It should have been a great opportunity for the new Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena—on the eve of his visit to the UK—to show the international community that his government is serious about ending the repression of the Rajapaksa years, writes Callum Macrae.
It was also an opportunity for his government to make a small, but significant, gesture of good faith towards the beleaguered Tamils of the north and east - without whose votes he would never have been elected.
He blew it.
Yesterday morning in Colombo Magistrates Court, Balendran Jeyakumary was once again refused bail.
Mrs Jeyakumary is a Tamil mother who has campaigned vociferously to find out what happened to her youngest son, Mahindan—a 15-year-old Tamil Tiger conscript who disappeared after surrendering to government forces at the end of the civil war in 2009.
She has now been held without trial for very nearly a year. Officially she was seized on vague charges of harbouring a suspected Tamil Tiger—a member of the separatist group, also known as the LTTE, which fought a vicious campaign against government forces in Sri Lanka' civil war.
The arrest followed a shooting incident involving government forces. But no one in the north believes for one moment that that is the real reason.
They believe Mrs Jeyakumary was arrested because she never stopped protesting about the disappearance of her son—and the thousands of others who have vanished. (Sri Lanka officially has more disappeared than any other country apart from Iraq).
Mrs Jeyakumary and her 13-year-old daughter Vibushika 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 2013—dramatic scenes reported on by Jon Snow at the time.
A few weeks later she sent us a video message in which she warned that she was being followed and harassed. "Unknown faces follow me and track me whenever I return home after protest rallies", she said. "This is a serious threat and at times I am scared to live here."
A few weeks later she was arrested and her daughter was taken into care.
But then in January President Sirisena swept into power—unexpectedly defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man who had led the country for 10 years and stands accused of ultimate responsibility for the massacre of the tens of thousands of Tamil civilians who died, mostly as a result of government shelling, in the government’s grotesquely mis-named No Fire Zones.
Although Sirisena was put forward by an uneasy alliance of parties, mainly from Sri Lanka’s Sinhala majority, who had lost patience with his culture of corruption, nepotism and repression, he would not have won were it not for the tactical "anti-Rajapaksa" votes of the minority ethnic groups—most importantly the Tamils.
His victory was hailed around the world as a breakthrough for democracy. His re-alignment of Sri Lanka’s international axis away from China and back towards India and the West was welcomed enthusiastically by those who benefited geo-strategically. But for the Tamils of the north, and for those who believe that the questions of truth, justice and the ending of state impunity are vital for true change in Sri Lanka, there was less optimism.
They believe that, in effect, Sirisena is restoring democracy and the rule of law to the Sinhalese people of the south, but that little is changing in the north.
There has been talk, but rather fewer convincing actions, to end the military occupation, the seizure of Tamil lands, the scandal of the disappeared and the daily culture of fear and intimidation experienced by Tamils.
Rather more seriously, there have been few signs of any credible and bold moves to address the culture of impunity and the need for truth and justice—and the crying need to identify and prosecute those responsible for those crimes.
The reason? Partly it is that ultimately, for all the Tamil protest votes that went Sirisena’s way, he is answerable to a Sinhala electorate which is still denied the truth about what really happened and still fed on a toxic diet of Sinhala chauvinism and fear of the Tamils.
But another reason is that so many members of his government were part of the Rajapaksa regime under whose rule the crimes were committed. Sirisena himself—as Mahinda Rajapaksa’s deputy defence minister—was actually in charge during some of the bloodiest days of the war.
These are questions that the international community—and particularly the members of the UN Human Rights Council—will have to consider very carefully as they decide what should happen when the UN’s investigation into the war crimes is presented in September. Has Sri Lanka really changed on these vexed questions? Is it now capable of carrying out domestic prosecutions of those responsible, including, possibly, members of its own government?
For Mrs Jeyakumary and her supporters, who gathered so hopefully outside Colombo Magistrates court this morning, the answer will seem in no doubt at all. Once again they feel betrayed.
Three weeks ago Mrs Jeyakumary’s daughter Vibushika sent a heartfelt handwritten letter to President Sirisena from her children’s home, in which she described the terror and trauma of the arrest and how she witnessed the beating and torture of her mother.
She concluded: "Please think of me as your child and release my innocent, very innocent mother. She has not committed any crime. I also humbly request that you release my…brother as well. I would like to meet you honorable Sir, but as I cannot meet you I write this letter. Sir, I cannot live without my mother, if I don’t see her I will drink poison and kill myself."
Now her mother has again been denied freedom. But there is a glimmer of hope.
One reason given for refusing bail was that the Attorney General had "failed" to send the necessary paperwork to the Terrorism Investigation Department who are holding her.
Another hearing was fixed for four days time. Her supporters believe the authorities know they cannot justify her continued detention any longer, especially given the increasing international attention. They hope this latest delay was one last symbolic act of defiance by the authorities—and that in four days she will finally be released.
But if that indeed happens the celebrations will be muted. Mrs Jeyakumary will be once more united with her daughter. But she still does not have her son.
(March 11, 2013 Editor's Note: Callum McCrae reports that, "Four days after that report was filed, Mrs Jeyakumary appeared before Colombo Magistrates Court and as expected she was at last released, just a few days short of a full year after her arrest. However—despite the fact that she has still not been formally charged with any offense—she was released on what the court called “conditional bail” and is not allowed to leave the country.)