Why Sri Lanka's Detention of Mrs Balenderan Jayakumari Is So Sinister

01/10/2014 16:50 | Updated 01 December 2014

Just over 200 days ago the Sri Lankan authorities arrested a Tamil mother, Balenderan Jeyakumari, and her teenage daughter. Mrs Jeyakumari had been campaigning to find out what had happened to her 15-year-old son, Mahindan, who disappeared after apparently being taken prisoner by the Sri Lankan authorities at the end of the war in 2009, accused of membership of the Tamil Tigers.

Mrs Jeyakumari and her daughter were well known activists who had been among the crowds which mobbed British prime minister David Cameron when he visited the former war zone in Jaffna in November last year.

Three months later Mrs Jeyakumari sent me a video address in which she warned that she was being followed and harassed as a result of her campaign. "Unknown faces follow me and track me whenever I return home after protest rallies. This is a serious threat and at times I am scared to live here. I go for all these protests, shouting from the streets for my son's release. Lots of people are taking photographs of us, I do not know all of them."

She added: "I have been followed on several occasions. I am living in this village with my daughter. So sometimes we are terrified to live here."

Shortly afterwards - on the 13 March 2014, she and her daughter were arrested. The next day in London I was at a Commonwealth press conference attended by Sri Lankan foreign minister, Professor GL Peiris - Sri Lanka was by then the Chair in Office of the Commonwealth.

I asked him how he could justify the arrest of Mrs Jeyakumari given the Commonwealth's core commitment to free speech. He said that he could not comment until the evidence had been examined, adding: "This will happen in due course. There is judicial scrutiny. And I think it is very wrong to come to a conclusion before the facts are looked at objectively and in depth."

More than 200 days later there is still no sign of any such "judicial scrutiny". Nor is there likely to be any, because this is not about any kind of judicial process, this is simply about the silencing of critics.

Mrs Jeyakumari remains held without charge - her daughter in ill-defined "protective custody" in an orphanage. Mrs Jeyakumari's continued detention, incommunicado, would be inexcusable in any circumstances, but it is particularly sinister given that she is an important witness whose testimony should be available to UN investigators carrying out an international inquiry - agreed by the United Nations Human Rights Council last March - looking into the crimes committed by both sides in the Sri Lankan war which ended in 2009 and the ongoing abuse of human rights in that country.

Mrs Jeyakumari's arrest came shortly before that inquiry was endorsed by the council - but the intimidation of those who might want to give evidence to that inquiry continues. Just last week the UN's Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Flavia Pansieri, said: "The ongoing campaign of threats, harassment, intimidation and reprisals by both state and non-state actors since March against civil society groups, human rights defenders and victims' organisations, including those engaging with the international inquiry, is deplorable." She added: "This climate of intimidation and threat constitutes a real challenge for the investigation mandated by the Human Rights Council."

In particular she commented on the credibility of Sri Lanka's much trumpeted "domestic" investigation into disappearances, adding that the intimidation of witnesses: "Undermines the prospects for Sri Lanka's own domestic investigations, where witness and victim protection has long been a major concern."

The ongoing intimidation is also described in a blog posted yesterday (30th September 2014) on the British High Commission website by deputy high commissioner Laura Davies who describes how on a recent trip to the North East "it gradually became impossible to ignore the fact that I was being watched. Worse, it was clear that the people I was meeting were having follow-up visits or phone calls, asking what I had done and said." She added that this intimidation was "clearly frightening to individuals and their families. I was saddened but not surprised that several people were too scared to meet me."

The response of the Sri Lankan government to all these concerns should perhaps not surprise us. They continue to do exactly as they always have - while maintaining an almost laughable fiction for domestic consumption.

For example while the UN and UK deputy high commissioners warned of repression of witnesses and the silencing of dissent, Sri Lanka's state broadcaster - under the headline: "UN secretary general has commended the president's leadership and the progress achieved by Sri Lanka under his leadership" last week reported: "Congratulating president Rajapaksa on his leadership, Ban acknowledged the progress that has been made in Sri Lanka in the years after the war and expressed his optimism that the remaining challenges would also be overcome with this type of political leadership."

In fact the UN's official report of the meetings said the secretary general raised concerns over "religious violence", encouraged the president to "provide protection to asylum-seekers", and said he expected Sri Lanka to "engage patiently and faithfully with... the Office of the high commissioner for Human Rights". In fact the Sri Lankan government has so far refused to co-operate with the inquiry and has even refused it entry to the country.

Another recent ploy enthusiastically reported for domestic consumption by the government was a recent statement issued by that well known friend of democracy, the government of Egypt. It reported that 22 countries in the "Like Minded Group" have condemned the UN enquiry into the events in Sri Lanka as "unwarranted".

The Sri Lankan government's apparent delight over this report was rather undermined two days ago when Sri Lanka's former Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, said that in practice the statement suggested support for Sri Lanka is haemorrhaging at the UN Human Rights Council. He pointed out that support for the government's support at the UNHRC had, in effect, dropped from 29 votes five years ago, to 12 when the inquiry was set up, to just seven now.

He added that what was particularly alarming for Sri Lanka was which members of the UNHRC had not signed. "I'm not talking about the Western nations - but member states that should have signed this," he said. "For instance Vietnam has not signed this, India has not signed, Brazil has not signed, South Africa has not signed."

But even the most avid supporters of the government know that ignoring world opinion, feeding nonsense to their domestic audience and setting up endless domestic inquiries and commissions, (which produce reports that are at best whitewashes or at worst are suppressed), is not a sustainable solution. Like the offensively absurd claim that they had a policy of "zero civilian casualties" during the war, this kind of nonsense will inevitably be exposed in time.

But the problem is what happens in the period before they are exposed: Because these prevarications and palpable fictions are not designed to convince, they are designed to buy time. For example we now know that while peddling the line about "zero civilian casualties" during the last few months of the war, as documented in my film No Fire Zone they consciously and deliberately targeted and massacred Tamil civilians who had gathered in those zones for their own safety. They were, in the words of the then UK foreign secretary, David Miliband, "buying time".

In the same way, today, while peddling nonsense about "expanded" inquiries into the disappeared, or misreporting Ban Ki Moon's "support" for Sri Lanka's political leadership, they are actually carrying out an ongoing campaign whose aim is nothing less than to permanently change the ethnic make-up of the Tamil areas in the north and east.

Through the use of major strategic land-grabs, systematic sexual violence, political repression, enforced disappearances and wholesale plantation by non-Tamil families and businesses they are assaulting Tamil identity and ethnically re-engineering the entire region.

The clear danger is that by the time most Sri Lankan people have seen through their government's ultimately unsustainable claims - and the world finally calls the government's bluff over its fake domestic processes - it will be too late. The ethnic re-engineering of the north and east - arguably the final offensive of the war - will have succeeded.

The world failed to act with sufficient speed and seriousness to stop the massacres during the war. Is it about to fail again?