Sri Lankan protests – from street to Tweet

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Hashtags took on traditional banner-wavers over the issue of Sri Lankan human rights Monday, both in Colombo and in cyberspace.

By Richard Walker

While pro-government supporters crowded the Sri Lankan capital’s main thoroughfare, multi ethnic and pressure groups organised a tweet shower aimed at undermining the Sri Lankan government’s appearance Monday at the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva.

[related-articles]Colombo's primary goal at the world’s highest human rights forum is to thwart a resolution championed by the US asking Sri Lanka to do more to bring about meaningful reconciliation in the bitterly divided north and east of the country. It also wants to convince HRC members that it needs more time to implement recommendations from its own “Lessons Learned and Reconciliation” report, a document criticised by Amnesty International in October as a delaying tactic betraying an intention to do nothing.

Sri Lanka’s bitter 30-year civil war came to a bloody end in 2009 with the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) suffering a crushing military defeat. A subsequent UN investigation, as well as several journalistic probes, have levelled accusations of war crimes at both sides--something the present government refuses to accept.

How they Tweet each other

Activists’ use of Twitter makes for a contrast with today’s street marches in Colombo. “We’ve chosen to use Twitter so that we can react in real time to what the government of Sri Lanka is saying at the HRC today,” Fred Carver from ‘Sri Lanka Campaign’ told RNW.
“We’ll hear a rose-tinted view from them, or we’ll hear them ask again for more time… The comments we’ll be making are from anonymous but real Sri Lankans who are too afraid to speak their minds for fear of reprisals.”

Sri Lanka’s independent media is used to being harassed and monitored by shadowy, often violent, groups of men operating from mini-vans or motorbikes believed by victims to be in the employ of the police. Some believe the level of media monitoring is becoming more sophisticated. “The govt will clearly monitor those behind the hashtag campaign and record the output for future reference, and possibly even extra-judicial or punitive action after the end of the [HRC] sessions in late March,” Sanjana Hattotuwa, of the citizens journalism website ‘Groundviews’, told RNW.

But today’s appearance in Geneva is more about the world stage and influencing international opinion than domestic media freedoms. “Ultimately, the governmentt will ride the tide of hashtags this week and rely on its diplomacy to dilute or defeat the US-led resolution. The issue, however, will not go away,” said Hattotuwa.

UN pick ‘n’ mix

As the Sri Lankan government stands in the UN’s human rights chamber today to defend its record on its treatment of the Tamil minority since the end of the civil war, it continues to refute claims by the UN Secretary General’s expert panel, which wants an investigation into allegations of rape, executions and the bombing of civilian hospitals. The EU is as unimpressed by Colombo’s lack of reaction to these charges as the UNSG.

In statement made last week the European Union said: “The EU regrets that questions raised in the report of the expert panel of the UN Secretary General have to a large extent not been reflected. The EU recalls that the issue of accountability is an essential part of the process of national reconciliation and implies inquiries into specific responsibilities for possible crimes committed by the regular forces as well as by the LTTE.”

In other words, a proper investigation is expected and required by segments of the international community. Activists say Colombo’s efforts in Geneva today are aimed at preventing that.