Justice

AMPARA: 100 DAYS AFTER THE VIOLENCE AGAINST MUSLIMS

First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/06/10/opinion/ampara-100-days-after-violence-against-muslims on 17th June 2018

On the night of February 26 and early hours of February 27, the Jumma Masjid Mosque in Ampara and a few nearby eateries run by Muslims were attacked by Sinhalese mobs. The mobs started by attacking the eatery ‘New Cassim Hotel’ based on a wild allegation that the Muslim owner was putting wanda pethi or sterilisation pills into the food served to customers, in order to wipe out the Sinhalese population in the area. The local mosque was accused of playing the lead role in distributing the pills. However, it appears the violence was premeditated and systematically planned, and the wanda Pethi story was just used as an emotive trigger.

100 days after

One hundred days after the violence, the fear and disappointment felt by the Muslim community in the area is palpable in their voices and in their body language. Fear that sparks off hatred smouldering beneath ashes may be ignited into fires again. Fear when some of those who attacked the Mosque still walk right in front of it, and others who hooted while going past it, despite the presence of policemen and a member of the Civil Defence Force providing 24 hour security at the mosque. Fear of reprisals, if they identify local youth they know were part of the attacks. Fear that prosecution of perpetrators may lead to further reprisals against them. Disappointment that the violence was not prevented despite ample opportunities and early warnings and disappointment that no compensation has been paid yet and no information about how much and when it would be given. And disappointment that the Government is not countering the continuing ideological warfare against Muslims, that violence against Muslims have continued for many years and they are compelled to live as second class citizens, in fear.

The physical damage caused by the attackers is still visible, especially, in the Mosque. The windows remain broken, the ashes from the burnt vehicles and motorcycles are still lying there. The remains of a brand new generator that was burnt is also still there, along with burnt and half burnt documents and furniture. Engineers have warned that the floor of the Mosque, which is an elevated structure, is not safe for worshippers to gather in numbers, due to damage caused by the fire. The broken boundary wall of the premises and gate remain the same, as they were after the night of violence and rioting in February.

New Cassim Hotel is still under construction following the damage. We had breakfast and lunch at the other two eateries which had resumed business, after some repairs and the purchasing of new furniture and fittings. But, both owners said, business was not what it used to be. The events that took place seemed to weigh heavily on their hearts and minds, even as they were trying to work hard and focus on rebuilding.

The lead up to the February violence

Trouble had been brewing for Muslims in the Ampara town long before the attacks. According to a Mosque leader, after the 2004 tsunami that badly affected many coastal towns close to Ampara, many Sinhalese construction workers had arrived in the area and some had remained in Ampara. These men had been hostile towards the Muslims. Muslim clerics who had come to teach religion in Ampara had faced harassment on the main roads. They had been hooted at and in one instance, the traditional cap worn by the moulavi was grabbed. Muslim leaders in the area said they had decided not to complain to the police about these incidents, to prevent the tensions from escalating. Instead, they had advised their clerics to reduce the amount of time spent walking on the roads and to take off their caps to prevent hostile persons from identifying them in public. When police complained that their traditional call to prayers were too loud, the Mosque responded by reducing the volume without arguing their case. Though native Tamil speakers, the Muslim community in the area have made an effort to learn Sinhalese and sent their children to study in the Sinhalese medium, the community leaders say.

In a separate incident, in Manikkamadu, in Irrakkamam, about 8 km south of Ampara town, a Buddhist statue had been placed on lands that the Muslims claim have been their lands, leading to protests and a court case. The statue is still there, but a policeman on duty prevented us from going up to the statue, citing a Prohibition Order from court.

The attack and damages

According to the several eyewitnesses and Mosque leaders we spoke to, the mobs which came to the Mosque had numbered several hundreds, with some estimates as high as 500-800. Two private buses had been used. Most were youth, and a few had been drunk. One eyewitness said he knew several local youth who were part of the mob. The mob had beaten and chased away the persons who were renting residential quarters owned by the Mosque, situated just behind the main Mosque building. A 65-year old Muslim cleric and a staffer in the mosque were also beaten and injured. Money, mobile phones and other valuables had been looted. The fire brigade had come to the Mosque while the fires were raging, but the mob had not allowed the them to douse the flames.

The community believes, only 11 persons had been arrested since the violence. At a subsequent meeting held in the nearby town of Oluvil with the Prime Minister and other high ranking politicians and government officials, the police had asked local Muslims to identify the persons responsible, but a senior Muslim leader had insisted that it was the duty of the police to investigate and identify the suspects. An eyewitness expressed concern about the effect it would have on the families of the mob, if the rioters were to be detained, several of whom they knew personally, who were part of the local Sinhalese community.

The damage to the Mosque is estimated by the Mosque leaders to be around Rs. 45 million. However, the District Secretariat assessment of the damage is around Rs. 24 million. Damage to the shops is estimated to be around Rs. 3.5 million while damage to a vehicle and motorcycles burnt is estimated to be around Rs. 3 million. Compensation is yet to be granted, while people are yet to learn the amounts which they would be entitled to.

Police and STF

One of the eateries attacked is opposite the District Secretariat and a few metres from several police offices in the vicinity, including those of senior officials. The other two eateries that were attacked and the Mosque were also within a five minutes drive from the police. But, it had taken the police a long time to get to the troubled spots and call in adequate reinforcements to deal with the mobs. Several residents said, that when the police had reached the Mosque, they had addressed the mob as “little brother” (Malli) and asked them to stop the destruction. But since no decisive action was taken, the mob had carried on.

Far worse was the fact that the police had not responded in advance, despite the calls to the emergency hotline (119) about 45 minutes before the mob’s arrival at the Mosque. One eyewitness used a landline to call 119 even as the mob was on the rampage, even then, there had been no clear response. Police had been present as tensions were brewing at New Cassim Hotel, well before the attack on the Mosque.

When an eyewitness at the Mosque – who was also beaten – was taken to a jeep parked just outside the boundary wall of the mosque, he had recognised the armed and uniformed men in the jeep as being from the Special Task Force (STF). He claims the STF had abused him in derogatory and obscene language. The STF appeared to have been observing the mobs and not intervened even with ‘minimum force’, the man claimed. There was proof that the STF stood by while the mob rioted, in the fact that the section of the Mosque wall where their jeep was parked had remained intact, while the rest of the wall was destroyed, the residents and religious leaders claimed.

An officer who was part of a team with weapons, that was deployed to an eatery which was being attacked, expressed frustration that he could not deploy minimum force, or even fire into the air to disperse the mobs, as there were as no orders from senior officers.

What’s next?

About a week after the violence in Ampara, more intensive violence was unleashed against Muslims in Digana and around Kandy, leading to the death of at least two people and massive destruction to Mosques, Muslim businesses, houses and properties. Since then, attention on the violence in Ampara appears to have faded away. But Muslims in Ampara await justice – which in the long term means opportunity to live without fear as equal citizens, co-existing with other communities. For this to happen, the Government will have to ensure those responsible are held accountable, without delay and start addressing deep-rooted and widespread anti-Muslim sentiments and canards about the Muslims.

[The writer is a Human Rights activist]

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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.

The May 18 Disconnect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retracing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commemorations in the North

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

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

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

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

North and South; Sinhalese and Tamils

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom of Expression on the decline in Sri Lanka

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

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

Free Expression in 2017 – 2018 in the North

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom of Expression outside the North

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

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

Free Expression online

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

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

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

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

Impunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Iranaitheevu: a community reclaims their island home from the Navy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History

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

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

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

War and Displacement

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

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

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

The Fisheries Cooperative

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

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

Struggles to return home: the paper trail

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

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

Continuous protests from 1st May 2017 and promises broken

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

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

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

Waiting to go home

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

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

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

STF brutality against Muslims in Digana: March 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

366 days – Roadside Protests in Kilinochchi

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

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

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

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

The beginning and evolution of the protests  

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

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

Other forms of struggles and the ethnic factor

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

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

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

Support for the protests

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

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

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

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

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

Domestic and International dimensions

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

The future of the protests

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

Ekneligoda, Sugirtharajan and 24th January

First published at https://groundviews.org/2018/01/24/ekneligoda-sugirtharajan-and-24th-january/ on 24th January 2018

For several years, the Free Media Movement (FMM) of Sri Lanka and free expression advocates have dubbed January as “Black January”. This was in the context of a large number of journalists killed, disappeared, assaulted, as well as attacks on media institutions – all in January.

24th is one such black day in January. The Trincomalee based Tamil journalist Subramaniyam Sugirtharajan was shot dead on 24th January 2006. The Colombo based Sinhalese cartoonist and journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda disappeared on 24th January 2010.

The almost forgotten journalist killing: Subramaniyam Sugirtharajan

Sugirtharajan, popularly known as SSR, was a part-time provincial journalist working for the Tamil language daily Sudar Oli. He was a father of two children. He had been staying a few kilometers from the office of the Eastern Province Governor. A journalist and close friend of SSR, took me to the spot SSR was shot. It was approximately less than 100 meters from the Governor’s office and about 200 meters from his own house. Another journalistic colleague and friend of SSR told me that before the killing, SSR had been feeling insecure and wanted to find a safer house in a different location. A house had been identified, but he was killed before he could actually move. Everyone I spoke to mentioned that the nearest reason for his killing would have been the photos he took of 5 youth murdered on the beach of Trincomalee on 2ndJanuary 2006, popularly known now as the “Trinco 5 case”. Another friend of SSR, also known to me, told me that on the morning of 3rd January 2006, SSR had told him that he wanted to get photos of the five youth killed, whose bodies were at the mortuary. Our mutual friend had dropped SSR, armed with a camera, at the hospital. According to him, the military was not allowing anyone, even the families of the youth, access to the mortuary to see the bodies. But SSR had persisted. And finally, the photos he took were published on “Sudar Oli” newspaper on 4th January 2006. They had shown clear gunshot wounds, thus, disputing the version that the youth had not been shot dead. Reporters sans frontières (RSF) had noted that SSR had also detailed the abuses committed by Tamil paramilitary groups including the EPDP in the Trincomalee region, the day before his murder.

One journalist friend of SSR in Trincomalee spoke to me at length about his association with SSR and aftermath of his killings. He said he had spontaneously rushed to the spot of his killing when he heard the news, but later, was too scared to go to the hospital to see the body or even for the funeral. Two days later, he had got a letter, from group called “Force destroying the Enemy”. The letter had accused him of canvassing for Vanni Tigers, that 3 such persons had been identified, verdict had been delivered and implemented on one person (Sugirtharajan) and that he should count his days, as he was going to be the 2nd.

Disappearance of a journalist: Prageeth Ekneligoda

Like SSR, Prageeth Ekneligoda had also attracted the wrath of persons he had critiqued and exposed through his writings and cartoons. Prageeth also is a father of two boys. Reports by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to the Courts indicate that Ekneligoda was abducted from Rajagiriya in the Colombo district by Army Intelligence personnel, and taken to Giritale Army Intelligence camp, where he had been questioned about a book related to family of then President Rajapakse. According to CID investigation reports to courts, the abductors had moved from Akkaraipattu to Giritale from 25th until the 27th afternoon, without proper records of their movements and that of vehicles. Both the CID and State Counsel leading the case on behalf of the Attorney General’s (AG) department, had repeatedly told courts of the Army providing false information, denying possession of evidence, delaying production of evidence and misleading investigations and courts. They had also reported a lack of cooperation and obstructions towards investigations from the Army, and intimidation towards witnesses. A key witness, who had seen and questioned Ekneligoda in the Giritale camp on 25th January 2015, has complained to the Police about a conspiracy to harm his life from the Giritale camp.

Hostile posters had appeared on public places against Ekneligoda’s wife, Sandya Ekneligoda, the central figure in the campaign for truth and justice in Ekneligoda’s disappearance. She has faithfully gone to courts more than hundred times, often alone, despite the hostility of suspects who were from Military Intelligence, that had been arrested and subsequently released on bail. The suspect’s supporters had also been hostile to Sandya, and she was compelled to complain to the Police about intimidation from one of these, Galaboda Ethhe Gnanasara Thero, leader of the Bodu Bala Sena. A separate case is progressing in relation to this, after Sandya had insisted on justice through the judicial process instead of “settling” the matter through a mediation board.

Free expression today

I feel this write-up will not be complete without briefly looking at free expression in Sri Lanka today. I will try doing this through some incidents that made strong impressions on me in 2017. In and around Colombo, the house of a vocal campaigner against a prison massacre was shot at, a human rights lawyer got death threats from an unknown caller, another rights lawyer was threatened by the then Minister of Justice for speaking out against violence against religious minorities and a trade union leader was abducted amidst months long worker’s protest. In the former war ravaged North, a protesting wife of a disappeared man was assaulted, a memorial for war dead was stopped and organizers harassed and subjected to investigations, youth were questioned and threatened by Police for posting photos of a government office and journalists were summoned for questioning, stopped from engaging in investigative journalism and reporting issues such as disappearances and militarization etc. Websites have been blocked arbitrarily. There are many more I can add to the list. Clearly, although no journalist was killed or disappeared in Sri Lanka in 2017, it was still a bad year for free expression and fundamental freedom.

Prospects for justice for Ekneligoda, Sugitharajan and other victims

The courageous, determined and sustained campaign of 8 years by Sandya, significant national and international media attention and investigations by the CID appears to have brought out some truths about the disappearance of Ekneligoda in 2015-2016. But progress appears to have stalled, or even moved backwards last year, primarily due to lack of cooperation from the Army and key suspects being released on bail a few weeks after President publicly questioned their detention. Compared to Ekneligoda, there has been very little national and international interest about Sugirtharajan, murdered four years before Ekneligoda disappeared. Not surprisingly, there is no progress in investigations and no arrests.

It is twelve years since Sugirtharajan was killed. Eight years after Ekneligoda disappeared. And three years since a government that had a mandate of “good governance” came into power, promising accountability for past violations, such as against Sugirtharajan and Ekneligoda. But right now, for both of them, as well as numerous other freedom of expression violations, including in Black January, prospects for truth and justice through prosecutions and convictions appear bleak and a distant dream.

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.