This is part two of a three part series on the incidents surrounding the storming of a meeting in Colombo by a mob of Government supporters last Tuesday. In part one we provided a narrative of events and some photos and footage from the scene. In this part we analyse these events, and in part three we will talk about the aftermath of the event and reactions from both sides.
Our Campaigns Director has recently written at length about the Sri Lankan government’s growing campaign of intimidation against critics and human rights activists – and in particular its strategy of seeking to silence society in a manner which it can avoid the opprobrium of the international community. Two key elements of this strategy can be seen in these events.
The first is the targeting of prominent and outspoken human rights activists, and in particular those looking to make links between Colombo and grassroots victims and relatives groups in the North. This can be seen in the manner in which these events were used to spread false allegations about named senior human rights activists, and to erroneously suggest that they are giving information to the United Nations (giving information to the UN is not a crime, but in Sri Lanka it places you at significant risk of meeting a violent end).
The second is the way these events are used to intimidate and terrify grassroots Tamil activists. While many of the Colombo based activists who were mentioned by name have been put at greater risk as a result, by and large they have effective protection strategies and many people looking out for their welfare. Not so those who have to return to villages in the North, where they are out of sight and mind of the international community and almost entirely at the mercy of the local military commander.
Furthermore it is depressing to note that this incident only received the attention it did because it happened in Colombo and because western diplomats were present. The breaking up of such meetings is an entirely commonplace occurrence in the north and the coverage this event received, welcome though it is, will once again play to the understandable perception that the international community does not care if such things happen, provided they only happen in the north and the east.
There is a third element to the strategy which we have not previously discussed, and that is the extent to which, in order to avoid censure by the international community, the Government are increasingly not acting against the human rights community directly but through proxy groups – and the mob in question must be regarded as precisely that, if for no other reason than because they are doing the Government of Sri Lanka’s work for them while enjoying the benefits of the culture of impunity that the Government have engendered.
Moreover several aspects of this latest incident would appear to suggest that there is a more active collusion between these groups and the state:
- The failures of the police. They arrived quickly, but appeared to then allow the mob to continue to disrupt the meeting. They would only say that ‘peace had been broken’ and closed the event rather than arresting the intruders. This was raised as a matter of concern by the USA but disappointingly not by the EU.
- The identity of the intruding party. The self-described Dead and Missing Persons Parents Front (DMPPF) appeared to come together specifically for this meeting, but the presence of several extremely nationalistic Buddhist monks suggests they come from the same ideological space as the BBS, the far right group linked to both anti-Muslim pogroms and to the President’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
- The filming of activists. The fact that the mob who broke in started to film activists was clearly an intimidatory tactic, but it only works as such if you assume collusion with the state. A civil society group such as the Dead and Missing Persons Parents Front presumably has no need for footage of human rights defenders – the intimation was that the footage would be shared with Sri Lankan intelligence.
- The actions of state-sponsored and state-friendly media. State-sponsored and state-friendly outlets arrived quickly on the scene but many did not conduct responsible journalism. They colluded with the Government’s attempt to mischaracterize events as a simple spat between NGOs, they allowed dangerous lies (such as that the group were working with the UN) to go unchallenged, and they gave a platform for vicious hate speech – including the assertion that human rights activists should be hanged.
- The Government’s response. In a highly inaccurate official statement the Minister of External Affairs mischaracterized the event and blamed the organisers, participants and the diplomatic community for the incident. The Sri Lankan Lawyers’ Collective wrote an articulate rebuttal.
- The highly orchestrated nature of the intrusion. Many aspects of this attack appeared to be surprisingly well planned. For example it came to light that members of the media were invited to the meeting by a fake press release which was faxed from an unknown number to various media outlets at 2.29pm (i.e. after the event had started). The forged press release was constructed as an appeal from Brito Fernando for media coverage of an event being held to train those from Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka to give evidence to international investigations – yet again a lie, and a dangerous one.
Take these events together and what we have is a concerted attempt to warn civil society away from having any interaction with the UN investigation. But unwittingly in so doing the Government and its allies are making the need for the UN investigation ever clearer – by outlining how impossible it is to conduct these processes within Sri Lanka. Furthermore the new message the Government and its allies have been using (including in this confused piece by militant anti human rights journalist Shamindra Fernando) is a misstep. When demanding that the current international investigation must address rights violations committed by the LTTE they will find not the antagonism they expect but enthusiastic agreement from the international human rights community. It is precisely this all-encompassing approach that UN investigators will be seeking, and rightly so. The only difference is that while Shamindra Fernando and the DMPPF seem to think that one can only investigate war crimes by one side or by the other, we would argue that you can look at both.
In conclusion, this might seem like a lot of fuss to make over some shouting and shoving, a few dangerous lies, and half a punch – particularly when compared to the deaths of tens of thousands in 2009 and the ongoing oppression of Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka. But these events are important, because they form part of an ongoing and systematic attempt to control Sri Lankan civil society, the side effect of which is that it becomes virtually impossible to have meetings in which victims can mourn, reflect and above all, reconcile. Without the space in which these basic first steps of reconciliation can take place, the prospect of a return to conflict will remain.