The New York Times has made Sri Lanka its number one holiday destination for 2010. The travel brochures rhapsodise about the country’s natural splendours, stunning beaches and cultural heritage. It is no wonder that holidaymakers are once again pouring into this south Asian island, off the coast of India.
After almost three decades of conflict with the rebel group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE, although more popularly known as the Tamil Tigers), the Sri Lankan government declared an end to the civil war on 19 May 2009. But many tourists do not know that Sri Lanka is now rated the fourth most dangerous place in the world for journalists by Reporters San Frontiérs, higher even than in Afghanistan. The new peace in Sri Lanka has come at a high cost to freedom of expression and the human rights of its citizens.
More than fifteen journalists are believed to have been killed since 2006. These include Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, who was murdered on 8 January 2009 as he drove to work. Wickramatunga was widely known for his criticisms of corruption, governmental policies and the civil war.
Despite the official end of the civil war, journalists continue to be killed, physically assaulted, abducted, and harassed by both government personnel and members of para-military groups for attempting to report the truth.
On 31 August 2009, a Sri Lankan court sentenced Tamil journalist Jayaprakash Sittampalam (J S) Tissainayagam to twenty years’ hard labour for causing ‘communal disharmony’. Human Rights groups believed that he had been targeted for his earlier reporting on the civil war. Following an international outcry, that included President Obama expressing concern during an address to mark 2009 World Press Freedom Day, Tissa received a presidential pardon exactly a year later on 3 May 2010. His release proves that international pressure can make a difference in Sri Lanka and ethical tourists can play a part in this.
According to Amnesty there has been a further clampdown on dissent since the presidential election concluded on 26 January 2010. This has included arrests, death threats against several prominent newspaper editors, and the intimidation of independent web-based media. On the day of the elections, a political cartoonist and opposition journalist, Prageeth Eknaligoda, disappeared. According to Reporters Sans Frontiéres, he was abducted as he left the office of the Lanka-e-News website, his place of work, and has remained missing ever since despite an ongoing police investigation.
Many journalists and NGOs have wanted to report on the internment camps in Sri Lanka. There are almost 100,000 civilians still detained in these camps. But only pro-government NGOs have been allowed to work in many of the smaller camps and as a consequence the outside world remains largely ignorant of the real conditions for the detainees.
In the rush to smooth the way for tourism, the government has started to bulldoze various Tamil Tiger landmark sites including cemeteries and the homes of Velupillai Prabhakaran and other LTTE leaders. The Thileepan memorial near the Nallur temple was also defaced, apparently with the collusion of the Sri Lankan army. In a move sure to enflame local tensions, the authorities propose replacing the homes of LTTE leaders with hotels and resorts.
Many tourists never leave their hotel and most Sri Lankans are too frightened to speak about what is going on in the country. So visitors are often unaware of a very different world outside the resorts where ordinary Sri Lankan citizens continue to have their basic human rights trampled upon, sometimes involving violence and torture. But tourists have a voice and the freedom to act on their return. They can make a difference.
When deciding whether to visit Sri Lanka or not, you need to weigh up these arguments:
• Tourism helps to normalise the repressive actions of the current government. Development of the tourism industry in Sri Lanka may actually create greater inequality rather than helping ordinary citizens.
• Isolation from informed tourists allows the government a free rein to continue with its violations. Responsible tourism supports the ordinary people and helps to expose the country to outside influences.
What you can do:
• Join the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace & Justice which works for a peaceful resolution in the country: http://www.srilankacampaign.org
• Some Sri Lankans encourage responsible tourism as a means of seeing what is happening in their country. Once there, try to meet with one of the credible local and international NGOs who are working with the 100,000 plus civilian detainees still in large and small camps who lack access to food, water and basic services. The government has made it very difficult for international NGOs to work effectively. Representatives from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been prevented from visiting the country.
• You can make donations to local charities whilst there – the Sri Lanka Campaign site has suggestions.
• If you want to help political prisoners in Sri Lanka, human rights organisations like Amnesty (www.amnesty.org), Human Rights Watch (http://en.rsf.org) and Reporters Sans Frontiéres (www.rsf.org) monitor the situation on a daily basis and have advice regarding what you can do on their websites.
• On your return, write a letter of appeal or send a postcard to the Sri Lankan embassy in your country calling on the Sri Lankan government to respect the human rights and freedom of expression of all its citizens.
By Lucy Popescu
Lucy Popescu is the author of The Good Tourist (Arcadia Books)