Northern Province

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

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

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

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

Colombo

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

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

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

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

Geneva

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

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

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

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

Hartal

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

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

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

Reprisals

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

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

Importance of solidarity

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

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

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

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

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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!”

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.

 

No Peace in Rest

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

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

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

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

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

Conflating Remembrance Day With Maaveerar Naal

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

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

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

The destruction

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

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

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

The Right to Remember and Mourn

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

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

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

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

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.

366 days – Roadside Protests in Kilinochchi

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

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

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

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

The beginning and evolution of the protests  

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

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

Other forms of struggles and the ethnic factor

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

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

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

Support for the protests

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

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

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

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

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

Domestic and International dimensions

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

The future of the protests

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

The struggle for land and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

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

The struggle for land and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

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

The struggle for land and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Other protests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Releasing lands

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

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

 

The need for support

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruki Fernando is a Sri Lankan human rights activist who was detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and is still under investigation with restrictions on free expression. He is a member of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors.

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.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As of 23rd June, 2016,

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

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

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

Other arrests of dubious nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘‘ 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