Sri Lanka’s Road to Mandalay

By JAMES ROSS Sunday, September 27, 2009

There was an international outcry last month when a court in Burma convicted democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi of violating her detention order when a foreign intruder swam to her lakeside home. 

She received three years for the supposed crime, which the Burmese military government dropped to 18 months of continued house arrest. Nobody fell for the ploy: The sentence still bars her from participation in the planned 2010 elections, undoubtedly the whole point of the charade.

Even greater than the global outrage was the global derision. The guilty verdict was easier to predict than rain during Burma’s monsoon season.  Everyone expected it – the United Nations, the United States, even Suu Kyi herself. This is Burma.

The courts there have been cranking out ridiculous verdicts and even more ridiculous sentences for two decades.  Burma’s most famous comedian, Zarganar received 59 years in prison in 2008 for criticizing the government’s response to Cyclone Nargis in foreign media. His sentence too was later reduced—to 35 years.

A young Buddhist monk, U Gambira, who led monks in the peaceful protests in September 2007, received a 63-year sentence (cut from 68).

So I was feeling pangs of déjà vu when on Aug, 31 the Colombo High Court in Sri Lanka sentenced prominent journalist JS Tissainayagam to 20 years of hard labor for “causing communal disharmony” under the state’s emergency regulations and anti-terrorism act.

The conviction was based on two articles he had written for a now defunct magazine in 2006 and 2007 that criticized the government’s handling of the conflict against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and its treatment of the minority Tamil population.

Admittedly, there was little surprise when the court handed down a guilty verdict, since from the start the case had involved one due process violation after another. The authorities had arrested Tissainayagam (and his publishers) in March 2008, but it took nearly six months before they found anything with which to charge him.

Curiously, a senior political appointee to the human rights ministry had informed Human Rights Watch by letter that Tissainayagam had been indicted a day before it actually happened, unusual information for someone outside the prosecutor’s office to know. And the government’s supposed proof of his LTTE connection was a jail cell statement for which there is compelling evidence of tampering by the authorities.

But the Burma-esque sentence (minus the Burma-esque commutation) was something of a shock. Ordinary Burmese have long lost faith in their government, a merry-go-round of corrupt and abusive generals, which has resulted in massive anti-government demonstrations in 1988 and 2007. 

Sri Lankans, by contrast, rightly pride themselves on their long history of democratic governance, a respected community of judges and lawyers, and a deeply rooted sense of the rule of law. Unfortunately, those traditions are now circling the drain.

Since taking office in 2005, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has engaged in a full frontal assault on civic society. The media and human rights groups were kept far from the combat zone in the north in an attempt to hide abuses by government forces from public scrutiny. A dozen journalists have been murdered, sometimes with evidence of state involvement. Media offices have been attacked and numerous journalists threatened.

While fighting raged, government officials used alleged support of terrorism as the basis for targeting journalists like Tissainayagam.  So when the LTTE’s defeat looked inevitable, it seemed only logical that the harsh and dangerous rhetoric against civil society would lessen.  That hasn’t been the case. 

In June, Rajapaksa went to Burma to meet with Burmese strongman Gen. Than Shwe. While the general seems to have gotten tips on fighting insurgents, the president appears to have received lessons in mis-governance.

Sri Lankan government statements have fed a dangerous political climate and harassment of journalists and rights activists, including a death threat to the head of an outspoken think-tank, have caused many to leave the country. 

The media and rights groups remain barred from reporting on detention camps now holding some 250,000 ethnic Tamils displaced by the war. And one of the few UN officials to have spoken out against this mistreatment, James Elder, was expelled from the country.

The prosecution of JS Tissainayagam demands an international response that goes beyond a criticism of the outrageous verdict. Concerned states and the UN should press the Rajapaksa government to end the crackdown on civil society, revoke laws that infringe on basic rights, and permit real freedom of movement—to displaced persons as well as journalists.

An independent international investigation into wartime abuses by all sides is needed to address rampant impunity. Development assistance should be closely scrutinized and withheld when it facilitates government oppression. The last thing Sri Lankans need is to be following in Burma’s footsteps.

 James Ross is Legal and Policy Director at Human Rights Watch.

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