Wednesday, 11 February, 2009

"They have labelled me a traitor"

Sunanda Deshapriya, is a free-lance journalist for the Ravaya newspaper and previously was editor of the Balaya magazine, both publications in the Sinhalese language. He is in India following the attacks on Sri Lankan journalists who have dared to be objective or even-mildly critical of the Sri Lankan government. In an interview, he talks to Jiby Kattakayam and Karthik Ram on the authoritarian rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has made a mockery of the democratic process in his country.

Q: Sir, what made you come to India?
SD: The government said that the media has to take sides. If we did not support the Sri Lankan government blindly, we would be denounced as LTTE supporters. My name was put up on the Defence Ministry website as a traitor. My office was set on fire. After the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunga and the brutal assault on Upali Tennakoon, my family asked me to leave, as they feared for my life. Sri Lankan journalists in exile avoid coming to Madras. Because I am here, I will be labelled an LTTE agent back home. But I doubt I will be able to raise public awareness on the atrocities being committed in Sri Lanka as effectively, elsewhere in India.

Q: Did you know Lasantha? Could his death have been avoided?
SD: Yes, we were friends and both of us were part of the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka. He had been attacked in the past and as there was a known threat to his life, Lasantha, should have been more careful. Probably, he didn’t take it too seriously as he was a close friend of Rajapaksa. I came to know that Rajapaksa was shocked by Lasantha’s murder. Atleast now, he should realize the monster he has let loose.

Q: In the last two years, 17 Sri Lankan journalists have been killed and many missing. After Lasantha’s death is there an outcry against the government from the citizens?
SD: The government is taking advantage of the huge pro-war sentiment to attack the press. The process of suppression started in 2006 in the North. Tamil journalists critical of the government in Jaffna were silenced. Then in 2007, the repression started in the South. There is no independent media left in the country today. Many journalists are in exile. Just yesterday four more journalists arrived in Bangalore from Colombo. Even acts of corruption by the government can’t be investigated by us. Our leaders have become so drunk with power, that Gothaba Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s brother, has said that international media like CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera will be chased out. Have you heard anything like that in any war zone in the world?

Q: The Army has become very strong in Sri Lanka now. Do you think Gen. Fonseca would seize power?
SD: Fonseca has become a national hero. But then, why would they take over? They have everything while operating in a democracy. They also have the support of the people. Almost every Sinhalese family has a member in the army – the rich as officers, and the poor as soldiers. In Colombo, university students collect 500 water bottles daily to send to the army. Similarly in schools, children are encouraged to send biscuits.

Q: What do you think will happen after the LTTE is defeated? How will the Tamils react?
SD: The army will be stationed in large numbers in the East, like has been done in the North after the capture of Jaffna in 1996. Tamils will take the defeat of the LTTE as their own defeat. Sinhalese youth from poor, rural backgrounds form the core of the army and they lack a cultural understanding to effectively and humanely soldier the conquered areas. The war is far from over.

Q: What do you think is the future of the LTTE?
SD: If they can come back as political force, they and the Tamil population stand a chance. They will still be capable of inflicting damage through suicide attacks, but to build an organized movement again will take time.

Q: Will a political process be initiated in the East too, like was done in the North?
SD: Yes, a provincial government with very limited power would be installed in the East as was done in the North. The problem is that the Tamils have no credible political leaders around, who inspire confidence. But you can imagine what democracy the North and East will get, if even the people of the South have no meaningful freedom.

Q: After the war, do you think the government would return to a more benevolent form?
SD: I doubt it. The government will use the fear of suicide attacks to justify more army presence everywhere. And patriotism is strong and irrational. Everything else including political freedom and freedom of expression gets subjugated in its wake.

Q: One final question, sir. Is the global recession affecting Sri Lanka too?
SD: Yes, it is. I can give you one example. Around 300 apparel factories closed down. Once the current fighting is over, we will get a clearer picture on that.

P.S: We had read about the murder of Sri Lankan editor, Lasantha Wickramatunge and almost forgotten about it. A few days later a classmate sent me his last editorial, written before he died. In it, Lasantha had coldly prophesized his death but passionately defended his work. It fired us up to protest the atrocities against journalists and the tamil population of Sri Lanka. The protest we organized and the march that followed was a success if I should call it that; hopefully it awoke in all who participated a realization that journalism and activism can and should definitely overlap. More than a week has gone by since then; what still remains in me are doubts on whether all this current idealism will be shorn off, working for the media establishment.