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Field Notes

In Sri Lanka, an Invisible Boundary in the Internet Age

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 12, 2009; 8:27 PM

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Feb. 12 -- The men looked sleepy as they slumped in their chairs in the afternoon heat, watching the Scooby Doo cartoon. Their boss, Kusal Perera, the head of a Web site that has been critical of the Sri Lankan government's war, sighed.

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His news site, www.lankadissent.com, had to be closed down, one of many media outlets that has been made to censor itself, especially after the death of Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga, 52, a critic of his country's government.

Wickramatunga's murder was seen as part of a growing pattern of intimidation by the government, according to Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists. It all happened during a recent push to wipe out the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, in a war that has persisted for more than two decades, one of the world's longest-running conflicts.

"There were immediate threats to us," Perera told me. He shook my hand for a long time and later tried to hug several visiting journalists in a show of solidarity. "In this modern world, we thought there could no longer be an island with the Internet and text messages. But in Sri Lanka it has really happened. And it's such a pity for those civilians who are suffering."

I knew that coming to this beautiful, palm-fringed Indian Ocean nation to cover what has been characterized as the end of the war would actually be tough: how much information would we have access to? The war zone had been sealed. Would we be able to interview the civilians?

The government is accused of crushing dissent by pressuring journalists and lawyers to choose sides.

"Our president is like President Bush, he believes that we are either with him or against him and whoever says anything against the government in any form is suddenly a Tiger," Suresh K. Premachandran, a Tamil member of parliament representing the northern Jaffna district, told me. I asked if he could take me up to see those refugees fleeing the fighting. He shook his head no. He himself was recently turned back at a government checkpoint when he attempted to drive to Vavuniya, to where many civilians are fleeing.

"I just wanted to visit the people I represent," he said from his home in the capital, which is protected by security troops with lumbering AK-47s.

Sometimes in Sudan's Darfur region, which I used to cover, diplomats would take journalists on their fact-finding missions. But not in Sri Lanka since the government also refused a request by the Swiss and Dutch ambassadors to visit the country's war-affected region, diplomats said.

I once waited for five weeks for travel permits to leave Khartoum, Sudan's capital, so I decided to try in Colombo, which at least had an ocean view. In Sri Lanka, I hired a local journalist and, with his phone constantly ringing, we went to many government offices, spoke to the helpful Sri Lankan Ambassador in Washington, filled out many papers, handed in several rounds of photos and made many, many photocopies.

After about a week of pleading, I received media accreditation. I was interested in the civilians caught in the crossfire. I assured the officials that I wasn't out to "spoil the name of Sri Lanka," as they put it. Both sides had suffered, I said. I also wanted to tell the stories of victims of Tamil Tiger suicide bomb attacks at places like playgrounds and railway stations.

The government says it is on the brink of crushing the rebels, a group the U.S. has called a terrorist organization, and ending the 25-year-old civil war that, from their viewpoint, had held back the economic potential of this lush island. Anyone not on board, they figure, is against them. Last week, Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa accused the BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera and two ambassadors of siding with the Tamil rebels. He warned they might be banned from the country.

On Monday, the BBC said it was suspending FM radio programming to the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corp. because of what it called "deliberate interference" in its broadcasts.

As for me, after many days of official visits and filling out forms, I got on a train and hoped for the best. I would not get to the front lines on this trip, I knew that. And I was warned by the local journalist helping me that I wouldn't be able to talk to anyone or take any photos. Still, any bit of bearing witness would be better than nothing.

At 5 a.m., I took a seven-hour rickety train that seemed to buck and lurch along the heat warped-rails. When I arrived in the heavily armed border town of Vavuniya, I think timing and persistence helped. Thousands of people fleeing the fighting were arriving on red government buses. We talked to them quietly and no one stopped us from reporting. Because it was seen as unsafe to stay overnight, I took a public bus, rickshaw and later a van, to travel six hours back to Colombo, arriving at 2:30 a.m., nearly 21 hours after I had left.

The unknown is somehow always more nefarious than the known. Most of the exhausted Tamil civilians said they were relieved to be over the front lines. I think they were as happy to see the journalists as we were to see them.


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