Access to land is a must for reconciliation in Sri Lanka

First published on 22nd May 2018 at https://www.ucanews.com/news/access-to-land-is-a-must-for-reconciliation-in-sri-lanka/82349

For rural communities, land is much more than a piece of property with a financial value

On April 23, I was with about 300 people from the Iranaitheevu twin islands off the north-western coast of Sri Lanka in the Kilinochchi district as they courageously reclaimed their Navy-occupied lands.

The islanders are all minority ethnic Tamils and Catholics.

In 1992, the islanders were compelled to leave due to the nation’s long-running civil war and the Navy subsequently occupied the islands. Some access was provided to the villagers until about 2007, but after the end of the war in 2009 they were totally barred.

Surrounding waters had provided fish and they had coconut trees, cattle and other sources of livelihood there. An historic church played a central role in village life, along with a school, cooperative, weaving center, hospital and village council.

Their hopes of returning rose after the election of a new national government in 2015. But, despite a series of meetings with officials in 2016 and 2017, and 359 days of continuous protest, they were not allowed to resettle.

Hence, on April 23 they sailed to their islands in about 40 boats accompanied by priests, nuns, activists and journalists. They stated firmly that they had come to stay, despite most of the infrastructure having been destroyed, and that the Navy could remain so long as their daily life was not obstructed.

Land releases and trail of destruction

Ten days earlier, the Army released 683 acres of land in northern Jaffna district to 964 legal owners after 28 years of occupation. But local activists, politicians and journalists reported that some access roads and a school were still held by the army. Buildings that were in good when they left were destroyed when they were allowed to resettle.

The people who were displaced were further insulted by the garlanding at a hand-back ceremony of those who took away their land. Ironically, the return of the land was referred to as “gift” by the military. There were no apologies and no compensation for displacement, losses and suffering the occupation caused.

While the government announced more than a billion rupees (approximately $US 6.4 million) to the army for them to release land, there has been minimal assistance offered to the people who were resettling. This arrogant approach inhibits scope for reconciliation through land releases.

Land issues faced by Muslims and Sinhalese

While Tamils in the north have suffered most due to military land occupation, Muslims and Sinhalese in this region have also suffered, with official complaints, negotiations, protests and court cases failing to resolve most land  grievances.  Also in the north, Muslims who were evicted by the Tamil Tigers in 1990 complain of insufficient government resettlement assistance and feel that most Tamils are not supportive of them returning.

Land issues beyond military occupation

In addition to the military, other government agencies such as those responsible for forests and wildlife have been accused of restricting people’s access to land. Tourism and other development projects are also affecting people’s access to land. And across the country, land entitlements are denied on the basis of caste and gender. Tamils who worked on British-initiated tea plantations in slave like conditions have remained landless for more than 150 years.

Land and reconciliation

In the North, new land grabbing continues. In Mullaitheevu district last year the government claimed 671 acres of land to build a Navy camp, citing this as a “public purpose.”

For rural communities, land is much more than a piece of property with a financial value. On it hinges livelihoods; especially through fishing and farming. Their ancestor’s remains are in these lands and there are historic places of worship such as Hindu temples and Christian churches. Community life has been tied to the land and merely relocating people or providing financial compensation will not help.

Court cases, petitions, discussions with authorities and protests will continue. In the absence of favorable responses from the government, it’s possible that more displaced people will attempt to re-occupy their lands as happened in Iranaitheevu. There cannot be reconciliation without access to land.

Ruki Fernando is a Sri Lankan human rights activist who was detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and is still under investigation with restrictions on free expression. He is a member of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors and a member of the Watchdog Collective and an Advisor to INFORM Human Rights Documentation Center.

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The May 18 Disconnect

First published on 20th May 2018 at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/05/20/opinion/may-18-disconnect

Travelling back to the final theatre of battle nine years later, where tens of thousands of civilians were trapped in the fighting, an activist reflects on the horrors of the final days of the war in 2009 and the inability of Sri Lankans in the north and south to connect to each other’s suffering on the anniversary of the guns falling silent.

May 18, 2009 is the day Sri Lanka’s three decades long war came to an end.

Mullivaikkal, a narrow strip of beach in the Mullaitivu District is where the war ended, when the Sri Lanka Army militarily defeated the LTTE and its 26 year struggle for a separate Tamil state. Before 2009, Mullivaikkal was a beautiful, but practically unheard of village, between the now infamous Nandikadal Lagoon and the ocean on the island’s North Eastern coast.

The days, weeks and months preceding May 18, 2009, Mullivaikkal and nearby areas had been the epicenter of the final battles of the civil war, with a UN estimate of tens of thousands killed – combatants and civilians and hundreds disappeared – many of them after surrendering themselves to the authorities.

Yesterday’s emotional and moving journey to Mullivaikkal felt like a pilgrimage. It started when a good friend unexpectedly invited me to join him.

It became a journey that retraced his footsteps in 2008-2009, for twelve months, under very different circumstances. He had journeyed from Vellankulam on the North Western coast to Mullivaikkal with thousands of others, and was held for 100 days in the Vavuniya Menik Farm, the Government internment camp for civilians who had been trapped in the final battle zones.

As we travelled, he showed me the places he had camped out for several months and others in which he had only tarried a few days, in and out of bunkers, amid heavy shelling. He pointed to a playground on the roadside which he said had been inside the first No Fire Zone declared by the military. Here, he recalled people being killed and injured when shells rained down while a UN convoy was distributing food. At a nearby church, a mutual friend had lost his leg.

Retracing

In that year long journey to Mullivaikkal in 2009, he had seen people fall dead all around him and many injured. We heard stories about how he had picked up an injured and dying man on the roadside, and carried him to a makeshift hospital in Puthumathalan on his motorbike while shells fell all around him. When he reached the hospital, his clothes were soaked with blood, leading medical staff there to think my friend had been fatally injured.

He pointed out a place and an incident where he had narrowly escaped being hit by shelling, but 13 other people had been killed.

My friend is a Catholic Priest. In 2009, his Bishop, the Vatican, even the Sri Lankan President had requested him and other Priests to leave the war zone, even agreeing to facilitate their exit. My friend was among the small stubborn and exceptionally courageous group of clergymen and women who refused to leave the war-zone until the last person had left.

Between April-May 2009, around the Mullivaikkal region, one of these priests died, another disappeared, one lost his leg and yet another suffered injuries. But my friend and others survived. He showed me the last place where he sought shelter until May 18 and the place the military interrogated him before his 100 days at Menik Farm.

As we walked around Mullivaikkal, he introduced me to other survivors.

One was an elderly gentleman whose wife and other relations including young children died on May 14, 2009. Keen to keep using Tamil civilians as human shields, the LTTE was preventing people from leaving the war zone, so this family had tried to secretly cross over through bushes and water. They had all drowned in the Nandikadal lagoon.

Another friend who had also stayed till the end, showed me a school in Mullivaikkal where bodies of the dead had been piled up. Another told a story of parents who survived, whose children had been killed. The children’s remains had been found when they returned to resettle after the war.

There were too many such stories to narrate, and there aren’t enough words to describe the pain.

Commemorations in the North

My friend also showed me where another Priest who had stayed with the people right till the end had died on the last day of the war, on May 18, 2009. That was Fr. Sarathjeevan, or “Fr. Sara”.

I had not known Fr. Sara, but out of respect for him, I had been attending a commemorative event for Fr. Sara and others killed, for several years, in a small village near Kilinochchi. Some friends of Fr. Sara had decided to erect a small and simple monument for him at the last church he served. From this church, right up to Mullivaikkal, Fr. Sara accompanied civilians who were being pushed back as the military advanced against the LTTE frontlines, pushing the Tigers’ frontlines, fell further and further to the edge of Mullaitivu. A second monument was also erected to commemorate all those who had died in the war.

The two monuments, standing side by side, are the first ever monuments built by civilians for civilians in the Wanni. During this year’s commemoration there, prayers had been offered for all those killed, including civilians, LTTE cadres and members of the armed forces.

Yesterday, I saw elaborate arrangements being made in the Mullivaikkal chapel for a commemorative service. Symbolic sand tombs had been made for those without graves, and they were sprinkled with flowers. There was also a bigger event with thousands of affected families participating, along with clergy, university students, the Northern Chief Minister and Tamil politicians.

North and South; Sinhalese and Tamils

Since 2009, May 18 is the day I feel the strongest disconnect between the North and East and rest of the country, along ethnic lines. Since 2009, the mood of May 18 in the North has been one of mourning. These events have been misunderstood by sections of the South, to be similar to the November LTTE Martyrs’ Day commemorations. But the May 18 memorials have not been about the LTTE.

Most Tamils in the North, which bore the brunt of the war, mourn and grieve for the family members killed. It is similar in the East, which also was badly affected by the war. For years since 2009, the rest of the country was a contrast. From 2009-2015, the Rajapaksa Government celebrated May 19 as Victory Day. The current Government decided that it will be renamed as Remembrance Day, a quieter memorial day for fallen members of the armed forces. There has been little attempt to transform May 19 into a day of remembrance of all those who fell in Sri Lanka’s long drawn war – civilians and combatants alike.

Over the years, in the North, those organizing and participating in remembering the war dead have faced restrictions, harassments, intimidations from police and military. At the end of the war, the Government at the time decided to raze cemeteries where LTTE combatants were buried. Some have had camps built over them, and military personnel play cricket on the same ground. For families of those buried on these grounds – because LTTE cadres were also someone’s family – this is agonizing.

Clearly, remembering those who were killed during the war – whether civilians, journalist, priest, politicians, soldier or LTTE – is something that divides us ethnically and geographically, even as we close upon a decade since the end of the war. There have also been voices and acts of extraordinary courage.

Returning after an emotional day in Mullivaikkal, nine years after the end of the war, I struggle to keep faith that the few exceptional voices and initiatives will prevail and Sri Lanka will overcome the May 18 disconnect. Reconciliation will remain elusive till then.

Freedom of Expression on the decline in Sri Lanka

First published on 3rd May 2018 at http://groundviews.org/2018/05/03/freedom-of-expression-on-the-decline-in-sri-lanka/

The last twelve months, since World Press Freedom day 2017, has not been a good year for freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. The war ravaged North bore the brunt of repression, while there were also several incidents in other parts of the country. Victims included journalists, lawyers, activists, artists and in particular those speaking out and advocating on issues such as of women’s rights, gender and sexuality. A website that had published content critical of the President was blocked, following an intervention from the Presidential Secretariat. With very few exceptions, impunity reigned for past violations of free expression, including most serious ones such as killings and disappearances of journalists and media workers and arson attacks on media institutions. At an event organized by the Free Media Movement (FMM) on the eve of World Press Freedom day, all the speakers and several participants acknowledged the lack of movement in structural reforms to the media in Sri Lanka in the last year.

Free Expression in 2017 – 2018 in the North

In March this year, the Army was reported to have detained and questioned Shanmugam Thavaseelan, a Tamil journalist reporting about Army’s alleged attempts to seize the land of a destroyed LTTE cemetery. When the journalist had refused to hand over his camera to be searched, he was interrogated by the Army who implied that his days were numbered and also subjected him to verbal abuse. The Army appeared to have acknowledged this during an inquiry by the Human Rights Commission, but there were no reports of even disciplinary action against the responsible officers. In December last year, a group of Tamil journalists doing research on Sinhalisation in the Tamil majority Mullaitivu area were reported to have been detained and questioned by Army and Police, their cameras and equipment seized and photos and videos deleted. The identity details and vehicle registration numbers were also recorded and were photographed by the soldiers.

Also in December, in two separate incidents, two Tamil journalists, Subramaniam Baskaran and Shanmuganathan Manoharan were reported to have been beaten. In July, another Tamil journalist, Uthayarasa Shalin was reported to have been stopped by two soldiers when he was travelling to Maruthankerny, to report on a protest by Tamil families of disappeared, and accused of writing lies. Also in July, Northern Tamil print and broadcast journalist T. Pratheepanwas reported to have received multiple summons by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to appear in Colombo to testify about broadcasting a press conference, and after informing his inability to travel to Colombo, he was interrogated for three hours about the press conference and was asked to produce footage. His statements, given in Tamil, were transcribed in Sinhala – a language he does not understand and he was pressured to sign this Sinhala document despite being unable to verify its contents. Tamil journalists in the North reported continued surveillance and intimidations.

In a bizarre incident, V. S. Sivakaran, the head of the Federation of Community Organisations in Mannar was reported to have been summoned to appear before the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) in Colombo, in relation to a letter he had written to President Sirisena, ahead of the latter’s plans to visit the opening of an allegedly illegally constructed Buddhist temple in the vicinity of the historic Thiruketheeswaram Hindu Temple in an area with no Buddhist residents. In his letter, Sivakaran is reported to have criticised the President for his planned participation in the event and that the President’s attendance at the opening ceremony would be marked with protests from aggrieved locals. Sivakaran had not issued any threat to the President’s person.

 Mariyasuresh Easwary, a Tamil woman whose husband had disappeared and has been vocal leader of a prolonged protest demanding truth and justice was assaulted in Mullaitivu. A rights activist was interrogated and beaten on his way home after speaking at an event. A memorial event to remember and grieve for Tamils killed in the war was stopped and organisers harassed and subjected to investigations. In November, two Tamil youths from the Vavuniya district in the Northern Province posted a photo on Facebook showing the Vavuniya District Secretariat office, the purpose of which appeared to be to draw attention to a poster of a tree planting campaign and a large tree behind the poster that looked as if it had been cut. They were questioned by the Vavuniya police, and made to sign an affidavit written in Sinhala, a language they don’t understand, and were told that they could lose their jobs and that they could not photograph Government offices nor critique their actions.

These incidents indicate a trend where the Army and Police seems determined to restrict reporting on matters considered to be sensitive such as disappearances, remembering war-dead, Sinhalisation, land, militarisation and anything critical of the government.

Freedom of Expression outside the North

While freedom of expression was under the greatest strain in the North, there were also several alarming incidents across the rest of the country from 2017 to 2018. Lakshan Dias, a human rights lawyer speaking about the rights violations of religious minorities on TV was threatened by the then Minister of Justice and was compelled to flee the country temporarily, and was subjected to lengthy interrogation on return. Sudesh Nandimal De Silva, an eyewitness and vocal campaigner seeking justice for prison massacre had his house shot at, and received death threats by phone. Human rights lawyer Senaka Perera who had filed a petition on behalf of Nandimal, also received death threats by phone. There were vicious threats online against them and others campaigning for justice. On October 6, Police Assistant Superintendent Roshan Daluwatte was recorded assaulting journalist Susantha Bandara Karunaratne while the latter was being taken into custody. The video of Karunaratne being held by two police officers while Daluwatte slapped him went viral online and was widely broadcast on television. The Human Rights Commission launched an investigation into the incident shortly after.

In general, foreign journalists found access and the working environment  in Sri Lanka favourable, but in March 2018, a week after the attacks on Muslims by mobs identifying as Buddhists, heavily armed Army and Navy personnel tried to stop an Al Jazeera crew with government accreditation, from filming by the roadside. One soldier warned that they don’t like the situation ongoing in the area being known overseas and another stated that they had been ordered not to allow filming in the area, though this was later denied by the Director General of the Government Information Department.

Free Expression online

In March this year, the government restricted access to several social media platforms for several days in the aftermath of attacks against Muslims by mobs identifying themselves as Buddhists in the Kandy district. Right To Information (RTI) requests by the editor of the citizen journalism website Groundviews revealed that the website Lanka E News was blocked, after a letter from the Presidential Secretariat to the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission noting that the website has been publishing false articles about the President and family members and asking the TRC’s Director General to “take suitable action”. Earlier on, Groundviews had managed to obtain a list of 13 websites that had been blocked from 2015onwards by the TRC, with at least in four instances, the order coming directly from the Presidential Secretariat, who via the Media Ministry had made applications to block specific websites, often on the grounds of providing incorrect or false information about the President.

 Reprisals for expressing opinions and advocating on women’s rights, gender and sexuality

In April this year, a performance in Colombo titled “Cardinal Sin”, by Grassrooted Trust, looking at proposed reforms to abortion law was barred by the government’s censorship arm, the Public Performance Board. The performance was part of an annual event called “V day”, the 2018 version of which was called “PatriANarchy” focusing on how patriarchal values continue to inflict violence in Sri Lanka.

The Muslim Personal Law Reforms Action Group (MPLRAG) , which have expressed strong positions against discriminatory and oppressive elements of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) have often come under attack in social media, with accusations ranging from them being a group operating in secret, being Israeli agents, not looking like Muslim women etc. Those expressing opinions and advocating in favor of equal rights for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender persons also faced vicious attacks on social media. Women’s dresses, ranging from abaya to bikini also drew criticism on social media. In April this year, the English language “Daily Mirror” newspaper used words such as “nag”, “nitpick”, bemoan”, “lamenting” to describe women who went to courts against discriminatory laws.

Impunity

In August 2017, Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, who was abducted in 2009, tortured and subsequently dumped on the roadside while he was editing the Colombo based “Sudar Oli” paper during the war had asked a senior Sri Lankan journalist Sunanda Deshapriya, ‘Why is this Government not investigating my abduction? Is it because I am not a Wickrematunge or Ekneligoda?’ The then Secretary to Defense had told an Australian TV, “Vithyatharan is a terrorist, so we arrested him”, and Vithyatharan identified two policemen who came to abduct him by name as Ranganathan and Wijerathana. But still, there is no arrests and none of these three have been even questioned to the best of our knowledge.

Tamil journalist Subramaniam Ramachandran disappeared in February 2007 after being seen at an Army checkpoint.

Another Tamil journalist Subramaniyam Sugirtharajan was killed in January 2006 after he had published photos indicating 5 youth killed in Trincomalee in 2006 were by shooting and not due to grenade injuries as narrated by the Special Task Force (STF) of the Police. The Uthayan newspaper office have been subjected to arson attacks and it’s journalists and media workers killed, disappeared, assaulted and threatened numerous times during and after the war, but no one has been arrested, prosecuted or convicted.

In contrast, there has been some progress on three few high profile journalists cases in Colombo. In relation to the killing of Sunday Leader newspaper’s editor Lasantha Wickramatunga and the abduction and torture of Deputy Editor of the Nation newspaper Keith Noyahr, a senior Police Officer an Army Officers were arrested this year.

But after some arrests and revealing of significant information to courts, the case of Prageeth Ekneligoda disappearance seems to be stagnating since about 2016 when all the suspects were released on bail, the last of which was just after a public statement of the President criticising the detention of Army intelligence personnel. Both the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and State Counsel leading the case on behalf of the Attorney General’s (AG) department, had repeatedly told courts of the Army providing false information, denying possession of evidence, delaying production of evidence and misleading investigations and courts. They had also reported a lack of cooperation and obstructions towards investigations from the Army, and intimidation towards witnesses. A key witness, who had seen and questioned Ekneligoda in the Giritale camp on 25th January 2015, has complained to the Police about a conspiracy to harm his life from the Giritale camp.

Significantly, more than three years after the new government came into power, there have been no prosecutions even in these cases, in May 2008, January 2009 and January 2010 respectively.

Conclusion

In the annual World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reports without Borders (RSF), Sri Lanka still languishes in the “bad” or “red” category (Above very bad, but below Good, Fairly Good, Problematic), placed 131 out of 180. The RSF index indicates that Sri Lanka’s situation on press freedom has improved in relation to other countries by ten notches in the last year, but it should not be misunderstood or misinterpreted as indicating an improvement of the situation of press freedom in Sri Lanka since 2017.

Although there has been no killings or disappearances of journalists, media workers or arson attacks on media institutions during this period, the many threats to Freedom of Expression in last 12 months such as those mentioned above, and impunity for past violations, makes it clear that Freedom of Expression was on the decline in Sri Lanka in 2017-2018.

Iranaitheevu: a community reclaims their island home from the Navy

First published on 25th April 2018 at http://groundviews.org/2018/04/25/iranaitheevu-a-community-reclaims-their-island-home-from-the-navy/

On the morning of April 23, 2018, about 300 people from the Iranaitheevu twin islands decided to sail there in about 40 boats. They have been displaced since 1992, and the Navy has occupied the island, barring the local people from staying or even visiting their traditional land, on which had hinged their livelihood. The islands also had important institutions like a school, churches, cooperative, weaving centre, hospital and village council.

These people hoped that they could return to their island after the end of the war in 2009, and the election of a new government in 2015. Yet, they were still not allowed to return, despite a series of meetings and correspondence with Ministers, politicians and government officials from 2016 to 2017. In desperation, they resorted to a continuous protest for almost a year (359 days as of April 23). Even that didn’t bring them home.

On the morning of April 23, they planned something different. Something daring that most Sri Lankans wouldn’t try. I was scared of this too.

In the preceding days and weeks, I received many calls to join them on April 23 and bring supporters as well. They especially wanted journalists, lawyers and priests to join them on April 23. I asked many friends and colleagues, it was not easy to convince people to join, but a few did. I joined their protests several times, but had almost given up, frustrated by the lack of government response and my own inability to do anything meaningful to support the people’s struggle. But the phone calls and a chance meeting with a youth from Iranaitheevu the previous week re-energised me.

So I went to join them on April 23. After a religious service at the Iranaimathaanagar church, next to their 359 day protest site, they held banners and placards and marched to the beach. Then they got into boats and started to sail towards Iranaitheevu. They wanted me and others who had come to support them from Jaffna, Mannar, Colombo etc. including the journalists and priests to join them. Most of us got into the boats.

I was apprehensive. Not of rough seas but of the Navy. I knew the Navy had only allowed people to land and stay in the island for prayers in the church, and that too after prior permission was obtained. With me on the boat was a long time friend and Catholic Priest from Pesalei, and we recalled the fire power of the Navy, and how they had even attacked and killed and injured people inside the Pesalei church. People raised white flags on their boats, but both of us remembered how people who surrendered with white flags were reported as killed.

But yesterday, there was no obstruction from the Navy. People landed and proceeded to the church where they prayed. A few Navy officials came and had a brief discussion. The People were firm and polite.

“We have come to our lands, our church. We have had enough of displacement, and we plan to stay here. We have legal documents. You (Navy) can also stay in the islands, but not on our lands, and should not disturb or obstruct our lives.”

The offers of the Navy to rebuild the church was dismissed by the people and priests, saying their priority was to resettle in their land, and renew their livelihoods and their traditional way of life. The Navy officers retreated, saying they would convey the news to higher officers.

A community discussion reaffirmed their resolve to stay overnight. Within an hour or so, some people had started to change clothes to stay on. Others braved the scorching sun and walked a distance into the interior of the island to see their land, or what was left.

The richness of the island soon became clear to first time visitors like me. We saw people enjoy coconuts, one lady caught mussels and another man a sea cucumber. There was also a new fruit, I tasted which I had never had before.

A retired principal of the school took us to his old office, showed us the school building, the teacher’s residences and also a unique underground rainwater collection system for drinking water. The main church was still standing, though damaged, but a smaller church was in ruins. The priest’s residence and the convent of Holy Family Sisters was damaged but still standing. A weaving centre, local cooperative and the village council buildings had all been totally destroyed. A community well was standing and had water, but will need a cleanup.

From what we could see, the Navy had only occupied a small part of the island. Yet according to an elder, that area included five houses, the hospital including the doctors and nurses residences, a playground and the cemetery.

There were no roads and no motor vehicles on the islands – only bullock carts and cycles. We saw plenty of cows, but people complained that they had left behind many more, which the Navy may have slaughtered.

Most of us who had joined in solidarity left the island in the afternoon. But 105 islanders stayed the night. Even as we were leaving, they were cleaning up and getting ready to stay on.

Landing in the island and staying on, to reclaim their occupied lands, without waiting for permission or approval seemed a non-violent act of community defiance and resistence rarely seen in Sri Lanka in the recent past. To me it was an act of exceptional courage and determination. But for one community leader, it was much simpler – “Why do we need approval to go to our land, our church?”

They have only been on the island for just over 24 hours. Despite the richness of the land and the sea, and despite the resilience and creativity of the people, challenges remain and they will need support.

There is no formal recognition by the government of their resettlement on their own lands, and no assistance has been offered in terms of essential and immediate needs like water and food. Houses and community structures like the school, hospital, village council, cooperative etc. will have to be reconstructed. There will have to be regular transport between mainland and the island.

But for now, the joy of having reclaimed their own land, in their own way, by themselves, will prevail.

Iranaitheevu; a year of continuous protests to regain Navy-occupied land

First published at http://groundviews.org/2018/04/20/iranaitheevu-a-year-of-continuous-protests-to-regain-navy-occupied-land/ on 20th April 2018

After the election of the new government in 2015, the people of Iranaitheevu, forcibly displaced since 1992, finally thought they would be able to return home. Yet a flurry of letters and high-level meetings with government officials and politicians in 2016 and 2017 didn’t bring any results. In desperation, the community took the difficult decision to begin a continuous roadside protest on 1st May 2017. Almost a year later, they are still fighting.

History

Iranaitheevu is a pair of twin islands situated in the Palk Strait, belonging to the Poonekary Division of the Kilinochchi District in the Northern Province in Sri Lanka. A channel of sea water runs between the Big Island (Perum Theevu) and Small Island (Sirum Theevu).

According to an official survey map of 1982, 143 plots of land were demarcated in the larger island of Perum Theevu and 35 plots in the smaller island of Sirum Theevu. Villagers trace the island’s history to about 200 years, pointing out an old watch tower from 1886. At the time of first displacement, around 125 stone houses, 6 wells for drinking water, a health center, a school and 2 churches were reported to have been on the island.

Fishing was traditionally the main source of income, with men going to sea and women engaging in shore-based fishing practices, such as harvesting sea cucumbers and crabs, with both men and women contributing to the family income. Families also reared livestock, including cows and goats, engaged in cash crop cultivation of onions, chilies and manioc, and cultivated coconut trees. The island waters are rich in limestone, providing a rich breeding ground for a wide variety of fish species and base material to build houses on the islands as well as on the mainland. Islanders had trading and socio-cultural relationships with people in areas in Southern Sri Lanka like Negombo, from where a Catholic Priest had reportedly visited the island for church services.

War and Displacement

The first major displacement occurred in 1992, when there were about 200 families displaced to mainland due to the war. Since then, the Navy had occupied the island, providing sporadic and limited access to the villagers until 2007. Islanders were again displaced multiple times from 2007 throughout the last phase of the war. Those who survived were detained in Menik farm, in Vavuniya district. They were eventually released and allowed to return to where they had lived in displacement in Iranaimathaanagar, near Mulankavil, one of the closest mainland points to their island. But since this last round of displacement in 2007, the Navy has prohibited them from returning or even freely accessing their traditional islands.

Following negotiations with the Navy, the people are now allowed to travel to a restricted coastline of the island for fishing, but they are not allowed to stay overnight. Traveling daily between the island and the mainland has dramatically increased the cost of fishing. Furthermore women from Iranaitheevu who used to engage in coastal fishing are unable to do so now and are without work. Family incomes have suffered, particularly those of women-headed households. The rising cost of fuel and decreasing marine resources caused by illegal fishing from Indian trawlers in Northern waters has also drastically affected incomes of fishing families.

The only time of the year residents have been allowed visit the island since 2007 is for a pilgrimage to the Church during Lent season, usually a day in February or March. One woman narrated a story in which on one such occasion, there was a storm on the sea and the people asked the Navy to allow them to camp on the islands overnight to wait for the storm to pass. But the Navy had refused, and compelled the islanders and their children to take the treacherous journey back home across the rough seas. During this year’s pilgrimage, people’s freedom of movement was restricted and severe inconveniences caused to the people by the Navy, despite the Parish Priest having obtained prior permission for people to stay in the island for three days for the traditional Lenten church services.

The Fisheries Cooperative

The Iranaitheevu Fisher Cooperative had been a thriving institution, functioning on membership contributions when the fish harvest was plentiful. It played a huge role in the well-being of the community and most of the stone houses on the island were built with subsidies from the Cooperative, but today it finds itself struggling to meet its daily expenses.

The Cooperative structure, with its democratically elected leadership, also ensured the island’s resources were sustained and developed for the use of future generations. But recently, individual fishermen from outside the area have been given access by the Navy to fish and profit off of the island’s resources. This has led to a breakdown of community checks against profit driven exploitation of natural resources and has further fostered a strong sense of injustice among the islanders as they’re being deprived of their islands’ resources. The Navy has also been making allegations of drug possession against the original inhabitants of Iranaitheevu. But according to villagers, no one has been arrested nor has any boat been withheld by Courts for possessing illegal substances.

Struggles to return home: the paper trail

Since their return to Iranaimathaanagar in late 2009, the people have made several attempts to reclaim their lands. These intensified after the election of the new government in 2015. But despite continued communication and protests, leading to some vague assurances at different points from high levels of the government that they would be able to return home, they have still not had definitive answers.

Efforts included appeals to the Northern Province Chief Minister, who had appealed on their behalf to the Resettlement Minister; an appeal to a local MP Vijayakala Maheswaran, who had appealed on their behalf to the Prime Minister; and an appeal to the European Union Delegation in Sri Lanka that had also appealed to the Resettlement Minister on their behalf. Finally, they appealed twice in 2017 directly to the President.

Continuous protests from 1st May 2017 and promises broken

On 1st May 2017, in the absence of any clear information about when they could resettle, the people commenced a continuous protest in Iranaimathaanagar. They also took the protests to Poonakari, Kilinochchi and even Colombo. A community leader also attended 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, to highlight their ongoing struggle to resettle in Iranaitheevu and seek international support.

These efforts, especially the protests, led to series of meetings and discussions between the Iranaitheevu community leaders with staff at the Presidential Secretariat, the State Minister of Defense, local MP Vijakala Maheswaran, the District Secretary of Kilinochchi, the Divisional Secretary of Poonakari, Navy officials and also with a Parliamentarian and members of the small Marxist party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

An outcome of these efforts was officials of the Survey Department visiting the island in Sept. – Oct. 2017. But no information has been provided to the people about results or follow up actions. No information has also been provided to the people about response of the Kilinochchi District Secretary to a request by the Resettlement Ministry in March 2016 to “submit detailed report regarding the resettlement of Iranaitheevu Island, including the tentative cost estimate, as early as possible” or a letter from an Additional Secretary to the President to the Defense Ministry in August 2017, asking “to take appropriate action”. Nor has any update been provided about the promise made by the State Minister of Defense to discuss resettlement in Iranaitheevu ith the President and find answers.

Waiting to go home

Currently there are approximately 400 families living on the mainland nearest the islands in Iranaimathanagar. Around 95 are women-headed households.

Despite their displacement for almost 25 years, the people remain deeply attached to their island. The literal translation of ‘Iranaimathanagar’, to which most families were displaced in 2007, means ‘the mother city of Iranai’. The official Grama Niladari Division number is still retained and the Sub Post Office, the government school and the Fisheries Cooperative all carry the name of Iranaitheevu despite their physical structures currently standing in Iranaimathanagar.

The people’s demands are simple. They want unrestricted access to Iranaitheevu, to settle there permanently to engage in fishing, cultivation and maintaining livestock as they did before their forced displacement. They have not asked for the total removal of the Navy, but are seeking the release of people’s lands which have been occupied by the Navy and for action to be taken to prevent island resources from being misused and exploited by people accessing them illegally.

Crippling civic organising, mobilising and resistance through Draft Amendment to the Act on NGOs

First published on 22nd March 2018 at http://groundviews.org/2018/03/22/crippling-civic-organising-mobilising-and-resistance-through-draft-ngo-act-amendment/

The author gratefully acknowledges insights and input from Attorney-at-law Ermiza Tegal.

On February 20, 2018, the Cabinet decided to publish the repressive Draft Act to Amend the Voluntary Social Service Organizations (Registration and Supervision) Act no. 31 of 1980 (LDO 32/2011) to a gazette and present it to Parliament for approval. As usual, the drafting has been done in secret with no consultations. To the best of my knowledge, the draft Act has not been made publicly available by the Government.[1]

In the face of mounting pressure and questions, today, more than a month after he had presented this draft Act to the Cabinet, Minister Mano Ganesan had belatedly committed to have a consultation with civil society on April 10, 2018 and assured that it won’t be gazettedpending observations at this consultation.[2] This is the same Minister who stated last year that he doesn’t “see any serious reason to regulate NGOs in this country” and that he doesn’t want to use the word, ‘Regulation’.[3]

The draft’s foremost stated purpose is “regulate, supervise & inspect” NGOs through a legalised “National Secretariat for NGOs (Hereafter referred to as the Secretariat)” under an unspecified Ministry. The Secretariat has investigative powers and assumes and duplicates functions of the Police. The extraordinary and excessive powers given to the Secretariat directly infringe on Freedom of Association, Freedom of expression, Freedom of Thought, Conscience & Belief and Right to Privacy. The draft gives the Director General of the Secretariat, the Minister in charge and the Ministry’s Secretary unprecedented control over any grouping defined as a NGO. It comes in the context of reporting and approval requirement currently in place for NGOs, having created a culture and expectations in the districts that NGOs have to be subservient to the local government officials.

Making collectives illegal and crippling independent civic organising and mobilising

The draft tries to capture a broad range of collectives or groups in it’s definition of an NGO[4]and compels them to register and obtain approval from the Secretariat for it’s existence, or become illegal. There are only very few exceptions.[5] This definition and compulsory registration and approval may bring under the Secretariat’s control or render illegal, groups promoting and protecting rights and interests of their members, formal and informal grouping of individuals, groups receiving funding or working voluntarily, movements that may be temporary or permanent and groups involved in initiatives of social entrepreneurship, public-private partnerships etc. It strikes at independent organising and mobilising initiatives and makes very vulnerable those campaigning on repealing or changing unjust laws, such as ones related to gender and sexuality and the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Practically, if this draft is enacted, it may bring under its control or render illegal existing civic groups such as Purawesi Balaya (Citizens Power), National Movement for Just Society (NMJS), Lawyers for Democracy (LfD), Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF), Student Unions, Peoples Alliance for Right to Land (PARL), Peoples Movement against Port City, Women’s Action Network (WAN), movements of Relatives of Disappeared etc. One wonders whether groups such as the “Civil Monitoring Commission” initiated and led by Minister Mano Ganesan and others during the Rajapakse regime and “Mothers Front” led by Minister Mangala Samaraweera and others during Premadasa regime, as well as movements of the past such as Movement to Protect Eppawala Phospate Deposits, Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) and University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) would have been willing to subject themselves to such controls.

Arbitrary registration, suspensions, cancellations and limited possibilities of Appeal

Under this draft Act, registration (and thereby legality) is dependent on whims and fancies of the Director General of the Secretariat and Ministries or Authorities which are “responsible for activities planned to be undertaken by the organization”. If registration is rejected, the appeals have to be made to the Secretary to the Ministry, under which the Secretariat functions, within 30 days.

The registration can be suspended or canceled (and thereby make the organisation illegal) for range of reasons. These includes if the Director General feels the organization is a threat or prejudicial to national security or public interest. An organisation can also be de-registered if the Secretary to the Ministry feels the organisation is operating contrary to the national interests. None of these terms are clearly defined and only possible appeals are to Provincial High Courts, within the very short span of 30 days.

Attack on ideological and physical autonomy of civic groupings

The proposed Act implies civic groups must agree to “common development needs” of the country as defined by or agreeable to the government. This is likely to marginalise groups that are challenging the government’s model of development, which is often pro rich, pro-market and non-participatory. It also infringes on autonomy and internal policies and practices of civic groups, by interfering and retaining the final say in matters such as a change of objectives, a change in the geographical area of work, the establishment of branches, a change of the group constitution, cooperation with other groupings and the government, networking and forming federations, standards of service, financial and policy management, making donations to other groups, fund raising from the public, change of name, change of address, flag, symbol, logo etc. Information on staff and volunteers can be obtained by the Secretariat up to 6 years after they have left the organisation.

Policing powers beyond ordinary Police powers

In ordinary law, the police requires a warrant to enter a premises and search, examine books, registers or records, make copies and extracts. But the draft Act allows the Secretariat a free hand to do this, without even a clearly defined criteria for reasonable suspicion of any illegal activities. The power to “request and obtain information” implies a group from which the Secretariat “requests” information cannot refuse, as the Secretariat has powers to “obtain”, not just to “request”. The Secretariat also has powers to investigate money laundering and terrorist financing, which ought to be by the Police.

Breaching Banking Confidentiality

Under ordinary law, when the Police requires information from banks in the course of investigations of alleged crimes, they have to provide explicit justifications and orders for banks to release information are only made by a judicial authority. But the draft law confers powers to the Secretariat to breach confidentiality of banking information, without reference to any criminal conduct, rendering individuals and entities engaged in non-governmental activity second class citizens. The draft Act compels banks to inform the Secretariat of deposits over Rs. 1 million and electronic funds transfers and all transactions over an amount prescribed by the Minister. Such control over groups defined as NGOs is in contrast to the government’s policy to liberalise capital flow, under which the new foreign exchange law[6] permits undeclared money held abroad up to the value of a million dollars to be brought into the country with no penalty, while amounts in excess could be brought with the payment of a one percent fee. This puts in an additional layer of surveillance over and above what the Central Bank would be doing with regard to fund flows into the country, again singling out those defined as NGOs.

Broad and Vaguely defined “NGO crimes”

The draft Act creates range of “offences under the Act”, some of which are broadly and vaguely defined and leave room for abuse. Offences includes non-registration, which violates Freedom of Association and the principle of “Voluntary Notification”. Even a simple request for information if deemed inadequately responded to may attract a Rs. 250,000 fine or one year imprisonment and thus, is likely to create a fear psychosis. The lack of certainty runs contrary to the basic tenet of rule of law. Yet, again the hypocracy of criminalising acts that may be administratively corrected, is patently obvious when compared to the Foreign Exchange Act (FEA), which replaces the Exchange Control Act (note the change in nomenclature away from the notion of ‘control’), which was described as a new law that “decriminalised exchange control violations and freed citizens from its draconian provisions. The responsibility to implement the new management system has been vested on the authorised dealers who are subject to neither criminal nor civil proceedings under FEA. Instead, they are disciplined through an administrative process”[7].

Blurring the lines between “government” and “non-governmental”

This draft in letter and spirit, appears to convert NGOs into GONGOs – Government controlled Non-Government Organisations. It attempts to make a non-governmental group primarily accountable to the government – instead of primary accountability being to it’s members and to values they espouse, intended beneficiaries and donors – ignoring that the government is often the very body such groups seek a distinction from and often aim to monitor, critique and challenge.

Civic collectives and individuals involved in such groups must not be above the law – given that problems such as financial mismanagement, sexual harassment, gender based discrimination and abuse of worker’s rights, also occur in these entities, just las they do in government agencies and the private sector. But this must be done through ordinary law, which is applicable to all, without resorting to ultra-intrusive laws, discriminatory laws, which has the high potential to facilitate witch-hunts, to blur the line between what is “government” and what is “non-governmental / civic” and cripple independent organising and mobilising that a government may feel challenged by. Legal frameworks to address money laundering and other criminal activity must be uniformly applied instead of targeting NGOs in this disproportionate and unjustified way.

There is no point in trying to reform or engage with this draft law. It must be opposed in its entirety. If at all we need an additional law, it must be a “Freedom of Association Act” that promotes Freedom of Association, with registration based on principle of “Voluntary Notification” and not a restrictive law to make “non-governmental / civic” groupings pawns of the government.


[1] But drafts in three languages has been uploaded by concerned activists, and are available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1HQJTYaXMBzrMFVkABruRnW53WdrwU8ES/view?usp=sharing(English), https://drive.google.com/file/d/1jlZw5mhi5hnHtDZfv-C6nGeeouU7834s/view?usp=sharing (Sinhala) and https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ngRI7i-R-RlglZxsFlykZZRM09lGQp1r/view?usp=sharing (Tamil)

[2] https://twitter.com/ManoGanesan/status/976728773386158080

[3] Statement by Minister Mano Ganesan on 1st July 2017

[4] Includes any association, council, society, trust, foundation, federation, movement, center, consortium, company, guarantee limited companies, private companies receiving foreign funds for non-profit oriented activities, any organization under any written law or incorporated under Standing Orders of the Parliament or any other association of persons, branches of overseas registered organizations,

[5] Examples of exceptions mentioned are places of religious worship, banks, public quoted companies, school development societies, alumni associations, trade unions, political parties and any such organizations

[6] Foreign Exchange Act No 12 of 2017

[7] Statement by Former Central Bank Deputy Governor W A Wijewardene as quoted in article titled ‘Exchange control will become obsolete – Economist’, Sunday Observer found at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2017/12/03/exchange-control-will-become-obsolete-economist

STF brutality against Muslims in Digana: March 5

First published at http://groundviews.org/2018/03/13/stf-brutality-against-muslims-in-digana-march-5/ on 13th March 2018

This story is based on visits to both sites and testimonies of at least 10 survivors and about 5 eyewitnesses present

As Sinhalese – Buddhist mobs were escalating violence against Muslims around Digana on March 5, the Hijrapura mosque in Digana had just finished afternoon prayers around 4 pm that day.

As usual, devotees were talking to each other outside the mosque, after the prayers. A few had continued to pray inside the mosque. Suddenly, a jeep full of uniformed, heavily armed men had arrived in a jeep and a couple of motorbikes and surrounded the mosque. Thanks to the camouflage uniform, the devotees had identified them as being from the Special Task Force (STF) of the Police. The STF had brutally beaten up the devotees and chased them as they started to run away. Numerous eyewitnesses and survivors described the brutalities unleashed by the STF in vivid detail.

When I met them on March 9, one man couldn’t walk at all, and several others were limping. At least one was reported to have been in hospital. Many showed me scars and wounds, on their back, arms and legs. Some had been injured through falls, as they were running to escape the assault and were also being chased by STF men.

The devout Muslims were horrified that the STF had rampaged through the mosque with their weapons and boots. “We can’t describe the filthy and abusive language the STF used,” said one eyewitness.

Two Moulavis were beaten up, even as they shouted identifying themselves as Moulavis. They were forced to hold a knife and iron pole (They later said they believed it was to implicate them in false charges). They were beaten when they refused. The Buddhist Monk in the nearby Temple had seen the incident on the roadside and had intervened to save the two Moulavis from the STF’s grip.

In a separate incident around 5pm also on March 5 in nearby Ambagahalanda, A. F. M. Fazil, a member of the Meda Dumbara Pradeshiya Sabawa (Local Council) was at a friend’s house. Suddenly the STF had entered the house and beaten up Fazil and his friend, and also an 18 year old boy who was there. Children, including two who were 2 and 9 years old, had witnessed the assault and had been terrified. Neighbors who had gathered and saw the incident, heard STF men saying “let’s say he tried throw a petrol bomb at us”. The politician’s friend’s hands had been tied behind his back. His feet and that of the 18-year-old boy had been tied together. They were then taken to a Police station, and the 18 year old boy was released, but the politician and his friend were detained overnight. A Deputy Inspector General (DIG) who had been at the Police station had suggested them to be taken to the hospital, but despite  head wounds, the Sinhalese doctor on duty at the Teldeniya hospital that night had refused treatment, saying those who are responsible for killing “our people” should be in prison and not hospital[1]. Both men had been produced before a Magistrate on the morning of March 6 and released on bail. Four days after the assault, on March 9, scars on their body were clearly visible. Fazil’s head was till in bandages as of March 11 and he complained of headaches and body pains. He said he had 5 cuts on his head and had suffered injuries to one leg, an arm and his back.

Since the death of a Sinhalese person on March 3, after being severely beaten by some Muslim men on  February 22, Fazil was part of a team of Muslim leaders who had been discussing with senior police officers and Buddhist monks about ensuring justice for the Sinhalese man and his family, and defusing potential tensions. Government Ministers also had been updated. According to Fazil, such discussions were held from  February 24, long before the death of the Sinhalese man, and had continued until March 3, the day he had died. Discussions had been held in Digana as well as in the deceased man’s village. Fazil suspects STF may have targeted him for his role in trying (and failing) to prevent violence against Muslims by the Sinhalese – Buddhist mobs.

In both incidents, based on actions and words of the STF, the survivors believe the STF was attempting to frame them on false charges about possession of weapons, and by extension, shift the blame towards Muslims for some of the violence that happened around Digana last week. The words of the STF had also indicated a deeply anti-Muslim, racist mindset. The attack on the Moulavis and desecration of the Mosque by entering with boots and weapons, reminded me of attacks on churches, mosques and Buddhist temples during the war by Sri Lankan military and the LTTE.

It was not clear whether the STF personnel allegedly responsible for both incidents were the same. But some of the survivors claimed they were from Kegalle.

Some of the survivors I spoke to were scared to disclose their identities, have their injuries photographed, make a formal complaint or even seek medical treatment at government hospitals, fearing reprisals. However, many were keen to have the truth exposed and justice for perpetrators in order to prevent such incidents in the future. This note is written at their request, with the hope relevant authorities will take speedy action.

Editor’s Note: A report from Verite Research on restriction to religious freedom of Christians found police were often inactive even when physically present in incidents of violence against Christians, from 1994 to 2014. Groundviews repeatedly tried to contact the police spokesman for an official comment on this story, but did not receive a response.


[1] This appears to be implying the injured to be responsible for beating and subsequent death of a Sinhalese man by some other Muslim men, who had already been arrested

366 days – Roadside Protests in Kilinochchi

First published at http://groundviews.org/2018/02/22/366-days-roadside-protests-in-kilinochchi/ on 22nd Feb. 2018

366 days (as of 20th Feb) is a long time to be at a 24 hour roadside protest. That’s how long Tamil families of disappeared in Kilinochchi have been there. In the coming days and weeks, protests by families of disappeared in Vavuniya, Mullaithivu, Maruthankerny (Jaffna district) and Trincomalee will also reach one year.

Most of the protesters were elderly mothers and fathers and those physically and mentally injured by the war. They have been braving the sun, rain, cold, dust, insects, mosquitos etc. Some had been hospitalised. I was told 7 women had died during the past 366 days. One woman leading the protest in Mullaitivu was assaulted, and received threats to stop. The protestors have been subjected to constant surveillance. While protesting, they had also struggled to take care of their other children at home, engage in livelihoods, find the bus fare to come to the protest site and a range of other practical problems. From the day I first met them one year ago, and through subsequent visits, I have seen them getting sick, hungry, cold, sweating, their spirit and physical strength deteriorating. But they have not given up.

They have told me that their protest is not leveled against the government, military or anyone else. They just want to know whether their disappeared children, grandchildren, husbands, are alive or dead. Many believe their loved ones are alive and want to know where they are being held. They want to see them. If dead, they want to know what happened and to receive their remains. Many protesting families had seen their loved ones surrendering to the Army in front of their own eyes, after which they were never seen again.

The beginning and evolution of the protests  

The protests started with some families of the disappeared in Vavuniya staging a fast unto death in January 2017. One of the leaders, Jeyavanitha, a Tamil mother, has a 2015 election campaign leaflet of President Sirisena and asserts that one of the school girls in uniform next to the President is her daughter.

As health conditions of the elderly women fasting in Vavuniya deteriorated, the State Minister of Defense met the families at the protest site. He promised a meeting with several senior Ministers in Colombo, and families agreed to temporarily suspend the protest. That meeting happened, but was marred by controversy, as the government had invited some Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MPs, who the families didn’t want to attend. The TNA MPs had eventually left, but based on what the State Minister for Defense had told him, the TNA Spokesperson reported to media that the families wanted priority for their own family member’s cases. Several of those actually present at the meeting till the end told me that they never asked for this, and insisted on answers to all families of disappeared. The meeting never yielded anything, and after waiting for two more weeks, the families in Vavuniya recommenced their protests, which will reach one year on 24th February 2018. Around the same time, protests started in four other places in the North and East.

Other forms of struggles and the ethnic factor

Not all Tamil families of disappeared in the North and East are involved in these protests. Several have filed Habeas Corpus cases, which are pending in courts in Jaffna, Mullaithivu, Vavuniya, Mannar and Colombo. Last year, some families of Tamil men who were taken away by the Army in 1996 in Jaffna, filed fresh Habeas Corpus applications. Based on this, an Army officer alleged to have been responsible and now serving as a Major General in Mannar, has been summoned to appear before courts. In different cases filed in Mannar and Colombo in relation to different incidents, Police investigations have revealed the complicity of the Navy in disappearances. Last year, families of the disappeared in Mannar published a book with the stories of their loved ones. There have also been been protests on significant days, such as on International Human Rights day and the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

To me, in a way, the yearlong protests in five places symbolises the hard and long struggles waged by vast majority of families of disappeared.

There is also an ethnic factor in the protests and campaigns. A large number of Sinhalese have also disappeared, mostly in the late 1980s. Their families, through movements such as the Mothers Front and supported by domestic and international rights activists and politicians that included former President Mahinda Rajapakse and present Minister Mangala Samaraweera, campaigned heavily for truth and justice in the 1990s, which was a factor in toppling the repressive UNP government of that time. But in recent years, Sinhalese families have not been campaigning so visibly, with a few exceptions like Sandya Ekneligoda and Mauri Jayasena, whose husbands had disappeared in 2010 and 2013 respectively.

Support for the protests

The last few years, especially in 2017, have also seen many protests in Sri Lanka. The most visible had been a series of sustained protests by students against the privatisation of health & education. There was also a several month-long overnight protest in Colombo against the exploitative manpower system by workers. Communities negatively affected by development projects, such as in Jaffna, Bandarawela and Colombo have also been protesting, while there were also protests against caste-based oppression by communities in Jaffna and campaigns demanding justice and freedom for political prisoners, which included a fast by 3 prisoners.  Month-long day and night protests were also held in the North, demanding back lands occupied by the military. Some of these protests had achieved their aims, while some ended without clear results.

But along with protests to regain military occupied lands in the North, the protests by families of disappeared are the longest running. The protests by families of disappeared has also been internationalised and seem to be protests that had become most controversial and immensely political, despite the deeply personal nature of the problem. This is probably why there have been very few sympathisers and even less number of people who want to actively support the protests.

Although some Northern Tamil politicians and political commentators appear to be ignoring the protests and not recognising their significance, the protests had received significant support and sympathy in the North. Hindu and Christian clergy and institutions, journalists, university students, three wheel taxi drivers and shop owners etc. have extended support, in addition to politicians and activists. However, solidarity and support from rest of the country, especially from Colombo, has been minimal. Despite all the protests being led by women, with the majority of participants also being women, Colombo-based women’s movements both new and old, don’t appear to be actively supporting their sisters at the protests.

A prominent exception has been Sandya Eknaligoda, wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who had been travelling to the North and East to join the protesters regularly. She was also able to mobilise a few other Muslim, Sinhalese and Tamil families of disappeared from around Colombo to join in solidarity.

Considering the unprecedented longevity, widespread nature and intensity of the protests and the desperation of the protesters, there has been minimal media coverage of the protests on mainstream Sinhalese and English media. Other Colombo-centric protests and struggles, such as one against the privatisation of health and education by university students and against the sexual abuse of children in an orphanage in Colombo, received much more mainstream media coverage. I can’t help wondering whether the political controversy about the protests, the ethnic factor and the fact that these were happening in the North and East may have deterred Sinhalese and English media from giving adequate coverage.

Domestic and International dimensions

On the 100th day of the protest in Kilinochchi, the protesters blocked the A9 road for about 5 hours and demanded to meet the President. Since then, the President had met the protesters at least thrice, but he had let them down badly – breaking the promises and also the trust and hope they placed on him. The protesters had also met Ministers and other Government officials. They had also tried to engage with Sinhalese public, with appeals and banners in Sinhalese. But in contrast to this approach of the families, a statement issued in solidarity with the protests by organizations working primarily in the North and East focused their demands on the international community. However, a lack of response, support and sympathy from within Sri Lanka, coupled with a push from some Tamil activists and politicians, appear to have made the families also lean more and more towards foreign diplomats and UN officials to find the answers they are seeking.

The future of the protests

The protests are far from over. And the answers sought by the protesters still seem distant. Their courage and determination has been exceptional, but the cost on protesters has been very heavy. The future of the protests has to be and will be decided by the families. But as the five protests complete one year, I hope they can have the space to assess what has been achieved and plan ahead, perhaps to a transit to a different form of struggle, which may be more sustainable, less costly on themselves and have the potential to bring them closer to the answers they are seeking.  It is also a time for those of us who have been associated or sympathetic towards the protests and the cause, to have self-reflections about roles we have played and could have played, and see how better we can support continuing struggles in the longer term, and mobilise more support.

Fr Tissa Balasuriya: Memories and Challenges for today

Edited English text of Fr. Tissa Balasuriya 5th death anniversary Memorial Oration, delivered on 17th January 2018, in Sinhalese, at the Centre for Society & Religion (CSR), Colombo

Thank you for inviting me to speak today. Even though I had not known or worked closely with Fr Tissa as some others here. I constantly think of and miss two of my mentors in activism. One is Fr. Tissa. And it’s humbling to speak about such a visionary, committed and simple man. Who I called a  Loving and Gentle Rebel.

I had first met him when I was in the Young Christian Students (YCS) Movement. We used to come to CSR, to borrow materials and equipment. Amongst the videos that Fr Tissa lent us, and left a lasting impression, was the video about Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvadore, who was assassinated for his uncompromising positions and harsh criticisms of an authoritarian regime.

Fr. Tissa had been the 1st Asia Pacific Chaplain of the International Movement of Catholic Students (IMCS). Mentored by visionary and committed chaplains like him, many Catholic student leaders in Asia have gone on to become activists. It’s sad that we don’t have many chaplains like him today. I’m not sure whether anyone from Sri Lanka’s Catholic Students movement is interested in Fr Tissa’s life, work and thoughts and whether anyone is here today to reflect about these.

I continued my association with Fr. Tissa after my YCS life. Going with him to slums in Colombo shocked me. Discussions about liberation theology and social analysis was difficult to follow, but exiting. Few years before he died, he cautioned me to be careful knowing imminent threats I was facing. Later he invited me to stay with him with an assurance he will protect me.

There are many more memories, and it’s easy to get carried away and talk about these. But I will try restrain myself from that temptation. And try to approach the much more difficult, and overwhelming task of reflecting about his life, work and about carrying forward his vision in a way that’s relevant today. I will share my reflections under 3 areas.

  1. Fr. Tissa in society, with a vision of a church that was part of society

Fr. Tissa was a Catholic Priest. But in context where many Priests and Catholic leaders were and are distant from society and day to day issues faced by people, Fr Tissa remained firmly rooted in society. His Christian faith and Priesthood appeared to have motivated and pushed him to be a man of and man in society. He had become intimately involved in struggles for social justice and human rights. He initiated, supported and joined social movements. His interests and writings have covered an amazing variety of issues – feminism, women’s rights, worker’s rights, urban poverty, Malaiyaha Tamils (especially those working and living in estates), ethnic conflict and reconciliation, global warming etc. Connecting such issues to Spirituality and Christian faith had come naturally to him and was non-negotiable. He consistently and passionately condemned capitalism and didn’t shy away from asserting that ideals of socialism can identify with Christian faith and his left leanings.

He emphasized the use of social analysis for theology and insisted that “In the absence of a systemic analysis persons of goodwill can be unwittingly used by the powers that be for their benefit. Thus they are persuaded to consider their task as to take care of the victims of the exploitative system, to ensure continuity of the power system, to legitimize the prevailing exploitative order and to prevent or contain dissent leading to revolt. Social workers promoting these causes will be given an honourable place in society, and respected when they do not contest the greed and injustice of the dominant”.

He didn’t fail to identify how religious institutions and traditions, especially the Church, which he remained part of till death, had been part of and promoted oppressive practices and traditions, within Church life and in society.

“Liberation” was a word that he had used often. Three of his well-known books were “Jesus and Human Liberation”, “Mary and Human Liberation” and “Eucharist and Human Liberation”. A series of publications by CSR under Fr. Tissa was named “Vimukthi Prakashana” or “Liberation Publications”. Women’s rights, women’s liberation, feminism and the ethnic conflict related topics were covered regularly by this series of booklets. One was provocatively titled “A political solution or military solution?” The series also dealt with host of other issues, such as multinational corporations and liberation, rural socialist liberation, fisherfolk in Negombo, farmers, white paper on education, free trade zone, tourism, Colombo Municipal Council and housing problem, transport service and Ceylon Transport Board (CTB), Mahaweli development project, challenges in cinema, censorship board and the 1971 constitution.

Contextual Theology – or Theology that was relevant to social – economic – political context at a particular time in a particular place – was key element of liberation theology that Fr. Tissa lived and promoted. One of his lesser known work is on Theology concerning ethnicity. As far back as 1986, he wrote, “A theology related Sri Lanka must relate to life here. Since ethnic relations are dominant factor in Sri Lankan life today, contemporary theology in Sri Lanka must have ethnicity as one of it’s most significant dimensions”.

 

  1. From Contextual Theology to Planetary Theology and Globalization of Solidarity

Fr. Tissa appeared to have tried to go beyond contextual theology in writing about “Planetary Theology” – title of one of his most famous and oldest books published in 1984, the Sinhala translation of which is being launched today. Globalization of Solidarity was one of his latter books, published in 2000.

Although Fr Tissa had grappled with day to day problems facing different communities in Sri Lanka, from slums in Colombo, to free trade zone and ethnic conflict, he also grappled with world problems. His writings regularly and harshly condemned colonization and advocated for recognition and restitution, acknowledging that “even in recent times (2010) it is difficult to even discuss the question of compensation and restitution for long term colonial exploitation of peoples by persons, companies and countries”. To him, world trade was about transferring resources from the poor to the rich. “World Apartheid” was a word that he used regularly to talk about past and ongoing global injustices by western countries towards other parts of the world.

According to him, “in the history of the world the colonial adventure of the European (Christian) peoples constitutes one of the greatest robberies, genocides and abuse of power by a set of human beings and nations. The Church and Christians have been not only involved in this genocide, but have encouraged it and benefited from it”. He had also stated that “the reform of international institutions such as the IMF, World Bank and WTO, the democratization of the UNO and its security Council and the strengthening of the powers of the UN General Assembly are also needed for dealing with these problems. The whole unjust world order, built up by 500 years of Western colonization, must be reformed to have world justice”.

According to Fr. Tissa, local action is not a remedy for global problems and “given the global nature of the present challenges to life, contextual theologies alone, however well developed and essential for the context, are not adequate to inspire liberative action that has also to be global”.

For him, “human solidarity in the context of present day globalization necessitates a radical transformation of the world order and relationships among peoples in the direction of sharing of resources and caring for all. In addition to changes at the national and regional levels, there has to be transformations at the world”.

He argued that “The genuinely universal dimensions of Christian theology may be said to be those elements of theology that have a bearing on all reality, or at least on the whole planet earth and all humanity of all time and space”. He went on to elaborate that such universal dimensions would include:

  • Humanity, the human condition in its universal characteristics
  • Male and female, though different, equal in rights and dignity
  • The cosmos, especially the planet earth available, with its limited resources, for all humanity & the planet’s ecology as common essential source of life and hence of concern for all humans, present and future
  • Recognition that each group of humans has a history and a religio-cultural background of its own, which is a universal factor that makes for particularity and different contexts for theology

 

  1. Reflecting on taking forward Fr. Tissa’s life and work – especially for CSR & Oblates

I realize now that Fr. Tissa was one of first Oblates I had met. He probably didn’t realize how far that relationship will go. We have organized and attended seminars, exhibitions, visited war ravaged areas during and after war, been together at the UN in New York and Geneva, at street protests in Colombo, Kilinochchi and elsewhere.

CSR, founded by Fr. Tissa in 1971, has been an important part of my life and that of many activists. CSR had offered it’s meeting spaces when other centers refused to host us. We faced rampaging monks together in this very hall at CSR. When I couldn’t find anyone else to offer shelter for those in fear of their lives, I turned to CSR. After Fr. Praveen (another Oblate) and I were detained by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID), some activists and friends, including priests, didn’t want to welcome the two of us, so we turned to CSR.

So I hope CSR can play a bigger role in human rights and social justice activism. This will be possible only if it’s backed fully by Oblates, especially it’s leadership. It is heartening that Oblates have taken on themselves to continue the work at CSR. I must also mention Oblates taking forward the work at Suba Seth Gedera in Buttala, initiated by another Oblate, Fr Michel Rodrigo. These two centres, have the potential to become central places for social justice and rights struggles.

I want to highlight three broad areas, which Fr Tissa had dealt with, for consideration by Oblates and CSR, to have deeper involvement:

i. Ethnic conflict and post war issues

Though the war is over, we are still not at peace, and remain polarized along ethnic lines. A political solution to the ethnic conflict, truth and justice in relation to disappeared, political prisoners, land and right to remember war dead are just some of major challenges confronting us. I believe CSR has a fairly strong Sinhalese constituency, and thus well placed to play such a role, but I feel it will have to do more outreach to Tamils and Muslims.

ii. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Today in Sri Lanka, civil society is polarized whether economic, social and cultural rights should be given equal status to civil and political rights and whether they should be recognized as justiciable rights in the constitution. Fr. Tissa’s repeated and ominous warnings about evils of capitalism and neo-liberal economic and development agendas are visible before our eyes and ears today, affecting economic, social and cultural rights. Across the country, there are struggles being waged by workers, fisherfolk, farmers, and students. For land, for free and quality health care and education and against mega development projects such as Port City and Uma Oya. Fr. Tissa’s friend and colleague, Fr. Michale Rodrigo, was killed 30 years ago while he was fighting for rights and dignity of peasant’s in Buttala, and these challenges remain. Fr. Tissa had insisted that “rights of people cannot be ensured and fostered today without a struggle against the evil aspects of capitalistic globalization. A critical analysis of globalization, (within such global apartheid) and a reflection based on the religious and spiritual values of humanity would lead to an option for the genuine development and liberation of the people, especially the poor”.

iii. Feminism, Women’s rights, Gender and Sexuality

The Catholic Church, along with other religious institutions, dominated by male clerics, has often been on the wrong side of rights and dignity of women and people with different gender identities and sexual orientations. Fr. Tissa was one who appeared to be an exception. I’m highlighting this, even though I’m not confident Oblates will want to take up this challenge. According to Fr Tissa, mother of Jesus, Mary, “was not seen as one who was deeply concerned with the rights of others and opposed to exploitation of all types. Marian spirituality had an effect of de-radicalizing the revolutionary message of the gospel.” Today in Sri Lanka, there are debates about abortion and right to life, by some Catholic laity. Debates about legally and socially recognizing equal rights and dignity of Lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Bisexual people. Young Muslim women are battling against Muslim clerics and politicians to get rid of entrenched discriminatory laws against girls and women. And brave women from different parts of the country campaigning for local government election, which has potential to increase women’s political participation. So perhaps it’s time, CSR considers supporting such struggles, or at least facilitate reflections and debates.

Fr. Tissa, if he was here today, would have been in the thick of these battles and debates. On the side of those who had been marginalized, discriminated. Uncompromising, supporting and promoting unpopular positions, within Church, government and society. A meaningful way of paying homage to him would be to reflect deeply how we will get involved in these issues.

I also want to highlight five approaches for CSR and Oblates to consider:

i. Diversify leadership:

Within your own institutions and initiatives, give leadership opportunities for lay persons, young persons, women and persons from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, persons with different gender identities and sexual orientations, persons from different parts of the country. Beyond the rhetoric, symbolism and tokenism. This is probably an area Fr. Tissa was not able to make much progress. It will take a long time. But it’s possible to start today.

ii. Use of modern technology:

Fr. Tissa had noted that “communications revolution can be a resource and an ally” and that “extraordinary development of the means of communication, including T.V., E-mail and Internet can be a means of contact among the peoples of the world”. He had stressed the “need and significance of economics, literacy, computer literacy, use of media so as not to be brainwashed by the systemic forces, and dominant orthodoxies”.

iii. Intensive research and publications:

During time of Fr. Tissa, CSR was known for it’s research and publications. Such as “Logos”, “Quest” and “Liberation Publications (Vimukthi Prakashana)”. The “Sadaranaya (Justice)” has been revived some years back and I was happy to hear the English version “Social Justice” will also be revived soon. But more effort will have to be made to revive the research culture at CSR. Help from competent personnel will have to be sought. Fr. Tissa himself has said that “relevant action requires good information, data, knowledge and analysis These must be made available to action groups” and that “Since we are bombarded daily by the mass media with news and views on the economy and economic policies, it is necessary to be trained to demythologize the claimed orthodoxies of economists, academics, policy makers and media programmes, as it is necessary to be able to demythologize the stories of the scriptures”.

iv. Principled and uncompromising engagement with policy makers:

In order to bring about long term structural, institutional and policy changes, it’s important to dialogue with politicians, bureaucrats and other influential personalities. But challenge is not to be cop-opted, and engage in principled dialogue. Without compromising our fundamental convictions and struggles in favor of money, recognition, safety and other privileges and favors.

v. Stronger involvement in local, national and international social movements:

CSR still is a gathering place for various social movements, NGOs, trade unions, student unions, survivors, victim’s families come to CSR. But the challenge is go beyond offering or renting space, and for CSR itself to become involved in these debates and struggles. I also hope the publishing of Planetary Theology in Sinhalese will contribute towards stronger international networking and “globalization of solidarity”.

 Conclusion

Fr. Tissa had often highlighted the lifestyle of early Christians. “They believed in sharing their resources and caring for one another so that there was no one in need (Acts 4:34)”. He had also said that “former options made decades or centuries earlier may be inadequate to meet present challenges. Some of them may even be counter-productive”. So as much as it’s tempting to remember the dead Fr. Tissa, a real challenge is to make him come alive today, locally and globally. A tough task indeed. But a worthy one.

 

Mary’s Consent for Jesus’s birth: A Christmas reflection

First published on 25th December 2017 at http://groundviews.org/2017/12/25/marys-consent-for-jesuss-birth-a-christmas-reflection/

Christmas is the story of Mary, a young unwedded mother, giving birth to a refugee child, Jesus, in a sheep shed. The central male character in this story is Joseph, Mary’s fiancée / boyfriend, who supports her decision to give birth to a child that he is not the biological father of. This childbirth has become famous and remembered for more than 2000 years. But it is rather unfortunate that some of those who enact this event faithfully and worship Jesus, Mary and Joseph don’t seem to be sensitive to children born in similar circumstances today (refugee children) to parents like Mary and Joseph (unwedded, poor workers).

According to Christian belief, God appears to have consciously chosen an unwedded woman whose fiancée / boyfriend was a carpenter, to give birth to “King / Savior” Jesus, in a sheep shed.

Recent discussions I had with some female colleagues and friends, both Christian and non-Christian, have led me to reflect more on another aspect of the Christmas story. A mother’s consent to give birth.

Christian belief is that Mary conceived Jesus through an intervention of the God / Holy Spirit. According to the biblical narrative of Luke, God had chosen Mary as the woman to give birth to Jesus, and sent a representative, an angel named Gabriel, to discuss the matter with Mary. The biblical text reveals Mary to have been shocked when Gabriel says that she will be conceived with a child. She had asked Gabriel “how can this be when I’m a virgin”? Gabriel appears to have been patient and had given additional information and explanations. After this, Mary had given clear, verbal consent to the conception, pregnancy and birth that was to follow.

The many biblical narratives that slightly differ from each other, seem to concur in indicating that conception was something that was to happen after Mary’s consent, and not something that had already happened before her consent[1]. That Mary was free to accept or not accept the conception. The intermission till Mary responded has been described as a time the “angels await her answer with bated breath”. This is also captured by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting…. The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent.”

The biblical narrative gives central place to woman’s consent (Mary’s) and not to men. God appears to have recognized that it is the women’s life that would be radically affected by having to conceive, bear the child through pregnancy and giving birth. There is no consultation or discussion with High Priests of the time. Or even with Joseph, the main man in the story. In today’s Christmas day homily in my parish, reference was made to Joseph thinking of “dumping” Mary after he came to know of her decision to bear a child that was not his, but that after some reflection, he had decided to continue the relationship and be part of bringing up the child with the mother.

Perhaps of academic interest to the Christmas story, but of much importance for society today, especially women, would be the question what if Mary declined? Would a God of love and justice that Christians believe in, forced Mary to conceive a child against her wishes?

Christian belief is that God has offered much to humankind, including unconditional freedom and choice. Christmas, Jesus’s birth as a human child, is a central event in the Christian story of salvation. Central to this story of Christmas is a loving, respectful and non-patriarchal God recognizing the bodily autonomy of a young unwedded woman to bear a child, and centrality of her unconditional consent.

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[1] None of the biblical versions appear to use the word “you have conceived”, but use instead, words such as you will / shalt conceive, you will become pregnant etc. https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Luke%201:31