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Silent lessons: so much for free speech

Since the assassination of Tamil parliamentarian Joseph Pararajasingham on Christmas Eve, the dissonance between the vocal anger of the Tamil expatriate community and the studied silence of their host governments has been jarring. Reports of the ‘Murder in the cathedral’ began to circulate amongst expatriates at least an hour before it hit the major news channels, thanks to the Tamil electronic media and vibrant social network of relations and friends.



Some people, frustrated at the delay in international coverage of the killing, began to lobby key media. In Britain, Tamils contacted the BBC, questioning the lack of coverage – which was belatedly forthcoming. Three weeks after the killing, the BBC responded to some of those who contacted it, saying: “Sri Lanka, unfortunately, is a very difficult place for journalists because both sides have strongly opposite views and also restrict your movement. It is very difficult to verify every detail in what is effectively a conflict zone and in which both sides give varying accounts of the same incident.”



Some of the reasons given by the BBC for the delay in its reaction were valid. The Sri Lankan government and the Sinhala-owned press went into overdrive almost immediately with accusations that the Tamil Tigers were responsible, an allegation that met with derision from the Tamils – irrespective of their sentiments towards the LTTE.



In contrast, every major Tamil press gave the assassination and the subsequent funeral prominent coverage. They emphatically attributed the murder to Sri Lankan military intelligence operatives and anti-LTTE paramilitaries. This view was also consistently expressed by those closest to Joseph Pararajasingham, including his family, his party, the Tamil National Alliance, and the North East Secretariat of Human Rights (NESOHR), of which he was a founder member.



There was, very early on, a broad consensus on both the motivation for the murder and the identity of those responsible. In an article, expatriate writer Brian Seneviratne, spelled it out: “Para was fluent and articulate, he was outspoken and obviously credible. He could present, to the Sinhala Parliament and to international audiences, the suffering and problems faced by the Tamil people and the outrageous violation of human rights that they have had to endure. The Sri Lankan government and its armed forces simply had no answer other than [his] assassination.”



Pararajasingham was one of the most popular and senior of Sri Lanka’s Tamil MPs. He was, furthermore, one of the figures best known to the international community, having repeatedly met with their representatives in Colombo and abroad. Notably, Tamil media and community organizations also began, almost instantly, to call for international action against the government of Sri Lanka.



The European Tamil Initiative for Peace issued an Appeal for Action the very next day asking the UK Presidency of the EU to ensure “immediate steps are taken with the genuine intent of protecting the civil rights and security of the Tamils of Sri Lanka that the Tamil legislators who are engaged in service to their constituents and international advocacy to restore the rights and fundamental freedom of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka are well protected.”



The Geneva based International Federation of Tamils (IFT) went further, calling on the European Union to “impose sanctions on the government of Sri Lanka until all pro-government death squads have been dismantled and the military intelligence officers who control these squads investigated and disciplined.”



The US Tamil Sangams issued a joint statement which concluded, “the international community must show political and moral courage and impose sanctions on the government of Sri Lanka in order to put an immediate end of this deliberated and calculated violence. Such an action would restore confidence of the Tamil people in the peace process.”



And so it went on, from Tamil expatriates in US and Canada, to those in several members of the European Union (as well as Norway and Switzerland), to Australia and New Zealand.



The Tamils’ appeals were based on the face value of numerous statements by international actors, including key states such as the United States, and EU members expressing unequivocal respect for the democratic process, the rule of law and the sanctity of the life. Many states had expressed a direct interest in Sri Lanka’s peace process. Foremost among them the US which had expressed such a keen desire to see peace and prosperity in Sri Lanka, and Britain which held the EU presidency. International actors and donor community had long been calling for the free expression of Tamil political will. Here, now, was the brazen murder of a prominent Tamil politician who symbolised that electoral process at work. And so began the wait for a reaction from the foreign ministries of the world.



But the Tamils are, of course, still waiting. Not one protest or expression of outrage has been forthcoming. The silence itself seems to confirm international recognition of where responsibility lies.



Moreover, that the standards of democracy, liberty and security that the foreign governments apply to the citizens of their own countries are quite different from those they are happy to see applied to the Tamils of Sri Lanka. No one is better placed to observe and understand this two-tier system of diplomacy than the expatriate Tamils of course.



We recall the assassination of that Sri Lanka’s foreign minister - a ‘Tamil’ minister who had never actually stood for election amongst the Tamils - where without any actual evidence to hand, the EU assigned blame on the Tigers and slapped a travel ban on them. It is precisely actions such as the travel ban that have placed such a heavy burden of international advocacy on behalf of the Tamil people on to the foreign affairs committee of the TNA and on Pararajasingham, ultimately making him a target of those who would silence such advocacy.



And so, having placed the burden on Pararajasingham and effectively invited his death, what did the EU and the US hope to achieve by so pointedly looking the other way?



The refusal to condemn the assassination stems wholly from what Pararajasingham stood for. The TNA has twice decisively won elections on a platform of Tamil self-determination and of support for the LTTE. Although the international actors were apparently keen for Tamils to ‘express their political will’, they are now unhappy as this political will seems to conflict with their geopolitical interests (the parallels to the recent elections in Palestine - and the unpleasant shock the result gave many international actors - are inescapable).



Furthermore, we must understand that not all lives are of equal value because not all political leaders are valued equally. A leader elected on a platform that the geopolitical actors do not find to their liking is necessarily of less value than a ‘leader’ who is not elected at all but granted his ministerial post through political patronage (perhaps precisely because he is not elected, the latter can espouse views that are convenient to the geopolitical actors but deeply unsatisfactory to the long-suffering Tamils).



The not so subtle international subtext is: ‘if your political views do not agree with ours then don’t look to us for the same protection as those whose views are.’ Pararajasingham is, in this sense, as much a victim of an utter lack of respect for free speech and political diversity on the part of the liberal democracies, most notably the United States and the members of the European Union, as the chauvinism of the Sri Lankan state.



An alternative, less cynical, argument might be that the international actors do indeed see the trail of blood leading to Colombo but do not see what can be gained by publicly acknowledging it. They are, it is argued, concerned that criticism of Sri Lanka will impede their program of gradual reform and lead to further destabilization of an ally and fellow government, which ought to be cajoled rather than brow-beaten into good behaviour. To quote senior US official, Mr. Nicholas Burns, international actors would prefer to ‘have a chat among friends’ on the subject of murder, rather than outright condemnation.



In any event, the decision of the international actors to ignore the murder of Pararajasingham has far-reaching consequences. At a critical point in the peace process, foreign participants pointedly and silently looked away from the trail of blood which leads so clearly to the government of Sri Lanka. Their credibility as neutral actors and sponsors of the peace process is therefore very much suspect. As is their commitment to the principles of civil liberty and democracy, particularly when it applies to the Tamils of Sri Lanka.



Coming as it did at a sensitive point in the peace process, the lessons drawn from the lack of international reaction to Pararajasingham’s killing have been learnt by a far broader spectrum of Diaspora and local Tamils than might usually have been the case. These lessons, moreover, have to be situated amongst others stemming from other scenarios, such as Iraq, the so-called ‘war on terror, Guantanamo, the ‘rendition’ of terrorist suspects to countries suspected of practicing torture, and so on.



The sub text that has been understood by the Tamils is that the US and its allies respect human rights and free speech, but only of those whose beliefs and interests do not conflict with their geopolitical interests. So much for Voltaire.