In the past few days, Sri Lanka has been in the news across South Asia. In Pakistan, Lankan cricketers get sprayed with bullets. The attack leads to unprecedented traffic jams in Kathmandu, as Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse’s pilgrimage to Lumbini gets aborted and he returns home amidst high security. In New Delhi, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee is getting used to making frequent statements on Lanka and one waits for the day when he might rightly pronounce the word, Puthukudiyiruppu, the current theatre of the longest-ranging civil war in Asia between the Sinhala Army and LTTE.
And yet, we know almost nothing about what exactly is happening in the Vanni belt in North Sri Lanka, the last hideout of LTTE, but also the zone where over 250,000 civilians are said to be trapped, caught in the crossfire. It is as if the regional and international media is exercising a combined strategy of silence on what is perhaps one of the most brutal military engagements in recent memory. The Lankan government has declined all media requests for observing and reporting the war. A few foreign correspondents have been taken on guided tours. It is a war without witnesses.
But by all accounts, it is a dirty war. The Rajapakse government has mutated, over the past two years, into an oligarchy of a handful of power-hungry personalities, many of them having dual citizenship or being outright “foreigners”. The cabinet comprises 105 ministers — the largest anywhere in the world. Of these, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, the defence secretary, is a hardline militarist, with a stated intention of finishing the war on LTTE before the Sinhala New Year in April. Neither he nor his commander Sarath Fonseka and his rabidly chauvinist adviser Champika Ranawaka of JHU (the “Monk’s Party”) are known to have any compunction about human rights violations or extra-judicial excesses and have been insensitive to large-scale Tamil civilian casualties in the war.
Over the past few months, the war atmosphere in the North is also being turned around to hit at dissenting voices and critics in Colombo. Such is the level of threat-perception in the media that, according to one estimate, almost 80 per cent of the practising journalists have now left the country for personal safety reasons. In early January this year, the offices of MTV, the largest independent TV station in the country, were vandalised by an armed group. MTV was accused of not glorifying, sufficiently enough, the army’s victories in the North. Days later, Lasantha Wickrematunga, the high-profile editor of Sunday Leader, who had been a consistent critic of the Mahinda presidency, its corruptions and its war-mongering, was assassinated at a busy square in broad daylight. Subsequently, several senior journalists and columnists have been variously dubbed as “traitors” or “tigers” and have been warned. Many of them, Lasantha-style, go around with their own obituaries in their pocket.
Not for nothing has Amnesty International now described Sri Lanka as “the most dangerous country to report from.” Also Reporters Without Borders, which compiles the World Press Freedom Index, has rated Sri Lanka to be 163rd out of 173 countries in 2008, the lowest for any “democracy” in the world.
Simultaneously, civilian Tamil populations, on the run from the war in Kilinocchi and Mullaithivu, are being herded and corralled into detention centres (called “welfare” centres) and there seems to be a plan to hold them here for at least three years to be used for block votes during elections as well as to be sanitised from “Tiger” influence. Besides enormous human rights violations and humiliation, it is also leading to medical and food crises and daily deaths.
In the South, people speak fearfully of the “white van” (death squad) culture, in which van loads of armed assassins, with full knowledge of the government, pick up political dissidents from the streets and shoot them or incarcerate them in private “interrogation” houses. This level of physical repression, particularly of the media, also prevents those in the South from having any knowledge of the real situation in the North and East of the country.
This escalation of “impunity” of the Sinhala state comes at the end, perhaps of a cycle in Sri Lankan history. There is a looking ahead now to what might be called a “post-LTTE” era. However, this comes along with a deliberate suppression of the “devolution debate,” as it has been described over the past 25 years of attrition. Sinhala nationalist voices seem to have surfaced all over again. It is being openly advocated that after the war, they will engage with issues of security and development and not of minorities. It has the makings of a recipe for the repeat of a hegemonic, majoritarian state all over again. Some 30 years of bloodletting and Tamil misery and sacrifice would have come to naught.