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'More civilians may have died in Lanka than in Gaza'

February 24, 2009
Sunanda Deshapriya, a journalist, peace activist and the person behind the free media movement in Sri Lanka, has been in India from January 18. The killing of senior journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge has forced many journalists and activists from Sri Lanka to take refuge in Europe and India.

Influenced by the French and the Cuban revolutions, the Vietnam war, the Naxalite movement, Deshapriya started his life as a militant and was jailed for seven years from 1971. In fact, he says he and his group started the armed struggle in Sri Lanka. "I would say we gave birth to Tamil militancy."

Disillusionment with armed struggle made him change and he became a peace activist. He understood that revolution was not possible in the 20th century with powerful and sophisticated States everywhere. He calls himself a social democrat now.

In this exclusive interview, he talks to's Shobha Warrier about the current situation in Sri Lanka.

It was reported that you have taken refuge in India. Is it true?

Well, I would like to put it this way. I have taken time out because of the situation in my country. It has become very volatile after the killing of Wickrematunge and the attack on the MTV MBC network.

How difficult was it to take the decision to move from one's own country to another?

It was not easy at all because this is the first time I have done this in my 30 years of life as a peace activist and editor.

Has the accusation of money swindling against you anything to do with the decision?

No. Not only me but 11 other journalists also have left the country after Wickrematunge's killing. It was a collective decision to use the money for some other purpose, and no money was used for any personal interest.

Given the situation, it became a political accusation for the whole movement which is very unfortunate. They tried to mingle the personal and movement together. We all felt later that we should have done it in a proper way. But the fact is not a penny was used for personal purpose by anyone. None of the accusations has been proved. There was no investigation actually; all this was done by the State media.

Is it to suppress the freedom of the movement that such accusations were hurled?

Well, the end result was that. Media freedom has suffered in the last three years. All of us in the media, Tamils, Muslims, Sinhalese, trade union leaders -- all stood united and we became a kind of opposition. The campaign for press freedom became a focal point for everyone to rally around in the country. Other unfounded accusations also came in when we provided safe houses and safe travel for journalists.

The end result of all this was the weakening of the campaign for media freedom. Today, there is virtually no campaign within the country for press freedom.

Did you start the free media movement because there was suppression?

In 1991, the United National Party government tried to take control over the media. Then, we -- a lot of editors and senior activists -- came together and started the free media movement. Now, some of them have joined various political parties; some have joined the government. You know this happens to every movement. Only a few of us remain in civil society, not joining any political party -- that was our main strength.

Image: Sunanda Deshapriya. Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj

Also see: 'There is no sympathy for the LTTE in Tamil Nadu'

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