Sipping that cocktail in Sri Lanka should wait til the blood is removed

Sri Lanka is desperate to lure tourists back to the country after decades of fighting (and most of the Western, corporate press seem oblivious to the gross human rights abuses still taking place in the north and east).

But anybody with an ounce of decency would seriously re-consider visiting a nation plagued with violence and corruption:

Britons are again flocking to Sri Lanka. Tourist arrivals surged 47% last month from a year earlier and sun-seekers from the UK form the largest single group. That’s an astounding turnaround for a country that for more than a quarter of a century had been a case study in ethnic warfare, terrorism and brutal repression.

This week the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, buoyed by recent wins in presidential and parliamentary elections, marks the first anniversary of its military victory over the separatist Tamil Tigers.

In the past few months Sri Lanka has been trying to burnish its image as an Indian Ocean paradise. And with some success. In January, the influential travel section of The New York Times slapped a picture of Colombo’s colonial-era Galle Face hotel on its front page and put Sri Lanka at the top of its 31 Places To Go in 2010 list.

And a western tourist sipping palm wine on a white sand beach or Ceylon tea in a plantation hill station might agree. The weather’s balmy, the people smile, and the price is oh-so right.

What visitors might not notice is that broad swaths of the mainly Tamil north and east of the country are still effectively closed military zones, and tens of thousands of Tamil civilians displaced by last year’s army onslaught are still held in camps. Visitors would have a hard time finding independent reporting on these stories in the Sri Lankan media. But not to worry. So would Sri Lankans.

Peace may be bringing a dividend for tourism and other business, but not for free speech. The Tamil press has long been intimidated and is extremely wary of being the first to break news critical of the government or the military. But now the Sinhala and English language press based in Colombo is also under fire. The writing on the wall for those who report critically on Rajapaksa or his extended family, which occupies positions of power and influence throughout the island, came in January last year with the brutal beating to death in broad daylight of Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor in chief of the popular Sunday Leader newspaper.

That still unsolved murder sent a chill throughout the media. More attacks and harassment of reporters followed. Journalists, who already toned down or spiked critical stories, began to censor themselves even more. Several slipped out of the country fearing for their safety. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in its latest report on Sri Lankan media, estimates that a total of 10 journalists have been killed for their work in the past decade, and that more than 25 have fled into exile. The authorities have not secured a single conviction in any of those 10 murders. This has earned Sri Lanka the dishonour of fourth place on the CPJ’s Global Impunity Index, which ranks countries that fail to bring the killers of journalists to justice.

Troublesome journalists sometimes just disappear. Once such is Prageeth Ekneligoda, a columnist and cartoonist whose wife and two sons have not seen him since he left to cover the presidential election campaign on 24 January. Police seem uninterested in investigating his disappearance. His editor at the online news site Lanka eNews, Sandaruwan Senadheera, has already fled the country.

Sri Lanka is used to having its poor human rights record under the spotlight. Western democracies have lost some of their leverage to effect change as the government in Colombo has turned to Asian countries for arms, aid and investment. China and Pakistan provided much of the weaponry for the final push against Tamil insurgents; Iran is financing the construction of a power station and supplying oil; and China is providing loans and labour for air, sea and rail transport projects.

But in addition to tourism, Sri Lanka still relies on Europe and the United States as export markets, particularly for apparel. Sri Lankan textiles entering the European Union enjoy low tariffs under the generalised system of preferences known as GSP+. Brussels has said it could suspend that privilege in August as part of a review of the island’s human rights performance. Colombo has sought to play down the importance of the GSP+ but the EU accounts for 35% of Sri Lanka textile exports. The loss of that market could jeopardise 200,000 jobs.

Those who care about freedom of expression and the safety of journalists in Sri Lanka have few opportunities to influence the new government in Sri Lanka. The prospect of suspending preferential tariffs gives the EU a powerful tool to extract human rights improvements from Sri Lanka. Brussels should use it.