Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Sri Lankan journalist Sonali Samarasinghe about life in Sri Lanka today ? a year after the Sri Lankan government proclaimed victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels, ending a long, bloody civil war.
MARCO WERMAN: Sri Lanka's 26 year civil war official ended a year ago this week. That's when the Sri Lankan army proclaimed victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels. That ended the rebel drive for an independent state but, as we reported yesterday, reconciliation between the country's Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority is still a long way off, and state of emergency remains in effect in Sri Lanka. Sonali Samarasingha knows all too well the lingering pain of war. She's a Sri Lankan journalist who left her homeland a year ago. She fled to exile after her husband, a newspaper editor who was critical of the government's human rights record was gunned down. Just days before, he'd written an editorial that foretold is own death. He wrote, when finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me. A year later his widow says little has changed in Sri Lanka.
SONALI SAMARASINGHA: This government, this country cried for human rights or democratic values. This would include an onslaught on independent journalist human rights activists and members of the Diaspora who would stand up and want to spotlight the human rights abuses that had been committed in the last stage of the war, so no the grip and the mentality of war, has not lessened at all.
WERMAN: Are you saying that the Sri Lankan government, as far as they're concerned, your country is still in a state of war.
SAMARASINGHA: Absolutely. The very first session of the new post was Parliament, in fact extended emergency regulations. Now the war has ended, but the emergency laws continue. The most draconian ones that allow for widespread abuses, having secret prisons, detention without charge. All of these laws still continue.
WERMAN: So, Sonali, what has to happen in order for Sri Lanka to definitively put this war behind them?
SAMARASINGHA: I see three things that need to be done. Number one, the emergency laws, these draconian laws must be shifted. There has to be laws put in place that are human rights friendly. Secondly, there has to be the full implementation of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, and this law would allow independent commissions, like the human rights commission, the bribery commission, the elections commission, the policy commission. And the third thing that must happen is accountability. And for that you must have independent investigations into the allegations of war crimes and, to the murder of journalists, including that of my husband.
WERMAN: Sonali, I was surprised to learn that Sri Lanka's defense minister and another member of the cabinet are both naturalized U.S. citizens. They're both from California. What sort of leverage, do you think, could that give Washington if it tries to foster reconciliation and establish a dialogue with results in Sri Lanka.?
SAMARASINGHA: Marco this will give the U.S. huge leverage. The defense minister and this cabinet minister we speak of are both brothers of the President of Sri Lanka. The United States government should be able to hold them accountable for their actions in other countries and this should be done.
WERMAN: Now I've heard the story of a J.S. Tisa Anyayagam, another journalist. He was a columnist for the English language Sri Lankan Sunday Times and in 2008 he was taken into custody and charged with inciting communal disharmony. He's been sentenced to 20 years in prison. The committee to protect journalists has taken up his case. Even President Obama has spoken out about Tisa. So how do you actually close the circuit then, if you've got these two individuals in the cabinet that have U.S. connection? The White House is speaking out about this situation. How do you establish that dialogue?
SAMARASINGHA: It's interesting that you mentioned Tisa's case because on May 3rd, the new external affairs minister of Sri Lanka declared that he had received a full pardon on May 3rd, which is press freedom day. And yet, the process has still to begin and he's still in hiding and he's still afraid for his life. Let us take the case of a senior journalist Pragit Echneleyagoda [PH]. He was abducted on January 24th this year. It is 113 days and he's still missing and there has been no investigation whatsoever as to his whereabouts.
WERMAN: Sonali do you want to go back to Sri Lanka and what would you do there when you go back?
SAMARASINGHA: I want to go back. I don't feel I can. I feel there's an underlying threat always to journalists. Journalists in exile, especially journalists who have focused on the war, focused on human rights abuses and are calling for independent investigation into the allegations of war crimes, cannot return to Sri Lanka. They would face threats to their lives, or arrest.
WERMAN: Is that what you would face if you went back?
WERMAN: Sonali Samarasingha, thank you very much for speaking with us.
SAMARASINGHA: Thank you so much Marco.