IDPs

Keppapulavu: Land Struggle Reaches Boiling Point after 700 days of protest

First published at https://groundviews.org/2019/01/22/keppapulavu-land-struggle-reaches-boiling-point-after-700-days-of-protest/ on 22nd January 2019

“We want to sleep, cook, eat in our own house and farm our own land”

700 days is a long time for a day and night protest outside an Army camp. Since March 1, 2017, the people of Keppapulavu, located in the Mullaitheevu district in Northern Sri Lanka, have been doing just that. They have had to brave intimidation and harassment from the Army, Police and intelligence agencies, and also brave the sun, rain, heat, cold and dust. They have faced challenges in continuing their livelihoods, sending children to school and caring for their elderly. It is the longest running community-led day and night continuous protest for land in Sri Lanka. They have also engaged in protests in Colombo and elsewhere, and have participated in meetings with government politicians, local Tamil politicians, government officials, the media, religious clergy, representatives of international community and others.

Last year, President Sirisena promised to return occupied lands in the North and East by December 31, 2018. When this promise was broken, Keppapulavu residents marched to the Army camp and demanded their land. The Army refused to speak to them. In subsequent discussions with government officials, an Assistant Government Agent (AGA) had promised them their land would be released by January 25, 2019.

Soon after, one of the staff officers of the newly appointed Northern Governor had met some members of the Keppalulavu community. Afterwards, on Sunday, (January 20) the Governor also met them. Both had requested more time, but the community members, who had seen so many similar “time-buying” exercises, insisted that January 25 be the final day when all the land would be returned to them. One lady had asked the Governor whether he was going to ensure release of land by January 25, or whether he wished to see the guns of the Army turned on her and other villagers.

“If our lands are not released by 25th January, we will go and reclaim our lands” is what the villagers told me, and what they had told the Army, the Governor of the Northern Province and government officials in meetings they had had the last few days and weeks.

The occupied land sits between the main road between Puthukudiyiruppu and Vattrapalai and borders the Nanthikadal lagoon. It’s very fertile agricultural land and the lagoon has plenty of fish, prawns and crabs. “We can cross our legs and sit in the garden and still have enough food” one man told me. In addition to the houses, most of the community buildings such as the community hall, school, Rural Development Society (RDS) and places with strong emotional attachments such as the church and cemetery remain occupied by the Army. The community life in this village, woven around agriculture and fishing, and the traditional and rich cultural and religious practices, was destroyed first by the war and then by the Army occupation.

“We work hard, fish, farm, and the Army which gets government salaries, enjoys the fruits of trees in our gardens, lives in our houses, and use our community buildings” says Vivekanandan, a villager from Kepapulavu. He goes on, “Why can’t they at least allow us to enjoy the fruits of trees in our gardens?”

His home, as well as the land and homes of other Keppapulavu residents’, now Army-occupied, was visible from across the road, with the beautiful view of Nanthikadal lagoon beyond it. Listening to them was heart breaking as well as making me angry.

“Why are they (the Army) in our houses, our lands, when there is so much forest land around the area?”

“We want to live peacefully with Sinhalese. Why are they (Army) obstructing this by occupying our land? Do they want Prabhakaran (the late leader of the LTTE) to come back?” was another question that was raised.

I recalled similar sentiments heard during my previous visits spanning several years. “Every year our land changes more and more. Some houses have been destroyed. The wells have been closed. Other buildings have been put up. Boundaries have been demarcated differently. But the jak and coconut trees which we planted have started bearing fruit.”

“When I enter my home, it feels as fondly familiar to me as the love of my mother and father…”

I had known some of these community members for around 10 years, when they were being detained in “Menik Farm”. Even then, they always talked about the richness and beauty of their lands and their yearning to return. Even when I met them after they had been compelled to accept alternative lands in a nearby jungle area, they insisted on the right to return to their own land.

The day I visited Keppapulavu was also the day President Sirisena had visited nearby Mulliyawalai, around 10 kilometres away from the protest site. But the long suffering and struggling Keppapulavu people were clearly not of concern to the President who is the son of a farmer, and from an agricultural area.

It is now nearly 10 years since the end of the war. And it is more than 10 years since the Army had forcibly occupied Keppapulavu. For the people of Keppapulavu, justice, peace and reconciliation remain empty words – until and unless they are able to return to their houses, lands, and way of life.

As they said, “We have survived the war but, now we have to die for our lands!”

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Iranaitivu: eight months after reclaiming land from the Navy

First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2019/01/13/news-features/iranaitivu-eight-months-after-reclaiming-land-navy on 13th January 2019

Iranaitivu is also a story of resilient community consolidating their claim of the land by reinvigorating their traditional livelihoods and strengthening community institutions. But the missing factor is the Government. At least now, the Government must step in, ensure reparations, and facilitate resettlement.

It was on April 23, 2017 that I joined the Iranaitivu residents in their journey to reclaim their traditional island, which had been denied to them by the Navy for more than 25 years. When I visited last week with some friends and colleagues, I again experienced their love for their land, resilience and determination to strive in their traditional home.

Fighting restrictions on accessing the island

There are no passenger boats between the mainland and the island, hence the fisheries cooperative had arranged a special boat for us. The boat ride was beautiful, but not easy. We had to brave the hot sun, shallow waters in which the engine stalled and rough seas in which we were drenched with sea water. But it was a journey well worth its while.

“I could not help but imagine the precarious journeys these Islanders would have undertaken during the years the war intensified in this region and the natural barrier it would have posed to leaving their valuable belongings when they were suddenly displaced.I had heard that both Sri Lankans and non-Sri Lankans have been stopped from going to the island by the Navy officers and not surprisingly, we were also stopped when we tried boarding the boat from the mainland.

The officers kept insisting on my disclosing my profession and reasons for going to the island, even as I tried to patiently explain constitutional rights of freedom of movement, and asking them based on what laws were they stopping us and demanding some form of special authorisation.

The Human Rights Commission intervened swiftly, and informed us that the North Central Commander for the Navy had clarified that there was no legal restrictions and anyone was free to go to Iranaitivu.

The officers who stopped us became apologetic, and tried to explain their concern was rough seas and dangerous animals on the island, but were helpless to answer when asked why a special authorisation based on profession and purpose was necessary to ward off these new concerns. Refreshingly, the next day, journalists were allowed to travel to Iranaitivu without obstructions, and I hope more people will visit and assert their right to movement.

My previous landings were on the larger island of Periatheevu, but this time, we landed on the smaller island of Sinnatheevu. We met several people who were repairing St. Sebastians Church, a small church on Sinnatheevu, the feast of which they are due to celebrate today, January 13. We were shown wells with drinking water. Some had been cleaned and was the source of water for people living there. Others have been damaged or unusable due to long years of abandonment. A major challenge that needs to be addressed is a system to take the water to the other island where there is less potable water.

The ruins of the brick houses they were forced to leave were visible, often next to the thatched huts they had erected to live since April last year.

There is no motorised transport on the island except for one tiny old roofless mini-lorry. So, from the smaller island, we walked through lush greenery, small lakes and waded through a beautiful strip of sea to the larger island.

The main church in the larger island had been repaired with some assistance from the Navy. But other community buildings suh as the school, cooperative, women’s society, the residences of the priest and nuns, the hospital, the Village Council and the elaborate systems for collecting and storing rain water, both overground and underground, are still in ruins.

An elder told us that they rarely used medicine, showing us some medicinal leaves from a plant he plucked as we were walking.

They residents seemed the happiest about advances they had made in livelihoods after reclaiming the land. We saw dried fish and sea cucumber, which the women said they can harvest just by walking out to the sea in the morning and sometimes evenings as well, leaving the rest of the day free for other activities. We saw tomatoes being grown in a home garden beside a thatched hut. Others we met were repairing by hand nets for lagoon crabs and sea crabs.

There is no electricity on the island. They have received some small solar panels for basic needs from a private well-wisher, which is being used at present.

Reflections and the future

There are still many communities struggling for land around the country, especially in the North and the East. Many are due to Army and Navy occupation, such as in Jaffna, Mullikulam and Pallimunai in the Mannar district, Kepapilavu in the Mullaitheevu district and the Kanagar village and Panama in the Ampara district. I hope Iranaitivu will inspire others struggling to reclaim their lands and fighting for justice.

Iranaitivu is also an inspiring story of a resourceful and beautiful island, unjustly denied to its historical residents by the Navy, but reclaimed by a determined, sustained campaign including a 359-day continuous protest, and finally, by a well-planned, and daring sea journey and landing to reclaim the island, defying the Navy.

Well established community institutions such as the women’s group and fisheries cooperative and the parish priest was instrumental in the community’s survival during decades of displacement and the struggle to reclaim their lands.

Support from other Catholic clergy, activists, media and international community was also important. Iranaitivu is also a story of a resilient community consolidating their claiming of the land by reinvigorating their traditional livelihoods and strengthening community institutions.

But the missing factor is the Government. At least now, the Government must step in, ensure reparations, and facilitate resettlement. Among those who are unable to live on the island are school-going children and some of their family members, which indicates the urgency to rebuild and restart the school on the island as soon as possible.

The hospital also needs to be rebuilt and the school and hospital needs to be adequately staffed. Rebuilding houses, cleaning the wells and installing a water distribution system is urgent. Community buildings too need to be rebuilt.

Government officials must be present on the island. New projects could be initiated, such as for electricity, particularly by exploring the option of solar-power.

Passenger transport boats between the island and the mainland, and at least some minimal transport facilities within the island for emergencies and essential needs need to be established.

 

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.

Sri Lanka’s Stalled Reforms

First published at https://intpolicydigest.org/2018/09/12/sri-lanka-s-stalled-reforms/ on 12th September 2018

Ruki Fernando is a human rights activist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This interview has been edited lightly.

Three years on, what’s your broad take on the coalition government’s performance? Where does the reform agenda currently stand?

Some reforms have happened since 2015 to varying degrees, but many of the promised reforms have come to a standstill and seem unlikely to happen by next year.

The release of some lands occupied by the military after months of protests, the release and indictments of some political prisoners, more space for free expression and assembly compared to years under the previous regime, arrests of some Navy and Army personnel in relation to a couple of disappearance cases, convictions of Police and Army personnel (for torture, killing of civilians and rape), are also some positive things seen since 2015. The passing of the 19th amendment to the constitution reducing the powers of the executive president and strengthening independent institutions and checks and balances, the ratification of the International Convention Against Enforced Disappearances and making this a crime in Sri Lanka, the passing of the Right to Information Act were some progressive legislative changes – while the proactiveness and independence displayed by the leadership of the Human Rights Commission and the Right to Information Commission were also positive features.

But the reluctance of the government and lack of leadership by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to carry forward the reform agenda overshadows these gains. Much of the land occupied by the military during and after the war still remains in their hands. Releases were often due to long drawn out overnight protests and direct action by affected communities. The possibilities of reconciliation through land releases was negatively affected by the arrogance and viciousness of the military – who after benefitting from decades of occupation, called the return of lands “gifts,” organized ceremonies for themselves where military leaders were glorified and had destroyed and damaged some properties just before handing them over.

Political prisoners acquitted by courts after up to 15 years in detention have received no apology or reparations and many still languish in prison, including based on confessions made during detention, which are likely to have been under duress. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has not been withdrawn despite the commitment to do so three years ago. Alternatives to the PTA were drafted in utmost secrecy from the citizenry and leaked versions contained draconian provisions. Abduction, assaults, death threats, intimidation, discrediting and surveillance of activists continues. An attempt to bring in a draconian amendment to the Voluntary Social Services Organizations Act was only withdrawn in the face of stiff opposition from civil activists and organizations. Violence against Muslims and Christians continued, including on a mass scale, such as in March this year around Kandy. Debt has reached life-threatening proportions.

Three years after ambitious promises to set up institutions to deal with wartime abuses, only one, the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) has been set up, and that too is limping forward. A draft bill was rushed through the cabinet to establish an Office for Reparations. There is not even draft legislation for the two other institutions promised – a truth commission and judicial mechanism with a special counsel. The president, prime minister and other politicians have backtracked on the promise to include foreign judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and investigators in the judicial mechanism. 

More specifically, what do you expect to happen in terms of constitution-building?

There has been some progress, with some public consultations, six subcommittee reports and a steering committee report from the Constitutional Assembly, consisting of all the parliamentarians. However, there is a lot of uncertainty about whether a new constitution will see the light of day. Even if it does, there are serious concerns about whether it will bring substantial changes – such as the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights as justiciable rights, doing away with ancient laws that facilitate the applicability of discriminatory laws against women and children, providing the foremost place to the majority religion and a lesser place to other religions, abolition of the executive presidency and power-sharing arrangements, which is also crucial for resolving the ethnic conflict that led to war.

How effective will the Office on Missing Persons be?

The OMP has been functioning for just over six months, but it’s too early to tell how effective it will be. OMP members tried make up for a lack of consultations before it was set up, by having a series of consultations about how it should function. It has stronger enabling legislation than previous Commissions of Inquiry and the chairperson and members have shown sensitivities in acknowledging the frustration, disappointment and anger of many families of the disappeared and missing who have approached multiple commissions, police, courts, et cetera and not received the answers they are seeking. But other than passionate appeals to give the OMP a chance and stating that they will try to do better than previous government initiatives, and publishing an interim report, I have seen nothing to indicate the OMP will be more effective than the large number of previous Commissions of Inquiry. The inclusion of a senior retired Army officer as a member of the OMP, in a context where many families believe their relatives were taken away by the Army (and where Army personnel have been convicted by courts and both Army and Navy personnel have been arrested on suspicion in relation to disappearances), has also contributed to making many families of the disappeared lose confidence in the OMP and be skeptical. It is this anger, suspicion and frustration that have led to protests against the OMP by some families of disappeared, leading to even the unacceptable situation of them blocking other families of the disappeared from engaging with the OMP. 

The first major specific public promise made by the OMP was to release an interim report on the 30th of August – the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. But instead of fulfilling this promise, the OMP postponed the release of the report – in order to hand over the report first to the president, though they have no legal obligation to do so. Though this may be a strategic decision by the OMP, it has led to concerns that the OMP is prioritizing presidential appeasement and not giving primacy to the families of the disappeared and missing. The report dated the 30th of August was presented to the president on the 5th of September and released to the public on the 6th.

Despite the history of reports and recommendations by previous Commissions of Inquiry, much of which have been ignored by successive governments, the OMP too has opted to prioritize another report with observations and recommendations. This is despite the OMP being legally empowered to provide welfare services, trace the disappeared and inform the families.

The recommendations in the report include amendments to existing laws to strengthen the legal framework in criminalizing and prosecuting enforced disappearances, that state officials including members of the armed forces and police who are named as suspects or accused in relation to abductions and enforced disappearances should be suspended and not transferred, promoted or offered any other office, publishing a list of detention centers and detainees, designating a national day for the disappeared, preserving sites of mass graves as memorial spaces and restoring a monument for Sinhalese youth that disappeared in late 1980s that was destroyed by the previous government.

Disappointingly, the OMP has not called on the government to release a list of those who surrendered to the Army at the end of the war, many of whom disappeared afterwards. The release of this list has been a central demand made to the president and also to the OMP by Tamil families who have been at continuous roadside protests for more than 550 days. The OMP has also opted to call for reform of some provisions of the draconian PTA instead of total repeal, without questioning the need for counterterrorism legislation, which has a history of abuse in Sri Lanka and across the world. 

The report also has some constructive and practical recommendations on “interim relief,” including a monthly cash payment and other facilities related to debt relief, housing, education, employment and livelihood development.

Observations and recommendations in the interim report are significant and important, but unlikely to impress families of the disappeared. What would have made a difference is if the OMP had done in the first six months or will do in the next few months what many families of disappeared have asked them to do and that they have a legal mandate to do: Establish the fate and whereabouts of a few of the disappeared and inform their families. Or at least start providing information relating to the status of investigations, on individual cases, to respective families. The interim report says the OMP started to carry out inquiries with relevant authorities on specific cases. However, even statistical and general information about progress made is not mentioned in the report.

Would you talk about some of the criticisms surrounding the creation of the Office for Reparations?

As is the usual custom of this government, the draft bill had been drafted in secret, without adequate consultations before it was approved by the cabinet. On the draft bill, there are concerns about unnecessary powers being granted to the cabinet and parliament, making the awarding of reparations a long drawn, politicized process and the office not being an independent one with decision-making powers.

What about President Sirisena’s plan to reinstate the death penalty?

This was a shock, as for more than 40 years, through civil war and insurrections, Sri Lanka was one of 29 countries that had maintained a moratorium on the death penalty. Another 106 countries had abolished it fully by 2017, and only 23 countries were known to have carried out executions in 2017. There is no evidence in Sri Lanka, or in other countries, that the death penalty has reduced crime by having a deterrent effect. In Sri Lanka, there are serious deficiencies in the criminal justice system, including a lack of easily accessible, quality legal aid. 

The death penalty is an irreversible form of punishment which grants no space to consider new evidence that may emerge after a conviction is made, for example through new technology, indicating a wrongful conviction. It has been pointed out that in countries such as America, Canada and the United Kingdom, people wrongly convicted have been released from death row decades after they were put there as new evidence has shown they were wrongfully imprisoned.

If some detainees are engaged in drug-related offences from within prison grounds, cited as a reason to reintroduce the death penalty, security in prisons must be strengthened, including by using new technology, without infringing on the rights of detainees. Prison officials responsible for such crimes from within prisons must be held accountable.

What Sri Lanka must do is ratify the 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that calls for the abolition of the death penalty and abolish the death penalty from our books, as about 85 countries had done by the end of 2017.

How concerned are you about reports of abduction and torture since Sirisena became president?

Abductions have continued since President Sirisena took office – in the war-affected North, and even in Colombo in 2017, such as the abduction of the trade union leader and attempted abduction of a student activist. However, many abducted appear to have been released, though I’m also aware of those who have disappeared under this government and not been found.

Attacks, threats, intimidation and surveillance of families of the disappeared campaigning for truth and justice have also continued under President Sirisena. Their supporters, including activists and journalists have also been attacked, threatened, obstructed and interrogated. Several such incidents were reported in July this year; I had mentioned two in an article I wrote last month.

The continuation of torture too has been a major concern under the Sirisena presidency.

Will provincial council elections be held this year?

There is no certainty when provincial elections will be held.

What’s your assessment of a possible Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidential campaign? Who do you see as viable candidates for the presidency?

Rajapaksa political forces have always been strong, even in 2015, and appear to be gaining ground in the face of failures by the present coalition government. Despite much hype beforehand, the “Jana Balaya” (People’s Power) rally in Colombo on the 5th didn’t indicate mass public support for Rajapaksa-led political forces and there didn’t even appear to be a clear and strong political message from the rally. Though Gotabaya was seen participating in the rally, he didn’t play a leading role and there is also uncertainty about whether he will be a presidential candidate for the Joint Opposition, representing Rajapaksa political forces. There is also no clear indication whether Sirisena – Wickremesinghe and their allies will contest together or separately, and if together, who might be a “common candidate.” But the rather unexpected emergence of Sirisena as a successful presidential candidate, with a broad alliance of political and civil forces’ support, makes me wonder whether there could be another person who could gain widespread support, across political and civil forces – but I only hope it would be one that will not let us down like Sirisena has done.

MULLIKULAM: A STEP CLOSER TO REGAIN NAVY OCCUPIED LANDS AND HOUSES

First published in the Sunday Observer of 5th August 2018 http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/08/05/news-features/mullikulam-step-closer-regain-navy-occupied-lands-and-houses

On 17th July 2018 about 80 families, including children and elderly left behind the brick houses they have been living in, with water, toilets, furniture, kitchen and other household goods, and moved to live in tents in a forest like area. The move was to resettle in their beloved, traditional village, Mullikulam, after nearly 11 years of displacement due to Navy occupation of the village.

Throughout this period, while struggling to survive without the resources Mullikulam provided, the villagers also battled to regain their lands, with many negotiations, meetings, petitions, letters and protests. The responses were mostly betrayals and broken promises, by the present and previous governments.

In 2012, their struggles led to limited access to the school, the church, and some agricultural lands. On April 29, 2017, after a sit-in overnight protest for more than a month outside the entrance to the Navy occupied village, the Navy Commander promised to release 100 acres of land “immediately” and release by end of the year, 27 houses, These were houses in good condition and had been occupied by the Navy. Promises of the Navy were still available on the official website when I was in Mullikulam last week. (http://news.navy.lk/eventnews/2017/04/29/201704291945/)

The 27 houses are yet to be released. This is why people had been compelled to live in tents, in forested and bushy areas of the 77 acres that has been released.

They face dangers from snakes and elephants, as well as dust, sun and rainfall that may come soon. There are electricity lines to the Navy buildings, near to where they live, but they have no electricity and this exacerbates night time dangers. They have to go a couple of kilometres to have a bath and are dependent on minimal toilet facilities at the nearby church and school.

Most painful for some villagers is to see their own houses occupied by the Navy, just a few metres away from their tents. An elderly villager showed me his brick house now occupied by the Navy, just across the gravel road from the tent he is now compelled to live in.

His two sons and a nine month old grandson are among those living in tents. Another grandson born last Sunday and his mother, are unable to come and live in the village in their house, due to Naval occupation of the house.

A rich land broken apart

Mullikulam has been a prosperous and picturesque village in the Mannar District, with a population that’s entirely Roman Catholic and of Tamil origin. It is a traditional fisher and farming village, with forests, tanks, irrigation schemes and open access to the sea enabling food security and steady income. The war resulted in the displacement of villagers in 1990, but many returned after the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement and started to rebuild their lives, livelihoods and restore their destroyed houses and property.

In September 2007, the people of Mullikulam were forcibly removed from their village and the entire village was taken over by the Army. The villagers were assured that they could return within three days. Nearly 11 years after, the people of Mullikulam have yet to be allowed to return home and the status of return remains indefinite and uncertain, due to the Navy having established their Northwestern Command Headquarters and Naval Institute (SLNS Barana) at Mullikulam.

During these 11 years, the approximately 300 families (besides about 100 in South India), have been living on rent, in temporary shelters/camps, or with host families/relatives, in and around Mannar. Some have accepted alternate land and housing. Most want to return to live in Mullikulam.

The future

Despite the nearly 11 year old wait, immense sufferings and broken promises, villagers have still not given up hope of having their village restored to them, which led to the latest move last month.

Civil authorities in the area must step into to provide the most urgent needs for those who moved to Mullikulam, such as electricity, toilets and bathing facilities.

The situation in Mullikulam has also been brought to the attention of the President, who is also the Commander in Chief. He must ensure that the Navy keeps its promise and immediately release the balance 23 acres of land and 27 houses, plus the 300 acres they had “earlier consented to release”.

Although what is needed is nothing less than the release of the Mullikulam village as soon as possible, it would be important to prioritise land that people judge to be most important for traditional livelihoods, public purposes and residencies.

It is also important to establish a regular consultative process about land releases with Mullikulam people, that’s led by civil authorities, respects people’s right to communicate and receive communications in Tamil, maintains transparency with written records of discussions and agreements, provides regular written updates on progress being made and responds to queries.

The Government must also try to provide the displaced people with material and financial assistance to rebuild their lives, including the return of boats, nets and other resources they had left behind when the Army occupied the village, rebuilding or improving village infrastructure including schools, medical centres and other amenities and ensuring equal access to common property and resources.

Note: the writer has been visiting and working with Mullikulam community since their displacement in 2007. Below are two of his previous writings that provides more background information.

Renewed struggle to regain Navy occupied village http://groundviews.org/2017/04/06/mullikulam-renewed-struggle-to-regain-…

The struggle to go home in post war Sri Lanka: The story of Mullikulam

http://groundviews.org/2012/08/01/the-struggle-to-go-home-in-post-war-sr…

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.

Iranaitheevu: a community reclaims their island home from the Navy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History

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

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

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

War and Displacement

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

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

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

The Fisheries Cooperative

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

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

Struggles to return home: the paper trail

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

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

Continuous protests from 1st May 2017 and promises broken

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

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

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

Waiting to go home

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

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

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

Sri Lankans must push the government to fulfill its undertakings

First published at https://international.la-croix.com/news/sri-lankans-must-push-the-government-to-fulfill-its-undertakings/6374 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.

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.

Military Occupation: documenting civilian protests and the struggle of the newly resettled

First published at http://groundviews.org/2017/03/16/military-occupation-documenting-civilian-protests-and-the-struggle-of-the-newly-resettled/ on 16th March 2017

Editor’s Note: Since early February, Ruki Fernando and Marisa de Silva have been joining protests against land occupation by the military (security forces) in the North.

This is an immersive photo story written by them, compiled using Microsoft Sway. Click here to access it directly, or scroll below.

https://sway.com/s/PYeLhcgFAhWbpcTH/embed

Sellamma returns home after Army occupation

First published at http://groundviews.org/2017/03/14/sellamma-returns-home-after-army-occupation/ on 14th March 2017

We first met 83 year old grandmother Sellamma when she was part of a protest fast outside the Puthukudiyiruppu Divisional Secretariat. At that time, her land and house across the road had been occupied by the Army for eight years. She was protesting along with her neighbours, mostly women, whose lands and houses had also been occupied by the Army. Even after a meeting with the Prime Minister in the early stages of the protest, they had vowed not to give up their protest, until their houses and lands were handed back to them.

After a month’s protest, Sellamma and some of her neighbours, were successful in forcing the Sri Lankan government and its’ Armed forces to return some parts of their village back to them. It was joyful occasion to meet Sellamma, her son, relatives and neighbours back on their own lands and houses last week.

But rather than talk about their victory in making the Army relent, Sellamma talked to us about the pitiful state in which they found their houses and the land, upon their return. She personally took us around to show us all the damage done.

“They (the army), must have been angry with us because we were protesting and asking for our homes back, so they destroyed our houses. We heard them (the army) breaking things whilst we protested across the road. I don’t know why they would do this to us? When we stepped into our home for the first time since 2008, there was shattered beer bottles and other glass pieces covering the entire floor. Our houses were stripped of its doors, some windows, kitchen sinks, the glass from our cabinets, and electrical fittings. Some window grills and glass were broken or removed all together, and entire roofing sheets had been removed from my son’s house. The toilet mirror has been taken, and the toilet is also not in working order anymore. They (the army) have cut our coconut trees and built summer huts in our garden. A few houses in our neighborhood have been razed to the ground. When we were brought back after the war to see our houses in 2014, these houses were all intact.” Sellamma told us.

“This was our ancestral house where my seven siblings and I grew up with our parents. The army has bulldozed our main house and kitchen to the ground post-2011, when we were last brought here to see our homes. We had a separate kitchen because there were so many of us to feed. I don’t understand why they would do this? The Army had built an outdoor kitchen complex in our garden, with a pipe leading straight from the kitchen to the well. The waste water from the kitchen has also gone back along the pipeline to our well and contaminated it. Our well is also now infested with insects and snakes, so we have covered it up, as the smell too is unbearable and the water is unusable,” said another returnee, of her recently released home in Puthukudiruppu.

“Our house used to be over there,” said an old amma (mother) pointing across to what now resembled a field. “They (the army) have mined so much sand there, that the land has become all marsh land now. It’s covered in overgrown grass and water, s0 that we can’t even access it anymore. Our house too has been destroyed,” she said sadly.

While Sellamma’s struggle and victory is inspiring, the sad reality she has had to return to, would have serious implications on the reconciliation process.

Firstly, why must elderly women like Sellamma resort to fasts and protests for the government to fulfill basic commitments it has made to the people and the UNHRC, such as releasing military occupied land?

Secondly, why did the Army destroy and loot these houses and properties prior to returning them to their rightful owners?

Thirdly, why is there zero government support for recent returnees, now returning home after eight years of displacement due to military occupation?

Fourthly, when can returnees expect compensation/reparation for the use of lands and houses by the Army, loss of income generation due to the occupation, destruction of property and trees, and losses as a result of looting by the Army?

Lastly, all the land releases so far, have been partial releases. In Puthukudiyiruppu, only about 7 acres of lands out of 19 been handed over, after a month long protest fast. Villagers told us that the Army had committed to release another 10 acres in 3 months time, and another one acre after 6 months. But will these promises be kept?

Sellamma’s struggle is one of many struggles against military occupation of lands in the North that gained prominence last month. Sustained, indefinite protests had led to release of lands in Pilakudiyiruppu and Paravipaanchan, which were released a few days prior to the Puthukudiyiruppu land release. When we visited these villages, we saw the trail of destruction left by the occupiers – the Air Force and the Army. We were told that there was no support at all from the government towards resettlement. We experienced and heard of continued intimidation and surveillance by the Air Force in these areas. At the same time, protests demanding the return of military occupied lands continue in areas such as Keppapulavu.

Celebrating Sellamma’s and others’ victories, as a result of sustained fasts and protests is still difficult, in the backdrop of returnees struggling to cope with military destruction of their homes, receiving no support from the government, including basic shelter and livelihood support, and continued protests of others displaced to regain their land still under military occupation.

Sellamma & her struggle to reclaim her house and land in Puthukudiyiruppu

First published at http://groundviews.org/2017/02/20/sellamma-her-struggle-to-reclaim-her-house-and-land-in-puthukudiyiruppu/ on 20th February 2017

Sellamma is 83 years old. She has a house in Puthukudiyiruppu (PTK) East, Ward no. 7, in the Mullaitivu district in the Northern Province. It’s opposite the PTK Divisional Secretariat (DS). But for more than two weeks, she has been braving the hot sun and cold nights on the street, opposite her house. Because her house and land is occupied by the Army. In fading light of evening, and beyond an Army watchtower, she showed me her house. I was tempted to take a photo of her house, as I had her – the owner’s – permission. But I restrained myself to avoid potential trouble.

Sellamma’s son and son in law were killed by the Army during a massacre in 1985. They were amongst the 24 killed that day by the Army. Her husband died in 2014. She wanted to keep his body and have the funeral in their own house and land. But she couldn’t as the Army was occupying her land. She had tried to douse herself in kerosene oil and burn herself in protest, but others had stopped her.

Sellamma is feeble now. She has one wish before her death. “I want to live and die in my own house and land”, she told me. “I had a lot of coconut trees in the garden. But now, the Army plucks them and I have to buy coconuts. And the Army lives in my house and I have to pay a rent of Rs. 8,000 now” she also told me.

Magaret Karunannathan is 68. She says there were 42 coconut trees in her land. In the same village as Sellamma. Her husband was also killed by the Army in the 1985 massacre.

Both of them, and the whole village, and district, was displaced in 2009. They suffered a lot. Later, they were detained in Menik Farm. They were eventually released, but never allowed to return to their own homes and lands. While they were displaced and detained, the Army had occupied the lands of 49 families spanning 19 acres. Till today. I was told some of the villagers have legal documentation such as deeds, permits and grants.

The villagers had protested several times before, demanding their lands and houses from the Army. They started another protest on 3rd Feb. 2017. This time, they were determined not to give up the protest till they were actually allowed to go back to their lands. They cook by the roadside, sit there during the day and sleep there during the night. And stare at their houses and lands across the road.

They were suspicious of me when we went, and asked whether I was also from the Army.  Later they became more friendly. They were tired of talking to visitors and repeating their story. But they still told it.

On 9th Feb., some of them had travelled all the way to Colombo and met the Prime Minister (PM). Despite the Army occupying their lands and killing some of their family members, the people had suggested to the PM to let the Army stay in adjoining state land. According to them, the PM had spoken to the Government Agent (GA) for the Mullaitivu district and promised to attend to the matter after a trip to Australia. The PM had asked them stop the protest. People had told him that they will stop the protest when they were allowed to go back to their lands. The PM had apparently no answer to that, and told them they can continue their protest, but requested them not to cause any obstructions. I wondered whether the PM can tell the Army not to not to obstruct people from going back to their own houses and lands.

Into the 3rd week of protesting and 10 days after meeting the PM, there has been no positive response from authorities. So the people have escalated their protest to a fast, taking turns to fast. They are not asking any favors. They are only asking a wrong to be put right. To be allowed to go back to their own lands and houses.

Their struggle is just one of many struggles of displaced people to go home. Since the new government came into power, some of the lands occupied by the military have been released. But tens of thousands of displaced Sri Lankans await the military to move out of their lands and allow them to go home. From nearby Kepapulavu to Mullikulam to Ashrafnagar to Panama to Jaffna. And more. The list is long. They have been protesting, appealing to authorities, filing court cases. And still waiting.

For Sellamma and all these peoples, reconciliation is about being allowed to go back to their houses and land. Whether and when they get their lands back will be a major factor in Sri Lanka’s reconciliation and transitional justice processes. Government and others say these processes takes time. But for Sellamma, time is running out. She would like to go back to her house and land before her death.

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.

Sri Lanka’s Transitional Moment and Transitional Justice

First published in the report “Human Rights situation in Sri Lanka: 17Aug 2015 – 17 Aug2016” by INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre on 18th August 2016

Within the first month after winning the parliamentary elections in August 2015, the new Government made a series of commitments related to transitional justice. These were articulated through a speech by the Foreign Minister at the 30th session of the UN Human Rights Council.[1] These commitments were also reflected in the resolution on Sri Lanka that was adopted by the Human Rights Council on 1 October 2015.[2] The resolution came just after the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had published a report which alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws, by both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.[3]

Government’s commitments 

The present Government’s commitments included setting up an Office of Missing Persons (OMP), a Commission for Truth, Justice, and Guarantees of Non-reoccurrence, a Judicial mechanism with Special Counsel, which will have the participation of foreign judges, prosecutors, investigators and defence lawyers, and an Office for Reparations. The Government also committed to reduce the military’s role in civilian affairs, facilitate livelihoods, repeal and reform the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), criminalise disappearances, ratify the Enforced Disappearance Convention[4] , review the victim and witness protection law, and range of other actions. Consultations to seek people’s views on transitional justice is underway across the country, under the leadership of some civil society activists.

The Enforced Disappearance Convention was ratified in May this year and the draft Bill to create the OMP was passed by Parliament on 11 August. There are positive features as well as weaknesses and ambiguities in the Bill[5]. Due to a history of failed initiatives, the minimal ‘consultations’ that occurred during drafting process and the lack of information on details, there appears to be very little confidence in the OMP amongst families of the disappeared. This is likely to be the case for other mechanisms, unless there’s a drastic change in approach from the government.

Reactions to transitional justice within Sri Lanka

Currently, the transitional justice agenda appears to be polarising Sri Lankan society. Opinion polls, and my own impressions, indicate that the Tamil community, particularly in the North and the East, who bore the brunt of the war, appears to favour strong international involvement. But the majority Sinhalese community appears to reject international involvement. Varying opinions have been expressed about forgetting the past, memorialisation, prosecutions, and amnesty. There are also different or contradictory opinions and expectations within each ethnic community and amongst survivors of violations and families of victims.

The Government’s transitional justice commitments have been criticised by the former President and his supporters. Even the release of a few political prisoners, the release of small amounts of land occupied by the military, and the establishment of the OMP to find truth about missing persons have been framed as an international conspiracy that endangers national security and seeks revenge from “war heroes”.

There does not appear to be an official Government policy document on transitional justice. The Government’s commitments have only been officially articulated in Geneva by the Foreign Minister and not in Sri Lanka . The Foreign Minister has been the regular advocate and defender of these commitments. Some of the meetings with local activists have been convened by him and the Secretariat for Co-ordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM) is housed in the Foreign Ministry. All these contribute to the process being seen as emanating and driven by foreign pressure. Outreach on the Government’s transitional justice plans appears to focus on the international community and not towards Sri Lankan people.

The President and Prime Minister have not been championing the Government’s official commitments. For example, the duo have publicly stated that the commitment to have foreign judges in the judicial mechanism will not be fulfilled. Even this has not satisfied the critics alleging foreign conspiracy, and has disappointed some activists, especially Tamils, as well as survivors and victims’ families.

Developments on the ground

Monuments erected to honour the Sinhalese dominated military during the Rajapakse time continue to dominate the Tamil majority Northern landscape. Army camps that were built over some of the cemeteries of former LTTE cadres that were bulldozed by the Army after the war are still there. The loved ones of those whose remains were in these cemeteries have no place to grieve, lay flowers, light a candle, or say a prayer. While the numbers have reduced from those under the Rajapaske regime, intimidation and reprisals on families, attacks, and threats and intimidation of activists and journalists continue to occur. Limited progress on issues, such as the release of political prisoners, land occupied by military, continuing military involvement in civilian affairs in the North and East, reports of continuing abductions, and arrests under the PTA have raised doubts about the Government’s commitments. Although a few military personnel have been convicted and some others arrested on allegations of human rights abuses, the lack of progress in thousands of other cases only reinforces calls for international involvement for justice.

Towards Rights & Democratization beyond Transitional Justice framework

Unemployment, debt, and sexual and gender-based violence is widespread in the former war ravaged areas. The new Government’s economic and development policies are focusing on trade, investment, and mega development projects, which privilege the rich and marginalise the poor. 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.

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

The political leadership will have to reach out to all Sri Lankans, especially to the Sinhalese majority, about its reform agenda, while taking principled actions to win the confidence of numerical minorities such as Tamils and Muslims. At the national level, the coming together of the two major political parties and support of the two major parties representing Tamils and Muslims, makes this a unique opportunity to push towards radical reforms.

It will also be a challenge to go beyond a conventional transitional justice framework and use the transitional moment to move towards reconciliation, democratisation, and sustainable development, by addressing civil and political rights as well as economic, social, and cultural rights in a holistic manner, considering the yearnings of war survivors, victims’ families, and the poor, for truth, reparations, criminal accountability, and economic justice.

[1] Speech by Hon Mangala Samaraweera at the 30th session of the Human Rights Council, Geneva, 14 September 2015.

[2] Human Rights Council Resolution, Promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka, 14 October 2015, UN Doc. A/HRC/RES/30/1 (adopted 1 October 2015).

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

[4] 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) (“Enforced Disappearance Convention”).

[5] For more on OMP, see http://thewire.in/42687/sri-lankas-disappeared-will-the-latest-missing-persons-office-bring-answers/

On Rights and Justice: Some Perspective from Colombo

First published at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/taylor-dibbert/on-rights-and-justice-som_b_11250536.html 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.

Broken promises: Kepapulavu displaced to restart fast unto death next week

First published at http://www.ft.lk/article/554936/ft on 15th July 2016

The people of Kepapulavu decided this week (11) to restart their fast unto death on 19 July, as they have lost all confidence in Government authorities, and the false promises given to them by the Chief Minister of the Northern Province C.V. Vigneswaran in March, this year.

The people called off their previous fast unto death on 24 March, upon the Chief Minister’s promise to look into the matter and provide them with a solution within three months. Three-and-a-half months since then, villagers are still awaiting the new Government to release their lands, under the occupation of the military since the end of the war in 2009.

In May this year, villagers were able to get a glimpse of their houses when the Army opened roads for limited time during an annual temple festival.

“Every year more and more changes are done to our lands. Some houses have been destroyed. The wells have been closed. Other buildings have been put up. Boundaries have been demarcated differently. But the jack and coconut trees which we have planted have started bearing fruits,” says Santhraleela, a community activist, upon seeing her old village.

However she is determined that all the villagers should be allowed to go back home. “They will have to release our lands. We will return. Even if they have destroyed our houses, we want them to release our lands,” says Santhraleela.

History

“When I enter my home, it feels as fondly familiar to me as the love of my mother and father…” – a village elder from Kepapulavu who is longing to return home.

The Kepapulavu Grama Niladhari division is situated in the Martinepattu Divisional Secretariat in Mullaitivu district.  It comprises of four villages – Sooripuram, Seeniyamottai Kepapulavu, and Palakudiyiruppu. Some inhabitants who are mainly farmers and fishermen told us they trace their history for more than six decades while others were reported as landless families settled by the LTTE. Kepapulavu is known for its fertile red soil, fresh water wells, and marine resources.

The villagers were amongst the hundreds thousands displaced during the last phase of the war in 2009 and illegally detained in Menik farm.

Despite appeals to go back to their own homes, in September 2012, around 150 families were allocated quarter acre of new lands to each, irrespective of how much they owned before displacement. They were thus re-displaced, to an area originally known as Sooripuram situated adjacent to their original villages. This is now called the ‘Kepapulavu Model Village’. People said they felt as if in the middle of nowhere. With no assistance to put up shelters by authorities, people on their own constructed shacks with scrap material they brought in from Menik farm.

The 150 families were requested to sign an application accepting their new lands by the former Government Agent of Mullaitivu. Although two of the 150 families refused to sign the document, they too were compelled to stay in the alternative plot of land and subsequently received a temporary permits. Around 146 other families had stayed with host families and relations and settled in Sooripuram in January 2013. They were not asked to sign any land permits upon their arrival. A total of 59 families from Sooripuram, 55 families from Pilavu Kudiviruppu and 159 families from Kepapulavu are currently displaced, due to the military occupation of their lands. The displaced families now reside in the Kepapulavu model village. In March 2013, 16 families were allowed to return to their original lands in Seeniyamottai.

The land which was once theirs

The housing lands of these displaced occupied by the military spans about 520 acres. Homes of people are now being used for settlements of military personnel and their families. In addition to the houses, school and church premises already in place, many pre-fabricated houses too have been installed within the settlement to accommodate military families.

In March 2014, the military had built and handed over 287 temporary houses for the people whose lands and buildings they had occupied1. When the former Deputy Minister of the Resettlement Ministry Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan inaugurated this housing scheme in 2013, he was reported to have told the people not to plant any trees, as it was only temporary housing.

Further, in 2014, when the Commanding Officer of the area had handed  over the houses to the people, he too had told the people that these were only temporary lands and that if the political situation changes, that they would get their lands back.

Around 25-30 families do not live in the military built houses as there is inadequate water in that area. “We had large wells brimming with cool, clear water. We could bend over, and scoop water in a jug to quench our thirst. Now we have to walk long distances with buckets to collect water to have a bath,” reminisced village elders, who seem to be suffering the most, with vivid memories of home.

Farming families struggle to cultivate their lands as they have to walk seven to 10 km from the new settlement to reach their paddy lands, which was nearby their houses in their original villages. Cultivation and home gardening used to be family activities, but now, with the increase in distance, often women and children stay behind to look after the house.

“Around 3½ km stretch of beach is occupied by the military, that we are not permitted to use,” said Kaliappan Maheswaran, President of the Fisheries Society. The fishermen cannot dock their boats in this stretch of the coast. Fishing or throwing of nets is prohibited in 50ms of sea area touching the occupied coast. He states that prior to displacement the coast was around 150ms from their houses. Now fishermen have to cross 700ms in order to reach the sea.

Due to these barriers, fisher-folk go to sea only once in two or three days. Hence their income too have shrunk. Maheswaran also said that he used to cultivate peanuts so that even when it was off season for fishing, he would have a steady income coming in. However now he says this is not possible as water is only available in the common wells in the model village.

Due to change of lifestyle and lack of employment opportunities the villagers state the youth have become restless. People brew and drink illegal liquor. Police carry out regular crack downs, but as the fines are very low, the brewers merely pay off the fine and revert to their activities the very next day.

Women have taken on some of the income burden of their families. Young women leave to Colombo to work in garment factories and others travel far to find work. Women coming home late in to the night is creating frictions within families. Two women have joined the military as well.

Protests/appeals 

The families of Kepapulavu had held at least five protests between 2012 and 2016 demanding that their lands be released.  In the course of 2015, the people had also met with the Resettlement Minister, D.M. Swaminathan and Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishad Bathiudeen regarding their demand to return to their places of origin. They have also written an appeal to the Presidential Secretariat and sent a letter to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, along with copies of 60 land deeds.

A single mother of two is the only remaining Plaintiff who continues a legal battle to win back her land, though three others had initially filed cases to reclaim land. She doesn’t live in the temporary house provided as she feels unsafe. She says she has thus far persisted in her Court case amidst intimidation, threats and even, on occasion, verbal abuse and degrading treatment by the then Area Commander Samarasinghe.

According to her, the five acres she owns include both paddy and housing lands. “The military has built a bakery, kitchen, hospital and two wells on my land. I was told that whenever senior Army officers visit, they are put up at accommodation on my land,” she said.

When the Courts and the Divisional Secretariat had asked her to accept alternative land, she had insisted on getting her own land back. “If only more people had filed cases, we could have been stronger and more effective. I also haven’t attended any more meetings with Government officials, as I’m very angry,” she added defiantly.

With all their previous attempts to get back their lands having failed, the people resorted to a fast on to death on 24 March. Santhraleela, a community leader who has been actively campaigning for her people, states that representatives from political parties inquired into their situation during this protest which lasted for three days.

On the third day the Chief Minister (CM) of the Northern Provincial Council via a letter had promised to look in to the matter and provide a solution within three months. Upon this promise, the fast was terminated. Three weeks after the fast, a team of five people were dispatched by the CM. Santhraleela says they asked general questions about their situation, but no undertaking was given to them about getting back their land. However, the three-month period has long past, and the villagers are yet to hear from the Chief Minister regarding a solution to their problem.

Struggles to reclaim lands 

Coincidently in the month of March this year, after several years of protests and court battles, the people of Panama in the south eastern coast forcibly entered and reclaimed their lands, which had been occupied by the Navy, Air Force and Special Task Force since 2010. Communities across the country are continuing their struggle to reclaim lands which have been unfairly and illegally grabbed from them in the name of security and development. The new Government has taken the initiative to return a few of the illegally-occupied lands, but will they respond positively and allow all the displaced to go back home?

Footnotes

1 Ministry of Defence – Sri Lanka, Army completes construction of houses in Keppapilavu Model Village – http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=Army_completes_construction_of_houses_in_Keppapilavu_Model_Village_20160303_04

 

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

‘‘ කේප්පාපිලවු ’’….. ගේ දොර කරා ආපසු පැමිණීමේ ඔවුන්ගේ අරගලය (Kepalulavu..their struggle to go home)

First published at http://ravaya.lk/?p=14056 on 19th June 2016 (Also published at http://www.vikalpa.org/?p=27559 on 29th June 2016)

‘‘මා මගේ නිවසට ඇතුළුවන විට එය මට දැනෙන්නේ මගේ මවගේ හා පියාගේ ආදරය බඳු සුරතල් ලෙන්ගතු බවකිනි…’’ –

ආපසු නිවසට පැමිණීමේ අපේක්ෂාවෙන් බලා සිටින කෙප්පාපිලවු ගමේ වැඩිහිටියෙක්.

මෙම වසරේ මාර්තු 24 වෙනි දින කෙප්පාපිලවු ගම්වැසියන් විසින් ආරම්භ කරන ලද මාරාන්තික උපවාසයේ පටන් මාස දෙකක් පුරා ගම්වැසියෝ නව ආණ්ඩුව ඔවුන්ගේ ඉඩම් නිදහස් කරන තෙක් අපේක්ෂා සහිතව තවමත් බලා සිටිති. මැයි මාසයේ වාර්ෂික කෝවිල් උත්සවය සමයේ හමුදාව සීමාසහිත කාලයකට පාරවල් විවෘත කරනු ලැබූ විට ඔවුන්ගේ නිවාස යන්තමින් දැක බලා ගැනීමේ හැකියාවක් ගම්මුන්ට ලැබිණ. ‘හැම අවුරුද්දකම අපේ ඉඩම්වල වඩ වඩාත් වෙනස් කිරීම් කරනු ලබනවා. සමහර නිවාස විනාශ කරලා තිබෙනවා. ළිං වසා දමා තිබෙනවා. වෙනත් ගොඩනැගිලි ඉදිකර තිබෙනවා. සීමා මායිම් වෙනස් විදියට ලකුණු කරලා තිබෙනවා. ඒ උනාට අප හිටවපු කොස් හා පොල් ගස් පල දරන්න පටන්ගෙන තිබෙනවා’ යි ඇගේ පැරණි ගම දැකීමෙන් පසු ප‍්‍රජා කි‍්‍රයාකාරිනියක් වන ‘චන්ද්‍රලීලා’ පවසන්නී ය. කෙසේ වුව ද ඇය සියලූම ගම්වැසියන්ට ආපසු ගමට යාමට ඉඩ දිය යුතු බවට අධිෂ්ඨාන සහගතව සිටින්නී ය. ‘ඔවුන් අපේ ඉඩම් නිදහස් කළ යුතුව තිබෙනවා. අපි ආපසු එනවා. ඔවුන් අපේ ගෙවල් විනාශකර තිබුණත් ඔවුන් අපේ ඉඩම් නිදහස් කිරීම අපට උවමනා යි’චන්ද්‍රලීලා පවසන්නී ය.

ඉතිහාසය

කෙප්පාපිලවු ග‍්‍රාම නිලධාරි කොට්ඨාසය පිහිටා තිබෙන්නේ මුලතිවු දිස්ති‍්‍රක්කයේ මාර්ටිනේපත්තු ප‍්‍රදේශීය ලේකම් කොට්ඨාසයේ ය. එය සූරියපුරම්, සීනියමොට්ටයි, කෙප්පාපිලවු හා පලකුඩියුරුප්පු යන ගම් හතරෙන් සමන්විත වෙයි. ප‍්‍රධාන වශයෙන් ගොවීන් හා ධීවරයින් වන ඔවුන්ගෙන් ඇතැම් නිවැසියන් ඔවුන්ගේ ඉතිහාසය දශක හයකට වඩා ඈතට දිවෙන බව අපට පැවසූ අතර අනෙක් අය ඉඩම් නැති පවුල් වශයෙන් එල්ටීටීඊය විසින් පදිංචි කරවන ලද බව වාර්තා විය. කෙප්පාපිලවු සාරවත් රතු පස, පිරිසිදු ජල ළිං හා සමුද්‍ර සම්පත්වලට ප‍්‍රකට ය.

මෙම ගම්මු 2009 යුද්ධයේ අවසන් අදියර සමයේ ලක්ෂ ගණනින් අවතැන් වූවන් අතරට අයත් වූ අතර මැණික් ෆාම් කදවුරුවලවල නීති විරෝධීව රඳවා සිටියහ.

තමන්ගේ නිවෙස්වලට ආපසු යන්නට ඉල්ලීම් කරද්දීත් අවතැන් වීමට පෙර ඔවුන් කෙතරම් ඉඩම් ප‍්‍රමාණයක් හිමිව සිටියේ ද යන්න ද නොතකා පවුල් 150 කට පමණ එක් පවුලකට අක්කර කාල බැගින් අලූත් ඉඩම් වෙන්කර දෙනු ලැබිණ. මෙලසෙ ඔවුන් ඔවුන්ගේ මුල් ඉඩම්වලට යාබදව පිහිටි මුලින් සූරියපුරම් යනුවෙන් ප‍්‍රකට ප‍්‍රදේශයකට නැවත අවතැන් කෙරිණ. මෙය දැන් හඳුන්වන්නේ කෙප්පාපිලවු ආදර්ශ ගම්මානය යනුවෙනි. ජනයා පැවසුවේ ඔවුන් ඈත එපිට පදිංචිකර තිබේ යයි ඔවුන්ට හැගෙන බව ය. නිවාසස්ථාන ඉදි කර ගැනීමට අධිකාරීන්ගෙන් කිසිදු සහායක් නැතිව ජනතාවට මැනික් ෆාම්වලින් ගෙන එන ලද අහක දමන ලද දේවලින් පැල්පත් ඉදිකර ගැනීමට සිදුව ඇත.

මුලතිව් හිටපු දිසාපතිවරයා විසින් පවුල් 150 ගෙන් ඔවුන්ගේ අලූත් ඉඩම් භාර ගැනීමේ අයදුම්පතකට අත්සන් කරන්නැයි ඉල්ලා තිබේ. පවුල් 150 න් පවුල් දෙකක් ලියවිල්ලට අත්සන් කිරීම ප‍්‍රතික්ෂේප කරනු ලැබුවේ වුව ද ඔවුන්ට ද විකල්ප ඉඩමෙහි පදංචි වෙන්නට බල කෙරී තිබුණ අතර පසුව තාවකාලික බලපත‍්‍රයක් ලැබී තිබිණ. 146 ක් පමණ අනෙකුත් පවුල් සත්කාරක හා ඥාති පවුල් සමග නැවතී සිටි අතර 2013 ජනවාරිවල සූරියපුරම්හි පදිංචි වී ඇත. ඔවුන්ගේ පැමිණීමේ දී කිසිදු ඉඩම් බලපත‍්‍රයකට අත්සන් කරන්නැයි ඔවුන්ගෙන් ඉල්ලා නැත. සූරියපුරම්වල පවුල් 59 ක් ද පිලාවුකුඩියිරුප්පුවල පවුල් 55 ක් ද ‘ වල පවුල් 159 ක් ද ඔවුන්ගේ ඉඩම්වල හමුදාව පදිංචි වී සිටීම හේතු කොට ගෙන වර්තමානයේ අවතැන් වී සිටිති. අවතැන් වූ පවුල් දැනට වාසය කරන්නේ කෙප්පාපිලවු ආදර්ශ ගම්මානයේ ය. 2013 මාර්තුවල පවුල් 16 කට සීනියමොට්ටායිහි ඔවුන්ගේ මුල් ඉඩම්වලට ආපසු පැමිණීමට අවසර දී ඇත.

කාලයක් ඔවුන්ට අයත්ව තිබූ භූමිය

හමුදාව විසින් අත්පත්කර ගනු ලැබ තිබෙන මෙම අවතැන් වූවන්ගේ නිවාස ඉඩම්වල වපසරිය අක්කර 520 පමණ වේ. ජනයාගේ නිවාස දැන් යොදා ගනිමින් තිබෙන්නේ හමුදා පිරිස්වල හා ඔවුන්ගේ පවුල්වල පදිංචිය සඳහා ය. මෙවන විටත් තිබෙන නිවාස, පාසල් හා දේවස්ථාන පරිශ‍්‍රවලට අමතරව යුද හමුදා පවුල්වල නවාතැන් පහසුකම් සඳහා පදිංචි ප‍්‍රදේශය ඇතුළත බොහෝ පෙර නිමි නිවාස ද ස්ථාපනයකර තිබේ.

2014 මාර්තුවල හමුදාව ඔවුන් අත්පත්කර ගෙන තිබුණු ජනතාවගේ ඉඩම් හා ගොඩනැගිලි සඳහා තාවකාලික නිවාස 287 ක් ඉදිකර භාර දී තිබුණි.(ශී‍්‍ර ලංකාවේ ආරක්ෂක අමාත්‍යාංශය, හමුදාව කෙප්පපිලායි ආදර්ශ ගම්මානයෙහි නිවාස ඉදිකිරීම නිම කරයි – http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=Army_completes_construction_of_houses_in_Keppapilavu_Model_Village_20160303_04) නැවත පදිංචි කිරීමේ කටයුතු පිළිබඳ හිටපු නියෝජ්‍ය අමාත්‍ය විනයාගමූර්ති මුරලිදරන් 2013 දී මෙම නිවාස යෝජනා ක‍්‍රමය සමාරම්භ කළ අවස්ථාවේ දී එය තාවකාලික යෝජනා ක‍්‍රමයක් නිසා කිසිදු ගසක් නොසිටුවන්නැයි ජනතාවට කී බව වාර්තා වී තිබේ. තව ද 2014 දී ප‍්‍රදේශයේ හමුදා අණදෙන නිලධාරිවරයා ජනතාවට නිවාස භාර දෙනු ලැබූ අවස්ථාවේ දී ඔහු ද මේවා තාවකාලික ඉඩම් පමණක් බවත් දේශපාලන තත්ත්වය වෙනස් වන්නේ නම් ඔවුන්ට ඔවුන්ගේ ඉඩම් ආපසු ලැබෙනු ඇති බවත් පවසා තිබුණි.

ප‍්‍රදේශයෙහි ප‍්‍රමාණවත් තරම් ජලය නොමැති නිසා පවුල් 25-30 අතර ප‍්‍රමාණයක් හමුදාව ඉදි කළ නිවාසවල වාසය නොකරති. ‘‘අපට සීතලෙන් පිරුණු පිරිසිදු ජලය සහිත විශාල ළිං තිබුණා. අපට පිපාසය නිවා ගන්න නැමිලා ජෝගුවකට වතුර ගන්න පුළුවන්කම තිබුණා. දැන් අපට මූණ කට සෝදා ගන්න බාල්දි අර ගෙන හුගාක් දුර පයින් යන්න සිදු වෙලා තියෙනවා’’ යි සිය නිවෙස්වල පැවති විවිධ වූ මතකයන් සිහිපත් කරමින් වැඩියෙන්ම පීඩාවට පත්ව සිටින බව පෙනුන වැඩිහිටි ගම්මු සිහිපත් කළහ.

අලූතෙන් පදිංචි වූ ප‍්‍රදේශයේ සිට ඔවුන්ගේ මුල් ගම්වල නිවාසවලට ආසන්නයේ පිහිටි ඔවුන්ගේ කුඹුරුවලට කිලෝ මීටර 7-10 පමණ පයින් යා යුතුව තිබෙන හෙයින් ඔවුන්ගේ ඉඩම් වගා කිරීම සඳහා මහත් පරිශ‍්‍රමයක් දරන්නට ගොවි පවුල්වලට සිදුව ඇත. පෙර දී වගා කටයුතු හා ගෙවතු වගාව පවුල් කටයුතු වී තිබුණ නමුත් දැන් දුර වැඩිවීමත් සමග බොහෝ විට ස්තී‍්‍රන්ට හා ළමුන්ට ගෙදරදොර බලා කියා ගැනීමට ඒවායේ නැවතී සිටීමට සිදුව ඇත.

‘‘මුහුදේ සිට කිලෝ මීටර 3 1/2 පමණ තීරුවක් හමුදාව අත්පත්කර ගෙන තිබෙන නිසා එය අපට පරිහරණය කරන්න අවසර දෙන්නේ නැහැ’’යි ගොවි සමිතිතියේ සභාපති කාලියප්පන් මහේශ්වරන් පැවසීය. ධීවරයින්ට ඔවුන්ගේ බෝට්ටු මෙම වෙරළ තීරයේ නවතා තැබිය නොහැකි ය. අත්පත්කර ගෙන සිටින වෙරළ තීරයේ සිට මීටර 50 ක මුහුදු ප‍්‍රදේශයක මසුන් ඇල්ලීම හෝ දැල් දැමීම තහනම්කර තිබේ. අවතැන් වීමට ප‍්‍රථම මුහුදු වෙරළ පැවතියේ ඔවුන්ගේ නිවෙස්වල සිට කිලෝ මීටර 150 ක් පමණ දුරින් යයි ඔහු පවසයි. දැන් ධීවරයින් මුහුදට ළ`ගා වීමට මීටර 700 ක් පමණ දුර යා යුතු ය. මෙම බාධක හේතු කොට ගෙන ධීවර ජනයා මුහුදු යන්නේ දින දෙකකට තුනකට වරක් පමණි. එහෙයින් ඔවුන්ගේ ආදායම ද හැකිළී ගොස් තිබේ. එසේම මහේශ්වරන් පැවසුවේ රට කජු වගා කළ බව ය. ඒ නිසා එය ධීවර කටයුතුවල නොයෙදෙන කාලයක් වුවත් ඔහුට ස්ථාවර ආදායමක් ලබා දුන් බව ය. කෙසේ වුව ද දැන් ඔහු කියන්නේ ආදර්ශ ගම්මානයෙහි වතුර ලබා ගත හැක්කේ පොදු ළිංවලින් පමණක් නිසා එය කළ නොහැකි බව ය.

ජීවන රටාව වෙනස් වීම ද රැුකියා අවස්ථාවල හිගය ද මගින් තරුණ ජනයා විවේක රහිත තත්ත්වයට පත් කර තිබෙන බව ගම්මු පවසති. ජනයා නීති විරෝධී මත්පැන් පෙරීම හා පානය කිරීම කරති. පොලීසිය නිතිපතා කඩා පැනීම් කළ ද දඩය ඉතා අඩු එකක් වන අතර මත්පැන් පෙරන්නෝ දඩය නිකම්ම ගෙවා දමා ඊළග දවසේ සිටම සිය කටයුතු ආපසු පටන් ගනිති. එමෙන්ම ස්තී‍්‍රන්ට ඔවුන්ගේ පවුල්වල ආදායම්වල බරෙන් යම් කොටසක් දැරීමට සිදුව ඇත. තරුණ ස්තී‍්‍රන් ඇගලූම් කම්හල්වල වැඩ කිරීම සඳහා කොළඹ පැමිණෙන අතර අනෙක් අය වැඩ සොයා ගැනීම සඳහා එහෙ මෙහෙ යති. ස්තී‍්‍රන් රාති‍්‍රයෙහි ප‍්‍රමාද වී ගෙදරට පැමිණීම පවුල් ඇතුළත ගැටීම් ඇති කරයි. ස්තී‍්‍රන් දෙදෙනෙකු හමුදාවට ද බැඳී ඇත.

විරෝධයපෑම්/ආයචනා

කෙප්පාපිලවු හි පවුල් 2012 හා 2016 අතර ඔවුන්ගේ ඉඩම් නිදහස් කරන ලෙස ඉල්ලා යටත් පිරිසෙයින් විරෝධයපෑම් පහක් පවත්වා ඇත. 2015 කාලය තුළ ජනයා ඔවුන්ගේ මුල් පදිංචි ස්ථාන ආපසු ලබා දෙන ලෙස කරන ඔවුන්ගේ ඉල්ලීම පිළිබඳව නැවත පදිංචි කිරීමේ අමාත්‍ය ඞී. එම්. ස්වාමිනාදන් හා කර්මාන්ත හා වාණිජ ආමාත්‍ය රිෂාඞ් බදුයුද්දීන් මුණ ගැසී තිබුණි. එසේම ඔවුන් ඉඩම් ඔප්පු 60 ක පිටපත් සහිතව ජනාධිපති ලේකම් කාර්යාලයට ලිඛිත අභියාචනයක් ද අනතුරුව එවකට ජනාධිපති මහින්ද රාජපක්ෂට ලිපියක් ද ඉදිරිපත් කර තිබුණි.

මුලින් ඉඩම් නැවත ලබා දෙන ලෙස තවත් තිදෙනෙකු නඩු ගොනුකර තිබුණ ද ඇගේ ඉඩම නැවත ලබා ගැනීමේ නීතිමය අරගලයක් දිගටම කර ගෙන යමින් සිටින එකම පැමිණිලිකරු වන්නේ දරු දෙදෙනෙකුගේ තනිකඩ මවකි. මෙම කාන්තාව තනිව විසීම අනාරක්ෂිත යයි ඇය සලකන නිසා තාවකාලිකව සපයන ලද නිවසෙහි වාසය නොකරයි. එවකට ප‍්‍රදේශයේ අණදෙන නිලධාරියා වූ සමරසිංහ විසින් කරන ලද බිය ගැන්වීම්, තර්ජන හා ඇතැම් අවස්ථාවල වාචික බැනුම් හා අවමන්කාරී සැලකීම් මැද්දේ ඇය මේ දක්වා ඇගේ නඩුව නොපසුබටව කර ගෙන ගිය බව පැවසුවා ය.

ඇයට අනුව ඇයට අයිති අක්කර 5 හි කුඹුරු හා ගොඩ ඉඩම් යන දෙවර්ගයම තිබේ. ‘‘හමුදාව මගේ ඉඩමේ බේකරියක්, කුස්සියක්, රෝහළක් හා ළිං ඉදිකර තිබෙනවා. ජ්‍යෙෂ්ඨ හමුදා නිලධාරීන් පැමිණි විට ඔවුන්ට නැවතීමේ පහසුකම් සලසන්නේ මගේ ඉඩමේ බව මට කියා තිබෙනවා’’යි ඇය පැවසුවා ය.

අධිකරණය සහ ප‍්‍රාදේශීය ලේකම් කාර්යාලය විකල්ප ඉඩමක් භාර ගන්නැයි ඇයගෙන් ඉල්ලා තිබූ අතර ඇය තරයේ කියා සිට ඇත්තේ ඇයගේම ඉඩම ඇයට ලබා දෙන ලෙස ය. ‘‘පුද්ගලයින් වැඩි දෙනෙක් නඩු පවරා තිබුණේ නම් අපට වඩාත් ශක්තිමත් වීමට ද ඵලදායක වීමට ද හැකි වන්නට තිබුණා. එසේම මට බොහොම කේන්ති නිසා මම තවදුරටත් ආණ්ඩුවේ නිලධාරීන් සමග සාකච්ඡුාවලට සහභාගි වුණේ නැහැ’’යි ඇය දැඩි ලෙස කියා සිටියා ය.

මෙම ජනතාව ඔවුන්ගේ ඉඩම් ආපසු ලබා ගැනීමේ පෙර උත්සාහයන් අසාර්ථක වීමෙන් පසු 2016 මාර්තු 24 වෙනි දින මාරාන්තික උපවාසයක් ආරම්භ කළහ. ඇගේ ජනතාව වෙනුවෙන් කි‍්‍රයාකාරී ලෙස අරගලයේ යෙදී සිටියා වූ ප‍්‍රජා නායිකාවක් වන චන්ද්‍රලීලා දින තුනක් පැවති මෙම විරෝධයපෑමේ කාලය තුළ දේශපාලන පක්ෂවල නියෝජිතයින් ඔවුන්ගේ තත්ත්වය පිළිබඳව විමසීමෙහි යෙදුන බව ඇය පැවසුවා ය. තුන්වන දිනයේ උතුරු පළාත් සභාවේ මහ ඇමතිවරයා ලිපියක් මගින් කාරණය පිළිබඳව කටයුතු කිරීමට ද ඉදිරි මාස තුන ඇතුළත ඊට විසඳුමක් ලබා දීමට ද පොරොන්දු වී තිබේ. මෙම පොරොන්දුව මත උපවාසය අවසන් කෙරිණ. උපවාසයෙන් සති තුනකට පසු මහ ඇමතිවරයා විසින් ජනතාව මුණ ගැසීමට පස් දෙනෙකුගේ කණ්ඩායමක් යවනු ලැබ ඇත. එම කණ්ඩායම ඔවුන්ගේ තත්ත්වය පිළිබඳව පොදු ප‍්‍රශ්න ඇසුව ද ඔවුන්ගේ ඉඩම් ආපසු ලබා ගැනීම පිළිබඳව කිසිදු පොරොන්දුවක් දුන්නේ නැති බව චන්දාලීලා පවසන්නී ය.

ඉඩම්වලට නැවත හිමිකම් කියාපෑමේ අරගල

අවුරුදු ගණනාවක විරෝධයපෑම් හා උසාවි අරගලවලින් පසු අග්නිදිග වෙරළේ පානම ජනතාව මේ හා සමගාමීව මෙම අවුරුද්දේ මාර්තු මාසයෙහි 2010 සිට නාවික හමුදාව, ගුවන් හමුදාව හා විශේෂ කාර්ය බලකාය විසින් අත්පත්කර ගෙන තිබෙන ඔවුන්ගේ ඉඩම්වලට බලහත්කාරයෙන් ඇතුළු වී ඒවාට නැවත හිමිකම් කියා පෑහ. රට පුරාම ප‍්‍රජාවෝ ආරක්ෂාව හා සංවර්ධනයේ නාමයෙන් අසාධාරණ ලෙස හා නීති විරෝධී ලෙස ඔවුන්ගෙන් අත්පත්කර ගන්නා ලද ඉඩම්වලට නැවත හිමිකම් කියාපෑමේ ඔවුන්ගේ අරගලය අඛණ්ඩව කරගෙන යමින් සිටිති. නව ආණ්ඩුව නීතිවිරෝධීව අත්පත්කර ගන්නා ලද ඉඩම් ස්වල්පයක් ආපසු ලබා දීමට මුල පුරා ඇත්තේ නමුදු සියලූම අවතැන් වූවන්ට සාධනීය ලෙස ප‍්‍රතිචාර දක්වා ඔවුන්ගේ නිවාස හා ඉඩකඩම්වලට ආපසු යාම සඳහා ඉඩ සලසන්නේ ද?

රුකී ප‍්‍රනාන්දු, මරිසා ද සිල්වා හා ස්වස්තික අරුලිංගම් විසිනි

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