May 18 and Mullivaikkaal Kanji

First published at on 26th May 2019

May 18, 2019 marked the 10th anniversary of the end of the Sri Lanka civil war.

This year, perhaps due to tragedy of the Easter bombings and also coincidence with the Vesak festival, (a sacred day for Buddhists), there were no large triumphant victory parades or memorials for dead soldiers in Colombo. But there were military memorial events in the North, after the 18th – such as an event to remember fallen soldiers and policemen, organised by the Northern Governor’s office and the Ranaviru Seva (services for War Heroes) Authority, in coordination with the Security Forces Headquarters – Jaffna, on 20th May.

There had been advance plans made for civilian remembrances by Tamils in the North. But in the days leading upto May 18, organizers expressed fear and uncertainties, triggered by the questioning of some organizers by the armed forces, arrests of Jaffna university student leaders, a large number of checkpoints, and emergency regulations. But several memorial events nevertheless went ahead.

A church

On the 18th morning, I went to the Uruthirapuram Catholic church for the annual service to remember Fr. Sara – the parish priest in 2008, who accompanied his parishioners as they were displaced and cornered in Mullivaikkaal.

He experienced the fears and suffering of the last phase of the war and died on May18. Testimonies in the church both by youths and elderly persons was moving, some breaking down and crying as they recalled how they ran over dead bodies to save their lives. Those killed and injured in war and in the Easter bombings were remembered, along with Muslims and Refugees, who faced reprisal attacks and hostilities after the bombings.

There was no formal memorial event after the church service, but some individuals had brought flowers, and laid them at the two monuments outside the church – one for Fr. Sara and other for all those killed. It was a simple, solemn and local community led memorial. The main organizer, the present parish priest, was part of a small group of committed and courageous Catholic clergy who had opted to remain with the people till the end of the war, for which he was punished with 100 days in detention in horrible conditions.

I then went to Mullivaaikaal beach, where the war came to a bloody end. Locals as well as many others from the North and East were present.

Amongst those present were those whose family members were killed, or disappeared after surrendering to the Army. Community activists who had been campaigning to regain military occupied civilian lands were also there. Tamil politicians were present, but they didn’t play any significant part.

Lamps were lit and “Mullivaikkaal Declaration” was read out, though many present had tears in their eyes and seemed too overcome with emotion to listen and understand.Foreign Tamil media were visible, but mainstream English and Sinhalese media were conspicuously absent.

That night, I stayed with a friend in an in interior farming village in the North. I was invited to join a moving and intimate family memorial in the house, led by my friend’s teenage daughters who told me that they were having this event at home as they couldn’t go to Mullivaikkaal. Their grandparents and parents also joined.

The event involved moments of silence, some music, lighting of lamps. The memorial was around an abandoned empty metal cup that my friend had picked up in his first visit to Mullivaikkaal after the end of the war. It had left a deep impression on him, and he had then installed the empty cup in the living area of the house, covered in a glass case, in a manner similar to religious statues and symbols are present in most Sri Lankan homes. That day, it was draped in fresh white flowers woven together by one of the girls.

A survivor’s memories

One of those I traveled with that day was a young girl of about 20. She was born in a refugee camp and lived a life of displacement. She had no loud cries or strident demands, but had vivid memories of the last phase of the war in 2009, of hiding in bunkers as shells and bombs rained on them and people fell dead and injured around her.

She and her family were first displaced from the North West coast, near Adampan in the Mannar district, and were displaced multiple times in 2007-2009 in places such as Illupakadavai, Mulankavil, Vatakachi, Suthanthirapuram, Valayarmadam and finally in Mullivaikkal. Her akka (elder sister) had registered her and another young sibling as the akka’s own children.

Her brother had been taken away by the LTTE, had managed to escape few times, only to get caught again, and finally, the LTTE had tied him up to await death but he somehow survived. She and her family had tried to escape the war zone, but the LTTE had shot at them as they tried to flee, and her sister had been injured. There were many other horror stories, too many and some too sad to narrate.

A few friends had planned to organize a discussion followed by a public memorial at a busy Colombo roundabout, but we had reluctantly postponed it considering the security context.

However, a memorial was held in a café in Colombo last week. Though the comfortable café seemed a different world to the North I had experienced on 18th May, the interest in knowing what had happened, by some who came, and the commitment of those who organized it, was inspiring.

Mullivaikkaal Kanji

“Mullivaikkaal Kanji (porridge)” was a striking feature of 18th May in the North. This plain and simple food was all the hundreds of thousands in precarious situation in bunkers, tents and on the move could eat in the last few months of the war. Ten years later, there are calls to have “Mullivaikkaal Kanji” for one meal on 18th May, to remember what happened.

Kanji was served along the Northern roads and after the Mullivaikkaal memorial. My friend’s family had only Kanji for lunch that day.

Having Mullivaikkaal Kanji for one meal across the country on May 18 could be one way Sri Lankans can unite, commemorate and express solidarity with the war dead, their families and survivors.

No Peace in Rest

First published at 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

The May 18 Disconnect

First published on 20th May 2018 at

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commemorations in the North

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

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

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

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

North and South; Sinhalese and Tamils

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

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

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

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

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

Sri Lankans must push the government to fulfill its undertakings

First published at on 18th Nov. 2017

The people of Sri Lanka should be wary of depending too much on international involvement – like UN experts – in ensuring the upholding of rights, dignity, and well-being of its citizens.

Successive Sri Lankan governments have ratified various international human rights’ treaties, but they are still being found wanting on home turf.

These treaties include provisions against torture, discrimination, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention. They protect freedom of expression, assembly, association and religion as well as rights to equality before the law, housing, education, and healthcare.

There are also specific measures set out in these treaties covering women, children, migrant workers and people with disabilities.

However, many Sri Lankans are still denied these rights and justice after violations during the war. The government has received more than 65,000 complaints of disappeared persons and there is no clarity about numbers killed – UN has said it could be about 70,000.

The Sri Lankan government has made a series of commitments to all its citizens, focusing on abuses of the 26-year civil war that ended in 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE which fought for a separate state.

This includes prosecution of human rights violations and establishing an effective “Office of Missing Persons” as well as a mechanism to deal with reparations. Lack of progress on these issues led to series of public protests.

There have been a series of visits by United Nations rights’ experts and officials. Superficially, this looks impressive.

However, an actual implementation of their recommendations — as well as fulfillment of commitments the government has made to Sri Lankans — is far from imposing.

And during a recent visit by UN Special Rapporteur Pablo de Greiff, the government took the unprecedented step of stating it is not bound to implement UN expert recommendations.

Anyway, a democratically elected government should not be waiting for UN findings and recommendations in order to ensure the upholding of rights, dignity, and well-being of its citizens.

As I write this, the Sri Lankan parliament is debating proposed constitutional changes following a public consultation process.

People from all walks of life presented their grievances, aspirations, and suggestions, about a wide range of issues, covering historical and structural injustices related to the war and beyond.

However, many recommendations on issues such as power sharing — as well as gender, economic and social rights — appear unlikely to be implemented.

Some leading Buddhist monks and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, are now questioning even the need for a new constitution. If there is a new constitution, it’s likely to be a political compromise.

But at the minimum, I hope it will include a strong bill of rights and a further devolution of power. And measures to address injustices committed during or arising from the civil war and preventing such occurrences again.

On the ground, despite some positive changes, recurrence of old abuses is part of daily life, especially for Tamils in the war-ravaged north.

For example, restrictions continue on the formal mourning of war dead. The military is still occupying large amounts of public and private lands and intruding into civilian activities.

And although the level of abuses is less than under previous government, even in 2017, there are reports of abductions and torture. There are also fresh arrests under a draconian anti-terror law that the government promised to repeal two years ago, under which I’m still under investigation after nearly 4 years.

De Greiff rightly suggested it was wrong to equate reconciliation and transitional justice only to criminal accountability.

But it is surprising that he did not highlight the government’s backtracking on a commitment it made two years ago to establish a special judicial mechanism.

It envisaged the participation of foreign judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and investigators, in context of a large number of Sri Lankan survivors and victim’s families failed to obtain justice through domestic legal mechanisms.

And it is strange that De Greiff presented the cost of delaying land releases in terms of a disincentive for foreign investors more than as a major problem for ordinary local people. Overall, his comments don’t appear to reflect the desperation, frustration, and anger of victims and their families.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is preparing to present an update on Sri Lanka to the UN Human Rights Council in March next year.

I hope the update will present a realistic assessment and insist on a timetable with clear benchmarks for implementation of commitments the government has already made to its citizens.

I also hope member states of the UN will be wary of heaping premature and disproportionate praise on Sri Lankan government’s empty rhetoric and promises.

International involvement in transitional justice is essential.

However, Sri Lankans should be wary of depending too much on international involvement without pushing our government to fulfill its own undertakings.

On Rights and Justice: Some Perspective from Colombo

First published at on 28th July 2016

Ruki Fernando is a human rights activist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. In this interview, Mr. Fernando shares his thoughts on a range of salient issues.

Sri Lanka’s former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, took the country in an ever more authoritarian direction. How much has changed since Maithripala Sirisena became president in January 2015?

Authoritarianism has lessened and there is more space across the country for free expression, free assembly and free association. This was visible when Tamil people in the country’s North and East came out for the first time on May 18, 2015 — to grieve collectively and publicly for their loved ones who had died during the civil war. There was more space and less restrictions and less intimidation for this in 2016 compared to 2015. However, there have been regular incidents of surveillance, intimidation, harassment and threats on journalists and activists — particularly in the North and East, even though the intensity and regularity of these incidents appears to be less than it was during the Rajapaksa era.

I feel more safe and free, and now travel to the interior of the Vanni (in the country’s Northern Province). I also go home late at night on my own, using public transport — something I never did when the Rajapaksas were in power. But even after 18 months of “good governance,” I’m still under investigation by the Terrorist Investigation Department and my freedom of expression is restricted through a court order.

As a human rights activist, what issues are taking up most of your time? What projects are you currently working on?

There are too many things than I could mention! I have been trying to assist a few families of disappeared persons in their continuing struggles. I have been trying to engage critically with the proposed Office of Missing Persons (OMP). I have been monitoring and documenting recent abductions and arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). I’m continuing to work with a few communities whose lands have been expropriated by the military. I am trying to critique militarized and large, business-oriented tourism, and to promote a more community-centered, reconciliation-oriented form of tourism. I’m also spending time discussing transitional justice issues with rural Sinhalese communities, and participating in radio and TV discussions in Sinhalese. In addition, I have been trying to support exiled Sri Lankan journalists and activists to return to Sri Lanka, and to support Pakistanis and Bangladeshis fleeing their countries and seeking refuge in Sri Lanka. Lastly, I have been giving talks and interviews, and have been writing about these issues.

In terms of the government’s wide-ranging transitional justice agenda, how much has been accomplished thus far?

Some political prisoners have been released, mostly conditionally. Some lands occupied for decades by the military have been released. Last year, there were significant judgements convicting soldiers for the rape of a Tamil woman in 2010 and a massacre of Tamil civilians in 2000.

There have been arrests of military and senior police personnel in some important and high-profile cases of killings and disappearances. The new leadership of the Human Rights Commission has asserted their independence and challenged the government, though an overhaul of the institution to be fully independent and effective will take much longer.

On the other hand, the military’s involvement in civilian activities in the North — such as hotels, shops, preschools, farms and airlines, among other activities, continues. Buddhist domination with the help of the military, in the predominantly non-Buddhist (mostly Tamil) North also continues. There has been an alarming rise of abductions and arrests under the PTA in the North and East during the last few months. Impunity reigns and accountability seems far away for tens of thousands of incidents, despite the availability of compelling evidence in some cases.

The positive progress is politically symbolic and matters a lot to ordinary people in their daily lives. But overall, progress has been too little and painfully slow. And there have been too many backward steps for the few forward steps.

How have public consultations (for the country’s transitional justice mechanisms) been going? What, if anything could be done to improve the consultative process?

Six months after the appointment of the Consultation Task Force (CTF), the consultations on transitional justice have commenced. But it seems the government has not thrown its political weight behind it, championing and promoting the process amongst Sri Lankans, using its vast infrastructure and extensive outreach through the mainstream and new media. The government doesn’t appear to be supporting the process financially, and it seems dependent on foreign funding from the United Nations (UN), which has resulted in delays.

In addition, the government had initiated a parallel process of drafting in secret, legislature in relation to transitional justice institutions, even before the consultation process started. There needs to be a convergence of expert drafting processes and popular consultations with ordinary people.

As it is, despite the best efforts of the CTF and subsidiary bodies, politically, the popular consultations appear to be an eyewash, designed to placate foreign governments and UN officials, and tick the box.

Do you believe that it’s important for Sri Lanka’s transitional justice process to include international participation? If so, why?

The reality in Sri Lanka is that most Tamils, who are a numerical minority, who have suffered the most, and who have historical grievances that led to the civil war, don’t trust a purely domestic process. Sinhalese who are the majority community, don’t trust international involvement. So if the transitional justice process is about all communities, we need to negotiate a middle way, acceptable to most communities and people. But there’s also a danger that the aspirations of the majority may prevail. Then there is also the issue of whether competency and experience to the extent needed is fully available in Sri Lanka.

Regarding the accountability mechanism to address alleged wartime abuses, what role (if any) would you like to see international actors play?

Personally, I believe it’s important to have the participation of international judges, prosecutors, investigators and defense lawyers. Their participation should go beyond monitoring, advising and training. But being international alone will not guarantee independence and credibility. It’s crucial to ensure that accountability mechanisms have the acceptance of all communities and thus, the government must play the major role in reaching out to all Sri Lankans — in particular to the Sinhalese-Buddhist community, to stress the importance of doing what’s right and principled, instead of bowing down to populist slogans. Tamil political and civil society leaders too must not get carried away with populist slogans and work towards solutions for affected people, considering the existing domestic and international political realities.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Black July, Government promises and our future

Transcript of sharing at the Black July commemoration in London, 25th July 2016, first published at on 26th July 2016

I’m thankful to British Tamils Forum (BTF) for inviting me to share some reflections and thoughts on this occasion.

Many of you gathered for this commemoration might be Tamils. Some may be survivors and families of victims of Black July and numerous other abuses which may have compelled you to leave Sri Lanka. Black July, and much of your sufferings have come at the hands of the Sinhalese dominated state, its military and police and an ideology of Sinhalese – Buddhist superiority. And also due to Sinhalese society’s refusal to acknowledge your identity and specific problems you have faced due to your ethnicity. As a Sinhalese, I share my thoughts today in a spirit of humility and introspection, but also with hopes of moving forward together towards a better future.

I understand that an apology from an ordinary individual like me might not mean much. But as a Sinhalese, I would still like to apologize to all those Tamil brothers and sisters who have suffered much during Black July and countless other such horrific incidents.

I regret I’m not in London to join this event in person. But I thought that being in Sri Lanka during these days would be more meaningful. The last few days, I had chances to share and reflect about Black July with group of Sinhalese journalists in Ampara and also be part of Sinhalese Radio program which was dealing with ethnic conflict, in which we talked about Black July. These were difficult but important conversations.

Riots against minorities in Sri Lanka

25th July 1983 is the day thousands of Tamils in Colombo and other Sinhalese majority areas were slaughtered by Sinhalese mobs, on the streets, in their houses, in vehicles. The killings and looting continued for several days. They were supported by the UNP government of the day, with an extremely powerful Executive President and massive 5/6 majority in parliament. The present Prime Minister and the leader of the UNP, Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe, was a Minister at that time. I don’t know whether he actively or tacitly supported the riots like his leader, President J. R. Jayawardena, or whether he opposed and condemned the riots.

Sadly, riots against minorities in Sri Lanka are not a thing of the distant or recent past. Riots against Tamils have been reported in 1956, 1958, 1977 and 2006. The earliest and latest riots against minorities, specifically the Muslims, have been reported in 1915 and as recently as 2014. Sinhalese mobs, backed by the UNP or SLFP government of the day, have been responsible for these. Police and Military, the majority of whom are also Sinhalese, have actively participated in some of these riots or at times refused to intervene in a timely manner to stop the carnage. Some Buddhist Monks are also reported to have participated in some of these riots, and actually instigated and led the last one against Muslims in 2014.

Among the different riots, Black July had gained most visibility locally and internationally, and is remembered most often. It’s also probably the biggest factor that led to hundreds of thousands of Tamils to seek refugee overseas, leading to numerically, politically and financially powerful “Tamil Diaspora”. I understand that Black July also led to thousands of youth joining the LTTE, as a way of defending themselves from the Sinhalese state.

Black July and other such riots have not been spontaneous acts, but crimes that have been deliberately planned and executed. The state, which should be protecting the citizens, was behind the crimes or complicit. Electoral lists were a key weapon to single out Tamils during Black July. Even if triggers for some riots may have been violent or provocative acts by the LTTE or other individuals or groups, extra-judicial, barbaric collective punishment for whole groups of peoples, and that too repeatedly, is absolutely unjustified and unacceptable under any circumstances.

Massacre of prisoners 

Prisoners – suspects, those charged and those convicted – are amongst the most vulnerable in society. They are dependent on the protection and care of the state. How we treat them could indicate our humanity and civility. One of the most horrific parts of “Black July” was the massacre of Tamil detainees at Colombo’s Welikada Prison. 35 were reported as killed on 25th July and 18 more on 27th July. Tamil detainees were also killed in 1997, 2000 and 2012 in Kaluthara, Bindunuwewa and Vavuniya. In 2012 November, 27 Sinhalese and Muslim prisoners were killed in the same Welikada prison. Irrespective of their guilt or innocence, they didn’t deserve to be massacred. I know some of their mothers and family members are still awaiting justice. Today, let’s also remember them and their families in a special way.

Truth Commission & Apology for Black July

In 2001, then President Chandrika Kumaratunga appointed a Truth Commission to look at Black July.

Later, during a commemoration of Black July in 2004, President Kumaratunga made a historic public apology[1]. Nominal and symbolic compensation was offered to some survivors and victim’s families, which was reported to be on average Rs. 77,000 per person[2]. According to President Kumaratunga, the Commission’s work had indicated nearly 1000 persons killed, 1000s injured and 18,000 properties destroyed. She acknowledged that the scale of tragedy would have been much more, as all facts may not have been available to the Commission and many incidents would not have been reported. Coming from the head of state, this was important. But sadly, she didn’t apologize or even acknowledge massacres of Tamil detainees in Kaluthara and Bindunuwewa and numerous other abuses under her own presidency. Today, she leads the Office for National Unity & Reconciliation under the Presidential Secretariat.

Latest government promises 

This year, we remember Black July, after the new Sri Lankan government has announced an ambitious transitional justice agenda, with commitments for truth seeking, reparations, criminal justice through prosecutions and measures to guarantee non-reoccurrence. Plus a new constitution, which is expected to address power sharing and degree of autonomy for Tamil majority areas.

Black July this year could indicate the genuineness of government’s commitments and provide yet another opportunity for the country to move forward. President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are leaders of the two major Sinhalese dominated political parties which have ruled Sri Lanka since 1948 and under whose watch, and with whose support, all the riots have happened. In fact, both have been Ministers when riots against minorities were unleashed. Today, there’s a unique opportunity for them to go beyond what President Kumaratunga did, by jointly acknowledging the riots against minorities and extending a formal public apology.

Beyond acknowledging and apologising, Black July anniversary could be an opportunity to assess damages and plan towards awarding meaningful reparations, going beyond the rather measly compensation offered for some survivors and families of victims of the Black July under the Kumaratunga presidency.  It’s very late, but not too late to try and make up for wrongs done.

Today would also be an opportunity to initiate fresh investigations and initiate arrests and prosecutions against those responsible for Black July and other such incidents. Not just those responsible for their implementation, but politicians and high level military, police and prison officials who would have planned or supported these atrocities. Or deliberately turned a blind eye and ensured others responsible did the same.

More than rhetoric and promises, it’s such actions that will indicate to survivors and victim’s families, and minorities as a whole, that this government is sincere towards reconciliation.

Individual Sinhalese heroes and Collective responsibility of Sinhalese society

Riots against minorities will forever be a black mark against Sinhalese as a community. Despite the many heroic acts by individual Sinhalese to save Tamil lives and their properties during Black July. There were also Muslims and Burghers who had come forward to save Tamils. We must acknowledge and appreciate these individual acts of solidarity beyond ethnic lines, at a most critical and dangerous time. But we must not let these individual acts cloud the collective responsibility of Sinhalese society, for allowing Sinhalese majoritarian racism and superiority complexes to flourish, leading to historical and structural discrimination, domination and violence against minorities. Till today.

Black July and other riots are just part of the story of Tamils in Sri Lanka. We cannot forget the systemic atrocities committed during the last months of the war in 2009 and throughout the three decade war. Extrajudicial executions, disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, sexual and gender based violence and mass and multiple displacements are part of the history of Tamil peoples of Sri Lanka.

Even under the good governance and reconciliation agenda of this new government, there are reports of initiatives to dominate and assimilate Tamils, such as continued occupation of Tamil’s lands and building of new Buddha statues and temples in areas where there are no Buddhists. The military is complicit in these. Till today, military is involved in many civilian affairs such as pre-schools, farms, tourist centres, hotels and shops in the Tamil majority North. Tamils still complain of being under the jackboot of a pre-dominantly Sinhalese military, which stands accused of very serious crimes and human rights violations against Tamils. There had been an alarming rise of abductions and arrests under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in the 3 preceding months.

Appeal to Tamil brother and sisters

As a Sinhalese, I struggle to come to terms with horrific crimes unleashed by political, military and religious leaders from Sinhalese community against Tamils and the complicity of Sinhalese society as a whole. But I also would like to make an appeal to my Tamil brothers and sisters, which I hope you will consider, even though some may be offended or ask “who are you to ask us”.

It’s important that you remember the atrocities against yourselves and your community. But please don’t ignore and forget the “minorities” in the North and East and along it’s borders. And the horrific crimes committed against them by the LTTE, an almost exclusively Tamil group, who claimed to represent the Tamils. Stories of people I have met in Sinhalese “border villages” which has seen horrific massacres by the LTTE appear to be as gruesome as stories I have heard from Tamils who had survived riots at hands of Sinhalese state and mobs. When I listened to families and neighbours of Muslims massacred at the Kathankudi Mosque and Muslim friends forcibly evicted from the Northern Province, both by the LTTE, it sounded as terrible as experiences narrated to me by Tamils who had survived riots in 1983. In my visits to interior villages of the Vanni, I have heard stories of hill country Tamils and their marginalisation, frustrations and difficulties living in the North, after having fled due to riots by Sinhalese. I believe remembering, acknowledging and reflecting on these will deepen our experiences of Black July and help understand and address broader patterns of discrimination and oppression.

Looking towards the future

Discrimination, domination and marginalisation of Tamils by Sinhalese dominated state are the root causes of the conflict and led to war. During the war, horrific abuses were committed against Tamils as well as against Sinhalese and Muslims, by the state and the LTTE. Today, there appear to be some opportunities to address these through political and legal processes in Sri Lanka. Despite terrible experiences with series of failed mechanisms of the past, problems with today’s processes, ongoing violations such as the ones I noted above and indications of lack of seriousness and sincerity on the part of the government, I believe these are opportunities that should not be missed. It would be good to analyze and reflect on opportunities and limits of the present moment and other alternatives available for survivors and victims of violations, before deciding to engage or disengage or limits of engagement.

I also believe it’s important for ordinary Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka, along with Diaspora and international friends, to join hands to take measures that will lead to truth, reparations, justice and non-reoccurrence. We can’t move forward by sweeping tragedies of the past under the carpet and forgetting about them. That’s why commemorations such as Black July are important. Despite efforts by the previous government and to lesser extent by this government, to restrict remembrances, people, especially survivors and families of victims of violations, have refused to forget. We will need to accept what we had done to each other, and what has been done in our names, without being selective. Despite the horrific experiences of the past, I hope we can walk together in pursuit of an equal, free and dignified future.



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

First published at 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?


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

Prospects for reconciliation and development in Sri Lanka

First published at on 18th May 2016

How far has the island nation come since the civil war ended seven years ago?

The seventh anniversary of the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war falls on May 18, a date that is likely to once again polarize the island’s society along ethnic lines.

Most Sinhalese are expected to see May 18 as a day for celebration. Many Tamils, especially in the North and East, are instead likely to see it as a day of mourning for their loved ones killed or disappeared and to recall the suffering they underwent during the decades-long war. Tamil politicians and Catholic priests in the North and East are planning commemorations despite the likelihood of government crackdowns, as we saw last year and before.

Last week, I visited a cemetery for former Tamil militants that was bulldozed by the government after the end of the war. An army camp has now been built over it. The loved ones of those whose remains were there have no place to grieve, lay flowers, light a candle or say a prayer.

The Tamil majority north is now dotted with monuments to the Sinhalese dominated military. The ability to remember loved ones without intimidation and reprisals, and remembering without glorifying abuses of human rights violations, is a major challenge, especially for Christians, who are both Sinhalese and Tamils.

Even after the President Maithripala Sirisena government came to power in early 2015, there have been restrictions, attacks and intimidation of activists and journalists. However, there has been more space for free expression and assembly now than under the previous government led by Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Divisions in society and civil society are also prevalent in the Catholic Church, along ethnic and ideological lines. A few church leaders, both Tamil and Sinhalese, have given leadership, support and protective presence to survivors, victim’s families and activists. Their leadership and presence has been visible most recently in protests against the Port City project (a planned city located offshore in Colombo) and initiatives by families of disappeared persons and against militarization.

They have also been involved in remembrance services for those killed and engaging with the government, foreign governments and the UN on human rights issues. These efforts must continue, especially struggles that bring together Sinhalese and Tamil Christians.

But even the most activist clergy and lay Christians must be careful about compartmentalizing struggles for truth and justice.

Land and housing

After years of campaigning and legal action, some of the land illegally occupied by the military has been released. But the military continues to occupy many villages and large swathes of land in the North and East.

The government has made a commendable commitment to build 65,000 houses for the war affected. But it’s planning to pay an unprecedented 2.1 million rupees ($US 14,500) per house to a foreign steel manufacturer with no housing experience. Most post war houses in the North and East of Sri Lanka have been built for less than one third of that price.

Housing experts, engineers, architects and activists have pointed out that steel houses will not last as long as traditional brick ones. Such structures are not well ventilated, nor are they easy to repair or to expand. They likewise lack facilities to engage in traditional cooking which uses low cost and easily available firewood. Steel housing will not help stimulate the local economy because there is no use of local resources or labor.

Prevention of Terrorism Act

The discovery of explosives and suicide jackets near Jaffna in March has led to intensified surveillance and questioning of Tamils in that region.

At least 30 people have been arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Some have been detained without being told why they are being held.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act is a draconian law that enables the minister of defense or the police to detain people without checks and balances. It has allowed widespread torture and disappearances to occur. Persons detained under this law are languishing in prisons without being judged either guilty or innocent.

An investigation against myself under this law by the Terrorism Investigation Division has continued for more than two years despite appeals by my lawyers. Others, who were detained under the law and subsequently released, are still being subjected to investigation and harassment such as being re-arrested, forced to regularly report to police stations and not being allowed to travel overseas.

A dreaded “white van” — a symbol of abductions of the previous regime — was used to abduct a Tamil man from Jaffna last month, and he was later found in police custody.

Several other disappearances were reported from the North and East last month, while the government was going about creating an Office of Missing Persons. Despite promises of consultations before it is set up, how this office will operate had been shrouded in secrecy for eight months. Its first outline was presented last week and it has been found lacking in many ways, especially in regards to provision of information to families of victims, reparations and issuance of certificates of absence. The right of families to pursue criminal accountability has been compromised because the office’s tracing investigations have been isolated from prosecutorial investigations.

The government has also not shared it’s ideas in relation to three other transitional justice mechanisms that it committed itself to establishing as a part of a UN Human Rights Council resolution that it co-sponsored last October.

Unfortunately President Maithripala Sirisena has publicly backtracked from a commitment to have foreign judges, prosecutors and lawyers in a special judicial mechanism for wartime abuses. Meanwhile some survivors, victims’ families and human rights activists including Catholic clergy insist in foreign participation, citing a lack of confidence in the Sri Lankan justice system.

Although several military personnel have been convicted and some others arrested for human rights abuses, the lack of progress in thousands of other cases only reinforces calls for international involvement for justice.

Which way for Sri Lankan society?

A consultation process towards a new constitution drew a large number of public representations, but the next steps are not clear, particularly in finding political solutions to the grievances of the country’s ethnic minorities.

The new government’s economic and development policies are focusing on trade, investment and mega development projects, which privilege the rich and marginalize the poor. A high profile example is the controversial Port City project, which targets the super-rich.

Despite a public pre-election commitment to scrap the project by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe the project is ongoing, as are protests and pending court cases that highlight disastrous consequences for the livelihood of fisherfolk and for the environment.

Serious concerns have likewise been expressed about the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement with India and the Megapolis development plan for the capital and surrounding areas.

Activists have also pointed out that very little attention is being given to economic justice during discourse about transitional justice. Attempts by the military and corporates to dominate the economy in the war-ravaged North have led to traditional livelihoods such as agriculture and fishing being sidelined and the non-stimulation of the local economy. There has been an increase in widespread debt, unemployment and poor working conditions, especially in the informal sectors.

The new government’s more open approach to civil society has led to many international transitional justice experts coming to Sri Lanka and local activists becoming part of government initiatives. These have led to many workshops in expensive hotels during a time of serious economic crisis.

Some activists and intellectuals appear to be disconnected to ground realities and oblivious to, or seek to override people’s voices. Some ignore day-to-day problems of the people; such as dealing with loved ones who disappeared, are detained, sexual abuse, military occupied land and economic hardships. They instead prioritize prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity, which doesn’t seem to be a priority for most survivors and families of victims.

Other activists seem to focus almost exclusively on economic and social issues and appear reluctant to recognize and even undermine the courageous and determined struggles of survivors and victim’s families for truth and justice.

Pre-war rights issues such as landlessness, sexual and gender-based violence and discrimination, caste, rights of workers, including those working on tea estates, still need to be addressed.

Overall, the key challenges for the country’s reconciliation and sustainable development are how we address civil and political rights and economic, social cultural rights in a holistic manner. And do so in a way that does not ignore war survivors, victims’ families and the poor, who yearn for truth, reparations, criminal accountability and economic justice.

There should be no sweeping under the carpet the violence and abuses committed by state and non-state armed groups and within society.

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

First published at 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


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

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

[1] For more background, see here.


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

[4] Ibid

Tamils in North & East Sri Lanka remember those killed despite intimidation and surveillance

First published at on 20th May 2015

Several remembrances events were held across the North and East in Sri Lanka on 18th May 2015 (the day the war ended in Sri Lanka in 2009) by Tamils to remember those killed during the war[1]. They were organized by Tamil politicians, religious clergy, civil society and women’s groups. Many were religious events. Most appear to commemorate civilians killed or all those killed. None that I saw had attempted to commemorate the government military or LTTE cadres that have been killed. In contrast, the government’s commereation of the end of the war was a “War Heroes (Ranaviru) Day” presided over by President Sirisena on 19th May was focused on the military, despite references having made to remember all those killed during the war[2].

Since the end of the war, the Rajapakse government and it’s military and Police had aggressively obstructed commemorative and remembrance events by Tamils in relation those killed during the war[3]. Organizers and participants have been threatened, harassed and intimidated. Many Tamils in North have told me their fears to organize or attend such events. But this time around, there were more initiatives than before, as people felt an opening of space to remember their family members in a collective and public manner. In one of the events I attended near the Mullivaikkal beach, a Catholic Priest boldly declared that “we have a right to cry and in the past, that right has been obstructed”. People who had gathered for this event lay flowers at symbolic tombs and cried their heart out for their loved ones who had been killed during the war. Significantly, a flame of remembrance was lit by an elderly woman who cried a lot.

Unlike in previous years, I didn’t see, hear or read about uniformed military involvement in obstructing these events. The Police also appeared to have refrained from physically obstructing such events or explicitly threatening organizers of participants.

However, there was strong Police surveillance of all events. There were lots of persons in civil who appeared to photograph persons who had organized and were participating at these events. Most local people I spoke to told me that they were “intelligence” persons from the various Police and military units. One such person in civil who had been lurking around tried to question me, and produced a Police identity card when I asked for identification. He and another person started asking whether I was a journalist and tried to also ask me information about foreign participants and foreign media present. I politely refused to be an intermediary. As my colleagues and friends including Catholic clergy gathered around me, he retreated. However, Police in uniform as well as civil clothes questioned foreign participants, including a foreign journalist who was wearing a clearly visible media accreditation card issued by the Ministry of Media.

Christian clergy and Tamil politicians played a prominent role in organizing these events and thus, they had to face obstructions and intimidations. 7 bus drivers in Iranapalei had told Church leaders they had got calls not to transport people to a remembrance event in Mullivaikkal on 18th May and were unwilling to rent their buses. Christian clergy in Trincomalee had booked a venue from the Urban Council to have an event on 18th May afternoon, but Police had pressured members of the clergy, including the Catholic Bishop of Trincomalee to refrain from using that space for the event. In an interior village near Killinochchi, during the annual remembrance event for a Catholic Priest who died on 18th May and others who were killed, Police questioned the Catholic Priest from the host Church when the Holy Mass was going on.

On 15th May, Police had obtained a Court order to stop the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) and others from holding any processions in Mullivaikkal till 29th May. Later on, a senior Police officer had showed the same court order to leaders of a women’s group who wanted to have a remembrance and sharing event in Mullivaikkal on 18th May, and insisted that they should not have the event.

There were several other such incidents reported in the media. Police had taken details of participants at an event in Vakarai in Batticaloa district[4]. Increased numbers of “Intelligence officers:” were reported to have been present around the Jaffna university[5]. Those who travelled to the event in Mullivaikkal led by the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council were reported to have had their had their vehicles stopped by Police and questioned regarding their movements[6]. A Court order against an event was also issued in Mannar[7]. An event at the Eastern University in Batticaloa was also reported as banned by the Police[8].

The stage was set for these restrictions in the first week of May, when Northern Provincial Council member was questioned about a lamps he had lit at home on 27th November 2014, on Marveer day (Heroes day) celebrated by the LTTE[9].

Remembrances and commemorations are complex in a situation such as in Sri Lanka. They appear to be deeply ethicized. The events I joined and others appeared to be exclusively Tamil, although few of my Sinhalese friends also participated at the events I joined. There was one Muslim and one Buddhist member of clergy at the event I attended at Mullivaikkal, but I’m not sure to what extent they shared the grief of the Tamils who were there. I didn’t hear about any initiatives that focused on Muslims and Sinhalese from victim’s perspective. Most Sinhalese appear to be taken up with the government’s “War Heroes day” event.

Remembrances are deeply personal tragedies, but they are also about different communities and highly politicized. Although there has been a tradition of remembrance in Sri Lanka, there has also been a tradition of obstructing remembrances, which the Rajapakse government brought to be a new height after the end of the war. On 10th May, I participated in a seminar at the Jaffna Public Library on Right to Memory, where the rights of different communities to remember their family and community members killed due to violence and wars was discussed, including ideas of having multiple narratives and inclusive memorialisation. Issues related to commemorating those who had been part of groups that are responsible for abuses and tensions between private and public commemorations, personal and collective commemorations were also raised at this seminar[10]. This was a good beginning for broader debates on the subject of remembrance and memory and I hope it will continue.

As I was in the train returning to Colombo, I got a call that another community in the Vanni, who had been fearful to remember their dead collectively, were planning to commemorate their family and community members killed before the end of May, after seeing and hearing about the widespread events held over the North and East. Despite the intimidations and obstructions, the determination of organizers and participants of the events offers fresh hope for a new era where the all Sri Lankans could enjoy the “Rights to Cry and Remember”, a crucial element for reconciliation and moving on after the war.

18th May 2015 (10 of 101)18th May 2015 (14 of 101)18th May 2015 (30 of 101)18th May 2015 (36 of 101)18th May 2015 (40 of 101)18th May 2015 (42 of 101)18th May 2015 (51 of 101)18th May 2015 (52 of 101)18th May 2015 (87 of 101)18th May 2015 (90 of 101)18th May 2015 (92 of 101)


(Photos are from from two events in Mullivaikkal and Uruthirapuram on 18thMay 2015)

[1] I attended two events personally, heard about others from friends and colleagues and read about others. For comprehensive media coverage of events at different places, see

[2] See for example excerpts from the President’s & the Prime Minister’s speeches at the official government news portal at and and the news on the event at the website of the Ministry of Defense, at

[3] For example, see  and







[10] See for edited transcript of my talk at the event,  videos of all the talks are available at

Memory and Transitional Justice

Transcript of talk by Ruki Fernando at seminar on ‘The Right to Memory’ at the Jaffna Public Library, on 10th May 2015 (slightly edited for a written format with no changes to substance)
In my presentation I’m going to use a lot of photographs, but very few have been taken by me. Some have been taken by my friends, others by unknown photographers. I want to thank them all.

People try to remember in various ways, and family photographs are one simple way of preserving memory. These photographs are owned by two Tamil families in Vanni, in the North of Sri Lanka, and are their way to try to keep the memory of their family members who were killed in the last stage of the Sri Lankan Civil War. In the Northern province, I have seen such photographs in many of the houses I have visited.

When we talk of memory we are talking about very deeply personal tragedies, yet the topic has unfortunately become immensely political. This is why we have terms like ‘the politics of memory’, and why memory has also become the subject of academic research and discussions. Throughout all this, it is worth remembering that memory is essentially very, very personal.

It must be noted that the right to memory is just one component of the Transitional Justice process, when we look at it in perspective of rights to truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-occurrence.

In this talk, I will share some experiences from Sri Lanka in general; experiences of obstructions in Sri Lanka in the recent past; some thoughts about tourism and memory; about whether we are commemorating heroes or villains, or whether there are blurred lines between the two; and some concluding remarks, reflections, and questions.