21 May, 2022


Minimising Collateral Damage Due To Human Rights Problems Requires New Approach

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

The Sri Lankan Airlines flight was full of tourists. But when the flight landed in Colombo nearly all of these passengers set off for the transit lounge. Their destination was not Colombo, which was only a stopover on the way to Maldives. That night Colombo airport was quite empty. The airport’s duty free shops were quite empty too. The staff at these shops stood outside their shops competing with each other to bring in the few passengers who had disembarked and come in through immigration. The contrast was so stark with other airports where the sales staff does not need to engage in high pressure salesmanship. The much advertised success of the tourist industry was not much in evidence at the airport.

Travel advisories of the developed countries warn potential tourists about the dangers they might have to face in Sri Lanka.  For example the UK government has issued a travel advisory that states “The security forces have imposed restrictions preventing all foreign passport holders (including British nationals) travelling to the Northern Province. All foreign passport holders planning to travel to the north must get prior approval from the Ministry of Defence. Military activities are ongoing. You should obey orders from the security forces and signs warning of the danger from land-mines. See Local travel – North. Political rallies in Sri Lanka have sometimes turned violent. You should avoid any political gatherings or rallies. See Political situation. There is an underlying threat from terrorism. See Terrorism.”

A key reason for the relatively low success rate of Sri Lanka in comparison with other tourist destinations is the continuing political instability and controversial human rights issues that have gained international attention. The application form for a tourist specifically mentions that dealings with NGOs are not permitted on a tourist visa. Together with the travel restrictions to the North, this reveals that there are restrictions on tourists due to political and security concerns. The message is that Sri Lanka is still not a normal peace time country, but one that is grappling to come to terms with the three decade long war and its aftermath. This is a form of collateral damage to Sri Lanka. It is not surprising that tourists prefer to travel to other tourist destinations and give Sri Lanka a miss, even when they transit through Colombo airport.

Unsolved Problem

Last week there was a public meeting on the International Day of the Disappeared. According to the petition handed over to politicians, human rights groups and diplomats, the number of disappeared persons in Sri Lanka since the 1980s (when the JVP insurrection took place) was noted to be very high. According to the petition, “The government’s efforts to address this issue, investigating cases of enforced disappearances to provide redress to their families, to hold those responsible to account and to memorialize those missing appropriately, have been wholly inadequate.” In these days of internet and web-based communications, these messages are not limited to Sri Lanka but go out to the world.

The organization of Families of the Disappeared have reported getting threats when they planned a public meeting in memory of those who have gone missing in Sri Lanka’s many conflicts over these past four decades. The meeting they were having was an annual gathering at Raddologama near Seeduwa, at which there is a monument to the disappeared persons.  This was far away from the North of the country which is a sensitive location to the government on account of its link to the possibility of providing evidence of war crimes.  But that did not preclude them from getting attacked. One of the organizers of the event Brito Fernando reported that he and other organizers had been getting threatening telephone calls.

In addition, posters had come up naming those who would speak on the occasion as traitors. Brito’s house was stoned at night.  However, those who sought to disrupt the event failed to accomplish their task. More than 300 persons attended the commemoration. Most of them were from the south of the country. There were also some from the North and East.  Most of the Sinhalese who attended were mourning their own loved ones who had gone missing. This was not only during the war with the LTTE. Two decades before the war with the LTTE finally ended, there was the JVP insurrection that cost the lives of thousands of Sinhalese, many of whom went missing. Their families mourn them and look for them to this day.

Long  Lasting

Grief will always be at hand for those who have lost their loved ones and have not found out what happened to them.  There is no repressive power that can stop people from missing their loved ones and coming out to remember them.  Therefore even governmental efforts taken to deny the past, or to block investigations into them, are bound to fail.  The longing of people to find out what happened to their loved ones will always be greater, and more enduring, than the desire of the government to suppress the truth.  This is why in countries such as Argentina and Bangladesh, even forty years after the events took place, wrong doers who denied them have been brought before justice.

Recently I attended a conference on establishing an International Day for Orphans. Some of the persons who spoke had lost their family members in the Korean War that took place in the early 1950s. They had been orphaned by war. An elderly professor of linguistics was translating from the Korean language to English at the conference. When one of the participants spoke about how his father had gone missing during the Korean war, the professor who was translating also broke into tears.  It turned out that he too had lost his father in the same way as he too had gone missing in the war. These events had taken place more than 60 years ago, and yet the memories were alive and painful.  The memory of those we love never dies.

The strongest and most sustainable of human love is that of family members for one another. These family ties are not only limited to the nuclear family especially in Asian countries such as Sri Lanka and Korea. They include also the extended family and the larger neighbourhood community. If any government or organization believes it can suppress the memories of those who have lost their loved ones and induce forgetfulness through material inducements, they are making a mistake.  The desperate need of family members to find their lost ones will spur them to take the biggest of risks and continue with the search at the greatest of costs.

Wrong Path

Instead of seeking to heal these painful memories, Sri Lanka has been trying to deal with the past by celebrating war victory on the one hand, and denying the civilian casualty toll on the other. The government has also not been cooperative with regard to demands for independent investigations into the past.  The government has denied permission to UN investigators to enter the country. The government has recently also imposed travel restrictions on foreign citizens entering the North, where the last battles of the war were fought, and where there will be the greatest number of families who have lost their loved ones.

The government has been and continues to be hostile to the UN investigation into human rights violations that took place in the last phase of the war.  It describes this as politically motivated to weaken the sovereignty of the country. The government has also been able to create opposition to the investigation in most of the Sri Lankan people by claiming that this is a plot against the country’s unity and intended to strengthen the LTTE. As a result the general population is oriented to seeing any civil society activism in relation to the fate of those who went missing during the war as being against the national interest.

But even if the government can keep the international investigators at bay, and continue to win elections, it will not be able to prevail over its own people who have lost their loved ones. Therefore it will be more constructive of the government to take steps to heal those memories. The government can utilize the services of its own institutions for this task.  One of these institutions is that of the Commission of Inquiry into Missing Persons. The government needs to make this commission more acceptable to the victims, whose grievances it is meant to address. Many months ago South Africa made an offer to assist in post-war healing and reconciliation after the government invited them to study our post-war problems and the government appeared to accept it.  Due to the breakdown of trust an external facilitator will be necessary.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    “Truth kills those that run from it” – Persian Proverb,

    Mara and his coterie will be killed by the truth when it finally gets them.

    • 2

      what truth are you talking about?

  • 2

    If our Tourist Board had any teeth, it would be seeking answers to how the Maldives with comparatively less of everything, sights, hotels, history, culture, etc. attracts much more tourists than we do. Our Customs, illegally prosecuting tourists with tattoos they don’t like does not help.

    • 2


      Thank You for raising a long overdue question.

      It would be a good idea NOT to go on, and on, about our ‘2500-year-old-civilisation’ especially when, on current form, we cannot live up to it.

      Harrassing, beating up, raping and murdering our guests is NOT the what the world should hear about. Also, we should try to educate our yakko’s that ogling is NOT good form. Ditto, casting lewd suggestive remarks with crude accompanying noises.

      Pissing in the street is NOT what we want to be remembered by.

      A Buddhist priest cussing officials is NOT what the world should see, and hear about. The same goes for the videos of demagogic men draped in saffron robes.

      A bullying politician slapping a high profile diplomat at the court of St James is NOT what the world wants to hear about. Collective lying about it, makes the whole sordid affair worse.

      Like the Maldivians, we should let the pictures of our beautiful island do the talking.

  • 4

    Sadly, Jehan has shone a light on something the government (and most Sri Lankans) would deny.

    The Government of SL cut its teeth quelling the JVP uprising in 1971. It fought hard, and dirty, and set the bar high for later government responses. Governments that followed (of similar and different hues) used 1971 as the benchmark, and went higher.

    The ghosts of all those missing persons have now come back to haunt us. Until these ghosts are laid to rest, and closure given to their long-grieving loved ones, the future will be one of never ending despair that will haunt us for eons.

    As if we do not have enough on our plate, we now see the feral offspring of our most gallant minister (who offered to marry a UN damsel in distress) drawing attention to Sri Lanka for all the wrong reasons.

    Good luck to those charged with bringing in the tourists!

  • 3

    Every country has it’s own unique quality to attract different tourists. SL had a mass influx of tourists soon after the LTTE terrorists were wiped out. So far over several millions have visited SL, and for your “tattoo” story, how many of those millions has been prosecuted for tattoos? 0.0001% or 0.00001%

    • 2


      Tell me why travel advisories of most developed countries keep telling their citizens to give Sri Lanka a miss. The warnings they give are to do with internal travel restriction and military activity besides political violence and terrorism.

      With regards to tattoos great numbers of young people do sport tattoos these days. When they hear that a woman was arrested, harassed, humiliated and deported for wearing a tattoo, I assure you those millions with tattoos are also going to avoid coming to Sri Lanka.

      • 1

        You can have travel advisories as much as you can. Tourists who like to visit SL will be in SL anyway. Every quarter, numbers visiting has steadily increased. Those gov. who issue travel advisories are anti SL and their citizens mostly ignore them anyway.

        • 0

          Eusense, again as usual you have lost the plot. Tourists prosecuted for having tattoos should be zero percent. You’ve got to be gullible if you believe the volume of tourists is increasing. Firstly, the room occupancy in our touritst hotels do not bear it out and secondly our own brothers and sisters from abroad visiting relatives are counted as tourists. You cannot be that simple minded to be taken in by everything this government says.

  • 0

    The # 1 antagonist of the Govt and its majority Sinhala Buddhist inhabitant population, the HC Mr Rankin was all beaming when disembarking from our brand spanking new A330-300.

    He was seen a day or two later,with his hands clasped, and bare feet, in front of one of our Mahanayakas pleading to unite the Nation.

    ( There are few Sinhala Buddhists who barrack for the UNP TNA Diaspora Alliance,They also have been “Aliya” supporters and Mahanayakas “Dayakayas.”.But they have thinned out a lot and now only a minority, Don’t know what the HC had in mind )

    All because of two Rolls Royce Jet Engines.

    He was full of praise for the Airline saying he loves to fly with them.

    Just imagine when A 350 -300 lands with even more expensive Engines.

    There were No warnings for the Brits not to travel.

    May be Dr Jehan was put on Red Eye Flight by the pay masters to cut costs as Paikiosothty has exhausted most of the NGO allocation ..

    On a side note, it is worth remembering that the British based GTF, funded Prabakaran and his Black Tigers to blow up 3 Airbus A330 -200 on the Katunayaka tarmac.

    And the Chief Architect of the LTTE and Prabakaran’s mentor was a guest of the British Govt, living with full VVIP perks in the heart of London.

    May be the Engines were General Electric those days..

  • 1

    I think comparing SL to Maldives is like comparing apples to oranges. Most tourists who go to the Maldives go there to hang out on the beach all day, or to have a whole island to themselves.

    SL does not have beaches as isolated or as beautiful (no significant coral deposits remain in SL, from what I hear) as those in the Maldives. People who choose SL as a destination have cultural interests, in addition to going to the beach.

    Another point to ponder: how come Israel have a vibrant tourism industry despite constant threat of terrorism and a militarily-cordoned off region (the Palestinian areas)?

  • 0

    First they came for Indian Coolies I did not speak out,

    Because I am not a collie.

    Then they came for North-east Kallaththonies I did not speak out,

    Because I am not a Kallaththony.

    Then they came for the Kaaththankudy Kalu thambiya I did not speak out,

    Because I am not a Kalu Thambiya

    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

    -a song by a Sinhala Buddhist double crossed by Sinhala intellectuals.

    Day to day, Jehan changing his opinion and fooling the Sinhala Buddhists.
    In how many places, how many times Jehan has changed his opinion? At last, now, can he say in a simple language that one the Sinhala Buddhist can understand, what the heck he wants the Sinhala Buddhist do about this government? Can he be honest, direct, overt and explicit, in this precarious situation, whence it has become there is no third term; it was only up to second term.

    Isn’t it this government which fought against the Terrorism, which Jehan has been condemning all the way. Didn’t he advocate that there is no investigation necessary, but just install the watered down 13A, that is will do the trick? Did he praise a lot the ugly lies Dayan, Sir Norris….. has been spread all over world and asking the Royal Government to follow up on that? Didn’t he say the LLRC has completed the inquiry, so the UNHRC need to to be in this? Then what is the inquiry by UN wanted? What is he trying to say? When Brother Prince threatening Nimalka, Wickramabhaku… with death, didn’t Jehan went to the Special meeting Brother Prince held for NGOs and came back wrote here, that the Brother Prince has changed, he wanted to improve the NGO; so it is the obligation og NGOs to work with the Brother Prince? Why is he, like a bitch on the road of four way junction, showing back for all the dogs. Doesn’t he has a policy? Did Jehan went to OHCHR and gave any of opinion to the investigating team? Even Hakeem went to Geneva to say his opinion. Jehan cannot uplift him, at least, to the level of Hakeem?

  • 0


    “Truth kills those that run from it” – Persian Proverb,

    That truth ellicited by the Norway Intelligence “IVAD” in 2009, should by now should have killed all thamil including you.

    Unfortunately, you don’t believe in the truth it seems but preach to the others.
    Now that there are restricts to visit the North, at least we are safe now.

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