The government’s approach to problem solving after the end of the war has been two fold. One is to set up mechanisms that would give a different perspective on the problem. With the overall improvement in the country’s post-war situation evident to both citizens and foreign visitors alike, the government has its own story to tell. The government established the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to deal with the mounting international pressure on it on account of alleged war crimes in the last phase of the war. The report of the LLRC that was released to the public in November last year has obtained sufficient international acceptance to give the government more breathing space.
The alternative governmental approach towards dealing with problems has been to deny their reality and accuse others of engaging in conspiracies against it. This was evident in the government’s response to the decision of seven media organizations to stage a Black January protest in Colombo against the killings and disappearances of journalists that have taken place with impunity in the past in different parts of the country, and which have continued to hinder the free expression of ideas even in recent times. The government utilized the power of the state media to deny and discredit this claim. Days before the protest those who were involved in organizing the protest were described by the government media as LTTE supporters, notwithstanding the demise of that organization over two and half years ago.
The name “Black January" was chosen by the organisers to put the spotlight on attacks on the media that have occurred in the month of January. The first victim was a freelance photo journalist from Trincomalee, Subramaniam Sugirdharajan who contributed to “Sudar Oli”. He was killed by an unidentified gunman on 24 January, 2006 in Trincomalee. It was Sugirdharajan who provided photographs to the Tamil media on the killing of the 5 youths in Trincomalee, early January, 2006. Other January attacks included the torching of the “MTV/MTB” media station, the killing of The Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga in 2009, and the disappearance of political columnist Prageeth Ekneligoda in 2010.
On the day of the protest the government acting through the police sought a court order to stop the demonstration on the grounds of public security. In addition, government members organized a much larger parallel demonstration at the same venue. At the pro-government protest there were placards labeling the organisers of the protest, as traitors and supporters of the LTTE. According to media reports, these pro-government demonstrators were armed with clubs and disrupted traffic. But the police which had filed for a court order to prevent the free media protest from taking place merely looked on.
A similar governmental strategy was followed a fortnight earlier in Jaffna in regard to a protest against missing and disappeared persons which happened on a very large scale during the war, particularly in the North and East of the country. After the war’s end there was an expectation that the government would take steps to ensure that the whereabouts and fate of those who were missing or disappeared would be ascertained. But to the grief and frustration of their families this did not happen. The government has failed to heed even the interim recommendation of the LLRC in this regard which was made over a year ago.
In the present situation where there is no movement forward in finding out what happened to their loved ones, their families will ever be ready to join anyone who will champion their cause. There is a requirement that all civic activities, including social gatherings, should be notified in advance to the security forces. The large scale presence of security forces belonging to one ethnic community where the people belong to another ethnic community also exacerbates the possibility of misunderstandings and mistrust. Therefore the people feel disempowered and too intimidated to organize anything due to the tight governmental control over dissent in the North.
In this context, a demonstration in Jaffna on behalf of missing and disappeared persons organized by the breakaway faction of the JVP obtained popular support especially amongst the families of the victims. Although the JVP has traditionally been viewed as a Sinhalese nationalist party, its breakaway faction has been trying to reach out to the Tamil people in the North. This is appreciated by the relatives of the missing persons, even those who might not have much sympathy towards the other objectives of the JVP.
However, in a manner that was similar to its treatment of the free media protest in Colombo, the government took action to disrupt this meeting. Whereas in Colombo the judiciary was utilized to limit the protest, in Jaffna the army blocked the JVP demonstrators from travelling to their destination in Jaffna. Around 800 persons who were heading towards Jaffna along the A9 road were blocked at Omanthai. According to media reports they were heading towards Jaffna in 20 vehicles including 12 buses. In addition, government members in Jaffna organized an even larger demonstration against those who were calling for the missing and disappeared to be located denouncing them as pro-LTTE activists.
The problem with these government reactions to public protests undertaken by different segments of the population is that they do nothing to resolve the problems that exist. If problems that exist are to be solved there has to be preparedness to change. If there is no preparedness to change, problems will not be solved. The killings and disappearances of journalists is a real problem and accounts for why Sri Lanka ranks close to the bottom of world rankings on media freedom. So is the problem of killings and disappearances of Tamil civilians during the war which is why there is an unceasing international demand for accountability.
In the coming month, the government will be forced to defend its human rights record before the international community at the annual sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. One of the main achievements that the government is likely to place before those who accuse it will be the LLRC report. In their report, the Commissioners of the LLRC gave a prominent place to the protection of the free media and called on the government to investigate past killings and disappearances of journalists. The LLRC also noted that their interim recommendation had not been implemented. These included providing details of those held in government custody to their relatives and the fate of those who were killed or disappeared to be made known.
The onus is on the government to solve problems, and not to postpone their resolution or to deny that they exist at all. There may be some problems that the passage of time heals or makes irrelevant. However, problems that have to do with the memories of people who went missing or were killed in brutal circumstances will almost surely never go away on their own. The recent decision of the French government to make it illegal to deny the alleged massacre of one million Armenians by Turkey in 1915 as an act of genocide is a pointed reminder to us in Sri Lanka. The present government of Sri Lanka must not leave the unhealed memories of the recent past to grow, multiply and haunt Sri Lanka a hundred years from now.