by Frederica Jansz
Since the bloody 30 year war ended in a shoot-out in a remote mangrove in the North, in Colombo we have all been enjoying a semblance of peace. Of course there are yet no strong institutions which would boost Sri Lanka’s democracy. Good discipline is sadly lacking at all levels for peace to grow.
The bottom line is this. Discipline should be part and parcel set down in the laws of the country. Unfortunately, we have a situation where laws in this country are still arbitrarily invoked and applied by individuals or authorities.
Mahinda Rajapaksa should take note and ensure that good governance, setting out a legal framework is the basis for a stable and peaceful future. Peace in this country is certainly not going to last or grow based on a military victory.
Having said that, it is not just the Rajapaksas who appear to be walking around with wool over their eyes.
As I have said before, we Sri Lankans are absolute suckers. Our “elected” leaders are robbing us right in front our eyes and all we do is complain at the dinner table. We must be the only people who “elect” leaders and allow them (or is it beg them?) to treat us like their slaves. His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa and his clan to Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and his incompetent hangers-on are all living off us. While our quality of life is diminishing daily, theirs is improving by the hour. And all we do is keep “electing” them over and over and over. No wonder they treat us like dirt.
Many Sri Lankans would disagree with me. Walk into any five star hotel in Colombo and the huge lobbies are dazzling with bright lights, fancy weddings are on full pelt, with drummers and small children dressed up in vibrant coloured clothing and Colombo’s elite and not so elite sashaying up and down in the latest sari styles.
Everybody who is anybody and who recognises a somebody are greeting each other like long lost friends. At Colombo’s five start hotels in particular, locals and foreign visitors are spending Sri Lanka’s peace dividend like there is no tomorrow.
So the hotel lobbies awash with pink-faced foreigners in shorts is nothing new. But – when I go out – and meet with friends and colleagues, equally familiar is the shadow of fear that hovers behind every conversation. It does not stop at that. I frequently and consistently am bombarded with editorial matter where people across the board from all walks of life plead for their identity to remain anonymous or if having authored an article themselves for it to be carried under a pseudonym. Only last week a leading editor of a weekend newspaper actually asked one of my journalists not to name him in reference to Keheliya Rambukwella’s recently proposed Media Development Authority.
And that is peculiar
The war is over, the enemy vanquished – exterminated, one might say – the island reunited for the first time in a generation. Why is almost everybody across the board still afraid to speak out or be identified as having done so publicly? When one of the most senior editors in this country requests anonymity on a matter of press freedom it surely brings to the fore that the war maybe over but we have created another monster much more dangerous and destructive for our country. And that monster is feared by one and all.
Specially, Sri Lanka’s journalistic fraternity – who don’t forget have paid a heavy price under this regime.
This government has literally got away with murder. Ten journalists have been murdered over the last decade for their coverage of civil war, human rights, politics, military affairs, and corruption. Not a single conviction has been obtained in any of the cases.
Days after the war ended, declaring a new age of peace, President Mahinda Rajapaksa sounded almost Churchillian. “This is our country,” he told parliament last May. “This is our motherland. We should live in this country as children of one mother. No differences of race, caste and religion should prevail here… All the people of this country should live in safety without fear and suspicion… Let us all get together and build up this nation.”
But more than a year on, the shadow of fear still won’t go away.
What makes the Rajapaksa regime specially sick is that sovereignty is been used to deprive the people of this country their basic democratic rights and establish a one family dictatorship at any cost.Although peace returned to Sri Lanka a little over a year ago – it has not so far been the bright new dawn one might have imagined.
True, tourists numbers have soared – but the tourists never went away altogether. The UK based Independent newspaper in a recent report by its journalist Peter Popham wrote how Sri Lanka was always too beautiful and too much of a bargain to be snubbed. A lively civil war is normally the kiss of death to tourism, but the island’s loyal following worked out early on that all the fighting was going on far away, in the east and in the north, which is mostly scrubby and flat. That left the most gorgeous parts – the central and southern highlands, the tea country, the southern and south-eastern beaches – to enjoy.
But fear runs silent over this island nation. Like the fear of silent blood – it stalks the floor of this nation growing on a like by like basis – afraid to take the unconventional approach and meet its tormentor head on.
There’s the prominent businessman who got a dinner invitation from one of the Rajapaksa clan: “The President has a family member in a controlling position in every important institution in the country,” he told me. He didn’t want to accept but didn’t dare refuse.
There’s the top journalist who has installed CCTV outside his home: that way if a white van comes to get him – the goons who abduct journalists always come in white vans – at least he will get a little warning. And there’s the other journalist who contributed anonymously to The Independent last year, having fled Sri Lanka fearing for his life. He then returned to the island but, through poor luck or poor judgement, got into the bad books of the ruling family again. Where is he? Is he one of the disappeared? Or simply in hiding? He’s certainly not responding to e-mails or answering any of his phone numbers. There is the manager of a hotel who spoke eloquently about how everyone around him told him to shut up and keep his controversial opinions to himself.
Of course we do have the bright but slightly seedy spectacle of those who fraternise Colombo’s hotels, the island’s prosperous fatties shoulder to shoulder with the pink visitors as they tuck into the hotel’s super-size Sunday buffet brunch. And we have the stubborn prospect of fear, well-founded, mortal fear laying siege even to the braver and more thoughtful members of the community. Neither of these faces of the island is new; but the persistence of fear, as peace sinks its roots in Sri Lanka, is disquieting. The question is this: where is President Rajapaksa planning to take a Sri Lanka that has finally found peace?