Monday, 17 August 2009

The Tigers are gone, yet the repression goes on

It has been three months since the Sri Lankan military crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and killed their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, ending over forty years of vicious ethnic struggle between the ruling Sinhalese majority and the minority Tamils. However, in the time since, reports of human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan government have not abated.

Amnesty International reported at the start of this month that "hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the recent war in North East Sri Lanka and living in camps are being denied basic human rights including freedom of movement." It accused the government of "not addressing properly the needs of the newly displaced" and said that the camps "are effectively detention camps. They are run by the military and the camp residents are prevented from leaving them; they are denied basic legal safeguards. The government's claim that it needs to hold people to carry out screening is not a justifiable reason to detain civilians including entire families, the elderly and children, for an indefinite period."

Amnesty's assesment is that "with no independent monitors able to freely visit the camps, many people are unprotected and at risk from enforced disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrest and sexual violence." Clearly, this is an unacceptable situation, and the plight of these people - over 409,000, with at least 50,000 of them children - needs greater attention drawing to it. Amnesty's briefing paper on the subject is extremely in-depth and its usefulness in campaignig against this injustice cannot be understated.

At the same time, however, it is not the only injustice that continues in the region. Only last week, Amnesty also drew attention to the plight of journalists and free media in the country;
The Sri Lankan government actively obstructed reporting on the last stages of the recently concluded armed conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE – Tamil Tigers). Civilians were subjected to artillery attacks and both sides were accused of committing war crimes.

The government continues to deny journalists and media workers unrestricted access to hundreds and thousands of displaced people living in camps, hindering reporting on their war experiences and on conditions in the camps themselves.

At the same time, unprecedented levels of violence against media workers engaged in critical reporting has contributed to a climate of fear and self-censorship that has deprived the people of Sri Lanka of their right to information.

Sri Lankan press freedom advocates say that more than 30 people working for Sri Lankan media outlets have been killed since 2004. Many others have been abducted, assaulted or threatened for their war reporting. Newspapers have been seized and burned, newspaper offices have been vandalized and printing equipment destroyed.

Months after the war in Sri Lanka ended journalists and media workers are still facing murder, abduction, censorship and intimidation. The vast majority of victims were members of the minority Tamil community, but Sinhalese and Muslim journalists have also been killed. The perpetrators of many of these crimes have not been identified, let alone punished.
Clearly, no country that is so repressive towards the media can hold any claims towards basic freedoms or democracy. In the recent war, the effects of such obstructed liberties became startlingly apparent;
Sunanda Deshapriya recalls that not long ago, both the government and the Tamil Tigers were giving heavily distorted figures for the amount of people living in the war zone in areas under Tiger control:

"Access to information was blocked, and because of that what happened? Tigers said they have 400,000 people in Wanni. That's the Tiger number. Government said: there's 120,000.

"And there was no independent verification, no journalists, no media was allowed. And government [was] asking people to come...they said 'we are ready to welcome you.' And, at the end, it turned out to be nearly 300,000 people."

The government, said Mr Deshapriya, urged civilians from the war zone to flee into its territory, but its own agencies, relying on erroneous government figures, were unprepared for such vast numbers.

When the civilians arrived, "...there were no facilities. Still, after three months, after the war is over and people does not have even basic facilities [in the camps] because there was no freedom of information. Journalists could not report [on] how many people are there, what conditions they are living in," he said.

This also meant that the international community could not effectively address the situation because there was no verification of facts.

With no independent verification, the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers were both able to use the world's appetite for information as a means of promoting their own agendas.

The flow of information from the camps now consists mainly of information provided by relatives of those detained, of individual leaks from aid workers to journalists and of anonymous blog entries.

In almost all cases, those providing the information remain anonymous to avoid reprisals. As a result, the information finding its way out of the camps is often unreliable. This can only hurt the detained civilians.
Thus, we have a direct connection between media repression and the suffering of ordinary civilians detained in the military-controlled refugee camps. Moreover, as BBC News reports that "the [Sri Lankan] army chief says he wants the army, already 200,000, to increase in size by 50%" now that the war is over, based on the pretext that "the army must be on alert and observe everything these people [LTTE survivors] are doing, and take any action needed to prevent them forming again," the potential for unreported abuses is not one to be ignored.

Right now, activists, journalists, and human rights groups across the world need to be showing solidarity with the people interred in the Sri Lankan camps, and with the journalists risking death simply for doing their job. Only by keeping this issue alive and by continually ramping up the pressure can we force the international community to take notice and offer any reprimand to the Sri Lankan government.

Otherwise, under the "security" and "terrorism" pretexts that we know well here in the West, we are allowing them to set the stage for heightened abuse and persecution of the country's Tamils.