Free at last

One hundred and nineteen days. Nearly four months. Two thousand eight hundred and fifty six hours.
That was how long Munusami Parameshwari stayed in custody before Sri Lankan courts vindicated her last week. She spent that time inside prison walls, while the world outside speculated on her arrest, threw wild theories of ‘terrorist-supporter’ around and international media and human rights watchdogs kept a keen eye on the proceedings of her case.
And her crime? She was the convenient victim in a game of evil politicking – the Tamil journalist in a sea of Sinhalese heads at a newspaper that the Government was beginning to see as a detractor it could not tolerate, arrested under the most popular manthram used to justify arbitrary arrests: links to the LTTE.
Long before her case came up for judgement, certain state newspapers, wanna-be anti-terrorists and other elements taking refuge under the banner of ‘patriotism’ were quick to put Parameshwari on trial, assume her guilt and complete her sentencing. Indeed, the ‘anti-terror’ lobby egged the Government on, agitating for the arrest of all other ‘media Tigers.’.
And yet today, not only has Parameshwari been released and the investigation suspended because of a lack of evidence, but the highest court in the land has decreed that the young journalist has been wronged by the state and upheld her fundamental rights as enshrined in the constitution.
The question that must arise now among clairvoyants and conspiracy theorists is ‘what went wrong?’ As for the Government, the time has come, some would say, for some deep introspection; to decide in this moment whether this campaign against a media organisation and its boss, now almost certainly a witch hunt, is really worth the fall out both internationally and among its own people.
Some would say that when President Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected to office in November 2005, he brought a lot of baggage with him. To begin with, his was a mandate that was not endorsed by the people of the north and east, who were forced to boycott the poll by LTTE cadres. It was also no secret that if the northern and eastern peoples had been allowed to exercise their franchise, Mahinda Rajapaksa would not have been the man sitting in that chair today. No doubt this truth came home to Rajapaksa himself as he watched the results of that election unfold. Rajapaksa came to office with many tags on him – he was dubbed hardliner, pro-Sinhala and a politician with no clear policy on which to tackle the economy or peace. Under the circumstances, some would also say that Mahinda Rajapaksa had a point to prove. He had to show the people that while he was no Ranil Wickremesinghe type pushover for the LTTE, he was also a leader of state committed to ending 20 years of bloodshed and ensuring a just solution for the Tamil people.
Having shown remarkable restraint in the early days of his presidency, Rajapaksa looked set to play the role of statesman. But as gathering war clouds began to darken our horizons, the Government shifted gear, looking set to live up to the ‘hardline’ tag they had earned themselves in the run up to the presidential election. Today, it has become a Government ready and ever willing to take refuge under the slogan, ‘we are at war’. Indeed, the reintroduction of anti-terror laws have only aided and what looks like Government moves to harass and intimidate critics of the establishment.
As if over eager to prove its ‘hardline’ stance, the Government’s first media victim was Parameshwari. The Government was making an example of Parameshwari because she worked for a newspaper that had suddenly turned hostile towards the administration. She was also conveniently Tamil and invariably easier to arrest under the anti-terror emergency laws.
Parameshwari may have been a journalist first, but she is also by birth a member of the Tamil community – a group of citizens the Government needs to work extra hard to reassure that this war is not being waged against a single ethnic group, but against a ruthless terrorist outfit. In arresting Parameshwari and with the courts having then released her, the Government has lost tremendous face – not only because a make-believe investigation has been laid bare by the judiciary, but also because the move has further alienated the Tamil community. It is also a further blow to the Government’s dismal human rights record, which is being held up to scrutiny worldwide.
All this gloom and doom notwithstanding, Parameshwari’s case also signals a degree of hope; hope that although certain arms of the Government may harass the innocent, the judiciary will be standing firmly on the side of the citizen. Our sympathies and well-wishes remain with Parameshwari. We salute her valour and hope that the hand of justice meted out to her so far will go some distance in pouring balm on the ignominies she may have suffered. We know her battles are far from over, but we shall all take courage from the knowledge that while harassment and bullying might hold sway at this juncture of our history, in the end, truth shall win the day.


Make haste

The SLFP has further delayed its proposals to the All Party Representative Committee on its recommendations for a political solution to the ethnic conflict.
The APRC, headed by Minister Tissa Vitarana has been awaiting these proposals for months now and the process has stagnated but the SLFP does not appear to be in any hurry. With the April holidays coming up and the country going on vacation for at least three weeks, there is going to be no sign of the proposals for some time to come.
None of this bodes very well for the fate of the APRC or the commitment to coming up with a political solution to put forward to the people of the north east. Instead, the thrust appears to on the military front, where the Government appears to be going all guns blazing to recapture land and ‘liberate’ the people.
But there are different kinds of liberation in the world. We can also aim to liberate by offering the people of the north east justice. We can free them from the yoke of war and allow them to live their lives without the threat of displacement or maiming by weaponry. Most importantly, justice and liberation that comes in the form of a genuine addressing of the Tamil grievances will forever diminish the people’s need for an armed group to be fighting the state on their behalf. Wars on terror cannot be fought on military fronts alone and we cannot execute a war against our own people forever. The best defence the Government has against the LTTE is to offer the Tamil people a taste of justice for which they have been agitating for half a century. Killing festers vengeance and violence begets violence. Political settlement is the only path to a permanent peace.