This is a compelling account of what one foreign journalist had to do to get to see what is really happening in Sri Lanka. This account was read out on behalf of the journalist at the forum held at the Frontline Club in London on 6th July.
The video of the discussion can be viewed on: http://frontlineclub.com/events/2010/07/sri-lanka-could-the-west-do-more-about-human-rights-and-press-freedom.html
I was working in a restaurant as a waitress to earn money for a trip to Mexico when I first heard about Sri Lanka and its decade long civil war. To be perfectly honest, until then I’d thought that Sri Lanka was a province of India.
The cooks in the restaurant kitchen were illegal Tamil immigrants, who fled their countries for various reasons, all related to the conflict. The LTTE threatened to recruit them. Their family had been persecuted by the government. As they told me their personal stories, little dots on the complex picture of the war affecting their country, I wondered why I had never read, heard or seen anything about Sri Lanka in the media before. Maybe it was just me not paying attention, but the truth is most people around me had no clue either.
My new Tamil friends told me stories I could hardly believe and it was not until I actually made it to Sri Lanka that I fully believed them. I still remember an Algerian waiter working in the restaurant next door telling me that they had to be liars simply trying to get asylum.
But they had caught my imagination so intensely with their tale of a paradise island caught up in epic guerrilla warfare; I wanted to see for myself. It seemed an ideal story to cover for a young journalist as well: cheap flight tickets, cheap life once there, under reported story, adventure, but not overly dangerous.
By the time I finally made it to Sri Lanka in the summer 2009, Rajapaksa’s government had managed to end that war I was hoping to cover and I arrived in a post-war country.
The story had shifted. From Tamil vs. Sinhalese, government vs. LTTE, the story became authoritarianism vs. democracy, corruption and nepotism vs. the rule of law. Of course these issues existed already during the war. But in post-war Sri Lanka they are taking centre stage and affecting everyone, Tamils and Sinhalese. This is why Western media’s role is more important than ever. When democracy is threatened and voices from the ground are shut, it is for the outside world to help them come out. More importantly, the handful of voices who dare to tell the truth should be relayed in the Western media, because it is also a way to protect them.
In recent years, Rajapaksa’s regime has mastered the art of keeping Western journalists at bay, with little or no protest from media organisations and Western governments. No one was able to cover the last stage of the war against the LTTE, apart from a handful of embedded Sinhalese journalists now too scared to talk about what they saw. Today media organisations are too easily deterred from sending crews by the restrictions put in place by the SL government. But mainly, too little attention is given to events taking place on the island. Almost no journalists made the trip to cover the parliamentarian elections in April 2010 and the coverage was limited to the election results and a basic analysis of them.
As a young, unknown journalist I was able to get in the country and report without a visa, something more established correspondents cannot do, as Jeremy Page from The Times learnt. It is not something I am proud of, but it was also the only way for me to access the North of the country, as I did a few months ago. Indeed, foreigners still need a clearance from the ministry of defence. Anyone foreign, even tourists. I did enquire about the reason behind such a procedure and called the ministry of defence. I wanted to see if I could do this playing by the rules. But I was told by a ministry official that the procedure was aimed at stopping people from “reporting bad things”.
So I did not play by the rules. I was told off by UN officials I tried to interview, saying that it was putting me on the wrong side of the fence with the government. Well sure, but then the government is not exactly on the right side of the fence with freedom of the press either. This is why I am not talking on this panel today and merely giving this written statement under a pseudonym. I want to be able to go back to Sri Lanka.
I understood better why Sri Lankan authorities are so anxious to control news coming from the North when I reached the Vanni area and Jaffna. “Resettlement” means people have been thrown on the side of roads facing mine fields, the militarization of the area is phenomenal, and a traumatised Tamil population is left to itself while monuments to celebrate the army victory are erected, along with houses apparently destined to accommodate the Sinhalese soldiers who are to settle in the area. The word “reconciliation” is difficult to associate with the government’s policy.
Of course new businesses are being created, roads are being built, and the area will certainly develop exponentially in the next years. But for whose benefit?
The reality in Sri Lanka is far from being black and white: it is not a “poor-oppressed-Tamils” vs. “mean Sinhalese” story. I interviewed many war widows who without their husbands found themselves in a vulnerable position. They were often abused by fellow Tamils, working as government agents in their community.
However it is true that the Tamil population in the North and East has particularly suffered in the past two years. The LTTE recruited children and young adults to use them as cannon fodder, people lost limbs and family members in the last stage of the conflict, and the survivors were parked in camps for months. Post-traumatic stress is affecting almost everyone and it is obvious to the visitor that nothing is done by the Sri Lankan authorities or international agencies to help these people overcome the horror they lived through. Trauma and the anger following it is what led to the creation of the LTTE in the 1980s, peace will not be possible without dealing with it.
Accountability for the crimes committed by both sides of the conflict is crucial for reconciliation as well. People need to know what happened. But most importantly, people need to want to know. This is why the role of the media is ever important. Before accountability can be truly debated in Sri Lanka, mentalities must change.
Nina de la Preugne