By Johan Mikaelsson –
Sri Lanka’s calendar is full of reminiscences from the bloody years. January is a month to remember the targeted killings of journalists under the previous government’s supervision. Impunity for these crimes against democracy prevails.
In February attention is on independence, which opened up the doors for ethnical strife, in May it’s the end of the war, in ‘Black July’ the race riots against Tamils, and in November Tamil families remember their dead guerrillas.
January is the month that most clearly is associated with violence against journalists. January 8, 2009 Lasantha Wickrematunge, the Sunday Leader’s brave editor was killed. He lives on as an icon of the struggle for press freedom. He is and remains “unafraid and unbowed”, the newspaper’s motto.
Today, January 24, 2006, ten years ago Subramaniyam Sugitharajah was shot dead in Trincomalee. He was an ambitious and talented journalist for the Tamil daily Sudar Oli, and he also worked as a labourer at the port to support his family. Sugitharajah had gained popularity among the readership for his articles. Above all he was a 35 year-old married man and a father of two.
In 2005, the situation in Trincomalee constantly deteriorated. This culminated January 2, 2006, when five 20-year old Tamil students were shot dead by soldiers in the middle of the city. The military and state media tried, as usually at this time, to spread disinformation. The young men were falsely accused of having died of an explosion while they were preparing an attack against government soldiers.
Sugitharajah along with a young colleague was able to get into the morgue to photograph the dead boys, all with bullet wounds in the head. The portrait images published on the newspaper’s front page was not lying. It was a drastic editorial decision — according to the Sudar Oli Editor Nadesapillai Vithyatharan it was the only way to get the truth out.
The following Sunday Iqbal Athas had an in-depth description of the events in his Situation Report in The Sunday Times. The Sunday Leader also carried a story. Soon, even more detailed reports came out and the Toronto based Tamil journalist D.B.S Jeyaraj wrote lengthy articles with a thorough documentation of the chain of events. The military and the government media’s attempts to cover-up failed.
There had been too many witnesses. The entire area where it all took place was being sealed-off by the military. All lights were suddenly out, and the entire neighbourhood was pitch-black. The father of one of the boys had pleaded with the soldiers in vain to be let through. Hundreds of people could hear the young people’s cries for mercy, and then the fatal shots. Two young men miraculously survived. They, as well as family members can and still want to testify. The families opposed strongly when the army and the state media pointed to their sons as ‘LTTE terrorists’. The following days Trincomalee residents rallied behind them in mass protests.
A cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Colombo later came out through Wikileaks. It revealed that the Presidents’ brother and Economical advisor Basil Rajapaksa had said that he and the government knew that the soldiers from the Special Task Force (STF), a special force within police, had committed the deed. But the soldiers had used other automatic weapons than their ordinary ones and could therefore not be legally bound. It was of course a lame excuse for not going to the bottom.
Three weeks after the attack, January 24 2006 Sugitharajah became the victim of yet another lethal attack. The deed is typical of the premeditated murder of press freedom by the previous regime. Journalists were killed to hide even worse violations of human rights and to intimidate the media, individual journalists and all citizens to silence and submission.
‘Trinco 5’ could, despite efforts, not be hidden behind fog. But the leaders of that time has not to this day been held to account. They simply used another well-tested method — set up mock-up investigations and keep dragging on.
It all ended up in the shade during the final phase of the long war against the Tamil Eelam Liberation Tigers (LTTE) and the repression of the Tamils’ desire for separation in any form from the mainly Sinhalese central government.
The day before the murder of Sugitharajah Sudar Oli published what was to be his last article, dealing with the brutality used by EPDP paramilitaries in the city.
The murder took place at 6 AM. Sugitharajah waited for a bus at a bus stop outside the Governor’s office, when two men on a motorcycle stopped in front of him. One of the men lifted his arm and shot him with a gun. The LTTE political office, which was allowed to function in Trincomalee during the cease-fire, said that the assassination was carried out by paramilitary groups that collaborated with the Sri Lankan army.
The Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance (SLTMA) noted that suspected perpetrators in several similar murder cases have gone free, which opened up new murder. This murder was committed in an area with a high presence of soldiers, camps and sentry points. It was a clear signal to all: Those who oppose the armed forces are not safe anywhere. The targeted killing was condemned by the local Free Media Movement (FMM), Reporters Without Borders (RWB) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
There were suspects and motives, but the police investigation gave nothing, as expected. The government promised an investigation, which did not materialize. Journalists who have survived attacks testify in most cases point the fingers towards soldiers, military intelligence and paramilitaries affiliated with the security forces.
What, under the previous regime was a strategy, today is a lack of prioritization, and possibly political courage, though there is some progress in a couple of murder cases. Impunity still denigrates Sri Lanka’s reputation internationally. The real will to address and solve the crimes against democracy seems to be missing. The opposite — a credible handling of investigations — possibly through a commission — would show the world that this is a nation capable of lifting itself.
On my last two visits to the island in August and November 2015, the most obvious impression that people are enjoying the freedom of expression. The feeling was even stronger in November. In August, there were still some uncertainty — could Mahinda Rajapaksa come back to power as prime minister? Now he poses no imminent threat.
People are calmer. At the same time, they realize that not everything is resolved just because a new government is in power. Although it calls itself ‘Government for Good Governance’, new issues surface. Some of those who have previously been questioned for their exercise of power has been given a new chance in President Sirisena’s and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government, which celebrated its one-year anniversary a few weeks ago.
Those who are reasonably suspected of corruption could be detained pending trial. The question is what happens to those suspected of abuse and violence, which do not fall within what falls under accepted military actions.
In November, I visited the place in central Trincomalee where the five young men were executed, close to the statue of Mahatma Gandhi and near the beach-front. Many I talked to remember the 20-year-olds and the gruesome night when they were killed. Sufficient facts have been provided. Although the soldiers have been remanded on suspicion of involvement in the killings, no one has been held accountable. Police Superintendent of the area, Kapila Jeyasekera, who had command responsibility over the STF has been described as the mastermind of the unlawful operation. He was promoted by the previous government in 2013 and still runs free.
Just as the families of the dead boys, Sugitharajahs widow and children have left their home town of Trincomalee.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe proclaimed at a session in Parliament on December 17 that the government will pay compensation to survivors of the 44 journalists and media workers who were killed after 2004. The violence against journalists and media organizations started to occur after Mahinda Rajapaksa took office as Prime Minister and the split within the LTTE by its’ commander in the east, Karuna.
Of the 44, there were four Sinhalese and a few Muslim Moors, all others were Tamils. Some twenty were linked to the LTTE media outlets. Many of the killed had distributed Tamil newspapers. In a majority of the deaths, motives and tracks points to the fact that government forces were responsible. In several cases LTTE was behind killings.
The new government should prioritize the targeted killings of journalists in the independent media organizations. In some cases, there are already suspects and evidence — Prageeth Ekneligodas’ disappearance in 2010 can get a solution and the murder of Dharmeratnam Sivaram in 2005 could well be cleared up.
Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed when he was on his way to his job in the morning traffic. The murderers, eight men on four motorcycles, stopped his car, smashed the windows and then his skull with a sharp iron rod. Former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa have told Lasanthas’ brother, Lal Wickrematunge, that General Sarath Fonseka was behind the murder. Fonseka, who was imprisoned for having challenged Rajapaksa in the presidential election in 2010, has been appointed Field Marshal of the new government. Journalists in Sri Lanka and in exile therefore see it as unlikely a fresh investigation will lead anywhere.
Those who carried out the targeted killings of Wickrematunge and Sugitharajah and numerous other journalists have one thing in common — they were only tools. Responsibility had been delegated. The killers were given free reign. More important are the ones who bear the main responsibility, those who gave the orders and those who not only accepted impunity but made it rule.
*Johan Mikaelsson – Freelance Journalist based in Sweden, author of “When They Kill Journalists” a non-fiction story about Sri Lanka, released in Sweden in 2015, English version in 2016.