For the first time since the ‘Killing Fields’ documentary, Channel 4 has been granted access to Sri Lanka – this time, for a report by Jon Snow. Once again, it raised important issues. Starting from Colombo station, Snow began by raising the point that no one has been held responsible for the deaths of the countless thousands along the beaches in 2009. And he touched on the issue of the people who surrendered at the end of the war, who were then shot dead – in contravention of ‘international law’ – and of the many of who are missing to this day – six years on and a year since the change of government.
Report by Bharathi Subramaniam
Nonetheless, when Jon Snow talked about Jaffna being ‘relaxed, busy, normal… somehow confident for a moment in peace’, it looked as though he might be suggesting that there is some return to normality. However, what appears on the surface does not reflect the reality of the Tamil people’s day-to-day lives of constant fear, due to being under surveillance by the army, paramilitary and government intelligence forces. There’s also only a limited space for freedom, with the Tamil population surrounded by dominantly Sinhala-speaking police, and the occurrence of crimes committed with impunity.
Snow did explain that the army still holds large parts of the land, and runs hotels that are also used for ‘the entertainment’ of the soldiers. Given all this, how can the predominately Tamil-speaking population of the north return to a ‘normal life’ or forget the war?
The report highlighted that many internally displaced persons (IDPs) have not been resettled and are still living in atrocious conditions. It showed one camp where there is only one toilet for 40 people, and many of them were in a bad condition, with several completely out of order. The government of Sri Lanka has made no effort to improve the living standards and conditions of these people. During his visit two years ago, British prime minister David Cameron promised to help – but has done nothing since.
Jon Snow interviewed an elderly woman who says she has no trust in the government – a view shared by many IDPs. She is desperate to return home. When trying to find out why the people could not be resettled in their own villages, Channel 4 found out that the villages and settlements were bulldozed after the war. Was this to try and hide evidence of war crimes? That is the strong suspicion.
Snow interviewed another woman. Her 19-year-old daughter was abducted during the war and is still missing. There has been no news about her whereabouts, or of any release. Living in an IDP camp, this adds another heavy burden onto her emotional state. This is a story shared my many across the island, in particular by Tamils from the north and east. Relatives are in limbo: not sure if family members are alive or dead, hoping against hope that they are still alive, but unable to mourn the deaths.
At this point in the Channel 4 report, Ranil Wickramasinghe, the Sri Lankan prime minister, was interviewed. He claimed that there are 292 people in detention – while denying that any detention centres exist. Anyone else, he said, is ‘probably dead’ – in other words, all those many thousands who have been disappeared. This statement comes as a huge blow. Many mothers have all their children who have gone missing since the end of the war. It also highlights the war crimes committed by the Rajapaksa regime, and which the current regime is defending in many ways.
Although Jon Snow’s report did not mention this, it needs to be pointed out that sexual violence on women, children and men is still prevalent. This can be seen in numerous reports, including one on the abuse and murder of a 9-year-old boy near a navy camp. Forced prostitution and vulnerability of female-headed households, as a result of losing the males during the war, are also burning issues.
Change of government
In a previous BBC report and interview, president Maithripala Sirisena ruled out any scope for an international involvement, saying that the government will conduct its own internal investigation into alleged war crimes. It is transparent from this that the government is trying to hide and defend the previous regime and the perpetrators. In the same report, the government’s own political correspondent declared his mistrust that the government will investigate the crimes committed! This shows both the divisions in the current government and also the mistrust in it.
The pardoning and release of an ex-LTTE member was widely publicised by the government, in an attempt to win back the trust it has lost. Moreover, it also pardoned 29 more political prisoners, but this is not enough. All political prisoners must be released including those in the secret camps.
Wickramasinghe said that the government is putting together a commission for accountability and reconciliation. This is another stitch-up, and it is not acceptable – it has been six years since the end of the war and over a year since the change of government. Sirisena says that these actions cannot be rushed! This again shows the reluctance of the regime to cooperate. As times goes by the amount of evidence available diminishes, and the statements of the witnesses become weaker as memories fade. The end result may well be a conclusion that no-one can be brought to justice due to the length of time since the crimes were committed.
Far from building trust and working towards reconciliation, the vast majority of Tamils have no trust in the government. And this view is shared by many workers of the south, and other oppressed minorities. The rights of other Tamil speaking people, including the Muslims and plantation workers, continue to be trampled on. As are trade union and workers’ rights. The freedom to organise, protest or strike is still denied by the government – as seen by the attacks on student protests last year.
Channel 4’s record of highlighting these issues has been consistent, and it continues to play an important role – especially in times like now, when the spotlight has been turned off developments in Sri Lanka. Even so, at times it seems as though Jon Snow sends out a few mixed messages, conveying the idea that some progress is being made. Maybe, that is just an attempt to minimise the risk of being denied access to Sri Lanka again.
Nonetheless, it is clear from this latest report that the Tamils continue to face fierce oppression. And they continue to struggle for justice, and for peace – notwithstanding the fact that the authoritarian rule of the Rajapaksas’ is over (at least for now).
And that is why the Tamil Solidarity campaign continues to demand:
The withdrawal of the military from the north and east
An end to the land-grab
The resettlement of the IDPs into the areas they are from, in good-quality housing
The publication of the details of all those detained and disappeared
The immediate release of all political prisoners and the closure of secret detention centres
An end to sexual harassment and violence – safe homes, jobs and education for all
Democratic and workers’ rights
The right of Tamil people to self-determination
A genuinely independent war crimes investigation, with full participation of the communities affected, and elected representatives of workers’ and oppressed peoples