13 Jan 2015

M.I.A.: Sri Lanka has ‘same government with different face’

Rapper M.I.A. tells Channel 4 News that though she still wants former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa to face a war crimes trial, the priority is getting the country’s Tamils their basic needs.

Maya Arulpragasam, the Sri Lankan Tamil recording artist, spoke to Channel 4 News following the defeat of Rajapaksa, a man accused of presiding over war crimes at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, in Sri Lanka’s election.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was in charge of Sri Lanka at the end of the war against terror group the Tamil Tigers. In the closing weeks of the war in May 2009 the Sri Lankan army is accused of deliberately shelling civilians, and the UN estimates that around 40,000 died.

For their part, the Tamil Tigers were a brutal organisation also accused of war crimes – including the use of child soldiers, human shields and suicide bombings.

The UN is currently investigating alleged war crimes committed at the end of Sri Lankan civil war and in the years following, but it is an inquiry that Rajapaksa had refused to cooperate with.

Rajapaksa has been replaced as Sri Lankan president by Maithripala Sirisena – Rajapaksa’s one-time ally and also the acting defence minister at the end of the civil war.

‘Basic needs’

Sirisena has also refused to cooperate with the international inquiry, and Arulpragasam told Channel 4 News that Sri Lanka’s new government has the “same face” as it includes politicians who have been involved in government for the last 30 years.

She said the Tamil community had embraced democracy and peace – the Tamil vote was largely responsible for Sirisena’s election – and that now the government had to restore “basic needs” to the community.

She told Channel 4 News that reconciliation can only come if the Sri Lankan government undoes some of the Rajapaksa regime’s actions, such as his militarisation of Tamil areas in the country’s north.

On the UN inquiry, Arulpragasam said “we still want Rajapaksa to go to the Hague”, but that peace in Sri Lanka’s post-war period was a priority for Tamils. In the years since the war there have been continued allegations of ongoing abuses such as “enforced disappearances” of Tamils and government opponents.

Channel 4 News has been banned from Sri lanka since 2009 except for a brief trip there when the Prime Minister, David Cameron, visited last year for the CHOGM meeting. The PM had made the free entry of the Channel 4 News team a condition of his visit. Repeated requests before and since to visit and be accredited as journalists have been refused, and a request for an interview with the Sri Lankan high commissioner about the new governemt has gone unanswered.

‘Pursuit of truth’

On Tuesday Pope Francis began his visit to Sri Lanka – the first papal visit in 20 years – and appeared to call for support for the UN inquiry.

As he arrived in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, the Pope said: “The process of healing also needs to include the pursuit of truth, not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity.”

The Pope added: “The great work of rebuilding must embrace improving infrastructures and meeting material needs, but also, and even more importantly, promoting human dignity, respect for human rights, and the full inclusion of each member of society.”

He met with incoming president Sirisena, who said: “My government is promoting peace and friendship among our people after overcoming a cruel terrorist conflict.

“We have people who believe in religious tolerance and coexistence based on centuries old religious heritage.”