Sri Lanka's human-rights and free-speech problems need international attention
Sri Lanka's civil war might be over, but the European Union recently dropped the island's preferential trade status because of human-rights violations. Guest columnist Peter Mountford says Sri Lankan media are not free to discuss the challenges, so the best hope is international attention.
Special to The Times
In post-civil war Sri Lanka, where democratic institutions are more imperiled than ever, the international press has a vital role to play — even more important than the diplomatic efforts of our governments — in forcing greater transparency and accountability.
I just spent two weeks in Sri Lanka and whenever I sat down with someone in Colombo to ask their opinion of the country's political situation, they'd scan the room, lean in close, and ask if we could talk off the record. When I called opposition journalists they demurred, and suggested that we meet in person. They wouldn't say it out loud, but my driver did: "The phones are all tapped," he explained with refreshing bluntness.
I asked if he thought my phone at the Hilton might be bugged. He bobbled his head vaguely, hesitating, and said, "Well ... "
This was an example of what Kesara Abeywardena, a journalist from The Daily Mirror — the closest thing there is to an independent newspaper on the island — referred to as Sri Lanka's "culture of self-censorship." Abeywardena used to write a political column, but decided it would be better to broaden his focus.
"For your safety?" I asked.
"Well ... " he replied, smiling slightly.
Over the last year, numerous journalists have, in the grim local parlance, been "white vanned." The latest, Prageeth Eknaligoda, a vocal critic of the government, has been missing since Jan. 24. Chandana Sirimalwatte, the editor of an opposition paper, Lanka, was recently detained by the police and his newspaper was ordered to stop printing.
Since President Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power, arrest warrants increasingly have been used to muzzle opponents. Earlier this month, to the shock of the West, police picked up the main opposition candidate, Sarath Fonseka (literally, apparently, as he was unwilling to get out of his chair). Last week they arrested Fonseka's son-in-law's mother. At the end of January a dozen or so ranking members of the military — all allies of Fonseka — were fired or arrested.
The charges, in all of these cases, are trumped up. The point is the message, and the message is, "We will get you. If you're not around, we'll get your next of kin."
Malinda Seneviratne, a sharp but unabashedly pro-government journalist, is the only person I spoke to who was happy to go on the record about anything. He said that these things have been going on for years, but no one complained because the country was mired in civil war.
"The problem," he said, "is that we continue to live under 'emergency rule,' even though the war is over. These kinds of policies made a kind of sense when we were dealing with all the terrorism, and the war. But the war's over. It's not necessary anymore."
Over the past 30 years, Sri Lanka has undergone extraordinary changes in order to cope with the day-to-day reality of the war. The changes are systemic and will be almost impossible to undo. Now that the war has ended, people in the West have begun to take notice. Major news outlets have been decrying the failure of Sri Lankan democracy, as if it's something new. It's not. A few wartime presidents were somewhat friendlier, but the underlying political structure was the same.
At the core of Sri Lanka's problem is a rotten constitution, which gives the president near dictatorial power. Opposition members in parliament are easily bought through cushy ministerial appointments, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court is appointed by the president.
A populist and a nationalist in the mold of Hugo Chávez, President Rajapaksa is able to win political points by defying diplomatic pressure from the West, a fact that often makes the application of that pressure self-defeating. On Feb. 16, the European Union dropped Sri Lanka's preferential trade status because of human-rights violations, but the lead article on the issue in Sri Lanka's state-run newspaper began with a prideful quote from Rajapaksa's central bank governor, "Sri Lanka is not prepared to barter its sovereignty for the sake of regaining the tariff concession and will continue with its stated policy instead of giving in to any unfair demands."
As long as the government can control the conversation like that — deftly transforming international concern about human rights into the politically attractive issue of sovereignty — there will be little impetus for reform. Accountability and openness go hand in hand. So the first step forward falls to the press. Since the Sri Lankan press can't speak up for itself, it's the duty of the international press to speak on its behalf.
So the best thing we can do right now is continue flooding the newswires with stories about the disastrous state of Sri Lankan democracy. Kesara Abeywardena may have to choose his words carefully, lest he get white vanned, but I just flew home to Seattle, so I'll go ahead and call it like I see it.Peter Mountford is in his second year as a writer in residence at Seattle Arts & Lectures. His first novel will be published in 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.