Dateline reports from Sri Lanka, where the feared Tamil Tigers are surrounded in small pocket of the country and the government is moving in for the kill.
Sunday, March 15, 2009 - 21:30

This week Amos Roberts reports from Sri Lanka, where the feared Tamil Tigers are  surrounded in small pocket of the country and the government is moving  in for the kill.

The 25 year old war against the Tigers has seen thousands killed and now an estimated 150,000 civilians are trapped in the middle of this brutal conflict.

As Roberts reports, no independent journalists are allowed  near the war zone  and those who dare criticise the government  or the military are either detained or murdered by shadowy forces.

Also, keep up to date with all the latest stories with Dateline's Twitter feed.


It is a terrible thing to contemplate, but for more than 25 long and bloody years, Sri Lankans have been killing each other in a vicious civil war. But of late, the government there has become convinced they're on the verge of defeating the feared Tamil Tiger rebels. As we speak, they've got the Tigers in the north surrounded and are moving in for what they hope will be, in military terms, "the kill". But there's one serious problem with that - the meat in the sandwich, so to speak - an estimated 200,000 civilians trapped between the two warring sides. 'Dateline's Amos Roberts has just returned from the troubled island nation. He reports that with an end game seemingly in sight, daring to question the Sri Lankan government or the military can be deadly. And a warning that this report contains some disturbing scenes.

REPORTER: Amos Roberts

On a beach in north-east Sri Lanka, the army continues its assault on the Tamil Tigers. This is the final act in a long and bloody war that's killed around 70,000 people. These pictures were shot by a cameraman from a pro-government TV station embedded with the army. And this is footage from the Tamil side of the front line, released to the world on the Internet last month. Footage shot from this side shows hospitals and refugee camps being shelled, dead and wounded civilians and grief-stricken relatives.

WOMAN (Translation): I can't see my child, where is my child?

More than 2,000 civilian deaths have been documented since late January and there are rumours of heavy army casualties - but it's impossible to know for sure. No independent journalists are allowed anywhere near the front line. When I arrived in the capital, Colombo, it looked as though the closest I'd get to the conflict was an official briefing with army spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara.

BRIDADIER UDAYA NANAYAKKARA, ARMY SPOKESMAN: They had to face heavy resistance in the jungle base. ... After more than 25 years we have liberated the whole area.

Although the Tamil Tigers are now squeezed into this tiny patch of land, the entire northern part of the country is out of bounds for journalists.

REPORTER: I noticed you have this interesting sign on your map, which says, "It's the soldier, not the reporter, who's given us the freedom of the press." You think the army has played a key role in encouraging freedom of speech in Sri Lanka?


When I heard that seriously wounded civilians were being taken to the town of Trincomalee, in Sri Lanka's eastern province, I wanted to talk to them about what was happening in the conflict zone.

REPORTER: Hi, General Fernando. It's Amos Roberts from Australian television again.


Major-General Palitha Fernando is the military liaison officer at the Defence Department.

REPORTER: If I wanted to make a trip to Trincomalee...

GENERAL PALITHA FERNANDO (ON PHONE): That's no problem, not a problem. Not a problem.

REPORTER: And what if I wanted to visit some of the people that have been evacuated, some of the wounded patients who are in the hospital there?


REPORTER: That's not possible? What's the problem with that, sir?

GENERAL PALITHA FERNANDO (ON PHONE): That's the way we want it, simple answer, okay. Thank you.

REPORTER: Thank you. Goodbye.

REPORTER: Why is it not possible for me to travel to large parts of the country and report on what I find there?

GOTABAYA RAJAPAKAS, SECRETARY OF DEFENCE: You know, you have to remember we are fighting with the largest terrorist group in this world. I don't want them to infiltrate into these areas and start various things. We have security measures taken up in these area. I have had certain restrictions - of course, I am not worried, I am telling you that I will have these restrictions because the security comes first. You know, the word - this "free media", "free movement" - are nice words, it is good for Sydney, but it is not good for operational area where LTTE was occupying for the last so many years.

But it wasn't long before the war came to Colombo in an entirely unexpected way. On the verge of military defeat, the Tamil Tigers somehow managed to send two small planes to attack the capital.

REPORTER: Sir, can you tell me what this is?

MAN: This is, I think, enemy aircraft parts.

One was shot down at the domestic airport. The other crashed into this building after being hit by anti-aircraft fire.

MAN (Translation): There was firing at the aircraft, there was firing from everywhere. During that firing I saw the plane crash into the Inland Revenue building.

Far from being embarrassed by this surprise attack, the government was proud of destroying what it believed were the last of the enemy's aircraft.

REPORTER: What do you think will be the public reaction to the attack tonight?

KEHELIYA RAMBUKWELLA, DEFENCE SPOKESMAN: Well, the public would be the happiest. I'm sure they would cherish this moment and they would accept this moment as a moment of glory. So basically it's the death knell to the LTTE.

I'm not the only journalist who's been asking for access to the country's biggest story. Finally the army agrees to take about 50 reporters to visit some of the civilians who've fled the fighting. We're taken north from Colombo to Vavuniya. This is where the army's brought around 35,000 people who've escaped the war. This will be our first opportunity to see what the government calls "relief villages" and critics describe as "concentration camps". Whatever they're called, this one is surrounded by razor wire and there are soldiers everywhere.

BRIDADIER UDAYA NANAYAKKARA: Almost every family is being provided with a separate house and a kitchen in this location.

This was always going to be a PR exercise for the army and some of the people here seemed to have been deliberately planted for us to interview.

MAN: Are you satisfied with these conditions?

YOUNG MAN: With this camp? Yeah, I feel very happy with this camp, so no problem.

To get an independent view I arranged to meet up with Anna Marie Loos from MSF - Medecins Sans Frontieres - which provides health services to the refugees here. She says this camp is much better than the others. .

ANNA MARIE LOOS, MEDECINS SANS FRONTIERES: The other ones are really more emergency....and here people have at least established a bit of normalcy.

REPORTER: So you think there's a reason they brought us to this camp in particular?

ANNA MARIE LOOS: Well, yes, you always want to show the best thing you have. So this is probably as good as it gets.

Everywhere we went we were followed by soldiers.

ANNA MARIE LOOS: Amos, I would be very careful about talking to people because, as you see, we have a few followers and it could mean trouble for the people we speak to.

WOMAN: They've already expressed that.

REPORTER: What, some of them have already said that to you?

WOMAN: Yeah.

REPORTER: What have they actually said?

WOMAN: "We cannot talk to you. We were told not to talk to you."

It's true that people living here have all their basic needs met - there's a school, a health clinic, even a brand-new grocery store. And they no longer live in fear.

INTERPRETER (Translation): Did you see people being wounded by the shelling?

MAN (Translation): Many, a shell fell near our house, but we escaped. I saw many people killed by the shells, there was nobody to help or rescue them. The bodies were just dumped in bunkers and covered up - bodies with no one to bury them.

Some of the refugees blame the government for indiscriminate shelling. But some also say they were being held as human shields by the Tamil Tigers.

ANNA MARIE LOOS: I've had one person that I've known for a long time who tried to escape from that area six nights in a row and she only managed on the sixth attempt. The other five times they would bump into Tamil Tigers, who would start shooting at them. There was even an instance when somebody's leg was cut off to prevent them from fleeing.

Everyone here is glad to be safe. But in some ways they've traded one form of captivity for another. Security concerns mean these Tamil refugees aren't allowed to leave the camp or even receive visitors. Brigadier Nanayakkara told us it was for their own good.

REPORTER: But isn't the point, sir, that they're not being given a choice? No-one is asking them where they want to go or whether they're free to leave or not - you're making that decision for them.

BRIDADIER UDAYA NANAYAKKARA: No. We're not making any decision for them.

REPORTER: So they can leave if they choose to leave?

BRIDADIER UDAYA NANAYAKKARA: They can't just go and leave like that.

This camp is quickly growing into a large, semi-permanent settlement. It's expected to house around 120,000 people for up to three years.

ANNA MARIE LOOS: I'm sure that all these people want is to just have a normal life where they can make their own choices and live in freedom, and that is not going to happen.

Many Tamils are used to having their freedom of movement restricted on security grounds.

VITHYATHARAN, NEWSPAPER EDITOR: It's obvious, everyone knows, that we are treated as a third-grade citizens of this country.

Newspaper editor Vithyatharan says Tamils are considered potential terrorists.

VITHYATHARAN: I have a registration - you can see that. Even I am carrying the photocopy of that along with me.

All Tamils in Colombo who've come from the north-east must have their details registered with the local police.

VITHYATHARAN: If the police stop me on my road and I don't have this registration, they will take me to the police station and sometimes, maybe, they will even keep me two, three days.

Vithyatharan faces bigger problems than harassment. Journalists in Sri Lanka are under attack and nine of his staff have been killed in the past three years.

VITHYATHARAN: To prove the actual truth I carried a photo on January 5.

In 2006 one of his reporters took some photos proving the government had tried to cover up the execution of five students.

VITHYATHARAN: My reporter, who took the photo of this, was shot dead within two weeks in Trincomalee town. I will show you that photo also. You can see that.

For many years, Vithyatharan's newspapers have been targeted by the government and paramilitary groups. The worst incident of all took place in Jaffna, in the far north of Sri Lanka. Jaffna is the part of Sri Lanka most scarred by decades of war. Control of this Tamil town has passed back and forth over the years between the rebels and the army. Outsiders require special clearance from the Ministry of Defence to visit. It's been described as an "open jail", and that's especially true for the editors of Vithyatharan's newspaper up here.

REPORTER: So tell me what happened?

KAANAMYLNATHAN, EDITOR: This happened on May 2, 2006.

Editor Kaanamylnathan hasn't left this office since four armed men burst in three years ago.

KAANAMYLNATHAN: They shot at random and we have not repaired this because this is a mark to see in what sense they came in, what type of furiousness they had.

The editor, who still limps from an earlier attack, says two of his staff were gunned down.

KAANAMYLNATHAN: This is the boy, he was attached to the circulation department, he's the man who raised his head because they asked everybody to lay down and this boy, all of a sudden just put his head up and he was shot.

The marketing manager was also killed, shot in his office. The paper's two editors have lived and worked here ever since.

KAANAMYLNATHAN: This is the room where I am living and this is everything in one. All the things in one, sitting room, bedroom;

REPORTER: And you live here with your wife?


REPORTER: And what about your wife - is she happy to be living in this one room with you?

KAANAMYLNATHAN: No, no. She is not satisfied, but what to do? She has to manage with me, no? My situation is..we are.. there is an open prison and we are within another prison.

REPORTER: You're in a prison within a prison.


These Tamil journalists don't hide their support for the Tamil struggle. They say they're fighting with the pen instead of the sword, which is more than enough to anger the government. But it's not just Tamils who are being targeted. Lal Wickrematunga's brother, Lasantha, was one of the country's best-known journalists. Earlier this year the Sinhalese editor was killed on his way to work in a well-planned attack.

LAL WICKREMATUNGA, PUBLISHER, THE SUNDAY LEADER: There's a school about 50 metres ahead on the left and that's where he was assaulted.

REPORTER: Your brother was killed just here?

LAL WICKREMATUNGA: That's right. You can see a photograph of him on that tree. He was being followed by eight people on four motorcycles and they used whatever weapon they were using from this side, from the driving side, against the temple, and he was fallen down across the other side.

'No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and - in Sri Lanka - journalism.'

Lasantha Wickrematunga was editor of the 'Sunday Leader' newspaper. His brother is reading an editorial Lasantha wrote in which, eerily, he'd predicted his own death.

LAL WICKREMATUNGA: "Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all these categories, and now especially the last."

Wickrematunga's murder sent shockwaves through the country. So did the chilling editorial - addressed to Sri Lanka's President - in which he blames shadowy forces for his death. Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the President's brother.

REPORTER: Were you concerned at all by the assassination of editor Lasantha Wickrematunga?

GOTABAYA RAJAPAKSA: I don't want to comment on this, but if you want to ask me - he has antagonised so many people. Why then put down this government? For the last so many years he had criticised all of them. Take the present opposition leader, take the previous president, take anybody in this country - he had not criticised, he had reported wrong things on them.

Despite the Defence Secretary's protests, many journalists believe military forces close to the current government were behind the assassination. Tamil newspaper editor Vithyatharan rides his motorbike to work because he thinks it's safer than a car. He says some Western diplomats, fearing he too might be attacked, have recently offered him asylum.

VITHYATHARAN: But me and my management have decided to stay here, to fight for the rights of the Tamils, the community, and this is the crucial time that journalists have to act prudently on behalf of their people. I am doing that.

REPORTER: Even though you know the risks that you are running?

VITHYATHARAN: It is true that when you are leaving from your home, you are not sure that you will return back to your home alive. Some time you may not come back. That is the position of the journalists.

The day after I filmed him, Vithyatharan was grabbed by police who arrived in a white van. I was on my way to interview the Secretary of Defence when I got the news. Mentioning the editor's name to Gotabaya Rajapaksa provoked a surprising response.

REPORTER: Is Mr Vithyatharan, the editor of 'Suderoli' and 'Uthayan'...

GOTABAYA RAJAPAKSA: He's involved in the recent air attacks. I'm telling you, if you try to give a cover-up for that person you have the blood on your hands. We have definite information on that and if somebody tells he is arrested because media, that person also has blood for innocent civilians who died in Colombo.

REPORTER: I just heard on my way to this interview that he had been arrested this morning.

GOTABAYA RAJAPAKSA: That is good thing that you asked for that, good thing that you asked for that. I'm telling you with responsibility, he is a terrorist - he was in charge of... he's responsible for things, coordinating air attacks in Colombo. I will arrest him - we have arrested him - and it is the right thing to do and we will take legal action against him.

Vithyatharan's wife, sister and brother-in-law were all there when the editor was taken away in a white van. After a flurry of phone calls to foreign diplomats and the UN, his brother-in-law was relieved when he heard Vithyatharan was in custody and alive. Everyone had feared the worst.

BROTHER-IN-LAW: In Sri Lanka everyone aware when a white van comes it is an abduction. As far as the journalists are concerned nobody whoever abducted in the white van they never survived.

REPORTER: Did they ever say why they were taking him or what they were going to charge him with?

BROTHER-IN-LAW: Nothing. They never produced any receipts, arrest warrant - nothing. It was purely abduction.

REPORTER: What do you think this government sees, though, as the proper role for journalists?

LAL WICKREMATUNGA: Right now I think they would just want journalists to quote government communiqués.

REPORTER: Let me ask you, sir, what do you consider the proper role for a journalist in a time of war?

GOTABAYA RAJAPAKSA: Do the correct thing - act responsibly as a citizen of this country. Look, if you take two words - "media", "freedom" - that's very beautiful, very nice, who can object that? I love it, the President loves it, we will support it. "Free media", take two words - nice two words - but remember when you act you have to think of the situation that we are facing. In that situation when you take the media, they have a different role to play. They should act responsibly - they must take the country first, not these two words, "free media".

LAL WICKREMATUNGA: "In the name of patriotism you have trampled on human rights..."

For slain newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunga media freedom was at the heart of democracy. And he made it clear in his final editorial, addressed to the President, that it's non-negotiable - even in death.

LAL WICKREMATUNGA: "As for me, it is with a clear conscience that I go to meet my maker. I wish that when your time finally comes you could do the same. I wish."












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