Sri Lanka's elite are in the dark about gravity of war

A recent gag order on the media's military coverage continues, but was lifted for foreign journalists on June 5.

When Sri Lankan forces repelled a raging eight-week Tamil Tiger offensive this month, the government of this deceptively tranquil island breathed a huge sigh of relief. Army sources reported many acts of bravery by Sri Lankan troops, who rallied after heavy losses.

Yet due to a news blackout, the heroism of the soldiers got scant coverage in the Sri Lankan press.

Press censorship here reached full force this spring when a stronghold called Elephant Pass was taken for the first time by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The loss signaled a critical moment in a 17-year ethnic war - since the Tamil Tigers appeared ready to take the Tamil-majority city of Jaffna, giving them a capital for the separate state they desire in the north.

Yet with no journalists allowed in the war zone, and with an ongoing official 20- person censoring team - readers abroad knew more about the war than ordinary Sri Lankans.

Press censorship in wartime is nothing new. But the official strictures are now so pervasive in Sri Lanka, experts say, that they symbolize a deeper condition in which the jungle war - whose outcome still hangs in the balance - has become an abstraction in the nation's own skyscraper-studded capital. Most of the majority ethnic Sinhalese in Colombo, in an informal poll, have never traveled to the 90 percent ethnic Tamil north country.

To have reported on the heroism of the soldiers, for example, would also raise questions about the gravity of the war situation - and be grist for criticism of the government.

Indeed, numerous critics and diplomats say the distance between elites in Colombo, and the actual state of hostilities in the North, would require a novel like "Alice in Wonderland" to describe.

The ugly and petty infighting among wealthy ruling families in the capital has led to media controls that go far past reasonable measures, they say. Such a state slows a resolution of the war - which requires new levels of cooperation between the two main political parties, which have long exploited each other's troubles, even at the expense of the larger crisis in Sri Lanka.

"It is like living in a fantasy world," says Jayadeva Uyangoda, a political scientist at the University of Colombo, "The ruling class demonstrates an amazing capacity not to read the handwriting on the wall. This is a nasty time for us. The fall of Jaffna would have serious consequences. But we don't really discuss it."

Currently, Sri Lankan papers often publish white space or a "censored" logo where text has been edited out; the BBC and CNN TV cable feeds on the island are blacked out during reports on the fighting. Private newspapers are scrutinized by the information ministry more closely than the public press, in this highly literate society. Several editors and journalists say in recent weeks they have started a dangerous practice of self-censorship, rather than write stories that will get cut.

Technically, only war news and commentary that could "incite" violence is verboten. But in practice the guidelines are so fuzzy that the official red pencil marks out much news perceived simply as negative, editors say - from reports on labor strikes, to comment on how the war affects the local economy, to the fact that a government military recruiting drive for 15,000 soldiers has only netted about 1,000 new recruits. No live broadcasts are allowed.

"The magnitude of the war and the suffering doesn't get through - the censorship hides it," says Jehan Perera, spokesman for the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. "When Elephant Pass fell, we were shocked out of our wits. But the human cost and the impact on civilians and soldiers remains hidden. What concerns me is that conditions have gotten so bad that even with a free press, we might not see honest reporting."

The country's chief censor, Director of Information Ariya Rubasinghe, says the need for censorship stems from concern about an ethnic backlash against the minority Tamil community. Should the Tigers slaughter masses of Sri Lankan soldiers, the streets in Colombo could turn red with ethnic Sinhalese killing Tamils. (In 1997, Tigers butchered nearly 1,000 troops after overrunning a base called Mulativa).

This month, after a Tiger bomb killed 16 people at a Buddhist shrine in Batticaloa on a holy day, Mr. Rubasinghe held the news for a day.

"I thought it was important to stop the broadcast in order to protect our minorities," Rubasinghe says.

Rubasinghe's point is taken seriously by most journalists here. But they don't agree with the blanket nature of the present policy.

"We've had presidents, candidates, ministers, assassinated and we had reporting on Mulativa," says Waruna. "There has been no backlash. There will only be backlash if the government allows it."

Media critics describe two wars in Sri Lanka. One is the military war in the north. The other is a "battle of press releases in Colombo," as one journalist put it: Official press releases vs. press releases from various NGOs that attempt to describe alternative politics and realities in the troubled areas.

When the Sri Lankan army recaptured the city of Jaffna in 1995, military experts here said the LTTE, led by the brilliant and brutal Vellupillai Prabhakaran, had been crushed. Yet for three years, Army efforts to consolidate a position along the A-9 highway in the middle of the country proved futile, despite the fact that the Army has some 120,000 soldiers and Mr. Prabhakaran has 7,500.

The Army finally took only about half the positions they sought - and with heavy casualties. Then, in an operation called "Unceasing Waves," Prabhakaran last November recaptured most of the lost territory, and a wealth of equipment. This April, he took Elephant Pass, in what he called "Phase Three" of the same war.

"The military situation is troubling," says leading columnist Iqbal Athas of The Sunday Times national paper. "But for 17 years we've had nothing but a string of successes, if you read the official version. Most sad is that the real heroes of the war, the soldiers, do not get coverage. I can think of no more conclusive proof of the degree to which this war has been politicized, and its realities forgotten."

Most of the headlines in the official press are devoted to various iterations of a "devolution" package partly engineered by President Chandrika Kumeratunga. The package is considered important since it would give more local power to the regions, and it recognizes the aspirations of the Tamil minority, who currently feel they are living under a second-class status.

Still, the fall of Elephant Pass this spring and the gains by the Tigers under their charismatic warlord, Prabhakaran, seem to make the devolution idea at least temporarily moot. Prabhakaran has not communicated with the Sri Lankan government for about five years, and experts believe that the battlefield, not the negotiating table, is where he wants to talk.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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