Last weekend, as a courtesy, The Global Mail emailed Sri Lanka’s unelected Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa a link to our story on the nepotism among Sri Lanka’s powerful elite.
Gota, as Sri Lankans know him, is the country’s enforcer-in-chief. The former soldier is credited with having masterminded his presidential brother Mahinda’s 2009 victory over Tamil separatists and ending a 26-year civil war that killed more than 100,000 people – as many as 75,000 in its brutal last weeks.
He had chosen not to co-operate in our research, but we sent on this piece anyway, the third in a three-part series How Not To Win A War. The series examines how his tiny island is emerging from that war and why, four years on, so many Sri Lankans, particularly of its minority Tamil community, are risking their lives on leaky boats in the vain hope of starting new lives in Australia.
‘The Brothers’ Grip’, in particular, reported how Gota and his triumphant Sinhalese relatives and cronies are getting rich quick as they turn Sri Lanka into their family’s political and business fief, a ‘mafia state’ as some Sri Lankans even described it.
Since President Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power in 2005, his brothers, cousins and myriad relatives have been installed in highly paid and influential roles – which many Sri Lankans consider to have conflicting interests – in government, state-owned companies and the private sector. For example, four Rajapaksa brothers – Mahinda, Gota, Basil and Chamal – control as much as 80 per cent of the Sri Lankan government budget.
After sending the link to Gota’s Gmail account, at 16.14 GMT last Saturday, we received a response an hour later, which read ‘BULL SHIT’.
But ‘The Brothers’ Grip’, once posted, lit up the Lankan Twittersphere and blogosphere, where it was devoured by local and diaspora readers unaccustomed, as the Colombo think-tank Centre for Policy Alternatives and others put it, to such focussed foreign examination of their island. Some readers helpfully pointed out other Rajapaksa relatives suddenly doing important jobs, whom we’d overlooked in our family tree.
The CPA and others said it was a description of the country’s leadership that Sri Lankans don’t get much of in their decimated home media.
Locals have despairingly watched as the island’s independent commentators have been harassed, censored, exiled and even murdered. In fact, Sri Lanka has become one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a journalist. Extraordinarily for a democracy, the country ranks 162nd out of 179 in the press-freedom index compiled by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.
As for Gota’s military, far from being peaceably de-mobbed in the wake of its victory over the Tamil Tigers, today it is bigger and more powerful than ever.
Indeed, four years after war’s end, the Sri Lankan armed forces now have more personnel in actual numbers than nations with recent pasts as military dictatorships – Nigeria, Bangladesh, Spain and the Democratic Republic of Congo – and which have far greater populations than Sri Lanka’s 20 million people. In overall numbers of serving personnel, Gota commands a military bigger than the German or British forces. Syria, currently gripped by civil war, has a similar-sized population to Sri Lanka – and 15 per cent fewer soldiers.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s “BULL SHIT” take was mild, by his recent standards. At least he didn’t threaten us with death. Last year, celebrated Sri Lankan reporter Frederica Jansz inquired of Gota why a state-owned SriLankan Airlines flight from Zurich to Colombo had been re-scheduled, bouncing paying passengers. She was following up a tip that the change had been made so that the pilot boyfriend of his niece could personally fly a puppy from Switzerland, for her Defence Secretary uncle – Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Jansz was then the editor of Colombo’s The Sunday Leader, an independent weekly the previous editor of which, Lasantha Wickrematunge, had been murdered in 2009, gunned down in central Colombo. (Wickrematunge had ominously written in his paper just days before his death that he would be killed by the government.)
Gotabaya confirmed Jansz’s tip, only to then threaten her, saying she would be killed if she published the story. But publish she did, in the next edition of The Sunday Leader, in a piece headlined ‘Gota Goes Berserk’.
A month later, a Rajapaksa crony bought the paper, and sacked Jansz as editor. She received a succession of death threats and sought asylum in Australia, which turned her down. Today, she’s alive, albeit living in exile with her children in a town outside Tacoma, in the United States, her investigative journalism much missed by many Sri Lankans.
Gota has a history of spitting out death threats. In 2010, he told the BBC’s Hard Talk program that Sri Lanka “will hang” General Sarath Fonseka. This commander had helped win Gota the war against the Tigers and later ran for the presidency against Gota’s incumbent older brother, Mahinda, only to lose and be jailed – though not yet executed – by the regime.
The Global Mail is not the only voice exposing the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka. Last Saturday, Navi Pillay, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights issued an interim statement in New York about her findings on a recent mission to the island.
Many prominent Sri Lankans didn’t cover themselves in glory during Pillay’s week-long fact-finding tour.
As she points out in her August 31 statement, Rajapaksa propagandists in media, online and in government have described her as a “Tamil Tigress in the UN”, claiming she was being paid by the Tamils to do the now vanquished terrorist group’s bidding.
Pillay, who has Indian Tamil heritage, is disgusted. “This is not only wildly incorrect,” she says, “it is deeply offensive. This type of abuse has reached an extraordinary crescendo during this past week, with at least three government ministers joining in.”
A former International Criminal Court judge, Pillay has been moved to point out that she is “South African and proud of it”. She notes that the only other time she’s been to Sri Lanka was to attend a memorial for a scholar who’d been killed by the Tigers in a 1999 suicide bombing. The Tigers, she says, were a “murderous organisation that committed numerous crimes and destroyed many lives”.
Pillay’s interim report on Sri Lanka is blunt and excoriating.
She describes, as had we, the post-war military grabs of Tamil lands, and the harassment and intimidation of civilians by security forces and government officials – even while she was in the country. She spoke of the uninvestigated ‘white van’ disappearances now commonplace in Sri Lanka, in which the regime’s critics and opponents are snatched off the street and bundled into unregistered vehicles, often never to be seen again.
“This type of surveillance and harassment appears to be getting worse in Sri Lanka, which is a country where critical voices are quite often attacked or even permanently silenced,” the Pillay statement says.
To this she adds, “Utterly unacceptable at any time, it is particularly extraordinary for such treatment to be meted out during a visit by a UN high commissioner for human rights.”
Pillay visited the war-torn Tamil north-east, to observe the appalling conditions endured by the island’s long-suffering Tamil community. She writes that she, “was extremely moved by the profound trauma I have seen among the relatives of the missing and the dead, and the war survivors, in all the places I have visited, as well as by their resilience.
“This was particularly evident among those scratching out a living among the ghosts of burned and shelled trees, ruined houses and other debris of the final battle of the war along the lagoon in Mullaitivu.
“It is important everyone realises that, although the fighting is over, the suffering is not,” she says.
Pillay also notes the rise, under Gota’s patronage, of the Buddhist extremist group Bodu Bala Sena, expressing “concern at the recent surge in incitement of hatred and violence against religious minorities, including attacks on churches and mosques, and the lack of swift action against the perpetrators.
“I was surprised that the Government seemed to downplay this issue, and I hope it will send the strongest possible signal of zero tolerance for such acts and ensure that those responsible (who are easily identifiable on video footage) are punished,” she says.
Pillay also expresses concern at how deeply Gota’s military is “putting down roots and becoming involved in what should be civilian activities, for instance education, agriculture and even tourism.
“Clearly, the army needs some camps,” she says, “but the prevalence and level of involvement of soldiers in the community seem much greater than is needed for strictly military or reconstruction purposes four years after the end of the war.”
Pillay also challenges Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his military commanders to install a policy of zero tolerance towards sexual harassment and abuse of women and girls by their soldiers.
After Gotabaya Rajapaksa wrote to say our reports about Sri Lanka were “bull shit”, we sent him the Pillay statement for his comment, asking him if he felt similarly about the findings of the United Nations.
He didn’t respond.