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These blog postings do not necessarily represent the views of all members of the Advisory Council.


And then they came for me...

Today has been chosen to mark Black January, a memorial for all the attacks on the media that have occurred in the month of January in the past three years, and the failure of the government of Sri Lanka to bring to account those responsible for attacks on numerous journalists. The Sri Lankan Free Media Movement, and the International Federation of Journalists are leading the campaign.

To mark the occasion we will be posting the last (posthumous) editorial of Lasantha Wickermatunga, the editor of the Sunday Leader who was murdered on the 8th of January 2009. The original can be found here.

And then they came for me

No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.

I have been in the business of journalism a good long time. Indeed, 2009 will be The Sunday Leader's 15th year. Many things have changed in Sri Lanka during that time, and it does not need me to tell you that the greater part of that change has been for the worse. We find ourselves in the midst of a civil war ruthlessly prosecuted by protagonists whose bloodlust knows no bounds. Terror, whether perpetrated by terrorists or the state, has become the order of the day. Indeed, murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty. Today it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges. For neither group have the risks ever been higher or the stakes lower.

Why then do we do it? I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism. Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not. Friends tell me to revert to the bar, and goodness knows it offers a better and safer livelihood. Others, including political leaders on both sides, have at various times sought to induce me to take to politics, going so far as to offer me ministries of my choice. Diplomats, recognising the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries. Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice.

But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.

The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning. Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognise that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic... well, if you need me to explain why that is important, you'd best stop buying this paper.

The Sunday Leader has never sought safety by unquestioningly articulating the majority view. Let's face it, that is the way to sell newspapers. On the contrary, as our opinion pieces over the years amply demonstrate, we often voice ideas that many people find distasteful. For example, we have consistently espoused the view that while separatist terrorism must be eradicated, it is more important to address the root causes of terrorism, and urged government to view Sri Lanka's ethnic strife in the context of history and not through the telescope of terrorism. We have also agitated against state terrorism in the so-called war against terror, and made no secret of our horror that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world routinely to bomb its own citizens. For these views we have been labelled traitors, and if this be treachery, we wear that label proudly.

Many people suspect that The Sunday Leader has a political agenda: it does not. If we appear more critical of the government than of the opposition it is only because we believe that - pray excuse cricketing argot - there is no point in bowling to the fielding side. Remember that for the few years of our existence in which the UNP was in office, we proved to be the biggest thorn in its flesh, exposing excess and corruption wherever it occurred. Indeed, the steady stream of embarrassing exposés we published may well have served to precipitate the downfall of that government.

Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tigers. The LTTE are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations ever to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is unknown to the public because of censorship.

What is more, a military occupation of the country's north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering "development" and "reconstruction" on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my countrymen - and all of the government - cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall.

It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government's sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

The irony in this is that, unknown to most of the public, Mahinda and I have been friends for more than a quarter century. Indeed, I suspect that I am one of the few people remaining who routinely addresses him by his first name and uses the familiar Sinhala address oya when talking to him. Although I do not attend the meetings he periodically holds for newspaper editors, hardly a month passes when we do not meet, privately or with a few close friends present, late at night at President's House. There we swap yarns, discuss politics and joke about the good old days. A few remarks to him would therefore be in order here.

Mahinda, when you finally fought your way to the SLFP presidential nomination in 2005, nowhere were you welcomed more warmly than in this column. Indeed, we broke with a decade of tradition by referring to you throughout by your first name. So well known were your commitments to human rights and liberal values that we ushered you in like a breath of fresh air. Then, through an act of folly, you got yourself involved in the Helping Hambantota scandal. It was after a lot of soul-searching that we broke the story, at the same time urging you to return the money. By the time you did so several weeks later, a great blow had been struck to your reputation. It is one you are still trying to live down.

You have told me yourself that you were not greedy for the presidency. You did not have to hanker after it: it fell into your lap. You have told me that your sons are your greatest joy, and that you love spending time with them, leaving your brothers to operate the machinery of state. Now, it is clear to all who will see that that machinery has operated so well that my sons and daughter do not themselves have a father.

In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it.

Sadly, for all the dreams you had for our country in your younger days, in just three years you have reduced it to rubble. In the name of patriotism you have trampled on human rights, nurtured unbridled corruption and squandered public money like no other President before you. Indeed, your conduct has been like a small child suddenly let loose in a toyshop. That analogy is perhaps inapt because no child could have caused so much blood to be spilled on this land as you have, or trampled on the rights of its citizens as you do. Although you are now so drunk with power that you cannot see it, you will come to regret your sons having so rich an inheritance of blood. It can only bring tragedy. As for me, it is with a clear conscience that I go to meet my Maker. I wish, when your time finally comes, you could do the same. I wish.

As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man. And I have not travelled this journey alone. Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me: most of them are now dead, imprisoned without trial or exiled in far-off lands. Others walk in the shadow of death that your Presidency has cast on the freedoms for which you once fought so hard. You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch. As anguished as I know you will be, I also know that you will have no choice but to protect my killers: you will see to it that the guilty one is never convicted. You have no choice. I feel sorry for you, and Shiranthi will have a long time to spend on her knees when next she goes for Confession for it is not just her owns sins which she must confess, but those of her extended family that keeps you in office.

As for the readers of The Sunday Leader, what can I say but Thank You for supporting our mission. We have espoused unpopular causes, stood up for those too feeble to stand up for themselves, locked horns with the high and mighty so swollen with power that they have forgotten their roots, exposed corruption and the waste of your hard-earned tax rupees, and made sure that whatever the propaganda of the day, you were allowed to hear a contrary view. For this I - and my family - have now paid the price that I have long known I will one day have to pay. I am - and have always been - ready for that. I have done nothing to prevent this outcome: no security, no precautions. I want my murderer to know that I am not a coward like he is, hiding behind human shields while condemning thousands of innocents to death. What am I among so many? It has long been written that my life would be taken, and by whom. All that remains to be written is when.

That The Sunday Leader will continue fighting the good fight, too, is written. For I did not fight this fight alone. Many more of us have to be - and will be - killed before The Leader is laid to rest. I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. Indeed, I hope that it will help galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland. I also hope it will open the eyes of your President to the fact that however many are slaughtered in the name of patriotism, the human spirit will endure and flourish. Not all the Rajapakses combined can kill that.

People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted. An example that has inspired me throughout my career in journalism has been that of the German theologian, Martin Niemoeller. In his youth he was an anti-Semite and an admirer of Hitler. As Nazism took hold in Germany, however, he saw Nazism for what it was: it was not just the Jews Hitler sought to extirpate, it was just about anyone with an alternate point of view. Niemoeller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, Niemoeller wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:

First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.

If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted. Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter.

As for me, God knows I tried.


Politicians running amok?

In October two mid-ranking politicians within the Sri Lankan ruling coalition exchanged gunfire in broad daylight – killing three. In November, in front of the President, MPs from the same ruling coalition ran across the floor of Parliament to punch opposition lawmakers in the face. And in December Sri Lankan politicians were again in the news, with tragic results.

Khuram Shaikh Zaman was 32 and British. He worked for the ICRC in the Gaza strip (he headed up the programme giving prosthetic limbs to landmine victims) and was in Sri Lanka on holiday with his friend, Victoria Alexandrovna, 23 - a Russian. On Christmas Day he was murdered in a brutal attack; he was both stabbed and shot. She too was horrifically assaulted and has been in intensive care ever since.

The attack took place in Tangalle, a village just down the road from Hanbantota – the fishing village (population 10,000) which contains an international airport, a vast deep sea port, an international cricket stadium and an international conference venue. Tangalle and Hanbantota have the same MPs, among them: Namal Rajapaska (the president’s son), Chamal Rajapaska (the president’s brother), and Nirupama Rajapaska (the president’s cousin). They of course all represent the ruling party – the UPFA.

A key cog in that local UPFA machine, and a “loyal friend” of Namal Rajapaska, is the chair of Tangalle municipal council Sampath Chandrapushpa Vidanapathirana. Several eyewitnesses claim they saw Chandrapushpa attack a local hotelier known as “Ryan” on the dancefloor of the Nature Tangalle hotel on Christmas day. Zaman then allegedly attempted to break up the fight and he and Alexandrovna were assaulted with broken bottles. Eyewitnesses then claim Vidanapathirana reappeared with friends brandishing assault rifles, four of them were seen dragging Alexandrovna away, and Zaman was not seen again alive.

These reports have not been corroborated but it is clear that a horrific crime has taken place and that Vidanapathirana is the main suspect. Alexandrovna has now regained consciousness and identified Vidanapathirana as her assailant. After some foot dragging on the part of the police, he was eventually arrested, but he has still not been stripped of his elected office or his UPFA membership. Speculation is rife that the Rajapaska regime are protecting him – journalists reporting on the case have received death threats and many people have complained that “forces” are attempting to undermine the investigation.

Assuming the witnesses are correct, how on earth can Vidanapathirana have thought he would get away with this? It may be that this is because it is not the first time. In 2010 Vidanapathirana was arrested for the murder of an elderly woman while campaigning in the General Election. He was not charged because the police accepted the explanation that he was “mentally ill” and yet they took no further action. Nor did his illness prevent him from going on to hold elected office, or from running the Rajapaska’s local political machine.

What is clear is that officials within the ruling party believe they are above the law. And until a foreigner became involved, that was not a belief without foundation. Taking the incident that begins the piece: many people regard it as an open secret that Duminda Silva MP killed his colleague Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra. Even if you don’t believe the rumours, the bullet lodged in Silva’s skull places him irrefutably at the scene of the crime. And yet the Sri Lankan police allowed him to walk out of the country and beyond the reach of the law because “he wasn’t a suspect.”

Sri Lanka is in the grip of a culture of impunity. Everybody knows that if you are a member of the ruling elite you can get away with murder – and frequently they do. To understand how we got to this stage one needs to look at the events of May 2009.

If you believe an independent panel of experts appointed by the United Nations Secretary General Ban ki-Moon then there is credible evidence that then, in the last few days of civil war, tens of thousands (the best estimate is 40,000) civilians were killed - mostly by the Government of Sri Lanka deliberately shelling so-called "safe areas". In addition the Government of Sri Lanka repeatedly and deliberately shelled hospitals, executed prisoners in cold blood and made political opponents disappear.

The Government has adopted an approach to reconciliation which can best be summed up as “truth and reconciliation without the truth”. The logic is that we should move on from these terrible events, and leave them in the past. But if you try to forgive and forget without first reconciling then you do not get peace: To quote, Archbishop Desmond Tutu "the process of forgiveness also requires acknowledgement on the part of the perpetrator that they have committed an offence". Without this you get a culture where anything goes; as Silva, Vidanapathirana and all the other thugs the regime protects knew all too well.

Nor are these isolated incidents. The UN Committee against Torture found that torture was in widespread use as a tool of the job by the Sri Lankan military and armed forces. There are currently 5,000 unsolved disappearances in Sri Lanka. 34 media workers have been killed in the last six years and not a single killer has been brought to justice. The Committee to Protect Journalists adjudge Sri Lanka the fourth most dangerous media environment on the planet.

The Sri Lankan experiment, or charade, of reconciliation has clearly failed, and Khuram Shaikh Zaman and Victoria Alexandrovna are just the latest victims of its failure.

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Education of the Central Hill Tamils: The Deprivation of Choice

This is the third post in our three part series on the rights of Hill or Plantation Tamils.The first is available here. All three of these posts take material from a report by Home for Human Rights.

“Without access to continued education, people on the estates miss out on opportunities for new careers, economic advancement, and intellectual development. Likewise, estate workers and their families also lack critical information about their rights, bodies, and health care choices” – Home for Human Rights

Sri Lanka’s literacy rate has always been high for the region, and it has continued to soar – currently hovering in the 90%s. This is not the case for the Central Hill region however. Despite various UN conventions: the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the ICCPR and the ICESCR, instructing that all children must have the right to education regardless of their ethnicity, data collected by Home for Human Rights holds that children from within the tea estates in the Central Hill region are without the same educational opportunities as children from other backgrounds and geographical areas.

It has been found by Home for Human Rights that those living on tea estates showed a pattern of stopping their formal education well before the national average. 17% of respondents had completely ceased formal education during primary school and over a third stopped school after the 5th grade with only a worrying 0.6% completing their A Levels. Such low levels of education undoubtedly lead to marginalisation, and to communication concerns: in that administrative and medical staff within the plantation sector do not speak Tamil, and only a small minority of workers can understand Sinhala or English. Furthermore, the lack of readily available secondary education (as obligated by international law) obstructs women and children from making informed choices regarding health, namely that of sterilization as discussed previously. This is reinforced by Sri Lanka’s National Demographic Survey which links lower levels of education to inadequate information about family planning and moreover to “limited and harmful choices.” (HHR Report p.40).

A decent education is the key to emancipation from discrimination, poor health and lifestyle choices for men, women and children alike. One commentator holds:

“education was not part of the plantation culture; it was neither technically necessary nor did it have any survival value. For labourers’ children, education is a means of emancipation, but to the planter it is a potential threat to the labour supply.”(HHR Report p.39)

It is time the Government of Sri Lanka took responsibility in making this a reality rather than stifling the educational and intellectual rights held by the Central Hill Tamils for its own benefit.


Working Conditions of the Central Hill Tamils: The Ungrateful Tea Plantation Sector

This is the second post in our three part series on the rights of Hill or Plantation Tamils. The first is available here. All three of these posts take material from a report by Home for Human Rights.

"Unfortunately, the importance of the tea industry to the Sri Lankan economy has not helped to secure a reasonable standard of living for most estate employees." - Home for Human Rights

Under international law, the Government of Sri Lanka is under an obligation to ensure the reasonable treatment of workers. This is far from the case however, with plantation workers enduring a sense of indebtedness to the estate in which they work, which in turn promotes a vicious spiral of discrimination and poverty. Despite the fact that the 2003 Grant of Citizenship to Person's of Indian Origin Act no.35 finally entitled the Central Hill Tamils to citizenship, a poor birth registration system means that a large number of workers are without birth certificates and thereby the necessary documentation required to apply for citizenship.

However, it cannot be said that citizenship alone will solve the Hill Tamil's problems. Home for Human Rights reports that no efforts have been made by the Government of Sri Lanka to elevate their working conditions. Plantation workers receive no wage increases, thereby becoming consumed under the rising cost of living. This again reinforces their dependency upon the cruel plantation sector; crucial as it may be to the Sri Lankan economy. Indeed, the tea plantation industry in Sri Lanka is the third highest foreign exchange earner and provides Sri Lanka's largest agricultural export.

Due to the culture of dependency and lack of education endured by the Hill Tamils, men and women are forced to endure horrific conditions at work; including the use of sexual harassment as a control tactic. Home for Human Rights reports that significant amount of women regularly tolerate such harassment within the workplace, as leaving the estate is far from simple. Indeed as a survey conducted by HHR showed most respondents' freedom of movement outside of their estate was subject to authorisation by estate owners. 52% said that they were prevented from leaving the estate completely. Of course such a practice stands in direct contravention to the civil, political and human right of the “liberty and freedom of movement.”

It is time the government paid respect to the workers who maintain the strength of the tea industry which is so vital to the economy of Sri Lanka. Positive action to halt the endless cycle of entrapment and indebtedness must be started immediately. When will the Government of Sri Lanka appreciate its workers rather than address them as its subordinates?

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42 arrests on Human Rights Day

On December 10th 2011, human rights day, a group of 42 Human Rights Defenders (HRD's) and political activists from the South of Sri Lanka were detained by police in the Northern town of Jaffna.

Groundviews pick up the story here, and there is a summary below.

Despite events marking Human Rights Day being tolerated in Colombo, Kandy and Kurunegela; in Jaffna, a predominantly Tamil town, the protests were broken up and attendees arrested. According to the police, the protest in Jaffna consisting of more than five people, could not take place without prior police permission. Human Rights Groups protested that the demonstration would be peaceful and thereby cause no hindrance to the public. Yet the police "kettled" the group and threatened to arrest anyone who attempted to leave the kettle. As a result the group was held on the road for 2 1/2 hours and - upon protest at their unfair treatment - were accused of "re-igniting ethnic tensions". The police also confiscated items worth around Rs 30000 from the group. According to the police, these items (particularly copies of the Tamil newspaper Puthiya Samathanamam and leaflets,photos and placards calling for investigations into disappearences) were to "anti-government propganda."

Not only did the police try to prevent groups from joining the protest but they also tried to disperse those already assembled. At the protest, Mr. Ranath Kumarasinghe and Mr. Sivajilingam informed the Head Quarters Inspector (HQI) of the Jaffna Police that a group of HRDs were being detained and prevented from attending the protest. The HQI asked for their identity cards to which Mr. Kumarasinghe produced his media ID card, which the HQI then flung in his face. When Mr. Sivajilingam protested against his treatment of a senior journalist, the HQI told Mr. Sivajilingam not to get involved in matters did not concern him.This was not the worst of the matter however. According to eye witness Mr Mahendran, the police hit and pushed women to the ground in attempts to stifle their demonstration. They then formed a cordon around the women and prevented them from leaving the area.