Looking over my shoulder
A couple of weeks ago, I went on an official trip to the East. Starting in Arugam Bay, we drove North all the way to Trincomalee, through Pottuvil, Oluvil, Kalmunai and Batticaloa. I met with government and political interlocutors, humanitarian workers and civil society organisations, and visited temples, beaches and hospitals.
There was nothing controversial in this – it’s my job to understand what’s happening in Sri Lanka, so that I can advise my government as well as British nationals planning to travel to or invest in Sri Lanka. Nor was it remotely secret: some of you may have read our press release, followed some of our 13 tweets on the visit or even seen my interviews. I also blogged about a visit to a Child Action Lanka centre outside Batticaloa.
But it gradually became impossible to ignore the fact that I was being watched. Worse, it was clear that the people I was meeting were having follow-up visits or phone calls, asking what I had done and said. Some of this was almost comic: I met with one individual who had invited a large press corps to capture the moment of our meeting.
Towards the end of our discussions, he got a phone call asking him to report whether he knew who the foreigner was in town, despite the fact that his office had already released well-captioned pictures on social media. But other instances were clearly frightening to individuals and their families. I was saddened but not surprised that several people were too scared to meet me.
The five years since the end of the war have brought considerable progress and developments. Sri Lanka has suffered many cycles of devastating violence, and my statement for World Peace Day welcomed the way more Sri Lankans can now enjoy their right to life, as well as new opportunities for economic growth and political participation. There has been a lot of research on the impact of surveillance on societies, and the challenge of balancing security with giving communities the space to live their lives as normally as possible.
Too little security puts everyone at risk. But too much can alienate people from those who are supposed to be keeping them safe, making it harder to rebuild trust between local communities and government. It can perpetuate stereotypes, damaging reconciliation. It can deter people from engaging in perfectly legitimate activities because of their concern about what it might mean for them to come to the attention for the authorities. It is so damaging to social capital, that it can even affect economic performance.
So I was taken aback by the level of interest that I generated. Some newspapers have since speculated that I was seeking out testimony for the UN Human Rights Council investigation. Of course the British Government is interested in the progress of that investigation, and it’s a matter of great regret to us that the Government of Sri Lanka is not cooperating more fully with a report which is intended to look at allegations against all sides involved in the conflict. But we have absolute confidence in the investigation team’s ability to source and validate its own testimony: I’m not about to try to do their job for them. And we’re equally interested in Sri Lanka’s domestic mechanisms for reconciliation and accountability. In an ideal world, the two would be mutually supportive: it’s only by hearing and addressing the grievances of all of those affected by the conflict that Sri Lanka can achieve our common objective of long-lasting stability and prosperity.(laura davies fco.uk)