11 - 24 October 2013 #677

Silenced by the state

Banned documentary is a testimony to the serious war crimes that accompanied the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka
Trishna Rana
ALL OUT: Victims await medical assistance after the government fired heavy artillery in the ‘no-fire zone’ in Pokkanai, Vanni of northern Sri Lanka in 2009.
In an embarrassing display of spineless leadership, the Nepal government at the behest of its Sri Lankan counterpart sent a last minute directive to the organisers of Film Southasia this week, prohibiting them from screening films critical of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime and the army’s excesses during the civil war. No Fire Zone, Broken, and The Story of One chronicle the three-decade long brutal conflict that claimed the lives of more than 80,000 Sri Lankans on both sides and displaced tens of thousands.

The Sri Lankan government is obviously sensitive that its global image may be tarnished just before the bi-annual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting set to take place in Colombo in November. Ever since United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay presented a scathing report on its effort at truth and reconciliation in August, the country has been on the defensive trying to convince its international partners that it did not willingly kill thousands of civilians as the war drew to a close in 2009.

What was surprising though was how meekly the Nepal government complied to its fellow SAARC member. And the same leaders who don’t tire of harping on national pride and sovereignty did not bother to defend the Nepali public’s constitutionally guaranteed provisions on the freedom of expression and press: definite signs of the weakening of the Nepali state and of democracy.

Since launching an intensive military offensive in 2006 to wipe out LTTE rebels and put an end to the conflict, the Sri Lankan government has gone to great lengths to suppress and censor dissenting voices, with the media its prime target. In January 2009, a few months before the end of the war, editor of The Sunday Leader and internationally-known journalist, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was shot dead in Colombo. In a posthumously published editorial, Wickrematunge who had been a fierce critic of both the government and the Tamil Tigers, wrote: “No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces - and, in Sri Lanka, journalism.”

Threats, physical abuses, mental torture, and harassment of journalists are endemic in post-war Sri Lanka. Many are in exile and those living within the country have accepted self-censorship as a way of life. The rhetoric of the victor and vanquished is so pervasive that anyone who speaks up against the atrocities of war is labelled a ‘traitor’ and ‘anti-national’ and is a potential target.

Sri Lanka ranks 162 out of 179 on the global Press Freedom Index. As Rajapaksa and his family’s grip on everything from daily life to the military and the judiciary (after the controversial impeachment of the chief justice in January) tightens, and the island nation is pushed towards authoritarianism, Sri Lanka will, no doubt, slip further in the rankings.

But every now and again first hand footage and accounts documenting war crimes find their way through in documentaries like No Fire Zone and expose the extent of violence meted out on civilians by both the state and LTTE in the final phase of war. Half-way through the blood and gore, with dismembered bodies, charred human remains, and a populace that was hunted down and cornered like wild animals in so called ‘no fire zones’, one is left to wonder, just what did the Sri Lankan government hope to achieve by the wholesale slaughter and what is it now trying to do by washing its hands of responsibility?

Roads previously cratered by bombs have given way to neat, black-topped highways, new high-rises dominate the skyline in Colombo, international companies are lining up to invest, and tourists are returning in large numbers. Even the citizens, wary after 25 years of war, appear content not to have to deal with bombs going off on the streets every other day. There isn’t public clamour demanding justice for victims and their families. But if it is long-term peace and development that Sri Lanka is seeking, its priorities are seriously misplaced. Post-conflict reconstruction and economic boom do not equal peace, they only act to airbrush political cleavages.

Sri Lanka is not just back to square one before the war, it is back to 1956, debating issues like federalism and autonomy, the non-fulfillment of which fed the grievances that led to the war. The discrimination is now more deeply embedded than ever before and this doesn’t give hope for lasting peace on the island. The regime led by members of the Rajapaksa family are enforcing an ultra-nationalist identity through social re-engineering of northern zones heavily populated with Tamils and in the south there has been organised attacks on the other minority, the Muslims.

Like in Nepal, although a full-scale armed conflict is not an immediate possibility, the painful memories of war will rankle the children and families of those tortured, raped, murdered, and disappeared by the state and rebels for years to come and could come back to haunt the country.


Read also:

The wars within, #531

New beginning in Sri Lanka, #452

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