Colombo Telegraph

Sri Lanka Should Have Rolled The Red Carpet To Rathika

By Veluppillai Thangavelu –

Veluppillai Thangavelu

Sri Lanka Should Have Rolled  the Red Carpet to Rathika, MP  Instead of Unleashing Sleuths to Harass Her

Sri Lanka like Don Quixote has gained notoriety in fighting imaginary enemies. Tilting at windmills is an English idiom which means attacking imaginary enemies. The phrase is sometimes used to describe confrontations where adversaries are incorrectly perceived, or to courses of action that are based on misinterpreted or misapplied heroic, romantic, or idealistic justifications. It may also connote an importune, unfounded and vain effort against confabulated adversaries for a vain goal.  Don Quixote is Spanish novel written by Miguel de Cervantes and published in two volumes, in 1605 and 1615.In the novel, Don Quixote fights windmills that he imagines to be ferocious giants.  For instance Quixote sees the windmill blades as the giant’s arms.

Sri Lankan politicians and bureaucrats are so paranoid like Don Quixote that they perceive visitors to the country as potential enemies or to be precise LTTE sympathisers, proxies, rumps etc. Such visitors are treated roughly no matter their status.

A classic example is the deportation of Mr. Bob Rae back to Canada in June 2009.  Mr. Rae travelled to Sri Lanka on a private visit with a valid visa issued by the Sri Lankan High Commission Office in Ottawa. Upon arrival, Mr. Rae was detained, accused of being a national security threat by the government of Sri Lanka, and refused entry into the country.  He was further accused as a supporter of LTTE. 

“He is barred from entering the country. He is being deported. . . . We have intelligence information that he is supporting the LTTE,” chief immigration controller P.B. Abeykoon said, according to Agence France-Presse in Colombo, the country’s capital.

“To describe me as ‘an LTTE supporter,’ as an army spokesman has done today, is a lie, pure and simple,” Mr Rae fired back in an e-mailed statement. “The Sri Lankan government has made this decision because they have apparently reached some ill-conceived and defamatory conclusions about me. But after 30 years of public service at home and abroad, I have to say, this decision reflects on them, and not on me.”

Since Bob Rae’s deportation several other prominent personalities have been denied entry into Sri Lanka or after entry forced to leave the country mostly on the grounds they are supporters of LTTE. 

The Sri Lankan government itself is desperately trying to silence any critics and the best way is to deny entry visas to such critics. One of the victims is Callum Macrae who is a writer and award winning film-director. He is also accused as pro-LTTE supporter. He has produced   war documentaries like Enemies Within and Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields for Channel 4, Witness and People in Power for Al Jazeera.  Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields won the Current Affairs – International category of the Royal Television Society’s Television Journalism Awards 2010/2011. His latest war documentary  to earn the ire of Sri Lankan authorities is ‘No Fire Zone – Sri Lanka’  covering the true stories of war crimes committed at end of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009.

Last year Callum Macrae managed to enter Sri Lanka as part of the team of journalists accompanying the British Prime Minister David Cameron to attend CHOGM. Sri Lankan authorities had no choice but to allow entry of Callum Macrae and his crew. Mahinda Rajapaksa said Macrae is free to visit any part of the country, but that was an empty rhetoric! After allowing him and his crew into the country, the government started harassing them. A government engineered demonstration by Sinhalese mobs was held against him at Anuradhapura while he was on his way to visit to Jaffna. Callum Macrae and his crew were forced to return to their Hotel in Colombo under police escort! However, his woes and tribulations did not end as he expected. Next day Immigration Officials descended on the Hotel and started interrogating Macrae and his mates. A frustrated Macrae booked out of the hotel and flew home the same day.

Callum Macrae was previously warned   through emails “You are welcome to come to Sri Lanka only to go back in a coffin”. And another said: “Callum Macrae – do not come to Sri Lanka. You will be abducted in a white van, and sent to meet Lasantha Wickrematunga.” White vans are recognised as an instrument of terror in Sri Lanka, regularly used to abduct government critics. Lasantha Wickrematunga was the editor and founder of the Sunday Leader – a respected newspaper critical of the Rajapaksa regime. He was shot and killed by unknown assassins in January 2009, just a few days after criticising the government’s conduct of the war.

An angry and frustrated Callum Macrae announced that he is more determined to tell the story of Sri Lanka and will produce more documentaries on war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan army during the last phases of the war. He accused the government of engaging in systematic repression, denial of freedoms and attempts to ethnically re-engineer the north of the country, where the majority of the Thamil population live.

Last year on Christmas Day, the army stationed in Kilinochchi arrested 24-year-old, Thamil Prabhakaran who was supposedly working for Ananda Vikatan magazine based in Chennai. His offence? “He had been photographing military installations trying to produce a documentary and write articles tarnishing the image of Sri Lanka after coming into the country on a tourist visa” said police spokesman Ajith Rohana.  He further said “We deported him this evening without pressing charges, but we deleted all the pictures he had taken in the north” he said.

There is no official censorship in Sri Lanka, but unofficially foreign journalists travelling to the former conflict zone are still required to submit their passport to the military before entering, four years after the end of the war.

Also in November last year, authorities deported  two Australian journalists International Federated rights activists after accusing them of entering the country on tourist visas and participating in a rights forum. Immigration chief Chulananda Perera said the activists, from the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists, were found attending the meeting in Colombo yesterday.

Sunil Jayasekara, convener of the local group Free Media Movement, said Jacqueline Park, and Jane Worthington were on holiday and joined the meeting after an informal invitation. Park, who is Asia Pacific director of the IFJ, is also director of the media union-supported Walkley Foundation, and editor of The Walkley Magazine, while Worthington is deputy director of the IFJ Asia-Pacific and The Walkley Foundation.

Jayasekara said officials raided the meeting, took the activists to their hotel and left with their passports after questioning them.  He said the Australians were not engaging in any work, but meeting with old friends.

Sri Lanka is known to have blacklisted many foreign journalists over their reports on the country’s human rights record and alleged war crimes in the final stages of the ethnic war in 2009

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) accused Sri Lanka of keeping up a policy of harassing independent journalists despite the end of the fighting with Tamil rebels in May 2009.

“Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse continually insists that his administration has nothing to hide, yet time and time again, we see authorities harass and intimidate journalists in an effort to prevent them from doing their work,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said.

The Sri Lankan government is spending millions of dollars to polish its tarnished image abroad. Its paying a top British PR firm about 3 million sterling pounds (Rs. 545,880,000) a year to try to boost the country’s post-war image.  Reliable sources say hundreds of millions of rupees have been paid to Bell Pottinger to improve the country’s image in advance of Sri Lanka making a bid for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

Millions of rupees are squandered on hiring PR firms when Sri Lankan families are creaking under the cost of rising food prices. Most essential food items are selling at an all time high making the daily grind even more difficult to bear. World events, poor weather globally and short term planning has all conspired to make life extremely difficult for ordinary people.  But the government carries on regardless recklessly spending public funds.

But all this expenditure on PR makes no sense if the government and its bureaucrats  treat foreign media personnel like criminals. It makes things worse for the government. Instead of winning them over by extending a warm welcome, the government is doing the opposite. Antagonizing the media is a PR disaster for  any  government.

Another ‘victim’ to Sri Lanka’s paranoia about LTTE’s perceived supporters is Ms Rathika,  NDP Member of Parliament for Scarborough Rouge River riding. She was on a low key private visit to the country of her birth to see her extended family members and a few places she remembered during her childhood days. Her visit on a tourist visa has nothing to do with politics,  leave alone human rights concerns. It was not a political trip and she did not want any publicity.    Nonetheless it   ended in   another monumental PR disaster for the government. There is a saying in Thamil; you give the stick only to get beaten with the same stick. This is exactly what happened when war of words exploded between the government and Ms Rathika.

The news that Ms Rathika went to Sri Lanka 27 years after her family immigrated to Canada broke out like a storm a day after she landed in Colombo on December 28th.  Till then the media was in the dark about her visit, so the news came as a surprise to many. I knew she had accepted an invitation to speak at the Sangamam 4 cultural even to be held in Chennai from January 04 – 12, 2014. But the event got postponed to January 24 – February 02, 2014 which did not fit into  her itinerary.

Various rumours started circulating in Toronto among the Thamil community that Ms Rathika was under house arrest and she is going to be deported back to Canada.

On Tuesday night (December 31, 2013) Sri Lankan media reported the NDP MP was on a fact-finding mission in the country and was placed under house arrest.

On December 31, CBC carried a news item quoting Ms. Rathika as saying she was subjected to political intimidation. Ms Rathika told she could be subject to arrest and deportation, as several commonwealth MPs from New Zealand and Australia recently faced. She was referring to two politicians who were detained in November on accusation of breaking visa laws. “I now look forward to exploring and learning more about the country of my birth,” said Ms. Rathika. She   confirmed that she has NOT been placed on house arrest in Sri Lanka.

On the same day TamilNet reported Thamil parliamentarian Rathika Sitsabaiesan, MP who was on a visit to the island has come under the harassment of the occupying Sri Lankan military and police establishment in Jaffna. Sri Lanka  ‘Terrorist Investigation Department’ Officer-in-Charge in Jaffna Ranaweera accompanied by two TID female officers  have placed the visiting Canadian parliamentarian under an ‘unofficial’ house-arrest after she entered the hotel around 7. 00 p.m. This after concluding a visit to the uprooted people of Valikamam North with the chairman of Valikamam North Pradesha Sabhai (PS) Mr S. Sugirthan.

The 8-10 TID officers stationed at the hotel did not allow anyone to meet the visiting Canadian parliamentarian according to news sources in Jaffna.

On January 08, The Toronto Star carried a news item on page 2 titled “New Democrat MP trying to embarrass us, says Sri Lankan official.”

“The Sri Lanka High Commission says NDP MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan was on a tourist visa and had been advised not to engage in political activities that would amount to flouting Sri Lanka’s immigration laws and regulations. It further said “Sri Lankan authorities handled the issue in a responsible manner, adding that Sitsabaiesan’ s allegation she was subject to “political intimidation” is erroneous and an attempt to unfairly embarrass the government.

The accusation Ms Rathika attempted to unfairly embarrass the government is simply hilarious, if at all it is a self-inflicted embarrassment. No embarrassment would have been caused to the government, if it handled her visit diplomatically and discretely.  The government treated her shabbily instead of rolling the red carpet welcome for a woman of Sri Lankan origin who has become a Member of Parliament in the country she migrated.

The fact of the matter is the government itself is a huge embarrassment among a considerable section within Sri Lanka and within the international community. 

The Sri Lankan government has come for severe criticism   for its poor human rights record and the threat of an international inquiry into country’s human rights. Already two resolutions have been adopted against Sri Lanka at the UNHCR   in 2012 and 2013 due to diminishing human rights and failure to conduct credible investigations into allegations of war crimes. Despite an exhaustive, sometimes aggressive, Sri Lankan campaign the resolution at the UNHCR was carried by a big margin 24 voting in favour, 15 against and 8 abstentions.

Sri Lanka’s media is in crisis. Since 2005, 34 journalists have been murdered, not a single murderer has been brought to justice. And up to 25 journalists have fled the country.

2013 World Press Freedom Index ranked Sri Lanka 162 out of 179 countries surveyed!

Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2013 shows Sri Lanka placed 91 along with Malawi and Morocco out of 177 countries surveyed. Corruption enforcement of laws and regulations of the country, abuse of power, subversion of the rule of law, secret dealings and bribery.

The President has been allocated a sum of Rs. 8,567,700,000 in the 2014 Budget for the upkeep of his official residence. In comparison the Northern Provincial Council has been allocated Rs.15,520 million out of which Rs.1,876 earmarked for capital expenditure. This amount is only good enough to construct 17 kms of road!

Right now the unearthing of more than 40 skeletal remains from the mass grave at Mannar, close to Thirukkethiswaram Temple, is a huge embarrassment to the Sri Lankan government. This is the first mass grave to be found in the former war zone; it is spread over an area measuring about 400 square feet (37 square meters) and is 5 feet deep. The discovery has fuelled speculation that there may be many more like it containing the remains of thousands who went missing during the three-decade war.

Sri Lanka is already under international pressure to address alleged war time human rights violations. A failure to probe the discovery could fuel the anger of Western nations demanding an independent international investigation into suspected abuses.

Sri Lanka must first take the plank out of its own eye before removing the speck from other’s eye. Too long Sri Lankan government is blaming others for its own miseries.

Ms. Rathika Sitsabaiesan says her recent experience in Sri Lanka strengthened her resolve to fight for human rights in the country and across the world.  That’s the reality for people in that country and she had “a small taste of it.”

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