Sri Lanka: Big Buddha Is Watching

By Edward B. Rackley

“These days, we have a saying among journalists,” a radio features reporter in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province told me. “Don’t open your mouth—except to eat.” Disappearances and killings of journalists are on the increase. Diplomats and aid officials characterize the Lankan media as “one of the most closed in the world.” Little wonder that the country’s ongoing civil war rarely makes the international news wires. For those with a vested interest in waging war by any means, a carefully cultivated information blackout is key to sustaining the pugilistic Lebensraum.
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An estimated 70,000 lives have been taken by the war since it began in 1983. A ceasefire was reached in 2002 to pave the way for a peace deal between the government and Tamil separatists fighting for a homeland for their minority, but it fell apart nearly two years ago. Renewed fighting has killed an estimated 5000 people. In August Human Rights Watch reported more than 1100 abductions between January 2006 and June 2007, many of them attributed to the government and its armed allies.

Landing in Colombo last month to assess internationally funded efforts to support independent media around the country, I imagined I’d find a Chinese version of censorship, where the state actively polices transmissions, broadcasts and internet use. The Sudanese government uses similar methods of proactive control, even blanketing the population with regular SMS texts to rally anti-western sentiment. On both sides of the Sri Lankan war, censorship in the media is largely voluntary. Unlike Sudan or China, there is no centralized, technical control over the media, in part because there is so little media infrastructure in the first place. Over 70% of registered journalists in the country do not have an email address or use computers or internet.

The ethnic majority with over 70% of the population, independent Sinhalese journalists increasingly yield to government intimidation, threats, disappearances and the pressures of patriotic fervor fueled by a pro-war government. On the Tamil side (less than 10%), a similar mind control is exerted by LTTE authorities using assassinations, abductions, physical threats, accusations of treason and economic strangulation. The LTTE has mobilized the hysteria of nationalism as effectively as the nationalist Sinhalese government. Tamil families must sacrifice one member to the LTTE cause. The emergence of suicide bombers—including children and women—shows its power to impose a suicidal logic on its people. For independent journalists on both sides of this conflict, questioning the war is not only betrayal, it is increasingly suicidal.

Siege mentality

Miraculously, a vestige of independent journalism manages to survive in spirit and practice; their voices audible only in a minor, muted key. Courageous folk they are, all those I met in Colombo and the southern and eastern coastal areas. Government and private radio, television and print media exist across the island, but each defends strident partisan ties and political interests. None are news outlets operating according to any normal journalistic standard.

Another burden on independent media is economic. Besides government-owned media, which is purely propagandistic, private radio and television provide entertainment and distraction from the accrued trauma of twenty years of war. Barely profitable, these operations still generate enough ad revenue to pay their workers a living wage. Independent journalists are squeezed out, both ideologically and economically. They either sell out or drift to other activities in order to survive.
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In the southern beach town of Matara I met one such journalist, a former stringer for the national dailies. We chatted in the halls of a private school where he taught English to uniformed school children who pushed their way between us as school let out for the day. A Sinhalese Buddhist and war dissident, he lived a few miles from the president’s hometown, a coastal fishing village.

Since the demise of the ceasefire in 2005, LTTE suicide bombers have been penetrating government army lines to reach deep into the Sinhalese heartland. Popular support for a political solution to the war is at an all-time low. He pulled a sheaf of old newsprint clippings from his jacket, some of his articles in prominent national papers. I was surprised to see headlines on “national unity,” stories on ethnic reconciliation and the “development dividends of the ceasefire.” No such articles would appear today, all these same papers were now government lapdogs.

When no paper would accept his stories, he turned to teaching. He compared the independent media to a war casualty. The national climate was, he lamented, “as ethnically divided and polarized as the conflict itself. The media crisis reflects the political crisis,” he continued, “because the latter created the former.” The cumulative effect of years of discord is that the different communities are completely walled off from one another. The Sinhala share no common language with Tamil or Muslims, as only 7% of the population is Anglophone. Conflict has emptied any previously shared geographical area, increasing communities’ vulnerability to fear and hatred of others—a weakness politicians are quick to exploit.

“The government wants us to think that all Tamil are LTTE, and many people are eager to believe this. All this nationalist fervor has veered into racism,” he sighed, watching the children exit the guarded compound. The primary impediment to peace here are “the politicians, not the people. They set the example of how to behave toward minority communities, and yet they behave the worst of anyone. This is the tone they have set for the nation.” In the absence of balanced reporting and an open media, patriotism was colliding with a siege mentality and had degenerated into racism.

Other journalists I interviewed referenced the country’s long history of foreign occupation to explain the resurgence of militant Sinhalese nationalism and its massive popular support. After over two thousand years of rule by local kingdoms, parts of Sri Lanka were colonized by Portugal and the Netherlands beginning in the 16th century, before control of the entire country was ceded to the British Empire in 1815. The island had always been an important port and trading post in the ancient world, frequented by merchant ships from the Middle East, Persia, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia. Brought by the British to work on tea estates in the late 19th century, Sinhalese view Tamils as invaders from southern India, the massive neighbor to the north.
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Average Sinhalese I spoke with in hotels, taxis and shops firmly believed the war was “their fault, not ours.” The government’s so-called “war for peace” strategy would work with time, many maintained. And what right did the international community have to apply sanctions and try to force us into negotiations with terrorists?

In a government newspaper, the Daily News, I read the most succinct framing of the ‘war for peace’ strategy. I had not yet heard the rhetoric of liberation used in the Lankan context; it is surely convenient if only partially true: “What is wrong with conducting military operations in order to liberate the Tamil people of the north and east from Prabhakaran (LTTE leader), the same way that the Americans wanted to liberate the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein?”

Enter, citizen

A Colombo-based reporter who had studied and lived abroad described an experimental approach to keeping independent media alive: citizen journalism. “There is no ‘clash of civilizations’ here,” he told me. “It’s all political manipulation.” His work focuses on recording people’s voices and experiences across ethnic and political lines in an effort to rescue their sense of a common Lankan identity, and ultimately a shared humanity. Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala widows talking, for example, of their losses to the war—sons, fathers, husbands, daughters–each tell a painfully common tale. Examples of citizen journalism can be found at www.groundviews.lk and www.vikalpa.org.

Other obstacles loom large, this reporter conceded. Recording local voices may build momentum, but “the challenge for independent media then becomes how to break people’s adherence to their political masters.” Better information and improved dissemination are obvious needs, but difficult to achieve under current circumstances.

One international media NGO I met, Internews, were conducting “cross production” visits to war torn areas with teams of journalists from different ethnic groups. In a meeting with participants, I asked the Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil journalists how the visits had affected them. Sinhalese journalists claimed to be more skeptical of government reporting. Others came away questioning the civilian costs of the war: “Even if we destroy the LTTE, how many orphans will be created?”

All were suspect of any lasting peace resulting from a military victory. “Regardless of what becomes of the LTTE,” a Tamil reporter explained, “the political grievances of Lankan minorities need to be addressed if the national government is to exist otherwise” than a hegemonic ethnic majority, the current state of the polity.

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