Solidarity spoke to Bashana Abeywardane a journalist forced to flee Sri Lanka in 2006 who now lives in Europe and features in a new documentary Silenced Voices—Tales of Sri Lankan Journalists in Exile about the reality of the situation there.
Three years after Sri Lanka’s civil war ended, a new wave of asylum seekers are fleeing the country on boats headed for Australia. Liberal MP Julie Bishop recently demanded that anyone from Sri Lanka be sent back immediately, claiming that with the civil war over, those fleeing were not genuine refugees:
“There are a few things that need to be understood about what is going on in Sri Lanka, in the Tamil regions in the north and east of the country. The high level of militarisation and permanent state of fear has been maintained by the government. Seventy five per cent of the whole strength of the military has been deployed there. When everyone was hoping that the militarisation [of the area] would decrease as a result of the end of the war, it has actually increased to maintain a strong grip over the Tamil people that survived.
According to a report in June 2012 in the prestigious Indian Economic and Political Weekly, a reporter who went to the northern part of the country wrote that there is a solider for every five people. Most Tamil families have at least five members which implies there is a soldier for every family.
Even if we believe the government’s own statistics there are around 35,000 troops in the peninsula, a soldier for every 18 people.
According to the government out of 280,000 people displaced they have resettled 240,000 and there are only 3000 left [in refugee camps]. But if that’s true there should be 40,000 in the camps.
According to a report tabled in the parliament in late October by a Tamil politician, 200,000 people who were moved out of the main camps are still living either in transit camps or with host families because they are not allowed to go back to their own land. Their means of living has been completely curtailed because their lands are occupied by the military. Most of these people are either farmers or fishermen, but they cannot go fishing, they cannot cultivate their lands.
At the same time the rate of abductions has increased in the last three years after the war. According to one reputed newspaper in Colombo there has been one abduction reported every five days since the war ended.
When you consider all these facts it is not surprising that people are trying to come desperately out of that situation. Politicians [in Australia] like to say they are coming to seek a better life, which is of course true because what’s in Sri Lanka is not a life at all. A better life means a life with security and freedom.
The organisation that I belong to Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka has compiled a report putting together the number of media workers killed or disappeared from April 2004 to January 2010. At least 44 media workers and journalists have disappeared, and no single perpetrator has been brought to justice.
There hasn’t been any attempt to expose what happened in the war, because everyone knows the price they have to pay if you don’t toe the government line. In that sense there is no media freedom inside the country even three years after the war.
Both Sinhalese and Tamil journalists writing and reporting about the human rights violations and the situation in the north and east in particular have been forced out the country.
Especially during the last ten years the level of racism and chauvinism has increased due to the policies of the government and the right-wing chauvinist parties.
Reports exposing the plight of the Tamil people are not available inside the country, because there is huge censoring of information. Therefore no one believes that such terrible atrocities are happening in the country.
The impunity that the Sri Lankan state has enjoyed is dependent on the hypocrisy of the international community. The Sri Lankan government knew perfectly well that nobody really wanted to stop them from what they were doing.
Sri Lanka’s importance is that it sits in the middle of one of the most important sea routes in the Indian ocean, the conveyer belt that connects the Panama Canal to the Malacca straits. The lack of willingness to put pressure [on the regime] is based not on the lack of information, but on the strategic interests [of outside powers].”