Can Sri Lanka’s Civil Society Be Rebuilt?
FROM THE ASIA SENTINEL
Murders and assaults allegedly perpetrated by an increasingly authoritarian government make it look unlikely
With the rebel Tamil Tiger leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran finally dead and the military declaring total victory after 26 years of war, Sri Lanka’s traumatized citizens are hoping that their society can finally be regenerated. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in a Tuesday speech in Parliament, promised the formerly Tiger-controlled areas would be reconstructed and that the rights of Tamils would be respected and protected.
Probably 100,000 of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people have been killed since the war began in 1983, a pace that picked up considerably in the past few weeks as the army closed in on the Tiger rebels, blasting civilian and refugee areas indiscriminately with artillery. Huge numbers of people were driven from their homes. Healing this nation in one of the world’s bitterest civil wars seems almost impossible, particularly because, thanks to decades of emergency rule in which the military and the police force have learned to run rampant with breathtaking impunity, the rule of law is a broken thing, for Tamils and Sinhalese alike.
The fact is that the government has used the war to brutalize citizens far from the war zone well beyond any reasonable limit. As many recent assaults and assassinations have shown, the simple act of just taking someone high profile to court here, let alone getting involved in the internecine civil conflict, tends to be a deadly gamble. Last September, for instance, businessman Sugath Nishanta Fernando was shot dead by masked men on a motorbike as he sat next to his 12-year-old son in the family lorry. His death capped a five-year attempt to take various police officers to court for abuses that started with assault and extortion, and ran through the criminal spectrum, from harassment, bribery and fabricated charges, to attempted murder.
The family had often asked for protection, including the time over 30 officers descended on the family home, beat its four members (two of them children) and dragged three into jail. Fernando’s wife Sandamali notes that they were eventually given a police guard — at her husband’s funeral.
Fernando’s wife and teenage daughter have taken fierce refuge in the legal case, and as a result they still run the risk of being killed. The family is being supported and hidden by a network of small NGOs and the children, at the time of the interview, had been out of school for months.
“We don’t have an income so we are relying on help from these organizations,” explains Kalpani Fernando, 17. “We are worried about being killed, but we are also concerned that nothing has been done to find my father’s killers. If we have proper laws to protect witnesses it would be alright. Then, if something happens to me the DIG (Deputy Inspector General) should be responsible. Then the situation could change.”
Sugath Fernando joins a number of people assassinated or ‘disappeared’ for their attempts to root out corruption. In 2004, 39-year-old Gerald Perrera, taking a groundbreaking case against police for torture and illegal arrest, was shot days before his final testimony; in January the prominent anti-establishment newspaper editor Lasantha Wickramatunge was also shot, and as he predicted in a letter released posthumously (see Asia Sentinel, xmmx) , no prosecutions have been made; Stephen Sunthararaj, who works at the Centre for Human Rights Development in Colombo, was abducted by men in Special Task Force uniforms on May 7 and has not been heard from since.