10 May 2009

Sri Lanka's Rajapaksa tells Channel 4 News to leave

Leaving Sri LankaIt’s not often that the most powerful man in the country rings you.

I’d spoken amicably to defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa 45 minutes earlier about getting some better access to Sri Lanka’s 25-year war. But this time he was calling me, and seemed to have remembered something.

“Who is this? You rang me earlier? Is this Channel 4? You have been accusing my soldiers of raping civilians? Your visa is cancelled, you will be deported. You can report what you like about this country, but from your own country, not from here.”

I’m missing out my interjections, but that’s pretty much how you get deported in Sri Lanka.

To make the next flight out, we tried to leave the port of Trincomalee, where we had been, but were pulled over at a police roadblock, and eventually taken back to the police station. There, our vehicle was searched and a man typed statements from three of us, which we had not actually given and had also refused to sign.

We were then driven back to Colombo through such traffic that, despite repeated assurances from the defence minister’s media handler, we missed our flight. We turned down the police’s offer of a “bungalow” for the night, and headed for a flight to Singapore at 7.25am.

As we passed through immigration, the police again tried to get a statement from me, one plain clothes officer asking me what my name was and when I arrived in Colombo, what I had reported on since I got there.

He told me our job was “to help Sri Lanka”, whilst explaining, almost by way of an apology, it seemed, that he was following orders and had been trained in Scotland Yard.

Where did this outburst of government anger come from? The only explanation I can find is that my phone call to the defence secretary reminded him about a report we did last Tuesday (see below). In it, aid workers at a number of the internment camps for the displaced in the northern town of Vavuniya spoke openly of conditions there.

As a journalist you can only get to these camps with the army – they escort you wherever you go. But someone working for us had managed to get a camera into the camps and have a series of interviews taken for us. Those who spoke did so anonymously.

The allegations were startling both because of their content but also because of the extreme reaction they provoked from the government. Bodies left for days; children crushed in the rush for food; the sexual abuse of women; disappearances. All things that have regularly blighted Sri Lanka’s brutal war – and most other conflicts across the world.

The accusations of abuse had been taken seriously by the UN, as three dead female bodies had been found in the bathing area of part of the camp. They told me they had asked for a change in the guards at the bathing area (from soldiers to female police) and that civilians, not the police and army, be asked to investigate allegations of abuse.

This statement made, to us, the claims of aid workers at the camp all the more credible and something we surely should air quickly.

We went out of our way to get a government response: the army spokesperson, Brigadier Nanayakkara, refused twice a request to go on camera, so in the end we pushed through the foreign ministry and got a cabinet minister – Keheliya Rambukwella – who on camera accepted that if such things had happened, the perpetrators should be punished, but reminded us this was a new camp and instances of such abuse could be expected in any population of a hundred thousand people.

The next day I went into the foreign ministry and the Media Centre for National Security to try and clear the air. The MCNS – sort of the military’s tool for censorship – is run by Lakshman Hulugalle.

He explained that I had damaged the country’s image and would later hear of their “measures” against me. He did not discuss the truth of the allegations at all. It took another three days for me to learn what those measures were.

After a clumsy but polite 10-hour detention by Sri Lankan police, I am now I am back in Bangkok. Mr Hulugalle claims I have admitted to a “crime”. That is nonsense. I am accused – I understand – of damaging the image of the armed forces, which is apparently an offence. But I can’t recall where or when I would have had the opportunity to do admit to that.

There is a reason why the government is so extraordinarily sensitive about this topic, bar the usual protectiveness of a nation for its armed forces. They need western money to fund these IDP camps – places government officials openly accept are “technically” internment camps. They will hold part of the country’s ethnic Tamil population for as long as three years, many involved say.

The government has spent a lot on the war and needs the UN to fund and manage this “resettlement” project – ostensibly the detention of up to 230,000 people for long enough to filter out any remaining militant sympathisers.

Claims about the camp’s impropreities – the squalor, children trampled under feet, sexual abuse, disappearances – refocus the attention of the international community back on whether these camps are ethically a good idea or even beneficial to the humanitarian problems at the end of this bitter war.

We saw – and in our case filmed – pictures of the hungry displaced, freshly arrived in the camps from the far worse hell of the no-fire zone. It looks like another war-related crisis – where internatonal aid must flood in to help.

But this is different, many aid workers told me: it’s man made – a crisis born of the decision to detain much of the population of the country’s northern Vanni area indefinitely.

An aid worker told me how a Tamil woman in the camps had approached – tired of wearing the same diry clothes and eating meagre handouts. She had money and asked the aid worker just to go outside the camps’ barbed wire fence to buy her a change of clothes and some food.

“She had money, she had relatives to stay with. But they would not let her out.” This is a man-made humanitarian disaster,” the aid worker explained. “I am in the strange position of just keep telling all our donors when they come here to NOT to give money.”

But there is a broader reason why deportation, not rapid rebuttal, was the chosen method in dealing with our allegations. The government is intolerant of a critical press. Journalists get killed – most notoriously Lasantha Wickrematunge – an editor assassinated in January.

One writing for an international publication begged me not to tell anyone else they had this high-profile role. “I was close to the line a few years ago, but now it seems OK again”, they said.

The line for our crew was at passport control, but you realise what crossing the line for Sri Lankan journalists means.