Sri Lanka’s PR Part1
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday September 3 2014
One often reads horror stories about Sri Lanka in the foreign press. Despite the vast amounts of money paid to foreign public relations firms, these stories are never effectively countered. There was a recent example in the Calgary Herald.
Sri Lankans will not need to be reminded of the horrors of Black July 1983 but my foreign readers may not know the significance of the term. Many Tamils had felt that Sinhalese dominated governments had discriminated against the Tamil minority. Over many years, there had been incidents where ill-disciplined police or military had carried out savage reprisals, rather in the manner of the Black and Tans in Ireland, on innocent Tamils. July 1983 was a paradigm shift in terror. The LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) killed thirteen soldiers of the Sri Lanka Army. Anti-Tamil riots ensued and lasted for ten days with property destroyed and up to 3,000 people killed and 200,000 displaced.
From President Jayewardene’s residence, shops could be seen going up in flames but no curfew was called and police disappeared from the streets. Marauding gangs armed with axes and cans of petrol went around Colombo with electoral rolls identifying Tamil homes and businesses. The occupants were doused in petrol and set alight.
A Norwegian woman tourist recalled seeing a mob setting fire to a bus with about 20 Tamils inside it. Those who climbed out the windows were pushed back in and the doors were sealed while they burned alive, screaming horribly. In another incident, a mob chopped two Tamil girls aged 18 and 11 with knives; the younger girl was beheaded with an axe, the older one raped by 20 men and then doused in petrol.
These horrific events left an indelible mark on the Tamil psyche. Atrocities were perpetrated on innocent Tamils all over the country and many fled to the north for refuge. Those who could afford it fled abroad, from where they provided ongoing financial support for the LTTE.
The Memory Lingers On
According to the Calgary Herald, one family in particular is still enduring horrific suffering because of those events of 31 years ago. In an article by Manisha Krishnan dated August 25 2014, Ryan de Hoedt claims that his family has been troubled since Black July because they gave shelter to Tamils from the murderous mobs. He has, reportedly, been trying to get his sister out of Sri Lanka and into Canada because he fears for her life.
He says that his grandmother used their house to shelter Tamils, hiding them in closets and under beds and this “fuelled suspicions of an association with the Tamil Tigers.” He claims that his father lost his job because of this and police bullied his parents and brother.
Carmen Cheung, a lawyer with the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association told the Calgary Herald: “Here is a man who is trying to help his sister get out of what appears to be an incredibly dangerous situation”.
De Hoedt’s family are Burghers. Many Sinhalese and Burghers and Muslims took great personal risks to protect Tamils who were being victimized and brutally killed. The article does not give his sister’s name or age. Ryan himself was eleven years old at the time of Black July. I suspect that his sister was even younger. I find it difficult to believe that a Burgher woman living in Sri Lanka in 2014 would be in “an incredibly dangerous situation” because of her tangential involvement when she was a small child in incidents that happened 31 years ago.
I personally know Sinhalese people who sheltered Tamils in 1983. They may have been in danger then from the bloodthirsty mob itself and their courageous action is to be commended. I doubt if they feel any sense of danger of recrimination 31 years on.
I canvassed opinion about the Calgary Herald article among my many Sri Lankan contacts, in Sri Lanka and abroad. One, who is a Sinhalese Christian, told me: “There were many people like my family who helped Tamils in Sri Lanka during and after the 1983 riots. There are people I know who represent Tamils in human rights cases. Some of them are my friends. No authority has ever attacked them. …. The writer of this article is delusional. Maybe she has got the country wrong or she is a downright liar.”
Another respondent referred me to an article on Munchhausen’s Syndrome: “a psychiatric factitious disorder wherein those affected feign disease, illness, or psychological trauma to draw attention, sympathy, or reassurance to themselves”.
Here is a selection of other responses: “sounds like a lot of de Bull to me”. “Not really believing what I’m reading.” “I saw it but am at something of a loss. Doesn’t quite make sense”. “Good grief. Why would she be in any danger?” “A sob story if ever there was one”. “It all sounds very strange”.
My list of contacts included many who have been strongly critical of the Sri Lankan government- in print as well as privately.
Some respondents wrote at more length:
“I met a Sinhalese guy back in around 2008 who was trying to get refugee status here in Australia on humanitarian grounds…His story was that his family owned a successful business that had some branches in the North-East, and during the ceasefire the LTTE extorted money from them. After the war started again in 2006, he alleged that the govt started harassing and threatening him and his family because the LTTE had forced them to ‘donate’ money … When I asked him if it was true, he seemed very reticent and mumbled ‘Yes’ after thinking about it. I met his lawyer as well … he was advising the guy to tell the Immigration Dept that he was tortured and he told him to be convincing about it in his body language. The fellow cut off all contact with me shortly afterwards and I haven’t heard from him since.”
Some of my respondents seized upon another aspect of Manisha Krishnan’s article. “A few years ago, said de Hoedt, her tenants were implicated in a riot and she was charged with harbouring terrorists. She lost her job and was stalked by soldiers and villagers, who cut off her hair, beat her and repeatedly attempted to rape her.” My contacts reacted thus: “Sounds more like they have some kind of land dispute or something like that.” What riot? What terrorists? Sounds like a cooked up sob story.”
According to Manisha Krishnan’s article, Ryan de Hoedt: “claims her seven attempts to obtain a visitor’s visa to Canada and a permanent residency application made through her parents on humanitarian grounds were all rejected”. Two things are being mixed up here. Was she refused a visitor’s visa seven times? Application for permanent residency is a totally different thing and should not be included in the same sentence. The rejections were not the fault of the Sri Lanka government. The article does not tell us why the Canadian government rejected seven applications. The article does say: “She didn’t apply for refugee status because she was afraid to leave the country, which is one of the requirements.” Why was she afraid to leave Sri Lanka when her brother claims she is in mortal danger if she stays?
Ryan de Hoedt has lost his own Canadian passport. In April 2013, he was caught in Japan trying to help his sister to enter Canada using false documents. Although at one point de Hoedt says his sister was afraid to leave Sri Lanka, she did meet her brother in Malaysia and got involved with a human smuggling gang who took the sister’s Sri Lankan passport. They ordered de Hoedt to meet them in Laos where they were to provide the sister with a fake Canadian passport. Ryan and his sister were stopped while boarding a flight in Tokyo’s Narita Airport and the sister was sent back to Sri Lanka.
One of my respondents said: “Maybe if they had resorted to legal means more thoroughly they could have gotten the chance. But since they messed up they are cooking up vivid stories and putting the country’s reputation at risk! But if there is such local problem of harassment it must be duly investigated by local authorities.”
I hesitated to write this article in case it might put de Hoedt’s sister in more danger. “The police warned her they would kill her the next time she did something,” said de Hoedt. However, I have done no more than repeat what de Hoedt himself has placed in the public domain through the Calgary Herald.
I searched the BCCLA web site for Ryan de Hoedt but got this response: “Apologies, but no results were found for the requested archive.”
The full article can be read here:
I wrote to Manisha Krishnan giving her an opportunity to comment on what I have written here. At the time of submitting my copy, she had not replied. I will take up this issue again next week and will report her response if she has made one. I would also be interested to see comments from the Sri Lanka police.