The Sri Lankan government’s announcement of restrictions on foreign passport holders travelling to the North is a brazen and calculated attempt to obstruct evidence collection for the UN inquiry into mass atrocities, ahead of its deadline this week. Within a climate of open intimidation of Tamil victims, the restriction seeks to close off the North-East to visiting international officials, who were one of the few channels available to effectively smuggle evidence out, as well as to serve as a punishment to the Tamil people for their demand for accountability and justice for the mass killing of tens of thousands of Tamils at the end of the armed conflict in 2009. Sri Lanka’s actions demonstrate, yet again, that even in the face of growing international pressure, it will not hesitate in repressing the Tamil people if it believes its ethnocratic rule is under threat. Indeed, not even a UN mandated inquiry is exempt. The international community must respond with decisive and tangible reprimand to Sri Lanka's attempt to impede the inquiry, if the victims are to truly see justice delivered.
Since the UN Human Rights Council mandated the international inquiry in March, Sri Lanka has consistently reiterated its rejection of any such mechanism and its refusal to cooperate. It has instead intensified its stranglehold on the North-East. Threats of prosecution were issued against those who dared to submit evidence to the inquiry, Tamil politicians have reported military intimidation is stopping potential witnesses from testifying and just yesterday reports emerged of one Tamil man being arrested whilst he distributed evidence submission forms in Kilinochchi. This targetting of Tamil witnesses has been accompanied by a systematic clamp down of all channels of international access. The state has repeatedly refused to grant visas to UN investigators, meetings between diplomats and Tamil victims have been disrupted by government aligned Sinhala mobs, and international officials have been followed by military intelligence personnel when speaking to Tamils. That the Tamil people, in the face of this pervasive intimidation, have only increased their demands for justice is truly remarkable.
The re-introduction of travel restrictions is not a rash move born out of the state’s increasingly frenzied militarisation, but a deliberate measure taken precisely at a time when Tamils are most in need of direct access to the international community. Five years ago the government sought to ban international actors from the battlefied as it systematically herded and slaughtered Tamils in their tens of thousands. Five years on, the state is reconstructing a blackout over the North-East, just as victims come forward to testify on those very crimes. To view the travel restriction as yet another extravagance of Rajapaksa’s militarised authoritarian rule, ignores the exclusive targeting of the Tamil people. This is war by other means. Travel restrictions of this kind, have not, and arguably, would not occur anywhere else on the island. The restriction is not only aimed at Tamils on the island, but also the diaspora. It is the latest in a series of laws seeking to undermine the Tamil diaspora's connection with their loved ones on the island, and that to their homeland: the proscription of diaspora organisations, the banning of land sales to foreign citizens and the introduction of Ministry of Defence interviews for dual citizenship. Put simply, five years after proclaiming the ‘liberation’ of the North-East, the Sri Lankan military has brought Tamil life – economic, social, cultural and political – under its complete control, as Sri Lanka continues its overarching project of systematically dismantling the Tamil nation and consolidating its hegemony over the North-East.
The curtailment on travel into the North, just as President Rajapaksa trumpeted the unveiling of a rail line into Jaffna as a means of connecting the North to the rest of the world, underscores the duplicity with which the state acts. Whilst making claims of development and reconciliation to international community, Sri Lanka has instead sought to build and consolidate Sinhala Buddhist rule across the island, despite this placing it in increasingly explicit contradiction and confrontation with the international community. Ultimately however, justice for the massacres that culminated in May 2009 cannot be evaded. Indeed, while Sri Lanka demonstrates its objection to the inquiry, the Tamil people's demand for justice - for what most believe is a genocide - only grows louder. Sri Lanka's impeding of the inquiry is in open defiance of not only a UN body, but internationally accepted norms of justice. A decisive international response is needed to ensure the safety of Tamil witnesses on the island, including targetted sanctions, such as travel bans and asset freezes. If the island is to see stability, the state's reign of impunity must first come to an end and justice be served.
Illustration by Keera Ratnam