Vavuniya. Since the war is said to be finished now, what does the government have to hide from the rest of the world?
Speaking to a journalist who has gone through the process and gained access to areas such as Mannar and Kilinochchi, he said that it is indeed a painstaking task. “It did take a long time, a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls and at the end a lot of unnecessary meetings,” Ben Doherty of the Sydney Morning Herald, told The Sunday Leader. Doherty explained that the whole process took him several weeks to finalise, and when he eventually got to Mannar and Kilinochchi, he was monitored very closely. “I had to write a letter pre-warning them of what I wanted to do, who I was and where I was from. The whole thing took about six weeks to process. When I eventually travelled up there, I was always accompanied by a high ranking officer. I was looking at de-mining, but I wasn’t stopped from talking to anyone,” he explained. “If you’re looking to go up there, you’re going to have to bring them a pretty specific pitch and one that isn’t going to ring any alarm bells for them. Then it’s a case of finding the right person in the Ministry to speak to, and keep on the case. Like any bureaucracy, it’s all process, you’ve got to keep on it and keep pushing.”

The Sunday Leader also spoke to a Spanish tourist who had also tried to go up North by car and he said it was near ‘impossible.’ “We went by car, hoping to go up to Jaffna, but they said we couldn’t enter as we had foreign passports, I’ve heard it’s different by plane, so we might try that avenue,” the tourist said, speaking to The Sunday Leader on grounds of anonymity. However when The Sunday Leader contacted the Sri Lanka Air Force, they too stated that passengers wishing to travel by plane, who hold a foreign passport need MOD clearance first. “You need MOD clearance first, you have to go to their offices, fill in a form and wait for them to process it,” Sudeera Kulatunge of the SLAF told The Sunday Leader. When asked why foreigners need to do this he replied, “These are the rules in this country, foreigners must do this.”

When The Sunday Leader tried to speak to Defence Spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella on the matter, he abruptly claimed that “anyone can go to Jaffna” before hanging up the phone. Rambukwella clearly has not read his own rules, but when speaking to Military Spokesman, Major General Medawala, he said, “Go and look on the website, there it stipulates what the procedure is for foreign passport holders.” When asked what the reason is for foreign passport holders to be put through this process, he simply replied, “Everything is stipulated on the website.” Indeed on the MOD website it outlines what those who wish to travel by plane must do. “Civilians who wish to use SLAF aircraft are to write/fax a detailed description of the journey with the identity card numbers of the passengers who wish to travel, to the Secretary of Defence prior to seven days of the intended date of travel,” the website says. However it fails to address the issue of those travelling by car and more importantly the reasons why foreigners are put through this process.

It seems even the Ministry of Defence cannot give a reason as to why foreigners are put through such an arbitrary process to go up North. Perhaps one day Sri Lanka will be a country where people can travel freely from city to city, without having to go through army checkpoints or gain MOD clearance. For now though, this day seems like a long way off.

© The Sunday Leader

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