Jaffna

Families of the disappeared: Two years of protests, what must they do next?

First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2019/03/03/news-features/families-disappeared-two-years-protests-what-must-they-do-next on 3rd March 2019

The biggest protest I had ever participated in or seen in Kilinochchi took place last week. It was organised by the Tamil families of the disappeared, to mark two years of roadside protests and demanding information about loved ones who had disappeared. It was a gruelling march of more than six km that took over two hours, through the sprawling A9 road in Kilinochchi, braving extreme midday heat.

Perhaps, this pales in the context of the families having braved the sun, rain, dust, fumes, intimidation, threats and assaults for two years. Several elderly mothers collapsed during the march. But more died in the course of continuous protests, not knowing what happened to their loved ones.

Colombo

Colombo seemed indifferent. When one of the women leading the Kilinochchi protest called me, she had a clear request. She asked me to join them on February 25, bringing the Sinhalese and English media, colleagues from Colombo and others from the international community. I did ask many, but predictably, there was not much of a response. The protest coincided with the first year anniversary of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP).

The OMP it had initiated inquiries and made interventions on some cases and referred to its primary mandate as being to ‘Search and trace tens of thousands of missing and disappeared persons’.

But the Office provided no information on the number of persons it had made progress searching for or specific progress made in a single case. Neither did it provide an assessment about progress made in implementing recommendations made in an interim report six months ago. In this context, it was not surprising to hear families of the disappeared protesting in Kilinochchi reiterating that they had no hope or confidence in the OMP.

One woman at the protest was clutching a letter sent by a previous Presidential Commission of Inquiry led by Maxwell Paranagama, which had functioned under President Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Maithripala Sirisena, The letter promised investigations, but the lady had not heard of any progress or results on investigations. Protesters told me that might be what the OMP might end up doing as well.

Geneva

Geneva also seems indifferent. Last week, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) started its 40th session, where it is due to review progress made by the Sri Lankan Government in terms of commitments made on accountability and reconciliation at the UN body three and half years ago. At the Kilinochchi protest, there were many references to the UN, demanding an increased role from it. The protesters recalled that resolution 34/1 of the UNHRC was due to inaction of the Sri Lankan Government on resolution 30/1 and commitments therein.

They demanded the UN to ‘Stop giving Sri Lanka more time’, instead to consider other options of ensuring reconciliation and accountability. But the first draft of a resolution on Sri Lanka to be adopted by the Council dated February 27, two days after the Kilinochchi protest, had no reference to, nor reflected the spirit, grievances, aspirations and efforts made by families of the disappeared on the road continuously for two years.

For me, it seemed that protesting families increased demands from the UN were not based on faith in the UN, but deep frustration and disappointment in the political leadership, and institutions such as the judiciary and the OMP.

Indeed, when I joined the same families at a similar protest on the 100th day of their continuous roadside protest, they blocked the A9 road for about five hours and their primary demand was to meet the President. The families also seem to have very little faith in Tamil politicians and insisted that Tamil politicians with access to the international community, donot represent them.

Hartal

A significant feature of the Kilinochchi protest last week was the hartal across the Northern Province. Shops, eateries, some supermarkets and banks were shuttered. There were no local buses and very few vehicles on the main roads. Hartals usually inconvenience the poor. Those who use public transport end up being stranded, daily wage earners lose their income. But my impression was that many joined the hartal sympathising and supporting the struggle of families of the disappeared. The popular women led eatery in Kilinochchi, Ammachi was closed, which meant loss of income.

I met some of the women at the protest, easily identifiable by their Ammachi t-shirts. After the protest, a shop keeper in Iranaipalei in the Mullaitivu District, about an hour’s drive away from the Kilinochchi protest, told me he could not go for the protest, but closed his shop in support of the protest. A trishaw driver who had stayed home in Mullaitivu expressed similar sentiments. Some of the female community leaders of the Kepapilavu community, themselves at a roadside protest for two years demanding release of military occupied land, also joined the Kilinochchi protest.

So did families of the disappeared, women’s activists, Christian clergy from across the North and the East. Many Tamil journalists from the North were covering the protest. Some Tamil politicians also joined, but played a low profile role, heeding the explicit demands from protest leaders that politicians should not be at the forefront of the demonstrations.

Reprisals

The day of the protest and hartal was also the day three habeas corpus cases in relation disappearances were being taken up in Jaffna courts, where a serving senior military officer is implicated. A female activist involved in the case had allegedly been assaulted and hospitalised last year and lawyers have allegedly been intimidated.

Even on this day, a lawyer was reportedly subject to intimidation as she was leaving courts after appearing in the case, with men on a motorbike trying to crash into her car. Last year had allegedly seen several incidents of reprisals against both Tamil and Sinhalese families of the disappeared.

Importance of solidarity

My visits and interactions with protesting families had led me to write about my experiences and reflections. The last two pieces I wrote to this paper on disappearances was about 366 days and then 500 days of the continued roadside protests. As I contemplated writing about the 730 days of the protests, I wondered what new things I could write. Not much seems to have changed, except continuing reprisals, increasing frustration and desperation.

The same lines with which I finished off my 500 days articles sums up my feelings today.

“As they wait for answers from the Government and institutions such as the OMP and judiciary about their loved ones, families of the disappeared deserve more coverage by mainstream Sinhalese and English media. They need continued solidarity from society – Sri Lankan and international. The struggle of the families must become a struggle of all Sri Lankans”.

The hartal showed that the North is listening and in solidarity with Tamil families of the disappeared. But Colombo (and the rest of Sri Lanka) and Geneva (and the world) doesn’t seem to be listening. What the families can do next remains a big question mark.

The Struggle for Justice

First published at http://groundviews.org/2018/10/20/the-struggle-for-justice/ on 20th October 2018

Editor’s Note: The following are excerpts from a speech made at the Human Rights Education Award ceremony at the Law & Human Rights Centre in Jaffna, on 19th Oct. 2018

Dear friends,

I want to congratulate the Law and Human Rights Centre for organising this course. It is difficult but very important to do this in Jaffna, a place that sees continuing rights violations, impunity for serious violations in the past and courageous dissent and resistance, be it through protests, the arts, writing, or filing court cases.

Rights violations and struggles for justice

Today, after this event, I will be going to the Jaffna Press Club – for a commemorative event to remember life and work of Nimalarajan, a Tamil journalist killed on 19th October 2000. He is among many Tamil journalists killed, disappeared, assaulted, threatened, and intimidated during and after the war. No one has been held accountable. For many, justice for Tamil journalists appear to be less important than justice for Sinhalese journalists. Even now, Tamil journalists continue to face threats, intimidation, surveillance, interrogation. Not just them, but also families and friends.

This year and last year has been a year of protests in Sri Lanka – especially in the North and East. This includes continuous protests for more than one and half years by families of disappeared and by communities whose lands are occupied by the military. In addition to long drawn out roadside protests, families of the disappeared in Mannar and Vavuniya have published books documenting their stories. Some have met the President, others have made representations to international community representatives in Sri Lanka and Geneva. Some have filed court cases. Some of the leaders have been assaulted, threatened, intimidated and subjected to interrogation and surveillance. Even those inside prisons have been protesting – such as female detainees and political prisoners engaging in hunger strikes.

There have been a few significant victories emerging from these struggles. For example, last year, month long overnight roadside protests by communities in Pilakudiyiruppu and Puthukudiyiruppu led to the release of Army and Air Force-occupied lands. This year, the people of Iranaitheevu made a daring landing on their Navy-occupied island and reclaimed their traditional lands. Hunger strikes by political prisoners have led to reversal of unjust transfer of cases from Tamil areas to Sinhalese areas, and release on bail of some. Sandya Ekneligoda, whose husband disappeared, was threatened by a rough Buddhist Monk Gnanasara while inside court in 2016 – she refused mediation, insisted and courageously pursed justice in courts and finally, Gnanasara was convicted and put behind bars. These are exceptions to the rule, but it’s good to recall these struggles, and see what we can learn from those that were leading and involved in these.

We also need to be conscious of rights abuses, injustice and repression from non-state parties. Last month, a film looking at Tamil militancy, including the LTTE, in a critical way, was removed from the Jaffna film festival due to pressure from some people in Jaffna. Earlier this week, a photo exhibition, a substantial part of which included photos about rights violations in the North and East including disappearances and land, was not allowed to be held in the Peradeniya University by a student group. Last year, several months long protest was held against caste based oppression in Jaffna.

Protests have been held across the North and East against unjust schemes by microfinancecompanies that pushes people into debt and even suicide. The Catholic Archbishop of Colombo preached that human rights are not so important, that it’s a Western concept, that it’s only for people without religions, despite strong views supporting international human rights framework by successive Popes including Pope Francis. Most Muslim men and clergy resist reform of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) which legalises blatant discrimination of women and child marriage of girls. Some Buddhist clergy and their followers have been at forefront of violence against Christians and Muslims. Even as we try hold the state accountable, we must also expose and challenge armed groups, business enterprises, religious groups and in general oppressive social – cultural practices that facilitates, justifies and promotes rights abuses and undermines struggles for justice.

It is also a challenge to critically engage with new laws and institutions that we are faced with. These often fall short of legitimate expectations of survivors, victim families and affected communities. They are often compromised, or seek to whitewash old and existing violations and paint a rosy picture of the present situation. The Office on Missing Persons (OMP) established earlier this year and the Act on Reparations approved in Parliament last month are examples. But they also offer tiny rays of hope for a minimal degree of redress to at least a few survivors, victim families and affected communities and thus, we should be careful about rejecting them totally or boycotting them. The Right to Information Act and the Commission is an example of a recent development that have provided answers to some citizens who proactively sought answers about what’s hidden – such as military occupied land and military run businesses, entitlements in terms of flood relief etc.

I want to spend some time to talk about another draft law that’s before parliament now. The Counter Terrorism Bill. We must all stand for immediate and long overdue repeal of the PTA – the Prevention of Terrorism Act. But we must resist the temptation to compare the Counter Terrorism Act with the draconian PTA, and instead, focus on looking at extremely problematic clauses of the CTA which have the potential to restrict our rights and takes away essential lifesaving checks and balances in face of arrest and detention. It is not even compulsory to have a female officer question a female. It is not compulsory to serve acknowledgement of arrest and detention to family of the detainee. The draft restricts roles of the judiciary and confers extraordinary powers to the police, military, the Minister and the President. But we must also ask the more fundamental question of why we need a CTA, especially when we have a Public Security Ordinance, which gives enormous discretionary powers to the President to declare emergency regulations? Why do we need a CTA when our constitution allows restrictions on fundamental rights in special circumstances including for national security? When we have around 15 other laws, including those dealing with terrorism, hate speech that may cause communal disharmony, and money laundering? Laws such as the PTA, have served as license for enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and prolonged periods of detention, torture and sexual violence, and crackdowns on freedom of expression, assembly, association and movement. This is true for Sri Lanka and across the world. In Sri Lanka, it is Tamils who have been disproportionately affected by PTA and it is crucial that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which is the major political alliance representing Tamils in parliament, and also the opposition party, stands for the full repeal of the PTA, highlights the problematic clauses of the new counter terror law and oppose it’s enactment. And I believe all of us, especially Tamils in the North and East, must demand this from the TNA.

Human Rights Education and certificates

We cannot talk about human rights education, human rights courses and diplomas isolated from the above context. I would like to mention three elements I consider to be important in human rights education. One is the need to study philosophy, history, laws, institutions, gaining skills to research, theorise, analyse. Secondly, to learn about rights violations and abuses. Thirdly, to learn about struggles for justice. I have not followed any course or diploma in human rights, and learned the first in the process of the being involved in the second and the third. Unlike the first, the last two cannot be studied from the comfort of meeting rooms, or in hotels, classrooms, libraries or research online. We have to learn about violations and struggles against them from survivors of violations, families of victims and affected communities. By meeting them where they are – such as in their homes, in hospitals, prisons, IDP camps, or by joining them in their struggles – at a roadside protest, a hunger strike, an overnight vigil, in court battles, or negotiating with authorities.

I’m aware that some of you in the class, your friends, and your family members may also be survivors of violations. Some of you maybe already be involved in struggles for justice. I was impressed when most of you following the course agreed to visit the families of disappeared at the overnight roadside protest. And I’m happy to hear that some who participated are involved in LHRC work as volunteers.

Today, you will get a certificate. Receiving a certificate can be a nice feeling, give a sense of achievement, and practically, they can help you advance in your education and career. The certificate is a small indicator of you completing the course on human rights. But the real indicator of learning about human rights will be from what you do to prevent violations, fight against them, and support the struggles of survivors, victim families and affected communities. You may not get certificates when you do this, but instead, face persecution and reprisals from state, from your own community, colleagues, friends and families. I have faced and still face such challenges and often ask myself whether it was worth it. I hope you will rise to this challenge. I hope the course will support the emergence of a new generation of activists and strengthen ongoing struggles for justice.

No Peace in Rest

First published at http://groundviews.org/2018/10/19/no-peace-in-rest/ on 19th October 2018

The Sri Lankan State’s erasure of the complex history and experiences of the war manifest in varying ways across the country; military monuments that showcase a single victory narrative, the construction of Buddhist statues in Tamil-majority areas and the blatantly incorrect signboards at several of these locations. Then, there is the desecration of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) ‘maaveerar thuyilum illam’, which loosely translates to ‘great heroes’ resting places’.

Here lie bodies of LTTE cadres killed in combat. In the several cases where bodies could not be recovered, memorial headstones are erected. The people who remember them in their original state are quick to say that they were graveyards as much as they were gardens, or even temples, meticulously designed and maintained by the LTTE and their families. Now, some of them are cement fragments piled in the centre of a vast field, while others now form the foundation of a few of the many army camps that cover the peninsula.

On November 27, the thuyilum illams across the Northern and Eastern provinces would become the sites of community mourning and celebration of ‘Maaveerar Naal’, the LTTE’s ‘Great Heroes Day’ celebration. Held on the anniversary of the death of Shankar, considered to be the first ‘maaveerar’, a symbolic lamp is lit and the LTTE flag raised at 6.05pm, allegedly his precise time of death. It was the day Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the LTTE, would make his annual speech. These observances are said to provide the community with the feeling that by sacrificing their lives, the dead cadres would grasp eternity.

Commemorations are no longer carried out at the scale they were during the conflict, however they remain problematic due to the explicit promotion of the flag and symbols of a proscribed organisation. There are also questions around the heroic remembrance of those who, by giving their lives to their cause, orchestrated the death of civilians. This is so in the case of the Black Tigers, who dedicated themselves to specialised suicide missions at specific targets, many of which were civilian spaces. Survivors and families of victims of the LTTE’s atrocities, including Tamils, question why the cadres should be remembered and celebrated as heroes in public collectively, in events that often have a political dimension. However, those interviewed in this piece say the former cadres’ families only want the right to remember and grieve.

Conflating Remembrance Day With Maaveerar Naal

Efforts in 2017 to remember those who perished in Mullivaikkal in May 2009 were restricted, because the police thought that those being mourned were LTTE cadres. The two are distinctly separate; Mullivaikkal commemorations in May are regarded as remembrance of all those who perished in the war, but a larger focus is on civilians. Similarly, journalists have written that it is ‘a grave blunder to assume that the ‘Maaveerar Naal’ of the LTTE is a day of national mourning for the Tamils of Sri Lanka.’

Though many in the North and East had family members who joined the LTTE and many Tamils are sympathetic towards the LTTE even today, not all Tamils have connections to the LTTE. There are those who have suffered under the LTTE; surviving assassination attempts, forcibly recruited, recruited as children, shot at when attempting to flee LTTE-controlled areas in May 2009, and more. These survivors, as well as families of Tamils who fell victim to LTTE’s violence, do not regard the LTTE as their representatives or as heroes.

There is also controversy as to why the JVP, who also took up arms against the state, and engaged in abuses against civilians, are allowed to mourn their dead publicly in heroes remembrances (viru samaruma) when the thuyilum illams have been destroyed by successive governments. It is interesting too to note that the JVP and the LTTE were described differently during the JVP insurgencies – the English and Sinhala media often referring to the former as ‘subversives’ and the latter as terrorists.

The destruction

The army would destroy the thuyilum illams in its path as it gained ground during the war, reducing the headstones and graves to rubble and in a few instances, we were told had even dug bodies out of the ground.

The State’s efforts to clamp down on post-war memorialisation meant that families of the fallen cadres had no opportunity to mark Maaveerar Naal. But there were also restorations and reconstructions as the LTTE gained access to and varying degrees of control of areas the Army had earlier captured. For example, in Kopay, in the Jaffna district the thuyilum illamwas destroyed once the Army gained control of the area in 1995. But after the ceasefire of 2002, the LTTE regained access, rebuilt and memorials began again. They even had placed a plaque at the entrance, with remnants of the destruction. As the ceasefire collapsed, the Army again destroyed it and built a camp over it, which still stands. Around 2012, some Tamils in the North and East defied government’s crackdowns and organized remembrance events, but these were not held in thuyilum illam sites. In 2012, when Maaveerar Naal fell on the same day as Karthiaai Vilakeeduu, the Hindu festival of lights, residents lighting lamps at the University of Jaffna came under attack from the security forces.

From 2016, families and communities, supported by some Tamil politicians, clergy and diaspora, started to publicly but mutedly markMaaveerar Naal. Some did this by arranging remaining fragments of headstones, clearing the overgrown fields, and restoring some order to what had been destroyed. Surveillance and the presence of intelligence personnel was recorded in many locations, and some thereby resorted to a single lamp lit near where the resting place used to be.

The Right to Remember and Mourn

The right of all communities, and families, to remember their dead who were lost in combat is laid out in international humanitarian law. Government-appointed bodies such as the LLRC and the Office on Missing Persons have also made recommendations on remembrance and memorialisation in general while the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation mechanisms (CTF) has explicit reference to remembrance of dead LTTE cadres. One submission, quoted in the report, said ‘20 LTTE graveyards from across the North and East of Sri Lanka, comprising thousands of graves and commemorative plaques for LTTE fighters were bulldozed after the war’ and acknowledged that “the destruction of LTTE cemeteries, the grief it had caused and the need to preserve the sanctity of the dead’ was raised frequently during its hearings. The CTF then recommended the restoration of burial plots to family members and the removal of all buildings subsequently erected on them. The CTF also made a general recommendation noting that the ‘sanctity of all sites, where those who perished or disappeared in armed conflicts are buried, interred or symbolically remembered is respected.’

possible reason for the destruction of the thuyilum illams could be that the military who carried out these acts were motivated by a wish to ‘deny the defeated LTTE any focal points for resurgence’ . These actions, however, only serve to deepen divide between the ‘conquering’ and the ‘conquered’, hindering possibilities of understanding and reconciliation between groups.

As Sri Lanka nears ten years since the end of the conflict, many of the initiatives intended to address wartime abuses and post-war issues are yet to come to fruition. The families of the disappeared still wait for answers, and some have been engaged in protests for around 600 days at the time of writing. Land release is slow, and militarisation in the North and East remains an ever-present issue. These issues are compounded by the denial of their right to mourn their loved ones. The desecration of the thuyilam illam, in this light, acts not as a deterrent but as a ‘focal point for enhanced embitterment towards the government’.

Note: For a map of 14 locations, photos, description of each site with history, statistics, quotes from local people including family members of Maarveerar, see the full story at https://cpasl.atavist.com/nopeaceinrest

DISAPPEARANCES IN SRI LANKA: 500 DAYS OF PROTESTS

First published in the Sunday Observer of 29th July 2018 http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/07/29/opinion/disappearances-sri-lanka-500-days-protests

Earlier this month female activists in the North and the East were subject to assault and other intimidation, which allegedly appears to be in relation to their work on disappearances, in courts and at the UN.

The Office of Missing Persons consultation meetings in Jaffna and Kilinochchi also met with fierce resistance by some families of the disappeared. July also saw the first significant solidarity protest in Colombo to mark 500 days of roadside protests by families of the disappeared in the North and the East.

Two weeks ago, I went to Jaffna Hospital to visit an activist I have known for many years. Her head was bandaged, left eye and cheek swollen and bruised. She had been attacked with an iron rod close to the Vaddukottai Police Station in the Jaffna district. The activist had been assisting families of the disappeared and lawyers in habeas corpus cases in Jaffna courts. According to documents filed in court and based on the magisterial inquiry, the military is allegedly implicated in the disappearances.

These disappearances had happened in 1996, when Jaffna was under Army control, under the Presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga, who is now Chairperson of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR). The activist was attacked three days after the last hearing of the case.

She had been warned by an unidentified person not to get involved in the case. Others involved in the case have also been subject to intimidation in the past few months.

Two days before, I had met a Tamil activist from the East, whose husband had been a victim of an enforced disappearance. Having had no response from Sri Lankan authorities, she had for the first time, gone to Geneva to seek help from the UN Human Rights Council.

There, an event she was speaking at was disrupted by group of persons she suspects to be linked to the military. After the disruption, she fainted while at the head-table, had to receive immediate medical treatment and was later hospitalised.

Her trauma continued when she returned. She told me that as she was looking for her baggage in the airport, she was questioned by some officials at the airport. After reaching home, she alleged that she was interrogated by people suspected to be from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) about meetings she had at the UN in Geneva.

A few days later, an iron rod was thrown at her, when she was on a bicycle with her son in her hometown.

The brutal attack on the Jaffna disappearance activist happened while the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) was holding consultations in the town. The next day, OMP held a similar meeting in Kilinochchi. From the Jaffna hospital, I went to the OMP meeting in Kilinochchi, arriving earlier than the scheduled 9.30 a.m. I found the small access road crowded with protesters, mostly Tamil mothers and wives of those disappeared. Some of them had been protesting for more than 500 days continually, had met the Sri Lankan President several times, and complained to various state institutions and Commissions of Inquiries.

Frustrated and fed up, they had no faith in new institutions. They politely and patiently explained this to the equally polite and patient Chairman of the OMP, who had come out to the street to talk to them. The protest leaders agreed with OMP Chair’s appeal not to obstruct families who wanted to attend the OMP meeting, but insisted on their right to communicate their message to families going for the meeting. I observed that some such attempts bordered on physical obstruction, though the road and gate was cleared for anyone to go to the OMP building.

Some families who were keen to go to the OMP meeting, argued with protesters, with one elderly lady telling a protest leader “you deal with your son’s disappearance the way you want, I will deal with disappearance of my son the way I want”.

While I share the frustrations of protesting families, I hope their leaders will find more respectful ways of engaging with families of disappeared who want to engage with the OMP.

In the end, only about 10 families attended the meeting with OMP. During the meeting, one family of the disappeared asked the OMP to deliver justice instead of having meeting-after-meeting. Another shared the belief that a 15 year old child taken away by the LTTE was still alive and another stressed the importance of livelihood assistance. The question of those who had disappeared after surrendering to the Army was also raised.

500 days of day and night protests

From the Kilinochchi OMP meeting, I went to Vavuniya, to spend some time with families of the disappeared who have been protesting day and night at a roadside tent for more than 500 days. They shared difficulties of sustaining such a long protest. Anger and disappointment with the Government, Tamil politicians, media, activists and society in general was visible. I again felt weakening health conditions and resolve of some protesters and a few days after my visit, I heard about the death of the eighth protestor who had died during the 500 days. It was also sad to see escalating tensions between protesting families with activists, politicians and even non-protesting families of the disappeared, inevitable given their hostile, inhospitable, frustrating and traumatic experiences.

Although the families must finally decide about how to protest, it would be insensitive to encourage continued protests in the context of authorities, media and society at large that are not sympathetic to their plight. Elderly and physically and emotionally frail mothers and fathers who are protesting are vulnerable to harsh conditions. I had always hoped protesters will consider forms of continuing protests less harmful to themselves, so, I was relieved to hear last week that some of the protesters had decided to change strategy.

Challenges facing families and the OMP

In my conversations with families of disappeared, food, education, healthcare, housing and livelihoods have emerged as major challenges to families of the disappeared – and especially to those protesting for 500 days. Once, when I arrived at a protest site late morning, the protesters had not had any breakfast. Families at one protest site told me that they get five lunch packets from a local trader and share them.

The latest attacks on Tamil women disappearance activists in North and East comes after the vicious hate campaign including death threats against the brave and determined Sandya Ekneligoda, a Sinhalese from a Colombo suburb and wife of a disappeared journalist. Such attacks may deter activism and increase anger, frustration and suspicion against the judiciary or institutions such as the OMP, and radicalise families and others.

Families of the disappeared confront the OMP with the legacy of broken promises by successive Governments and the failures of past Commissions to provide redress. To their mind, there is no compelling reason to trust that the OMP will deliver. Families who have been deceived and dismissed repeatedly even by the current ruling administration will not be convinced by technical answers about how the OMP is different to other mechanisms.

Discussions between protestors and the OMP Chair and Members in Kilinochchi and their memo to the Office indicate they were open to engage conditionally with the mechanism and should be taken seriously. After five months of operation, the OMP does not appear to have started tracing the disappeared and missing. The challenge for the OMP is to deliver on actions and in months, rather than years.

Solidarity

This note would not be complete without mention of the 30-hour overnight protest vigil in Colombo to show support and solidarity towards the 500 days continuing protests by Tamil families of the disappeared in the North and the East. It was a first such solidarity action in Colombo and a personal initiative of a small group of committed young activists. It was heartening to have few Sinhalese and Muslim families of the disappeared from around Colombo such as Sandya Ekneligoda, Mauri Jayasena and Sithi join us. Some people walking by and the occasional trishaw and motorcycle stopped and asked for details. Both drivers of the two trishaws I got in chatted with me about it. Others in vehicles, including Army officers, opened their windows and accepted our information leaflet.

As they wait for answers from the Government and institutions such as the OMP and judiciary about their loved ones, families of the disappeared deserve more coverage by mainstream Sinhalese and English media. And they need continued solidarity from Sri Lankan society and internationally. The struggle of the families must become a struggle of all Sri Lankans.

(The writer is a human rights activist)

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.

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.

The struggle for land and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

First published on 19th May 2017 at https://www.ucanews.com/news/the-struggle-for-land-and-reconciliation-in-sri-lanka/79116

The struggle for land and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Armed forces commandeered land during the civil war and people want all of it back

The struggle for land and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan special forces take part in a ceremony commemorating the victory over Tamil Tiger rebels in Colombo in this file photo. (Photo by Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)

Earlier this month, I was at the historical Catholic church in Mullikulam, in Mannar district, in northern Sri Lanka. Mullikulam is a beautiful village, bordering the sea, a river, forest and many small lakes. For more than nine years, the village had been occupied by the navy, displacing the local people.

After years of protests and negotiations, helped by some church leaders, the navy on April 29 agreed to release some parts of the village and villagers were allowed access to the church, school and some farmlands.

“When we left in 2007, there were about 100 houses in good condition and about 50 other mud and thatched houses. From what we can remember, there was also a church, several school buildings, two hospitals, a library, post-office, 10 wells and nine water tanks,” said 88-year-old Francis Vaz.

But now despite the navy agreeing to release some parts of the village they are still not allowed full access to their cultivation lands, small lakes, and the river or to get to the sea through the village. Neither are they allowed access to the traditional cemetery, community buildings and their own houses.

Vaz, who I had got to know during the period of displacement, is among the people unable to go home to his own house. Navy officers were quick to stop us from getting closer to his house or even taking photographs from a distance.

He and the whole village were evicted by the Sri Lankan armed forces in September 2007 who promised to allow them to return in three days. That never happened and the navy occupied their land.

 

Other protests

The civil war ended in 2009 and Sri Lanka elected a new government in January 2015 that committed to returning land taken by the armed forces. They have released some land but much more remains occupied. Of course, there are other land issues not limited to military occupation.

Northern Tamils intensified their protests this year. After months of determined action some land in Pilakudiyiruppu and Puthukudiyiruppu in Mullathivu district were released in March. Another small plot of land occupied by the army was released after renewed protests by the Paravipaanchan community in Killinochchi district around the same time.

These successes have led to others launching indefinite protests, such as in Kepapulavu and Vattuvahal in the Mullaithivu district and Iranaithivu in the Killinochchi district. Some protesters say they will not stop until their lands are returned, keeping overnight vigils and braving cold nights and intense heat.

The army and navy have also occupied land belonging to Muslims. A local Muslim friend pointed out occupied lands in Mannar district in the Northern Province where Mullikulam is also situated. Sinhalese lands have also been occupied by the military, such as in Panama in the Eastern Province.

Since March, Muslim communities in Marichikattu have been protesting against their imminent displacement after the president declared their traditional lands a forest reserve. A banner proclaiming “Evicted by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as Tamil Tigers) in 1990 and thrown out by the Sri Lankan Government in 2017” indicated their frustration.

In Pannankandi in the Kilinochchi district, Tamil villages have demanded permanent titles to land where they have been living and working since 1990. They were resettled there after they were displaced by war but now they face imminent eviction by the original Tamil owners many of whom live overseas.

The struggle for land is beyond ethnicity and militarization. Establishing new military camps, forest reserves and tourist attractions threatens to dispossess and displace more people. Communities who have been landless all their lives have also started agitating for land ownership.

 

Releasing lands

Even the limited release of lands has come with serious problems. When I visited villages that had just been released after about eight years of army and air force occupation, I saw how the military had looted even toilet fittings, doors and windows just before the hand-over. I also saw buildings that had been razed to the ground.

The government has provided no facilities and there have been no reparations. In Mullikulam, people left behind expensive and important assets like fishing boats and nets which were never returned. As protests and negotiations continue, these will also have to be taken into consideration.

 

The need for support

Land for many rural communities is much more than property with a financial value. It is linked to culture, religious practices and it is part of individual and collective identity. It is critical for their livelihood and important for food security. Several people I have met talked of how they have to buy coconuts, a common ingredient in daily cooking, instead of just plucking them from their own trees.

Alongside protests, negotiations with the military and the government also continue. In the case of Mullikulam, which is 100 percent Catholic and where a significant part of navy-occupied land belongs to the Catholic Church, church leaders have been part of the negotiations and protests. Mass and prayers have also been held at the protest site.

Few priests and nuns, Buddhist monks, activists, politicians, students and media personnel have all supported the people’s struggle but overall, in the Catholic Church and Sri Lankan society, support for has been minimal.

Every time I have been with the protesters, government rhetoric and the theories of some intellectuals seems at a disconnect. Until and unless occupied lands are returned to their historical inhabitants and the landless have access to resources and livelihoods, reconciliation and social justice will be elusive. It is impossible to restore dignity and healing without ensuring the right to land, housing and livelihood.

Spontaneous and scattered local protests have helped regain some lands and raised awareness of these long-standing problems. These could become the basis for a stronger and more coordinated movement, driven and led by affected communities, with support from the country and internationally.

Vaz said something that had a strong impression on me. “We had everything now we’re living in a jungle. How can we live like this? I have faith that we’ll get everything back, at least so our children and grandchildren can see and enjoy the home we grew up in.”

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.

UN Chief’s Visit to Sri Lanka Does Little to Address Struggles of Those Awaiting Justice

First published at http://thewire.in/65729/un-secretary-generals-visit-and-tears-of-sri-lankan-survivors/ on 13th September 2016

Ban Ki-Moon acknowledged the “big mistakes” the UN made in relation to Sri Lanka under his leadership, but is yet to lay out a concrete rights-based strategy for the country.

bankimoon_reuters

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera in Colombo. Credit: Reuters

Madushka De Silva disappeared on September 2, 2013 in Anuradhapura – Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-Buddhist heartland in the North Central Province. The third anniversary of his disappearance coincided with Ban Ki-Moon’s visit to the country. On that day, the UN secretary general was so close, and yet so far from De Silva’s wife, Mauri Inoka.

While Inoka, along with about 12 activists, was confronting a hostile police on the streets of Colombo, who claimed to be concerned about the security of the secretary general, Moon was at the nearby Hilton Hotel with his delegation, politicians, government officials and some of Colombo’s diplomats and civil society activists. The secretary general, or even a member of his delegation, had no time to drop by and spend a few minutes with Inoka, who had submitted a formal complaint about the disappearance of her husband to the UN. When she went to the hotel to attend the secretary general’s “public” lecture, she was turned away, as she was not on the list of “public” who were invited to this “public lecture”.

Beyond the physical distance and barriers, Inoka’s frustrations with the new government appeared to be in stark contrast with the secretary general’s optimism and praise for the new government. Or perhaps, it showed the distance between the diplomatic niceties of the UN and the tears of Inoka and her children along with the tens of thousands like her.

 Attacks on freedom of expression and assembly

Inoka had spent the previous night and day on Colombo’s popular beachfront, Galle Face Green, observing a 24-hour protest vigil. For three years, she had been calling on authorities to investigate the disappearance of her husband and provide some interim relief to her and her children. However, she hasn’t receives any answers in the past three years and they don’t appear to be forthcoming in the future.

In desperation, Inoka, together with 12 friends and supporters, organised a peaceful and silent march towards the Presidential Secretariat and the Hilton Hotel. “We were armed with only photos of Madushka and banners. Vehicles and pedestrians passed by us freely, with absolutely no disruption. But despite our pleas, we were stopped by the police, violating our rights to freedom of expression and assembly,” she said. “After we were compelled to disperse, a lawyer and an activist at the protest were stopped and subjected to intimidation by the police when they were leaving.”

Instead of expediting the investigation into her husband’s disappearance, the police have started investigating Inoka and some activists who were supporting her. She and at least four activists have been summoned to the Fort Police Station on the morning of September 14. Some of the activists have expressed fears of being arrested.

On August 31, hours before the secretary general arrived in Colombo, several university students were reported to have been hospitalised due to the teargas and water cannons used by the police to disperse them from staging a protest march against a private medical college and demanding an increase in the university intake.

On the day after the secretary general left from Sri Lanka, the police stripped a young man on the road and assaulted him on charges of being a drug user. When a journalist challenged the police conduct, he too was assaulted.

Although the space for freedom of expression and assembly has increased since January 2015, such incidents have happened regularly in the past 20 months, especially in the highly militarised North.

Despite these incidents, the secretary general chose to unreservedly welcome the good governance initiatives of the new government.

Long wait 

More than 100,000 Sri Lankan families, who have reported missing relatives since the 1980s, share the pleas of Inoka.

Like Inoka, nearly all families await truth, justice and reparations. When the secretary general visited the war-torn Jaffna, several Tamil families of the disappeared, from across the North, lined up the streets with photos of their loved ones, placards demanding truth and justice, and with tears in their eyes.

Protesters rally as UN chief Ban Ki-moon visits Sri Lanka. Credit: Reuters

Protesters rally as UN chief Ban Ki-moon visits Sri Lanka. Credit: Reuters

A few days after the secretary general left, a young Sinhalese boy was reported to have disappeared in the Southern city of Hambantota after last being seen in police custody. The day before the arrival of the secretary general, an ex-LTTE cadre – a Tamil – was reportedly abducted in a white van, in the highly militarised Northern city of Kilinochchi.

He was later reported to have been found in police custody, just like several other Tamils who were abducted earlier this year. The whereabouts of at least two other Tamils who disappeared from the North earlier this year remain unknown despite complaints to the authorities.

Ironically, the abduction of the ex-LTTE cadre was reported to have happened on the International Day for Victims of Enforced Disappearances, in the same month parliament approved the setting up of an Office of Missing Persons (OMP) – the government’s latest initiative to address disappearances – and three months after Sri Lanka ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.

Despite serious concerns being expressed about the “consultation” process and the OMP by families of disappeared, byactivists and by the government’s own Consultation Task Force, long before and even during his visit, the secretary general chose to welcome both.

Tamils, whose lands are occupied by the military, also took to the streets of Jaffna when the secretary general present. Some of them travelled several hours and over hundred kilometers and were probably consoled by the fact that the secretary general had called for speeding up process of return of land so that they could return home.

Before the secretary general arrived in Colombo, families of the Welikada prison massacre and eyewitnesses who were being threatened and intimidated appealed to him for a meeting. They also pleaded with him to highlight the lack of progress in investigations and prosecutions in his private meetings and his public remarks to the media. While the contents of private discussions are unknown, there was no reference to impunity in relation to this single largest post-war massacre in any of secretary general’s public remarks.

He, however, did emphasise that the victims deserve to have their voices heard, that they deserve credible, transparent and solid transitional justice mechanisms and that they cannot wait forever. He also indicated that he had stressed the importance of these with political and military leadership.

UN’s failure and attempts to move on

The secretary general was forthright about what he called the “big mistakes” that the UN made in relation to Sri Lanka under his leadership, and that if the organisation had been more engaged, they could have saved several more human lives.

Despite this having been acknowledged in 2011 by the secretary general’s panel of experts and subsequently by a UN internal review report, the secretary general personally acknowledging this in Sri Lanka was of significance. He, however, stopped short of apologising for this monumental failure under his leadership and avoided facing those who were abandoned by the UN, despite some of them lining up the streets in Jaffna while he was there.

Instead, the secretary general remarked that the UN had learnt “very hard lessons from Sri Lanka where the fog of war had obscured the centrality of human rights” and that the UN had taken steps to ensure that human rights were at the centre of all its decision-making. He squarely attributed the Human Rights up Front (HRuF) initiative as a response to the mistakes the UN made in Sri Lanka and the lessons they had leant.

Looking ahead

If the UN’s HRuF were to become a reality, a good place to start would be Sri Lanka – the tragedy that led to the initiative. The report of the panel appointed by the secretary general helped kick start subsequent actions on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council and by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). However, a coherent rights-based strategy from the UN towards Sri Lanka is not yet visible.

The new government has improved relations with the UN and intensified engagement with UN officials. But despite this, the secretary general doesn’t appear to have elicited a major commitment from the Sri Lankan government during the visit, such as ways to engage with the Human Rights Council beyond March of next year, or establishing an OHCHR field office in Sri Lanka.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to engage with UN officials and the member states, especially to get a response for people like Inoka, the families and eyewitnesses of the Welikada prison massacre and the many survivors and families of victims from the North who ask, “will the UN listen to us, what they will do for us?”

Last week I choose to be with Inoka at her vigil and forego the meeting with the secretary general. But, despite survivors, families of victims and some activists trying to communicate reports of continuing violations, and the limited progress in addressing impunity to the UN, rights issues didnot feature prominently in the secretary general’s public remarks.

Neither was there much symbolic action expressing solidarity and support for the struggle for rights by Inoka and others like her.

The UN, especially the incoming secretary general should be careful not to get carried away with the “charm offensive” of the Sri Lankan government and its ambitious promises. Changes for the better, after an end of a three decade brutal war and a decade of authoritarian rule, should not lead to Sri Lanka being prematurely marketed as a “success story,” even before the survivors and the families of victims experience tangible changes in their lives.

While much of the reform must happen within Sri Lanka, the UN officials and member states still have an important role to play beyond praising the positive initiatives and the progress made. The secretary general, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN’s various mechanisms and institutions should try to provide an objective picture of the situation in Sri Lanka to the UN member states, find ways of continuing engagement over the next few years and give a central place to the tears, cries, struggles and expectations of Inoka and others like her.

Tourism in Sri Lanka: Catalyst for Peace & Development or Militarization & Dispossession?

First published at http://groundviews.org/2016/07/11/tourism-in-sri-lanka-catalyst-for-peace-development-or-militarization-dispossession/ on 11th July 2016

This week, there is a major international conference on tourism, in Pasikudah, in the Batticaloa district, Eastern province of Sri Lanka. The theme is “Tourism: a Catalyst for Development, Peace and Reconciliation”. It’s organized by the UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), “the UN agency responsible for the promotion of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism”, along with the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) and the Ministry of Tourism Development and Christian Religious Affairs. The Sri Lankan President is due to attend.

Local community’s involvement in the conference

Pasikudah is a fishing village. It’s an area severely affected by the war and tsunami, with many having been killed, disappeared, injured, tortured, detained, displaced and with large number of war widows and women headed households. It had also been a popular beach for local and foreign tourists. Before the advent of large hotels owned and staffed primarily by outsiders, many local people had tried to develop their economy through small scale guest houses.

When we met fisherfolk and local guest house owners and staff last month, they didn’t know about this event, had not been consulted or invited. Organizers have opted to recommend high-end hotels owned and managed by outsiders for conference participants to stay, instead of local guest houses. Local civil society groups that we met in Batticaloa, the district capital and the closest major city to Pasikudah also didn’t know about the conference.

Those seriously affected by the three decade old war have been totally left out at a conference claiming to discuss peace, reconciliation and development. There doesn’t appear to be any opportunity for participants to listen to them and how they may view tourism and their expectations. There is also no space or focus in the agenda on gender issues.

Misleading participants 

The material provided for participants by organizers, is misleading as it withholds key information about the context and background of peace and development in Sri Lanka and Pasikudah. Language has been a key issue that led to war and the organizers are incorrectly portraying that the language of the majority, Sinhalese, as the official language, at a conference held in a pre-dominantly Tamil area ravaged by the war. Numerous reports by local and international groups and the UN about the human rights situation in the past and present finds no reference in extensive pre-conference materials featuring images of sunny beaches.

Proposed pre & post conference destinations include Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, districts which grow much of Sri Lanka’s famous tea. The visit itinerary includes visits to tea factories and plantations. But it doesn’t include a visit to “line rooms”, the cramped and basic shelters where workers live. The visitors are not likely to be given opportunities to learn about the historical and ongoing socio-economic-political marginalization of tea workers, many of whom are women, on whose sweat and blood the tea industry is built on, with very little benefits to themselves.

Some major concerns about tourism and local communities 

In major tourism development areas such as Pasikudah, Kalpitiya (Puttlam district, North Western Province) and Kuchaveli (Trincomalee district, Eastern Province), local communities have not been consulted and inadequate information had been provided to them about large scale tourism projects that affects their lives. Some had learnt of proposed tourist projects through prohibition notices restricting their freedom of movement. Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities, men, women and children, have all been negatively affected.

Historical landscapes have been changed and mangroves destroyed due to large scale tourism projects in different parts of the country. Environmentalists had reported that the Colombo “Port City” project, which aims at high end tourists, will cause serious damage to the environment. In Kuchaveli, community playgrounds, community centres, wells close to the sea and a Hindu temple had been occupied due to tourism projects. In Kalpitiya, access to a Catholic Church had been blocked and, local communities have complained about water shortages for drinking and everyday use, due to high water consumption in hotels.

Tourism initiatives, by the military and private companies, had resulted in local populations losing their traditional lands, seriously affecting community life and cultures. Individuals and whole communities in Kuchaveli, Kalpitiya, Jaffna (Northern Province) and Panama (Ampara district, Eastern Province) have lost their traditional lands and villages due to tourism projects.

Fisherfolk in Pasikudah told us that their fisheries centres and moorings have been displaced multiple times due to building up of large hotels. The hotel hosting the conference, Amaya Beach Resort, is situated where their fisheries centre was located. The Pasikudah fisherfolk have been compelled to walk several kilometers to the present day mooring. Over 300 fisherfolk have to share a very small 300m section of the 5km long beach. In Kuchaveli nine access points to the sea has been blocked and fisherfolk have to walk about 3km to the sea. Most permanent employees in hotels appear to come from outside. Fisherfolk in Pasikudah also told us that large hotels in Pasikudah don’t purchase fish from them, but do their purchases through intermediaries. There are also questions about adequate compensation, social benefits and rights to unionize of workers employed in major hotels.

Militarization of tourism

There is a strong military presence and involvement in Northern Sri Lanka and this also extends to tourism. It’s a military which stands accused of serious and systemic human rights violations, by the local population, domestic and international human rights groups and the UN. Despite some releases in last 18 months, it continues to illegally occupy large swathes of lands belonging to Tamils. Some lands of Muslim and Sinhalese are also occupied by the military.

The military runs farms, pre-schools, shops, tourist centres, tourist resorts, restaurants, boat tours and airlines. According to organizers, conference participants will also travel by a “passenger vessel of the Navy”. In Panama and Jaffna peninsula, people were deceived into believing the Navy and Army had occupied their lands to build military bases, but subsequently discovered that these lands were used to build military run resorts.

The military has also built many monuments glorifying itself, despite many local Tamils considering them as being responsible for mass atrocities in the past. The military had bulldozed cemeteries and destroyed memorials of Tamil militants. Efforts of civilians to remember those killed and disappeared, led by Tamil political and religious leaders had been met with threats, intimidations, restrictions, surveillance and court orders banning them. Despite some improvements in last 18 months, there is no positive environment for civilian initiatives for monuments and remembrance events. Government initiatives for remembrance remains focused also on the military.

Tourism and international experiences of memorialization

Across the world, monuments of past tragedies had become major tourist attractions.Holocaust memorial in Auschwitz and across the world, Constitutional Hill (former prison) andApartheid Museum in South Africa, Tuol Sleng Genocide museum in Cambodia and thememorial at the massacre site in Gwanju, South Korea are just very few examples. They play a very important role in retaining memory, educating visitors (domestic and international) and conveying stories of experiences of survivors and victims of human rights violations and war.

One of the most striking of such memorials is in Derry, in Northern Ireland, which was badly affected by the “troubles”. A walking tour of “Derry Bogside” retraces parts of the original march and visits places where the dead and wounded fell on “Bloody Sunday”, examining its’s political and social repercussions and offering onsite experience and insights. It’s curated by the son of one of the victims and offers a unique perspective to tourists. The Museum of Free Derry tries to tell the city’s history from the point of view of the people who lived through, and were most affected, instead of “distorted version parroted by the government and most of the media”, as a step towards understanding of elements that led to the conflict.  

Tourism in Sri Lanka is far from such initiatives. Less than an hour away from Pasikudah, Satharakondan and Kathankudi, there are monuments to remember massacres by the government forces and LTTE, which local Tamil and Muslim communities have built and maintain. No visits to such sites are planned in this conference to discuss “peace and reconciliation tourism”, to learn from war-affected people and express solidarity and offer encouragement and support. Instead, organizers are offering “technical tours” of several hours, to war affected Trincomalee and Jaffna. The itineraries indicate that the aim is to highlight the beauty of the place and sweep under the carpet serious human rights violations and social, economic issues affecting local people, such as unemployment, caste and gender based discrimination and violence.

Towards a more meaningful tourism

Tourism must be centered on local populations and war affected peoples. Consultations with them is crucial if tourism is to act as catalyst for peace, reconciliation and development. Tourism projects should take into account their sufferings, aspirations and support their struggles for truth, justice and economic development in a sensitive way.

Tourism must not destroy or damage socio-economic-cultural practices of local communities and uproot them from their traditional lands and livelihoods. They should not be marginalized and denied economic opportunities presented. Environmental protection is linked to community life and livelihoods and thus this is a crucial factor in any tourist projects.

Only very few individuals have obtained redress for lands they lost due to tourism projects, by going to courts. It would be important to have accessible, effective and independent grievances mechanisms, which could prevent abuses in context of tourism projects by the state or private companies, or provide redress to victims.

Government and military must not use tourism as means to promote their political agendas and propaganda. Memorials and other remembrance initiatives by local communities must be promoted and government must also initiate official monuments and remembrances focusing on civilians and all those affected.

Post-war tourism in Sri Lanka has been dominated by large scale hotel chains, investors and a powerful military machine. It’s driven by neo-liberal, capitalist economic and development policies and majoritarian Sinhalese – Buddhist ideology. It has exploited and left behind local populations in tourist sites and war affected survivors and victim’s families, in dark shadows of dispossession, displacement and marginalization. Will this conference rubber stamp and encourage this stampeding tourism train running over all before it, or will it genuinely attempt to promote peace, reconciliation and development in Sri Lanka through tourism?

Sources:

Visits and meetings with local communities by authors and colleagues

Authors visits to sites of “peace tourism” overseas

Dark Clouds over the Sunshine Paradise – Human Rights & Tourism in Sri Lanka”, Society for Threatened Peoples

Sri Lanka’s new Missing Persons Office and the Catholic Church

First published at http://www.ucanews.com/news/sri-lankas-new-missing-persons-office-and-the-catholic-church/76381 on 28th June 2016

Catholic priests are among the over 65,000 people who have been reported as disappeared in Sri Lanka. Included among that number are also many journalists, human rights activists, and the Vice Chancellor of Eastern University of Sri Lanka.

Father Jim Brown, a Tamil Catholic priest, disappeared on Aug. 20, 2006. He was last seen going into the navy controlled Allaipiddy area in the northern city of Jaffna. Wenceslaus Vimalathas, a lay associate who was with him, also disappeared.

Father Brown had tried to protect civilians during heavy fighting between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil rebels by offering them shelter in a church. It didn’t work. Many civilians were killed and injured when the church was eventually attacked. Father Brown had pleaded with the navy to take the injured out of the fighting zone but was reportedly rebuffed.

Father Francis Joseph, another Tamil Catholic priest, also disappeared. He was last seen being taken away by the Sri Lankan Army in Mullaitivu on May 18, 2009, the last day of war.

He had brokered the surrender of some rebel Tamil leaders in return for assurances of their safety. But those leaders too disappeared and their Habeas Corpus cases have dragged on for several years in the courts.

Till the late 1980s, most of those disappeared were Sinhalese. Since then, the majority have been Tamils. Muslims also have disappeared, including Pattani Razeek, a good friend of mine. Razeek was one of the few whose body was found.

Groups led by Catholic priests and nuns in the predominantly Tamil-Hindu areas in the North and East have been documenting disappearances, supporting families, and raising their voices against the crimes and the culture of impunity. But these are exceptions. Most church leaders have stayed silent. Why?

Those that have campaigned against the disappearances have faced intimidation, threats and arrest. A Catholic priest and myself were arrested in 2014 for investigating the disappearances. A few months later, a private discussion between affected families, activists and diplomats at a church-run center was disrupted by a mob led by Buddhist monks. The police refused to assist us.

Successive governments have set up numerous bodies to address the disappearances. Affected families and activists have engaged with them more out of desperation than good faith. But truth, justice, and reparations have been elusive.

The latest government effort has been to establish an Office of Missing Persons (OMP). It was one of the significant commitments the government made when they co-sponsored the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka last October. But the development of the O.M.P has been shrouded in secrecy with very little consultation, despite promises made to the contrary.

Father Brown’s distraught mother passed away without knowing what happened to her son, and his lonely father has told me that his only hope is to hear news of his son before he dies. Families whose breadwinners have disappeared need financial and material support, while others continue to demand justice.

To fulfill such expectations, the OMP will have to be more victim centered, transparent, independent and a well-resourced office, which will also facilitate the rights of families to reparations and justice, along with the right to truth. There are still opportunities to do this by influencing the draft legislation to establish the OMP, which awaits parliamentary approval.

But this may only happen if families, activists and U.N. officials make strong demands. Church leaders should also join such efforts, demanding truth and justice for those like Fathers Brown and Joseph.

Ruki Fernando is a human rights activist and consultant to the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors in Sri Lanka. He is also a member of the Asia-Pacific chaplaincy team of the International Movement of Catholic Students.

Continuing abuse under PTA: Abductions, Arbitrary Arrests, Unlawful Detentions and Torture

First published at http://groundviews.org/2016/06/28/continuing-abuse-under-pta-abductions-arbitrary-arrests-unlawful-detentions-and-torture/ on 28th June 2016

On 30th March, 2016, a suicide jacket, explosives and other ammunition was found in Chavakachcheri, Jaffna. Since then, as at 28th June, the arrest of at least 28 persons have been reported. All of them have been Tamils from the north and east of Sri Lanka. All were men, except one woman whose husband was been arrested. A further 2 persons, (also Tamil men) were given “chits” (pieces of paper) at the international airport summoning them to the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) of the Police for inquiry. They were questioned and released on the same day.

Of the 28 arrested, 24 had been arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The other 4 appear to have been arrested and detained on matters not related to the incident above, although they are ex-LTTE cadres. One of those arrested under the PTA was arrested inside the Human Right Commission office in Trincomalee, whilst he was lodging a complaint.

The people in Chavakachcheri that we spoke to said that around 10-12 youth, both male and female, have been continuously called for questioning at various places in the Jaffna District between April and June 2016, in addition to those who had been arrested. A sense of fear prevails in this village, and amidst families of those arrested. People who used to move around quite freely now look at each other with suspicion and doubt.

A human rights lawyer claims that many of the arrests are related to 5-6 motorbikes reportedly found around the house where the explosives were found. There also seems to be a trend of the TID tracking phone numbers that have been in contact with those already arrested, and calling them in for further inquiries, whilst also arresting some of them. This had led to people refraining from lending their phones to anyone else.

As of 23rd June, 2016,

  • At least 23 of the 28 persons who have been arrested have not been charged with any crime.
  • No arrest receipts were issued at the time of arrest in at least 10 cases.
  • In most of the cases, the arresting officers claimed to be TID officers and were dressed in civilian clothes. They hadn’t provided any form of identification, but had given a land phone number and told families to call it and clarify if they wanted to.
  • Suspects were not produced before a Magistrate (as specified in the PTA) within 72 hours in at least 23 cases. In most cases, Detention Orders are issued directly to the detainee whilst in detention, so families and lawyers are not always aware of its issuance.
  • Families were not notified of place of detention for more than 48 hours in at least 5 cases.
  • At least 15 of those arrested are former LTTE cadres, with at least 7 having gone through rehabilitation and been released.
  • Detainees were not offered opportunity to contact lawyers for more than 48 hours in at least 23 cases, with lawyers having restricted access even thereafter. It’s mostly families that are in contact with the lawyers.
  • Of the 28 arrested, we have come to know that 4 have been released unconditionally, 2 have been released on surety bail and 1 has been sent for 1 year in rehabilitation.
  • After visiting their detained family members, several have reported that detainees appear to have been tortured.
  • Private property of detainees and family members were confiscated and held without receipts being issued in at least 5 cases. Property includes, mobile phones, vehicles and at least Rs. 100,000 in cash.
  • Although, in accordance with Section 28 of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) Act[1], most arrests and detentions are being communicated by the TID to the HRCSL now, the HRCSL is still not being kept notified of detainee transfers and changes in detention facilities.[2]
  • Family members and lawyers reported that they had restricted access to the detainees.
  • Family members have also been reported as being detained, subjected to intensive interrogation, harassment and/or intimidation.

Below are the names and brief details of the 28 reported as arrested and 2 reported as having been summoned to TID, questioned and released. Information is valid as of 23rd June, unless otherwise stated.

  1. Kebriel Edward Julian (alias Ramesh) – According to Julian’s lawyers, at about 7.30pm, on 29th March, approximately 20 Police, Special Task Force, army and TID personnel, had arrived in 4 army vehicles, and surrounded Julian’s house in Chavakachcheri. As Julian had not been at home, the personnel had eventually left at about 9pm after having arrested Julian’s wife, Kebriel Thusyanthi, accompanied by her 6 year old step-daughter. The cache of explosives and suicide vest were discovered at Julian’s house the following morning (30).[3]Julian was arrested on the 30th of March, 2016. According to his lawyers, on the 31st of April, police, army and TID personnel had brought Julian back to his house in a van, but his family had not been allowed to meet him. They had notified his family that Julian had been arrested on the 30th. Julian was a former LTTE cadre.As far as his lawyers are aware, no Detention Order has been served, and Julian was not produced before the Magistrate or JMO as at 23rd of June. Mobile phones belonging to Julian, his father and wife, Julian’s motorcycle and TATA Batta van, their vehicle documents, and account books were all confiscated by the TID. No receipt was issued following the confiscation of these possessions and none of them have been returned as yet.[4]
  1. Rasathurai Jeyanthan, a former LTTE cadre, was abducted from his home in Nunavil, Chavakachcheri on the 10th of April, 2016, by men in civilian clothing, who claimed they were from the Police.[5][6]They interrogated and handcuffed him, refused to identify themselves, refused to tell his family members the cause of arrest and where they were taking him to, took him away in an unmarked white van, detained him for two days at locations unknown to the family, and confiscated two motorcycles registered under Jeyanthan’s brother’s name and 3 mobile phones belonging to him, his wife and mother. More than 2 months since his arrest, none of their personal property has been returned to the family. Neither have they received a receipt for the confiscated property. The notice of arrest was sent to his family only about a week following his actual arrest. The HRCSL, however, had received a routine fax notifying the Commission of his arrest, as mandated in Section 28(1) of the Human Rights Commission Act of 1996. Having been detained at the TID office in Colombo for 2 days, he was transferred to Boossa on the 12th of April, 2016 and is still detained there as of 23rd.
  2. Ganeshapillai Arivalahan (alias Kalaiarasan), a former LTTE Intelligence chief, was arrested on the 26th of April, 2016, whilst lodging a complaint at the HRCSL, Trincomalee.[7] On the 25th of April, 3 men dressed in civil had visited Arivalahan’s home whilst he was at work, and asked his wife where he was, where he worked, which route he took back home etc., As there had been a spate of arrests of former LTTE cadres at the time, they had gone the very next morning (26th) to a legal aid organization in Trincomalee. They were then advised to lodge a complaint at the HRCSL in Trincomalee.When getting into the three-wheeler from the legal aid office, Arivalahan’s wife had noticed 3 policemen in uniform standing on the opposite side of the office (sea-side), but hadn’t taken too much notice of them. However, as soon as they left the office, they saw a white and grey van with tinted windows following them. At one point, it had even tried to overtake their three-wheeler. The van too arrived at the same time as the three-wheeler at the HRCSL office, so Arivalahan had run into the HRCSL out of fear. One man in civil had gotten out of the van and followed Arivalahan inside and apprehended him. At which point a lady working at the HRCSL had asked the man from the van, who he was. He had responded that he was from the TID in Colombo. Meanwhile, 4 other men in civil too had gotten out of the van and walked into the HRCSL. Also, a police jeep with 3 police officers in uniform had arrived at the Commission and walked inside. When asked by the lady who they were, they had said they were from the Trincomalee Police.The lady at the HRCSL had got the first TID officer who had apprehended Arivalahan, to record his (the officer’s) details in a book at the Commission. By this point, the police had issued a receipt of arrest to Arivalahan’s wife, citing that he’s being arrested under the suspicion of reviving terrorist activity. As at 23rd June, he was being detained at the TID office in Colombo. His wife visits him weekly, but says that they are not able to speak freely as TID officers are always in the vicinity. They had even told the wife during one of her visits, that her husband would be released in two months.
  1. Muththulingam Vijeyakumar Ketheeswaran, was arrested in Kilinochchi town in the Kilinochchi district on 10th He had previously been detained in May 2014, while sitting for his A/L examinations as an 18 year old and released in November 2015 on bail. As he could not go back to school, he had requested his father to try and raise funds to buy him a three wheeler. His father had reportedly sold his cattle and transferred funds to his son’s bank account. Ketheeswaran has now been detained on the suspicion that he had received funds in relation to the explosives found in Chavakachcheri.When the father had visited his son in Boossa, it had appeared that the son had been severely beaten whilst in detention in Vavuniya and Boossa. The family has lodged a complaint (HRC/KI/056/2016) at the HRCSL in Kilinochchi, on the 11th April.Ketheeswaran’s sister, a student at the Eastern University, had received numerous abusive calls from persons claiming to be from the TID, from this phone number 021-2283707, following her brother’s arrest. The University has arranged some security measures for her, and she has lodged a complaint (HRC/BCO/99/2016) at the HRCSL in Batticaloa.
    Ketheeswaran’s father and another brother, a school boy, have also been repeatedly summoned to an unmarked TID office in Kilinochchi after his detention.[8] He was being detained as at 23rd June.[9]
  1. Muthulingam Jeyakanthan, a former LTTE cadre, from Mullaithivu, who had sought employment overseas after the war, was detained and interrogated for almost 7 hours by the TID, at the Katunayake international airport on his return to Sri Lanka on the 12th of April, 2016. He was then released and asked to report to the 2nd floor of the TID office in Colombo, on the 19th of April, for further interrogation.[10] According to his sister[11], they had taken Jeyakanthan into the office at about 11.15am, and at around 2.15pm, informed her that he had been arrested, but his family had not been given any document with regard to his arrest. The TID had refused to let his sister see Jeyakanthan that day, and had told her to come and visit him on Sunday (24th) April instead. Jeyakanthan is a father of two and had gone overseas to help support his family. He was last detained at the New Magazine Prison, and was ordered 1 year rehabilitation at the Poonthotam Rehabilitation Centre, Vavuniya, on the 22nd of June, 2016.
  2. Former LTTE commander Ithimalasangam Arichandran (alias Ram), was reported as abducted from his home in Thambuluvil, Ampara, on the 23rd of April, 2016. Two days later, on the 25th, the Police Spokesperson was quoted by media as having acknowledged[12] that Ram was in the custody of the TID, and was being detained at the TID office in Colombo for further questioning. Ram too had been rehabilitated after the war in 2009 and released in 2013, and has since then been reported as having been involved in agricultural activity.
  3. Another former LTTE colonel, Krishnapillai Kalainesan (alias Lt. Col. Prabha) was reported as arrested from his home in Batticaloa, on the 2nd of May, 2016, and taken to the TID office in Kalmunai for further questioning. A father of two, he was working with his wife at a canteen at the time of his arrest.[13][14] Initially registered to have been disappeared after the war, he was found to be in custody of the military and then underwent rehabilitation from 2009, till his release in 2013. He was being detained at the TID office in Colombo as at 23rd
  4. Kanapathipillai Sivamoorthy (alias Nakulan), a former LTTE commander, was abducted[15] in Jaffna on the 26th of April, and subsequently found to be in the custody of the TID in Colomb. Co-Cabinet Spokesperson, Rajitha Senaratne was reported in the media as having acknowledged[16] that Sivamoorthy, was one of many rehabilitated former LTTE cadres who had been arrested in April, in relation to a cache of weapons found in the North. He was reported as being detained by the TID as at 28th
  5. Thamotharampillai Jeyakanth, was reported as arrested under the PTA on the 20th April, 2016, from Murukandi, Kilinochchi, and being detained at the TID HQ in Colombo, as at 23rd[17]
  6. Mahadevan Prasanna and Jesuratnam Jegasamson, were arrested under the PTA on the 06th of April, 2016, from Puvarasamkulam (Vavuniya district), and are being detained at the New Magazine Remand Prison in Colombo, as at 23rd[18] A Mr. Nagulan too has been arrested in connection with this same case, and a human rights lawyer told us that his last known place of detention was at the Narahenpita Police station. However, his current whereabouts are unknown. All 3 of these suspects have been arrested and detained in relation to allegedly being in the possession of a military hat belonging to former intelligence head of the LTTE, Pottu Amman.[19]
  7. Sathyaseelan Jeyanthan Fernando, was reported arrested under the PTA on the 1st of April, 2016, from Kilinochchi, and is being detained at Boossa, as at 23rd[20]
  8. Seethagopal Arumugam, was arrested on the 29th of April, from Nedunkerny (Vavuniya district). A tractor and motorbike belonging to him, and Rs. 100,000 in cash, was confiscated by the TID, without a receipt, upon his arrest, and none of it has been returned to the family. He is being detained at the TID office in Colombo, as at 23rd[21]
  9. Sankaralingam Sasikaran, a father of two and local NGO worker, was reported as arrested[22][23] on the 30th of May, 2016, from Bharathipuram, Kilinochchi district. His current whereabouts are not known.
  1. Magalingam Vasantharasa, was arrested on the 31st of May, 2016, at the Katunayaka International Airport, and is being detained at the TID office in Colombo, as at 23rd[24]
  2. Kanagalingam Kamalakannan, who runs a money exchange centre in Jaffna, was reported as arrested from Jaffna, between April-May, in connection to the weapons discovery in Chavakachcheri. He is being detained at Boossa as at 23rd[25] 
  1. Suppramaniam Janakaraj and Suppramaniam Chandrakumar were two brothers who were arrested from their home in Akkaraipattu, Ampara district on the 6th of April, 2016. They were both released on bail on the 8th, and released unconditionally on the 12th of April, 2016. Their lawyers believe that the two brothers were arrested in order to get to their eldest brother, Suppramaniam Devathas, who was arrested on the 7th of April, and being detained at Boossa as at 23rd[26]
  1. Subramaniyam Sivakaran, Secretary of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) Northern Province Youth Organisation, was arrested under the PTA, by the TID, in Mannar on the 27th of April, 2016. He was released,[27] on bail, with two personal sureties of Rs. 100,000, on the following day (28th). He was also barred from leaving the country for one year from the date of his release.[28]
  1. Pathmanathan Rameshkanthan and Subramaniam Kokilan, were arrested under the PTA, and having spent almost 2 months in detention without being charged, were released unconditionally on the 2nd of June.[29]
  1. Kireniyar Sebathasan, was returning to Sri Lanka from Qatar where he went on work, was given a chit at the Katunayaka International Airport summoning him to be present at the 2nd floor of the TID office in Colombo-01, on the 18th of April, 2016 at 10am. The chit was signed by the OIC of Unit III. He was questioned and released on the 18th[30]
  2. Gunasekaram Vijaykumar, was summoned for an inquiry by the TID, from Kilinochchi (where he resided,) on the 27th of April, to the TID HQ in Colombo. He was questioned and released later that day.[31]

Other arrests of dubious nature

Three men, Ramachandran Kanesh, Navarathnarajah Ranjith and Mutthulingam Yogarasa,have been brought back to Sri Lanka from the Maldives after having finished serving a jail sentence, and are currently in detention in Welikada prison. Neither them, nor the prison officials one of the authors spoke to, had any idea of the reason for their continued detention, and under what laws they were being detained.

In May 2007, they were found by Maldivian Authorities in the territorial seas of Maldives and were arrested for possessing firearms. The detainees stated that they were kept in custody and were interrogated by Maldivian Authorities, Sri Lankan Authorities and Indian Authorities. The trial and sentence had been concluded in one day. The detainees stated that they did not know their charge or their sentence until after the Court proceedings had concluded as they had been provided with only one interpreter who was fluent in Malayalam and did not speak Tamil, which was the only language the detainees understood. When they were taken away from Courts an Officer had told them, that they were charged and convicted for possessing firearms. The appeal process for their release was on-going when the Sri Lankan Ambassador to Maldives visited them in prison and asked them if they were willing to be transferred to Sri Lanka. He also promised them that once in Sri Lanka they would be released in April 2016 with the Sri Lankan New Year. As the appeal process would have dragged up to September 2016, the three prisoners decided to abide by the Ambassador’s advice.

The prisoners were brought to Sri Lanka in April in a Navy ship. They said they travelled for two days. Once they landed in the Colombo port, they were sent directly to Welikada prison. Few days later they were transferred to the Magazine prison where they are now. No one apart from a few lawyers and their family has met them.

All three admitted to being part of the LTTE. However only one admitted to have joined them voluntarily. One of the detainees were recruited by the LTTE when he was 16. According to them they were sent on a mission to transport weaponry from a ship to Sri Lanka in 2007.This is when they were caught by the Maldivian Authorities. According to them they did not possess any weapons when they were caught. However they also said that three of them together with another boatman were on the boat when the Maldivian Authorities open fired. The boatman had died at sea.[32]

Velauthapillai Renukaruban’s family claims that on the 2nd of June, 2 men had arrived on motorbikes, at their home in Jaffna, assaulted Renukaruban in the presence of his mother and older sister, and then forcibly taken him away in a van. The family claims that they had only discovered his whereabouts several days following his arrest[33], when they found out that he was being held at the Jaffna Remand Prison. Following a motion for bail being filed on the 15thof June, he was produced at the Chavakachcheri Magistrates Court on the 16th of June, and released on surety bail. The courts issued a travel ban on him till the conclusion of his case, and he also had to surrender his passport to the Courts.

According to his lawyer, on the 22nd of June, Renukaruban was charged with trespassing and assault, he pleaded not guilty, and the Trial date was set for the 1st of July. In a previous trip to Sri Lanka in January 2016, Renukaruban, his uncle and 3 others had allegedly trespassed the premises of, and assaulted the complainant. Renukaruban had apparently not known of the case filed against him, and so had left the country. However, as there was a warrant out for his arrest, the Police had arrested him as soon as he returned to Jaffna. He is a British national.

Whilst being held at the Jaffna Remand Prison, there had been a clash between some of the prisoners, and Renukaruban had run outside his cell wearing only his sarong. Having seen the tiger tattooed on his chest, he claims that the Sinhala prison officials had then assaulted him, explained Mr. Punethanayagam. As there are CCTV cameras fixed inside the prison now, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find out what took place, the lawyer added. As Renukaruban had been injured due to the assault, he had been hospitalized for a few days.

His lawyer had lodged a complaint with the Jaffna Police regarding Renukaruban’s alleged assault by prison officials.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and Emergency Regulations (ER)

The PTA and ER gives wide authority to the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID), the Police and the Minister of Defense on arrest, detention, interrogation and extraction of confessions. A mere suspicion on the part of the Minister can warrant an arrest. Anything from taking a person from place to place for interrogation, seizing property can be done without the judicial oversight. The Minister can extend a detention order up to eighteen months. In practice, persons detained under the PTA have been kept in detention almost indefinitely till the case is concluded. Last year, two Tamil women were acquitted as not guilty, after being detained for more than 15 and 7 years respectively. Torture in custody is common practice and it’s rarely questioned in Courts. Even if it’s is brought to the notice of the Magistrate, the Magistrates have rarely taken proactive steps to safeguard the rights and welfare of the detainee. Under the PTA the Magistrate has no powers to intervene and hence. The PTA makes the judiciary is subordinate to the Minister of Defense under the Act. [34]

In May this year the Human Rights Commission has issued directives[35] to be followed by authorities when making arrests under the PTA. These include issuing the detention order in the language of the detainee upon arrest, identifying the person making the arrest to the arrestee and providing receipts for property seized. However it is yet to be seen whether these recommendations will be implemented. The President too has issued Directions to the Police and security forces, reiterating many of the directives issued by the HRCSL.

On the 13th of June, 2016, media reported that the government will introduce a new Act – the National Security Act – that will soon replace the PTA.[36] In addition, the government also hopes to enact two other counter-terror Acts – namely – the Prevention of Organized Crimes Act and the Intelligence Act.

On the other hand, there has been no mention of the review of the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) which the government committed to as part of the UN resolution it co-sponsored on 1st October 2015. It’s under the PSO that Emergency Regulations with provisions equally draconian as the PTA was in force for around 30 years.

It is the authors’ position that all crimes must be dealt with under ordinary law, with due checks and balances and judicial discretion and appeals. We strongly feel that the PTA should be repealed and fresh anti-terror laws should not be brought in, given that they tend to take away checks and balances, undermines judicial discretion and protection, severely undermines rights and liberties of persons and can be used to suppress peaceful and legitimate dissent. We also feel that the PSO should be reviewed and amended, to ensure that deceleration of emergency regulations are only in exceptional situations, are for specified short terms, subjected to strict parliamentary and judicial supervision with due checks and balances including eight of appeal, to ensure rights of persons are not infringed on.

Will UN rights chief’s Sri Lankan visit deliver outcomes?

First published at http://www.ucanews.com/news/will-un-rights-chiefs-sri-lankan-visit-deliver-outcomes/75236 on 17th February 2016

On Feb. 6, the day before a top U.N. official arrived at a camp for internally displaced people in Sri Lanka’s north it was visited by intelligence officers.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein had planned to visit the camp in Jaffna province and the officers wanted to know who was organizing his visit and what they were going to talk with him about.

The camp is a sensitive issue because those living there have had their land occupied by the military for the past 25 years.

It was all a part of Al Hussein’s visit to Sri Lanka to monitor the progress of a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution that the Sri Lankan government co-sponsored in October.

Part of the resolution included a commitment by the government to return land to those who lost theirs during the country’s decades-long civil war.

Other commitments that Sri Lanka signed up to involve the repeal or reform of terrorism laws and reduction of the military’s presence in the north.

Through the resolution, Sri Lanka’s government also committed to establishing four transitional justice mechanisms covering reparations, missing persons, truth seeking and accountability through judicial mechanisms.

The intimidation of activists in the camp before Al Hussein’s visit is typical in Sri Lanka’s highly militarized north. This sadly remains a reality, despite the fact that the civil war ended nearly seven years ago.

The problems these areas face are many. They are impoverished with little economic prospects. The cemeteries of Tamil militants have been desecrated and traditional Tamil lands are now being cultivated by Sinhalese. Meanwhile Muslims struggle to return and establish themselves in majority Tamil areas a quarter century after they were evicted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

These are but a few examples that some of my friends from the east discussed with Al Hussein who they met at a civil society meeting in the eastern city of Trincomalee on Feb. 7.

They said that Al Hussein and his team listened sympathetically, but despite the many issues examined, there were a few matters left out of the discussion. Among them were the predicament of survivors of Tamil Tiger massacres in Sinhalese “border villages” and how caste based divisions are resurfacing in the northern Tamil community.

Al Hussein’s visit could have been an occasion to ignite fresh momentum to deal with these issues. It could have been better used to re-energize survivors, families of victims and activists who are becoming frustrated and disillusioned with the direction the country is going in.

 

Overall, it appeared that Al Hussein took a political approach during his visit and gave priority to engaging with powerful politicians and officials.

He did though have time to visit the Temple of Tooth in Kandy (which was bombed by the Tamil Tigers) and Nallur Kovil in Jaffna, two of most sacred places of worship for Buddhists and Hindus respectively.

But the main part of Al Hussein’s visit to Kandy was to meet the influential Buddhist Chief Prelates who were later quoted in local media rejecting his rationale for international involvement in transitional justice.

Al Hussein appears to have failed to convince them about the trust deficit many Tamil survivors and victim’s families have of a process that’s entirely domestic and includes the serious deficiencies of Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system. Nor was he able to sway them about the importance of the government honoring the commitments it has made in Geneva on having international involvement in a judicial process dealing with accountability and justice for wartime abuses.

Several Tamil Catholic priests also met Al Hussein at a civil society meeting in Trincomalee. One of them told me that the U.N. official had been friendly, listened patiently and took notes diligently.

“There was not enough time to raise all issues,” the priest told me and advised me on areas I could stress on when I later had the chance to meet the high commissioner.

Overall, Christians are a minority in Sri Lanka’s North and East while also being a minority among the Tamil community. Despite this, Tamil clergy and the church have led institutions which have played a prominent and influential role in advocating for strong international involvement in pursuing accountability in Sri Lanka.

Going forward the clergy will have to analyze changes in domestic and international politics while understanding the situation at grass roots level. This will allow them to devise creative ways to engage and advocate in a way that is holistic and helps Sri Lanka reconcile with itself.

Significantly however, Al Hussein’s visit doesn’t appear to have generated any significant commitments by the Sri Lankan government, just like his agreement to defer war crimes investigation reports from March to September last year.

This is particularly worrying as the country’s president and prime minister have made public pronouncements to backtrack on key government commitments while resolutions and progress made on other commitments have been minimal. During this visit, the high commissioner could have set high benchmarks and left it to the politicians to deal with them.

Ruki Fernando is a human rights activist and consultant to the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors in Sri Lanka. He is also a member of the Asia-Pacific chaplaincy team of the International Movement of Catholic Students.

Where is journalist Subramanium Ramachandran 9 years after he disappeared?

First published on 15th February 2016 at http://groundviews.org/2016/02/15/where-is-journalist-subramanium-ramachandran-9-years-after-he-disappeared/

Subramanium Ramachandran, a Jaffna based Tamil journalist disappeared on 15th of February 2007 in Jaffna. Despite eyewitness accounts of being detained at an Army checkpoint and camps, till today his whereabouts are unknown and his elderly parents and family await his arrival every day. His colleagues and family remember him as a courageous journalist who would write without fear on any issue. During the war, he was one of the few journalists based in Jaffna who would continue to report on abuse and violations by the Military and other para militant groups. Nine years after his disappearance Ramachandran’s case like other journalists, activists, civilians who disappeared or were killed remains uninvestigated and under reported.

The Incident

Few weeks before his disappearance, Ramachandran had written an article on illegal sand mining and transportation which was taking place with the involvement of businessmen and military officers. Following this article, a Judge was reported to have made an order to confiscate a vehicle used for this purpose. At the same time the LTTE was reported to have torched another vehicle belonging to the businessmen. His colleagues believe that his abductors were persons angered by this article.

According to an eye witness, on the day of the incident, Ramachandran was coming home after work. It was a routine at that time to have a curfew imposed in Jaffna after 6.00pm. On his way he was stopped at the Army camp at Kalikai junction, not far from his home in Jaffna. The eyewitness had seen some soldiers having surrounded him for questioning. At around 7.00pm when the power was out, neighbors have reported on hearing an Army vehicle (Buffel) coming to the area and that they believe that Ramachandran may have been taken away at this point.

His sister Jeyaratnam Kamalishini who used to live close to him, was becoming anxious when Ramachandran had not returned by 8.00pm in the night. She had called him twice that night. On both occasions he has told her not to worry and that he’s been questioned at a camp and that he would return soon. When the brother did not turn up by 4.00am, the next day morning, the sister has called him again. This time he had asked her not to call him again as this was putting him in trouble. Thereafter Kamalashini together with her father, had rushed to the nearest camp to her house to inquire about her brother. When they inquired about Ramachandran the Army officers there denied knowledge that they had seen him or taken him. When the family insisted on wanting information the Army officers had threatened them with arrest and chased them away.

That night, another sister residing in Norway, had called Ramachandran. This was the last time he had spoken to the family, and had told her not to worry and that he will come home soon. Thereafter, his family rang him regularly till 2012. The phone would ring but no one would answer it. In 2012 the phone company had changed the user for the number. Hence even that contact ceased thereafter.

The long search and authorities admitting Ramachandran was taken by them

Soon after the incident, like many families of disappeared persons, Kamalashini and her father would wait for hours in the Civil Affairs Office of the Military hoping some information of her brother can be obtained. Her frequent visits finally paid off, and a sympathetic intelligence officer of that area had informed her that the military had taken Ramachandran due to orders from higher ranks. He had also instructed her to seek an appointment with Mr. Douglas Devananda who was then a Minister and also the leader of the Ealam’s People’s Democratic Party (EPDP).

Following this the family had the Minister together with his Secretary, Ms Maheshwari Velautham who was also a lawyer and an advisor to the EPDP. Mr Devananda had told the family that Ramachandran was taken away because he has done “unnecessary” things. Later on, Ramachandran’s sister met Ms Maheshwari at her house. She agreed to facilitate a visit of the family to visit Ramachandran once at his place of detention. She has also mentioned the possibility of filing a Court case. Ms. Maheshwary was shot dead by the LTTE soon after. The family had met the Minister again and an argument broke out between him and Ramachandran’s father. The father had implied that the EPDP was working together with the Military and has been abducting persons. The Minister had warned the father not to say anything against the Military or else he also might be shot.

Few months after the civil war ended, Kamalashini was visited by six persons from the police and the Military. They requested her for all Ramachandran’s personal documents including his educational certificate. When his father handed over the documents at the Point Pedro police station, he was told that these documents were requested to give Ramachandran a job.

More eye witnesses

Kamalashini also stated that two different witnesses had claimed to have seen Ramachandran as late as 2013, once in the Kangesanthurai High Security Zone, and once in the Pallappai Army camp belonging to the 524 Brigade. On the first occasion which had taken place between 2009 – 2010, the witnesses have reported to have spoken to Ramachandran, and later confirmed it was Ramachandran after the family had shown his photos. Ramachandran had told the witnesses that the Military has been promising to release him, but has kept him there without doing so. On the second occasion a Government Officer has gone for a routine meeting with the Military to the Pallappai Army camp. The witness had stated that an Intelligence Officer had pointed out Ramachandran to him and said ‘we have a journalist from your village’. The name of the intelligence officer had been the same as the one who had admitted to Kamalishini that it was Military who had taken Ramachandran.

The inaction by the Police and submissions made to the Paranagama Commission  

Few days after the incident, Ramachandran’s father had made a complaint to the Point Pedro Police station, but there had been no responses from the Police to date. According to a journalist in Jaffna, the Magistrate in Point Pedro had asked the Police to inquire into the incident after he had seen news about it. The Police had subsequently visited the sister’s house, taken her to the Police station and interrogated her from about 11am to 7pm. Most of the questions had been centered on how the sister had known Ramachandran was taken away by soldiers at the Kalikai camp. The sister had felt that the Police was more interested in identifying the eyewitness and source than actually trying to find Ramachandran.

 

On the 13th of December 2015, Kamalashini made a detailed oral submission to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry looking into Missing Persons (The Paranagama Commission).  She had sited the eye witness’s accounts she had heard. On the 26th of January 2016, the Commission sent a letter to her. The letter stated that the case has been referred for investigation. It further instructed her to contact the Government Office to obtain economic assistances which she is entitled to.

When will impunity for disappearances and attacks on media end?

Arrests made and progress in courts in the case of Sinhalese journalist Prageeth Ekenligoda who disappeared in January 2010 has received much publicity. The progress is largely due to determined and courageous campaign by his wife and family. There has also been some public commitments by the government to investigate the killing of leading English newspaper editor Lasantha Wickramathunga, although actual progress is not known. But there is a deafening silence on progress made on other attacks on journalists, media workers and media institutions.

There have been numerous killings, disappearances, assaults, threats, restrictions on Tamil journalists, Media workers and Media institutions in North and East, including serious arson attacks. The most popular Tamil daily newspaper in the North, the “Uthayan” has suffered a series of such attacks. According to the owner and Editor, there has been no progress in relation to even one incident.

Ramachandran’s case is one of the few cases where there is compelling evidence and eyewitness accounts to unravel what happened to him after his disappearance. This includes reports of him being seen at a specific Army camp in 2013, 6 years after he had disappeared. However, the family has not been informed of any attempts to obtain information from the authorities. Ramachandran’s family has been waiting for nine years in the hope that he would return one day. Will Ramachandran ever return home? Will his family and colleagues ever receive answers from the Government on what happened to him after his disappearance?

Ruki Fernando & Swasthika Arulingam

Disappearances in Sri Lanka and the visit of the UN Working Group on Disappearances

First published at http://groundviews.org/2015/11/11/disappearances-in-sri-lanka-and-the-visit-of-the-un-working-group-on-disappearances/ on 11th November 2015

In the 35 year history of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (“WGEID”), Sri Lanka ranks number two, shamefully, in the numbers of disappearance cases the WGEID has dealt with.[1] The latest figures from the WGEID are as follows: total cases transmitted to the Government for clarification – 12,341; total cases clarified by the Government – 6,551; total cases clarified by other sources – 40; outstanding cases – 5,750.[2]Further, between 2006 (when disappearances escalated drastically) to date, Sri Lanka has had the largest number of disappearance cases, 637 cases, transmitted to any government (Pakistan was second with 169 cases). There is also a clear spike visible between 2006 and 2009: 2006 had 191 cases, 2007 had 164 cases, 2008 had 147 cases, and 2009 had 123 cases.[3]

Disappearances in Sri Lanka have been in the limelight on and off, and its likely to be in the limelight once again, during the visit of the WGEID. The visit, which is already underway, will be the WGEID’s 4th to Sri Lanka, after visits in 1991, 1992, and 1999. It has been 16 years since the WGEID last visited Sri Lanka. Families of the disappeared, Sri Lankan activists, and the WGEID itself has been requesting an invitation for a visit since 2006, but the previous Government had consistently refused permission.

The WGEID

The WGEID, created in 1980, was the first UN human rights thematic mechanism established with a universal mandate.[4] It was created by the Commission on Human Rights, the precursor to the current Human Rights Council,[5] in the aftermath of the large-scale disappearances that occurred in Latin America in the 1970s.[6]

The WGEID’s primary task is to assist families to determine the fate and whereabouts of their missing family members. In pursuance of this task, the WGEID acts as an intermediary; providing a channel of communication between families of disappeared people and governments. The WGEID accepts complaints of enforced disappearances from families and those representing families, assesses the complaints against its criteria of an enforced disappearance, and transmits the cases to the governments concerned.[7]

The numbers and stories 

Beyond the cases transmitted by the WGEID, various Commissions of Inquiries, occasional statements attributed to Police, and estimates by NGOs, there are no clear statistics about the numbers of disappeared persons in Sri Lanka. But it is certainly in the tens of thousands, possibly even up to 100,000.[8] However, I feel that the numbers sometimes takes away the attention from individual tragedies and the human faces that make up the numbers.

It was in 2007 February that Tamil journalist Subramanium Ramachandran was last seen being stopped and taken away from an Army checkpoint near Jaffna. His parents told me they had received calls from his mobile phone in the hours immediately after that, but he was never seen afterwards. Amongst the most inspiring woman I have worked with is Mrs Sandya Ekneligoda. Due to her courageous and determined struggle, and the national and international support she mobilised, some military officers have finally been arrested and questioned this year in relation to the disappearance of her husband, Sinhalese journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda in 2010. A Commission of Inquiry tasked to look into the disappearance of activist Tamil Catholic Priest Father Jim Brown (along with 15 other high profile deaths and killings), who was threatened by the Navy and had last been seen at a Navy checkpoint in Jaffna, stated that they “could not carry out investigations due to non availability of evidence, importantly the inability to find the body of the alleged deceased.”[9] Sixteen habeas corpus cases, which include numerous eyewitnesses of a well-known and elderly Tamil Catholic Priest and prominent LTTE leaders surrendering to the Army at the end of the war, have been dragging on for more than three years in Mullaitivu and Vavuniya courts. A special Committee on Disappearances in the Jaffna region, appointed in 2002 under the Human Rights Commission, found that “248 Tamils had either been killed or disappeared after being taken in by the armed services, and 25 Muslims had either been killed or disappeared after being taken in by LTTE.”[10] A friend from Batticaloa narrated how he, along with thousands of others, watched 158 young Tamils being taken away by the Army from an IDP camp back in 1990, never to be seen or heard of again.[11] Despite my friend submitting names of Army officers who were responsible to several Presidential Commissions of Inquiry, nothing has been done.

The vast majority of those who disappeared after the 1990s have been Tamils. But there have also been Muslims and Sinhalese who have disappeared. The military, police (especially the Special Task Force), and various security apparatus of the state have consistently been identified as being responsible for disappearances. In some cases, family members have identified military or police personnel who took away their loved ones and the camps they were taken away to by name, but to no avail. The LTTE too have been identified as being responsible for disappearances. The breakaway factions of the LTTE in the East (led by Karuna and Iniyabharathi) and key a partner of the previous Government in the North (the EPDP led by Douglas Devananda) have also been identified as being responsible for disappearances in collusion with state forces. The bottom line is that, across the board, whether security personnel or LTTE, there is almost complete impunity for those responsible for disappearances, including under the new Government in last ten months.

Mental and financial impact

Disappearances have caused severe trauma to surviving family members, including parents, spouses, children, and siblings. The elderly mother and father of Father Jim Brown have often told me their yearning to hear news of what happened to their son before their death, but the mother passed away a few years back, without knowing what happened. I am not sure whether the father will hear any news of what happened to his son. While carrying forward the struggle for truth and justice, Sandya Ekneligoda had to also take her younger son for counseling.

Disappearances have also caused severe financial hardships. Families have been compelled to compromise their dignity and seek help from others to survive and carry forward their struggles, due to no fault of their own. Earlier this month, a young Sinhalese mother whose husband disappeared in 2013, called me in desperation to seek help to find money to feed her two young babies. It has been an overwhelming task to find financial support for families of disappeared persons, with very little sympathy from society, the Government, or donors. The lack of financial support has also impeded their struggles for truth and justice.

Threats, intimidation, defamation, restrictions 

Families of disappeared persons, other activist colleagues, and I have faced numerous threats, intimidations, and restrictions from the state in our efforts to challenge disappearances.[12]Balendran Jeyakumary, the mother of a teenager who disappeared after surrendering to the Army was arrested in 2014, and I was arrested for trying to look into circumstances around her arrest and as I was trying to find a place for her remaining teenage daughter to stay. A meeting we had last year in a Church run centre in Colombo with families of disappeared, concerned clergy, lawyers and diplomats was broken into by an angry and threatening group. When we called the Police, they refused to evict the intruders and provide protection for us. The intruders have not been held responsible despite their identities been known and Police themselves being eye witnesses.

Inspiration from a grandmother in Argentina

Since 2007, I have spent a considerable amount of time with families of the disappeared. Accompanying some to hospitals, camps, and police stations in their searches. Talking to them in their homes and in my offices. Joining them in protests in the streets, in Colombo and even Geneva. Going to meet officials and politicians. Going with them to courts, the Human Rights Commission, and various other Commissions of Inquiries. Speaking at events in Colombo, Jaffna, Geneva, and elsewhere about their stories. Writing articles. After all of this, now I also wonder what I have achieved?

But inspiration to continue comes from families of the disappeared. From people like Sandya Ekneligoda and many other mothers and wives. Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim. Even from outside Sri Lanka. Twice this year, I met Estela de Carlotto, an 84 year old grandmother from Argentina. She founded the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, to look for their missing grandchildren who were stolen at birth and adopted out; born to people who were made to disappear during the Argentine Dirty War. Estela has had a profound impact on shaping public opinion about disappearances, in Argentina, including the Government, and the world. She found her grandson last year, after 36 years of searching after her daughter had been arrested and subsequently killed after giving birth. She is firm in her commitment to continue the search for other missing grandchildren, until all are found or she is dead. Her words “crying at home and fighting in the streets” is probably what many families of the disappeared go through in Sri Lanka. It is also very true for me.

In Sri Lanka, the biggest challenge, as an activist, has been to get the sympathy and support of ordinary Sri Lankan citizens to the struggles of families of the disappeared. However, given the range of human rights and social justice issues in Sri Lanka, particularly after the war, it has not been easy even for those who advocate against disappearances to consistently support the struggles. Opposition politicians, lawyers, religious clergy, NGOs have played a crucial role in supporting families of disappeared and raising visibility. But sometimes, it was difficult to know whether some of them were using these families to promote their own agendas. It was sad when some activists tried to undermine their struggles, portraying them as being used for political agendas. It is a struggle that leaves a heavy cost on all those involved, and at times, it is extremely difficult to muster the strength to continue. Estela’s story and the fierce struggle of the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, against all odds and for decades, serve as inspiration and a source of strength in continuing with what often seems like an unending struggle.

What can the WGEID do in Sri Lanka and for Sri Lanka?

Families of the disappeared, as well as activists who have been working with them, will have high expectations of the WGEID. Answers will not flow about the fate and whereabouts of disappeared persons during the WGEID’s visit. It has neither the mandate nor powers to achieve that. But my hope is that the visit will help set in motion processes with strong involvement of families, professionals, and international actors that could lead to finding the fate and whereabouts of those who have disappeared. And further, towards justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-recurrence. In this regard, the timing of the visit is significant.

Successive Commissions of Inquiries have been appointed by previous governments to deal with disappearances. The last of which is still functioning, has received 23,249 complaints (5000 relating to the security forces). To the best of my knowledge, the Commission has been unable to find out information about even one person who is still missing.

The new Government has committed to the establishment of an Office of Missing Persons, with the assistance of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The WGIED visit comes within two months of a historic report on an investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes in Sri Lanka, commissioned by the UN to address impunity and ensure accountability in Sri Lanka. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights dealt extensively with the issue of disappearances and concluded that there were:

[…] reasonable grounds to believe that the Sri Lankan authorities have, in a widespread and systematic manner, deprived a considerable number of victims of their liberty, and then refused to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or concealed the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared person. This has, in effect, removed these persons from the protection of the law and placed them at serious risk.

There are reasonable grounds to believe that enforced disappearances may have been committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population, given the geographical scope and timeframe in which they were perpetrated, by the same security forces and targeting the same population.[13]

The WGEID visit comes within two months of the Government having committed to a range of demands that families of disappeared persons and activists have been making for many years: to ratify the International Convention against Enforced Disappearances,[14] to criminalise disappearances in Sri Lanka, and to issue certificates of absence to families of disappeared persons where death certificates cannot be issued. There are no timelines given by the Government for these commitments, nor are there any details available of how the commitments will be given effect.

The WGEID has a strong global reputation spanning 35 years of independence, integrity, and firmly supporting families of disappeared persons and activists. Sri Lanka will test that reputation. They will have to find ways to show concrete forms of solidarity with families of the disappeared and activists, privately and publicly, beyond mere words. They will have to rigorously study the past work done on disappearances and seek as much information as possible in relation to disappeared persons, especially in relation to mass graves and secret detention centres. They will have to gather information on relevant laws, institutions, and mechanisms – both in relation to the past and future. While noting positive commitments and actions by the Government, they will have to be careful not to be carried away by the allure of promising commitments and rhetoric, after all, the devil is in the details, including timelines that are not disclosed. They will have to make sure that diplomatic niceties and political considerations do not make them shy away from asking the difficult questions, sharing uncomfortable truths they may uncover, and making recommendations that may not be welcomed by the Government or even the majority of society, during the visit and also afterwards. Indeed, much will depend on their willingness and ability to do follow up work, and keep up the engagement after the visit, especially until they present a full report of the visit to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2016.


 

[1] In 2002 the WGEID stated that Sri Lanka was the county with the second highest numbers of disappearances on the WGEID’s list, second only to Iraq. Sri Lanka had 12,297 cases transmitted to the Government and 7,335 outstanding cases. Iraq had 16,514 cases transmitted to the Government and 16,384 outstanding cases – Commission on Human Rights, Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, fifty-eighth session, 18 January 2002, UN Doc. E/CN.4/2002/79, para 359 and pp 77-78. In 2015, based on the WGEID figures, Sri Lanka remains the second highest on the WGEID’s list, again second only to Iraq (16,555 cases transmitted to the Government and 16,408 outstanding cases) – Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, thirtieth session, 10 August 2015, UN Doc. A/HRC/30/38, pp 27 and 29.

[2] Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, thirtieth session, 10 August 2015, UN Doc. A/HRC/30/38, p 29.

[3] Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, thirtieth session, 10 August 2015, UN Doc. A/HRC/30/38, pp 41 and 43.

[4] Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, thirtieth session, 10 August 2015, UN Doc. A/HRC/30/38, para 1.

[5] The WGEID was established by the Commission on Human Rights in 1980. Commission on Human Rights Resolution, 29 February 1980, UN Doc. E/CN.4/RES/1980/20.

[6] It was established at a time where there were no international instruments on the issue of enforced disappearance. The fact that it came into existence, in the absence of international instruments, is testament to the grave issue that enforced disappearances posed in the world and the international consensus (as represented through the UN) to take steps to address the problem. The WGEID defines an enforced disappearance based on three cumulative elements: (1) the deprivation of liberty against the person’s will, (2) the involvement of government officials, at least indirectly by acquiescence; and (3) the refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the person. The WGEID considers that the definition of enforced disappearance should, at the minimum, contain the three stated elements). After the Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearances was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1992, the WGEID was entrusted to monitor the progress of states in fulfilling the goals set out in the Declaration and to provide assistance to governments in implementing the goals and existing international rules relating to enforced disappearances. Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Best practices on enforced disappearances in domestic criminal legislation, sixteenth session, 28 December 2010, UN Doc. A/HRC/16/48/Add.3, para 21; Commission on Human Rights, Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, fifty second session, 15 January 1996, UN Doc. E/CN.4/1996/38, para 55.)

[7] Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, thirtieth session, 10 August 2015, UN Doc. A/HRC/30/38, para 2.

[8] The Presidential Commission of Inquiry that is presently operating has received 23,249 complaints (including 5000 from the security forces). A submission to a previous Commission of Inquiry raised a question about 146,679 persons unaccounted in the last eight months of the war, citing official government statistics. For more statistics, see the section The numbers – if they matter” in the article http://groundviews.org/2013/08/30/sri-lankas-disappeared-visit-navi-pillay-and-another-commission-of-inquiry/.

[9] Report of the Commission of Inquiry Appointed to Investigate and Inquire into Alleged Serious Violations of Human Rights since first August 2005 (“Udalagama Commission”), May 2009, Part I, Case No. 8, p 8.

[10] Report of the Committee on Disappearances in the Jaffna Region, October 2003, pp 18-19.

[11] https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/eastern-university-massacre-missing-missing-missing-for-25-years/.

[12] See some examples at http://groundviews.org/2014/08/30/disappearances-and-the-struggle-for-truth-and-justice/

[13] Human Rights Council, Report of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL), thirtieth session, 16 September 2015, UN Doc. A/HRC/30/CRP.2, paras 1127-1128.

[14] International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, adopted 20 December 2006, UN Doc. A/61/488 (entered into force 23 December 2010).

The challenge of doing what is right in Sri Lanka

First published at http://www.ucanews.com/news/the-challenge-of-doing-what-is-right-in-sri-lanka/74446 on 16th October 2015

After four contentious resolutions on Sri Lanka, the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Oct. 1 adopted a “consensus resolution” for foreign judges and prosecutors to help Sri Lanka try those accused of serious crimes during the decades-long civil war.

This resolution came as a response to a report by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which the previous Sri Lankan government had aggressively opposed — going to the extent of threatening, intimidating and arresting Sri Lankans who supported it, including my own detention.

There were many Sri Lankans — civil war survivors and their families and activists — both inside and outside the country who braved government threats to testify to the U.N. investigation team. Their stories in the U.N. report reveal a long list of unlawful killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, forcible recruitment of children, restricting fleeing war-affected areas, attacks on civilians and hospitals, food convoys, churches, etc.

The report says these are systemic crimes that may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes if proven in a court of law that both the Sri Lankan government and the rebel Tamil Tigers are culpable. It emphasized that Sri Lankan laws and judiciary were incapable of dealing with such crimes and that human rights violations still continue in Sri Lanka. It recommended a “hybrid court” with international judges and lawyers working with Sri Lankans.

 

Ground realities

The resolution doesn’t appear to have recognized the serious nature of the violations detailed in the U.N. human rights office’s report. It has “balanced” its findings and recommendations to accommodate political and ideological considerations of the Sri Lankan government that co-sponsored the resolution.

An example of a glaring omission in the resolution is justice for those detained for up to 19 years under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, without having their cases concluded.

A few days before the resolution, a local court declared a Tamil mother “not guilty” after being in detention for more than 15 years. There has been no apology or redress for her. Some detainees of the Prevention of Terrorism Act recently began a hunger strike calling on authorities to expedite their cases. But nothing has happened.

The investigation against me also still continues, restrictions on my freedom of expression are still in place and my confiscated equipment still not returned.

In my travels in Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu recently, I saw no signs of a reduction in military involvement in civilian affairs despite a commitment to this in the resolution. The military continues to run farms, shops, restaurants, resorts and preschools. When I was traveling from Jaffna to Allaipiddy to visit a church that was shelled in 2006, resulting in the deaths of many civilians, I was stopped at a checkpoint by a policeman and armed soldier who wanted to know where I was going and for what purpose.

There are no signs that things are changing on the ground, even after the U.N. resolution.

 

Looking forward

In principle, the transitional justice mechanisms proposed by the Sri Lankan government through the resolution are positive. But the devil will be in the details. Who will be appointed to run these proposed mechanisms? How will they be appointed? What will be their mandate and way of operating? Answers to these will be key to its success.

The government has stressed consultations with all parties — but there is nothing to indicate that insights and inputs will be taken into account, especially by victims and their families, the majority of whom are Tamils.

The commitment to pay serious attention to crimes by Tamil Tiger rebels is welcome, although there will be skepticism on this front too, given the obvious reluctance to try self-proclaimed Tamil Tiger leaders now in government ranks.

Hopeful signs include the recent convictions of soldiers for a massacre that happened 15 years ago, as well as a separate conviction for the rape and sexual abuse of two Tamil women five years ago. Military officials have also been arrested for the killing of Tamil parliamentarians and the abduction of a Sinhalese cartoonist. But these should be looked at in the context of thousands of similar cases, some detailed in the U.N. report, often with complicity at the highest level and whose perpetrators enjoy total impunity.

The government’s several consultations with the military are of serious concern, since the military stands accused of some of the most serious crimes. The government’s public statements try to appease the majority Sinhalese community by emphasizing the protection of the military, instead of trying to convince them of the importance of justice for the mostly Tamil survivors and victims. The government simply doesn’t seem to have the political and moral vision and courage to take a principled position and do the right thing.

Media, civil society and religious leaders appear to be more focused on the international dimension of a judicial mechanism and paying less attention to mechanisms for missing persons, reparation, truth and reconciliation and other practical and important commitments that can make a difference to survivors and victims’ families.

Church and religious leaders should help their communities face up to the stories of their brothers and sisters crying out through the report, and reflect about what we have done to each other. They should move away from silence and inaction, especially from defending war criminals as “war heroes” or “martyrs.” They must insist that truth, justice and accountability are a must to guarantee reconciliation and non-recurrence of what Sri Lankans have suffered.

Ruki Fernando is a human rights activist and consultant to the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors in Sri Lanka. He is also a member of the Asia-Pacific chaplaincy team of the International Movement of Catholic Students.

(Sinhalese translation at http://www.vikalpa.org/?p=25134 and Tamil translation at http://www.jvpnews.com/srilanka/130018.html)

9 years after disappearance of Fr. Jim Brown & Mr. Vimalathas

First published at http://groundviews.org/2015/08/20/9-years-after-disappearance-of-fr-jim-brown-mr-vimalathas/ on 20th August 2015

9 years ago, on 20th August 2006, Fr. Jim Brown and Mr. Vimalathas disappeared after having been last seen at a Navy checkpoint in Allaipiddy, Jaffna[1]. Few days before, Fr. Jim Brown had been threatened by a Navy officer. There had also been tension between him and the Navy, as the Catholic Priest had pleaded with the Navy to allow injured civilians leave Allaipiddy, during the fighting between the government military and the LTTE. Earlier on, many civilians were killed and injured on an attack on the Allapiddy Church, to which Fr. Jim Brown had welcomed desperate civilians seeking a place of refuge from the fighting.

The first time I went to Allapiddy was when the people displaced in this fighting started to go back, sometime after the disappearance. I was warned by friends not to talk about Fr. Jim Brown and I didn’t. But even today, I remember people telling me that they were alive because of Fr. Jim Brown. I remember also the shelled out church. Not many Catholic Priests would have invited people to take shelter in a Church knowing it was likely to get hit and people – and even he – maybe killed. I had gone with another Catholic Priest, who had negotiated a “one hour visa” from the Navy at a time no outsiders were allowed to go there. We were both very scared because we were followed and under strict surveillance of Navy officers – whom we knew were hostile and were from the same check point that Fr. Jim Brown and Vimalathas were last seen, and we had no possibility to contact anyone else, as there was no mobile signal. We managed to return in one hour. But Fr. Jim Brown and Vimalathas, who had gone on a humanitarian mission to the same place, had not returned for 9 years.

Fr. Jim Brown’s mother passed away few years ago, without being able to know what happened to her son. His elderly father lives alone and still keeps a photo of Fr. Jim Brown in the sparsely furnished basic house in Puthukkudiyiruppu. Whenever I visit him, he shows that photo to my friends and colleagues. Vimalathas’s five children have grown up, the eldest being 24 and youngest 10, and they his wife also await some information about their beloved father and husband. Even last year, they had made a complaint to the latest Presidential Commission of Inquiry. Despite numerous complaints, appeals by the families as well as Church leaders and human rights defenders, the families have not heard any updates from anyone, even in 2015 under the Sirisena – Ranil led government.

The only thing I and concerned persons have been able to do for them is to accompany them in their struggles and organize religious services, write about their stories to remember them. There will be a service at Puthukkudiyiruppu, today morning.

Their disappearance was amongst the 16 cases a high profile Presidential Commission of Inquiry (the Udalagama Commission), monitored by “International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) took up from 2006 onwards. Todate, the report has not been shared with the families. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) also heard submissions about the case. Again, no response – except that another Catholic Priest who made a submission got a threatening call the next day asking whether he wanted to suffer the same fate as Fr. Jim Brown.

Fr. Jim Brown is not the only Tamil Catholic Priest who disappeared, there is a habeas corpus case pending on the disappearance of Fr. Francis Joseph, who disappeared in May 2009 after surrendering to the Army at the end of the war, in front of many witnesses. Many other journalists, humanitarian workers, and civilians, majority of them Tamil in the last decade, have disappeared without trace. The latest Presidential Commission of Inquiry has reported receiving 16.826 and 5,000 complaints each from civilians and military[2].

Their families have been clamoring for truth and justice in Sri Lanka and beyond. They have become a powerful moral conscience to those who are sensitive to their cries and struggles. The previous government and some others have sought to dismiss their struggles as attempts to promote political agendas. Like Fr. Jim Brown’s family, they have been threatened, intimidated, obstructed and ridiculed for struggling to find the truth about their loves ones. They were stopped from coming from Colombo to the North and a meeting we had with some of them in a Church run institute in Colombo was broken into by Buddhist Monk led group. Balendran Jeyakumary, a prominent Tamil mother whose son had disappeared after surrendering to the military, was arrested and detained for 362 days without charges and still faces investigation and various restrictions.

We got a new President, new Prime Minister and new parliament in 2015. How high up on the agenda is giving answers to families of disappeared is not clear. As a minimum and first step, President Sirisena has the power to share the Udalagama Commission report with Fr. Jim Brown’s and Vimalathas’s family and publish it. Will he do so? Will the new UNP led government request him to do so? Will the CID or relevant agencies re-open the investigation, examining available evidence, the way it has done on few other cases? Will it commit to truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non occurrence, without compelling families of disappeared to trade one off for another?

In addition to the Police, Human Rights Commission and Courts, families of disappeared have appeared before multiple domestic Commissions of Inquiries. After having worked with many families of disappeared persons for several years, I don’t think they have had much success in finding disappeared persons or what happened to him / her.

But given the large number of families of disappeared persons waiting for answers, we may need dedicated special mechanisms, including but not limited to special courts, prosecutors and investigators, set up under special laws. But any new mechanism the government may set up must have the involvement of the families of disappeared in the setting up process itself and have their confidence. It should be seen as independent and effective, not yet another “eye wash”. It should have wide ranging powers, including subpoenaing, searching, seizing and obtaining information and materials from any person or institution, including the military. It should also be able to access information on any progress of investigations and inquiries made todate by Police and any other such bodies, share updates with families and take follow up actions. It is important not to further traumatize families by compelling them to complaint yet again. No persons associated with a new mechanism should be perceived or suspected to have been involved with disappearances. A strong and substantial international involvement, that goes beyond mere advice, monitoring, financial and training, would facilitate confidence of families of disappeared. Mechanisms to solicit information from persons who may know about individual cases or overall trends may also be helpful to trace disappeared persons.

Fr. Jim Brown’s and Vimalathas’s disappearance was amongst the earliest in a new wave of complaints made to the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances since 2006 from Sri Lanka. Since then, Sri Lanka has accounted for the largest number of complaints to the UN Working Group, totaling 608, with the nearest other country being Mexico with 154 complaints[3]. In it’s 35 years of work, Sri Lanka has the second largest number of complaints[4]. The Working Group was due to visit in August, but the government had requested for a postponement due to elections. It is hoped that the new government will renew the invitation for them visit soon, and cooperate with them to give answers to families of disappeared persons.

A lot will depend on the genuine political will of the new Sri Lankan government. The support of the international community will also be important, particularly countries that have experience in dealing with large case disappearances, such as Argentina and other Latin American countries. But perhaps the most crucial element will be how much outrage there will be from Sri Lankan citizens against unwillingness and inability of our government to give answers to our fellow citizens whose loved ones have disappeared and how much sympathy and support families of disappeared persons will receive from their fellow citizens. What can we offer Fr. Jim Brown’s father and Vimalathas’s children and wife, and many others like them, will be a determining factor in our ability to have co-existence and lasting peace.

Fr Jim Brown

Allaipiddy Church after the attack

Vimalathas

Fr Jim Brown’s parents

Fr Jim Browen’s parents and a brother at the 2009 commemoration in Colombo

Vimalathas’s wife

Vimalathas’s wife and children with some Catholic Priests

See interviews the video about disappearances in Sri Lanka  with interviews from families of disappeared and activists http://www.mediafire.com/download/yp65pn1jnxa6dzq/SRI+LANKA+JUNE+10.mp4

(For focus on Fr. Jim Brown & Vimalathas, see minutes 7.06-8.12 and 2.03 – 3.31)

[1] For more background, see here.

[2] http://www.pcicmp.lk/

[3] Statistics according to the latest report of the Working Group, dated 4thAugust 2014, ref. A-HRC-27-47

[4] Ibid

Valalai (Jaffna): Re-militarisation of released villages with façade of resettlement

First published at http://groundviews.org/2015/05/17/valalai-jaffna-re-militarisation-of-released-villages-with-facade-of-resettlement/ on 17th May 2015

Valalai[1] is a Tamil village of about 233 acres[2] that was occupied by the military for nearly 25 years and before it was handed back to villagers in March 2015 by President Sirisena. Yet, more than 50 days after that handover, villagers don’t see hope for resettlement as almost nothing has been provided for them to resettle into. I met a few villagers who had already decided to stay there in makeshift tents and huts and few others who had visited for the day. I was told that only about 10 out of 155 families[3] are staying there and that a few others visit for the day.

A few people, including members of the Catholic Clergy, told me that they had seen several buildings that have been standing a few months ago when the area was under the military, but that these appear to have been demolished by the military just before the handing over of the land to people.

No permanent or temporary housing has been provided. Women I met expressed their fears to living in open tents and huts.

No proper water service exists. There is one well with drinking water for the whole village. When I visited, I saw another well being cleaned by staff of the Halo Trust. A bus runs just twice a day. No dispensary, school or even pre-school is there. Before, children had attended nearby schools in Palali and Myliddy, about one and half and three kilometres away. But there is now no access to these due to the presence of military.

All the villagers I spoke to said they were compelled to leave their village on 13th June 1990. No rent has been provided for the land and other buildings occupied by the military illegally for nearly 25 years. A significant amount of land and buildings belong to the Catholic Church. These include a Church and residence for the Catholic Bishop and Catholic Clergy, and these have also been destroyed and not rebuilt. No compensation has been provided for livelihoods lost, particularly due to inability to engage in fishing and cultivation. the inability fish and cultivate. And still, no promises have been made to rectify these issues.

Mr. N. Vethanayahan, Govt. Agent and District Secretary, Jaffna is reported to have visited Valalai on 2nd April 2015 and held discussions with with the people regarding their needs,  after which it was promised that action would be taken to address the issues related to housing, drinking water and transport[4]. But no villager that I met knew what was being done.

A military barrier guarded by an armed uniformed soldier separated the land that has been released to the people and the land that remains occupied.

Several villagers told me that the military has insisted on registration with the military, in addition to the usual registration process by the civil authorities such as Grame Niladhari (Village Official), Divisional Secretariat and District Secretariat. The military has demanded copies of all family documents, as well as photographs of families. In some cases, the military has visited families to take such photographs themselves.

It is indeed positive that the new President has started a process to hand over some land occupied by the military to people. But many questions came to my mind about the resettlement process. Why were even the basic preparations, such as temporary shelter, water, transport, health, educational services not arranged before the resettlement? Will the people be compensated for the long time their lands and properties were occupied, the income lost and the cost of reconstruction of properties and getting back to normal life? And why is the military engaged in collecting information and photos of people coming back to reside?

Cleaning of well by Halo TrustClearing of jungleDestroyed churchDrawings on walls of damaged houses-2Drawings on walls of damaged housesElderly man who had erected a temporary homeFiles to be handed over to military for registrationMilitary barrierPeople trying to resettlePeople who visit the village for the dayTemporary shelter erected by people-2Temporary shelter erected by people

(All photos taken by the author on 13th May 2015, two months after land was officially handed over by President Sirisena)

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[1] Valalai is Grama Niladari division J 284, situated in the Valikamam East (Kopay) Divisional Secretariat Division in the Jaffna district, in the Northern Province

[2] Villagers I spoke to said the village is 233 acres. But the Minister of Resettlement has been quoted in the media as saying the village is of 236 acres (http://srilankabrief.org/2015/03/pm-appoints-exploratory-committee-jaffna-hsz-land-release/).

[3] According to de-mining group Halo Trust, 283 families had come for registration to Valalai on 13th March (http://www.halotrust.org/media-centre/news-press-releases/halo-facilitates-return-almost-300-families)

[4] http://www.jaffna.dist.gov.lk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=168&Itemid=229&lang=en