by Marcella Willim
Journalists in Sri Lanka risk their lives to do their job: they routinely face death threats, abductions and indefinite detention. Among them are Bashana Abeywardane, co-ordinator for Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, and Lokesan Anputhurai, former correspondent from the war-zone for TamilNet. Their courage and faith in what they do is told in the documentary film Silenced Voices – Tales of Sri Lankan Journalists in Exile, directed by Norwegian filmmaker Beate Arnestad, who has risked her own life seeking out journalists at risk living in exile.
The film was screened in Sydney in September, followed by a discussion with Bashana Abeywardena, Lokeesan Anputhurai and Beate Arnestad.
Mr Abeywardena pointed out that Tamils in Sri Lanka continue to suffer severe oppression and that by the end of the war in 2009, the size of the Sri Lankan army has increased. He said many Tamils are unable to return to their homes because the land is occupied by the military. Beate Arnestad said there is widespread sexual violence against Tamil women.
In the film, the first image is that of Beate, crouched down in the backseat of her guide’s car, filming her surroundings in Sri Lanka. She had to hide the camera when her guide spotted a soldier.
“I was shocked by the situation that I saw before me, even three years after the civil war ended. I couldn’t talk to people and I couldn’t use their answers because I knew it would only put them in danger.
“However, I managed to talk to a doctor at a local hospital and he said that there are hundreds of amputations being carried out and thousands of orphans and widows. The situation was absolutely horrible.”
Beate knew what she wanted to tell her audience, and she was not going to soften her message.
Bashana Abeywardane, a Sinhalese supported by PEN International, now lives with his wife in Berlin. In one scene, they sit, a married couple on a bench under a tree, seemingly like lost orphans hoping to one day find where they belong. Bashana’s wife says in a lonely, comfortless voice: “Our shoes are not suitable for winter.”
Lokesan Anputhurai, a Tamil, is also living in Berlin thanks to help from Bashana. He says there is no way for journalists to do any kind of independent reporting in his homeland. “People are living in fear and have been denied justice and normal life.” However, Lokesan made a video during the war in 2009 that shows thousands of civilians bombed by the advancing army. A woman is lying motionless, and beside her a little girl iscrying and moaning.
As Lokesan watched the footage, tears spilled down his face. He was unable to contain his emotions any longer from the dreadful life he had to go through during those months of war. Sitting quietly beside him, Bashana was equally horrified by the footage before him, and all he could do was to let Lokesan have his moment to pour out all his grief. It was clear that the ethnic differences between the two did not matter to them, they were there for a reason they had longed desired: to speak out and make the world know of what really is going on.
“It seemed like it was only a few days ago that I had to arrange a wedding. And now, a few days later, I had to arrange for a funeral.” This was the life that Sonali Samarasinghe described in the film. Her husband, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was the editor-in-chief of Sri Lanka’s newspaper, The Sunday Leader, and a fierce opponent of the Sri Lankan Government. He insisted on reporting on what was really happening.
He was gunned down by eight men in broad daylight a few days after he and Sonali were married. As a lawyer and journalist, Sonali worked closely with him and the government forced her to leave the country not long after his death.
However, Sonali wanted to find out who her husband’s killers were. The film shows her in New York, where she now lives, trying unsuccessfully to interview Sri Lanka’s representative to the United Nations, who was accused of war crimes in his previous role as a military officer.
“I wanted to ask him as a father and husband how he felt about the thousands of innocent Tamil civilians who were killed in the last days of the war. I guess he did not want to answer that,” Sonali says.
According to the Australian Tamil Congress, mistreatment and subjugation of the Tamil people continues. Thousands of Tamils refugees still linger in transit camps awaiting resettlement. Rape, disappearances and police arrest without trial is forcing Tamils to continue to flee Sri Lanka as asylum seekers.
In April 2011, a report released by a UN Expert Advisory Panel found allegations of war crimes committed during the conflict in which up to 150,000 Tamil civilians died to be credible and called for an independent international investigation into war crimes in the island.
A United Nations Human Rights Council resolution passed in March 2012 called for constructive recommendations of a Sri Lankan internal inquiry to be implemented, while pointing out that it does not however adequately address serious allegations of violations of international law.