Natalie Samarasinghe: Rulers in Colombo must reach out to the whole island

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The Independent Online

"People throughout the country are brimming with patriotic fervour," read the front page of yesterday's Sri Lanka Daily News. It is unlikely that any of them are located in the Wanni region, where an estimated 250,000 civilians are trapped as the government advances on the Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam (LTTE), otherwise known as the Tamil Tigers.

But it is difficult to verify much of what is reported on Sri Lanka. A successful raid on a LTTE training camp wiping out 50 cadres becomes the brutal bombing of 200 schoolchildren. The assassination of a leading newspaper editor becomes an international conspiracy to divert attention from the government's military victories. It is the media outlet and – all too often – ethnicity of the writer that dictate the angle.

Foreign journalists have not had independent access to Wanni since mid-2007. And with attacks on the media proliferating, Sri Lankan journalists have a strong incentive to shut up or leave. Keeping Sri Lanka in the news is important to put pressure on the government and the LTTE to protect civilians, and to ensure leaders around the world encourage both parties to reach a political solution. But for me it is equally, if not more, important to combat the aggressive patriotism that has plagued Sri Lanka for so many decades.

Many people talk about a culture of impunity that exists in Sri Lanka. The culture of prejudice is far worse. I have no doubt that many people are brimming with patriotic fervour. After all, they believe what they read. These are the people who point to Tamil-owned stores in Colombo and triumphantly say, "See, how can they claim they are being discriminated against?" They believe attacks against the media are just desserts. They believe the terrorist-loving West is seeking to stifle Sri Lanka's development and that NGOs covertly fund the LTTE.

The government has stated its commitment to a political solution. But how will a lasting peace be possible when so many people, so many voters, hold such views? What is the government doing to reverse this culture of prejudice? Until now, its record is poor. It has expelled the UN and international NGOs from the Wanni, detained journalists and failed to properly investigate disappearances and killings. Most of all, it has not done enough to reach out to all communities in Sri Lanka.

The civilians in the Wanni have suffered years of abuse by the LTTE, now they are treated with suspicion by the government. Their fate will be a signpost of what is in store for the country. As I listened to Barack Obama's inauguration speech, I hoped that his words would weigh heavy on the conscience of Sri Lanka: "your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy".

Natalie Samarasinghe is Sri Lankan and a human rights co-ordinator at the United Nations Association of the UK