Solidarity

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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புதிய பயங்கரவாத எதிர்ப்புச் சட்டமூலம்: அநீதியை நடைமுறைப்படுத்தும் நவீன அனுமதிப் பத்திரமா?

First published at https://maatram.org/?p=7569 on 19th February 2019

சுமார் 40 வருடங்களுக்கு மேற்பட்ட காலம் சித்திரவதைக்கு உட்படுத்துவதற்கும், பாலியல் துன்புறுத்தல்களுக்கும், வலுக்கட்டாயமாக ஆட்களைக் காணாமல் ஆக்குவதற்கும், நீண்டகாலம் ஆட்களைத்  தடுப்புக் காவலில் வைப்பதற்கும் வழங்கப்படும் ஓர் அனுமதிப்பத்திரமாகப் பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டம் (Prevention of Terrorism Act – PTA) பயன்படுத்தப்படுகிறது. பயங்கரவாதம் தொடர்பாக, ஒரு சாதாரண சந்தேக நபர் மாத்திரமல்லாமல் ஊடகவியலாளர்கள், சமூகச் செயற்பாட்டாளர்கள் என்போர் இச்சட்டத்தின் கீழ் கைதுசெய்யப்பட்டதோடு, அரசாங்கத்திற்கு எதிராக முன்வைக்கப்படும், விமர்சன ரீதியான கருத்துக்களை ஒடுக்குவதற்கும், இச்சட்டம் மிக மோசமாக பயன்படுத்தப்பட்டுள்ளது. குறிப்பாக தமிழ் மக்களுக்கு எதிராக, இது அநேகமான சந்தர்ப்பங்களில் தவறான முறையில் பயன்படுத்தப்பட்டுள்ளது.

தற்போதைய அரசு பதவிக்கு வந்த பின்னர், இவ்வொடுக்குமுறை ரீதியான பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டத்தை நீக்குவதாகவும், சர்வதேச ரீதியாக சிறந்த நடைமுறைக்கு ஏற்பவும் பயங்கரவாதத்திற்கு எதிராக ஒரு சட்டத்தை சமர்ப்பிப்பதாகவே பல்வேறு சந்தர்ப்பங்களில் உறுதிமொழிகள் வழங்கப்பட்டன. இதன் விளைவாகவே, கடந்த ஆண்டு செப்டெம்பர் மாதத்தில் புதிய பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டம் ஒன்று வரையப்பட்டது. இவ்வரைவு ஆங்கிலத்தில் பயங்கரவாதத்திற்கு எதிரான சட்டம் (Counter Terrorism Act – CTA) எனப் பெயரிடப்பட்டது. சிங்கள மொழியில் பழைய பெயரில் பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டம் என அறிமுகப்படுத்தப்பட்டு, வர்த்தமானப் பத்திரிகையில் வெளியிடப்பிடப்பட்டுள்ளமை ஒரு வகையில் கேளிக்கூத்தாகும்.

“பயங்கரவாதம் என அறிமுகப்படுத்தப்படும் தவறுகள் சம்பந்தமாக நடவடிக்கை எடுப்பதற்கு சுமார் 14 சட்டங்கள் – தண்டனைச் சட்டக் கோவையின் 6 வாசகங்கள் உட்பட சுமார் 20 சட்டங்கள் இலங்கைச் சட்டத்தில் உள்ளடக்கப்பட்டுள்ளன. அதேசமயம், அவசரகால நிலைமையின் கீழ் செயற்படுவதற்கு ஜனாதிபதிக்கு அவசரகாலச் சட்டத்தை பிரகடனப்படுத்தும் அதிகாரமும் உண்டு. நிலைமை இவ்வாறு இருக்கையில், பயங்கரவாதம் தொடர்பாக தனியான விசேட சட்டத்தின் அவசியம், வெறுமனே சிறுபான்மை சமூகங்கள் அரசுக்கு எதிராக முன்வைக்கும் விமர்சன ரீதியான கருத்துக்களை ஒடுக்குவதாகவே அமையும். ஆகவே, பயங்கரவாதத்தை ஒடுக்குவதற்கு ஏற்கனவே உள்ள சட்டங்கள் போதுமானவை என்பது எமது கருத்தாகும்.”

முன்னைய பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டம் பயன்படுத்தப்பட்டது போலவே, இப்புதிய சட்ட மூலமும் சாதாரண மக்களுக்கும், ஊடகவியலாளர்களுக்கும் சமூகச் செயற்பாட்டாளர்களுக்கும் எதிராக தொந்தரவுகளை மேற்கொள்ளக்கூடிய வகையில் பயன்படுத்துவதற்கு அவசியமான வாய்ப்புக்களை முறையே வழங்கியுள்ளன.

இச்சட்டத்தில் பரந்துபட்ட தெளிவின்மை காணப்படுகிறது. பயங்கரவாதம் என்பதற்கு வரைவிலக்கணமாக கருதக்கூடிய தவறுகள் பற்றி சரியான விளக்கம் வழங்கப்படவில்லை. இதன் காரணமாக இச்சட்டத்தைப் பயன்படுத்தி, அரசியலமைப்பின் மூலம் வழங்கப்பட்டுள்ள கருத்துச் சுதந்திரம், ஒன்றுகூடும் சுதந்திரம் மற்றும் ஒரு சங்கத்தை உருவாக்கும் சுதந்திரம் என்பன மட்டுப்படுத்தப்படுவதற்கான வாய்ப்பு உண்டு. அடிப்படை மனித உரிமைகள் கூட நல்லெண்ணத்தோடு அமுல்படுத்தியிருந்தால் மாத்திரமே பயங்கரவாத செயலாகக் கருதப்படமாட்டாது.

இச்சட்டத்தின் கீழ் கைதுசெய்யப்பட்ட நபர் உடல் ரீதியாக பாதிப்புக்கு உள்ளாக்கப்படாத வகையில் பேணப்படுவது கட்டாயப்படுத்தப்படவில்லை. கைது செய்யப்படும் நபர், கைது செய்யப்படுவதற்கான காரணமும் அதற்கு ஏற்புடைய ஏனைய தகவல்களையும் அறிவித்தல் கட்டாயமாக்கப்படவில்லை. பின்னர் இவ்வாறு செய்வதற்கான காலச் சட்டகம் வழங்கப்படவும் இல்லை. குடும்ப உறுப்பினர்கள் கைதுசெய்யப்படும்போது அந்த இடத்தில் பிரசன்னமாக இருந்தாலும் கைது செய்யப்பட்டமைக்கான விவரங்களை அவர்களுக்கு அறிவிப்பதற்குக் கூட 24 மணித்தியாலங்கள் வழங்கப்படவில்லை. குடும்பத்திலுள்ளோர் கைதுசெய்யப்படக்கூடிய வேறு சந்தர்ப்பங்களில் அவ்விடத்தில் இருந்தவர் அல்லது அவர்கள் கைது செய்யப்பட்டமையை அறிவிப்பது கட்டாயப்படுத்தப்படவில்லை. அதே சமயம் பெண் சந்தேக நபர்கள் பெண் பாதுகாப்பு உத்தியோகத்தர்களால் கைது செய்யப்பட வேண்டுமெனவும் அவர்கள் விசாரணைக்கு உட்படுத்தப்படும் போது கட்டாயமாக ஒரு பெண் உத்தியோகத்தர் அவ்விடத்தில்  பிரசன்னமாக இருத்தல் வேண்டுமென்பதும் அத்தியாவசியப்படுத்தப்படவில்லை.

பொலிஸார் தாக்கல் செய்த தடுத்து வைக்கும் கட்டளைக்கு நீதவானின் அங்கீகாரம் பெறல் வேண்டும். அதே சமயம், ஒரு நபர் இரண்டு வாரங்கள் வரை தடுத்து வைப்பதைத் தீர்மானிப்பவர் பொலிஸ் உத்தியோகத்தர் ஆவார். மேலும், இத்தகைய தடுத்துவைக்கும் கட்டளையை, 8 வாரங்கள் வரை நீடிப்பதை  நீதவான் அங்கீகரிக்க முடியும். பொலிஸார் கைதுசெய்தமை தொடர்பாக மனித உரிமைகள் ஆணைக்குழுவிற்கு அறிவிப்பதற்கு 22 மணித்தியாலங்கள் கால அவகாசம் வழங்கப்பட்டுள்ளது. அவருடைய வழக்கு ஒரு வருடத்தை விட அதிக காலகட்டத்திற்கு இழுபட்டுக்கொண்டு போனால் மாத்திரமே சந்தேக நபருக்கு பிணை வழங்கப்படும். தடுத்து வைக்கப்பட்டிருப்பவரின் சட்டத்தரணி மற்றும் குடும்ப அங்கத்தவர்கள் தடுத்து வைக்கப்பட்டிருக்கும் அமைவிடத்திற்கு பிரவேசிப்பதாயின் அந்த நிலையத்திற்குப் பொறுப்பான அரச அதிகாரியின் முன்னங்கீகாரத்தைப் பெறுதல் வேண்டும். அமைச்சர் ஒருவர் தீர்மானிக்கும் அமைவிடத்தில் மற்றும் நிலைமைகளின் கீழேயே முடிவு எடுக்கப்படுகிறது. இத்தகைய தடுத்து வைத்தலுக்கு எதிராக ‘மீளாய்வுக் குழுவிடம்’ மேன்முறையீடு செய்ய முடியும். எனினும் இம்மீளாய்வுக்குழு அமைச்சர், அமைச்சுச் செயலாளர், அமைச்சரினால் நியமிக்கப்படும் மேலும் இருவரை உள்ளடக்கியதாக அமையும். சமூகச் செயற்பாட்டாளர்களுக்கும் ஊடகவியலாளர்களுக்கும் எதிரணி அரசியல்வாதிகளுக்கும் எதிராக ஆட்சி அதிகாரத்தில் உள்ள அரசியல்வாதிகளும் பொலிஸாரும் பயங்கவாதத் தடைச் சட்டத்தைப் பயன்படுத்தும் எமது வரலாற்றைக் பின்னோக்கிப் பார்க்கையில், இச்சட்டத்தின் மூலம் அமைச்சருக்கும் பொலிஸாருக்கும் வழங்கப்பட்டுள்ள அதிகாரம் ஒரு நரியிடம் கோழிக் குஞ்சுகளை ஒப்படைப்பதற்கு ஈடாகும் என்ற கருத்து எமக்கு  மேலும் சந்தேகத்தை ஏற்படுத்துகிறது.

இச்சட்டத்தின் மூலம் தடுத்து வைக்கப்பட்டிருப்போரின் உடலில் ஏதாவது காயங்கள் உண்டா என பரிசீலனை செய்வதற்கு பொலிஸ் நிலையப் பொறுப்பதிகாரியிடம் அதிகாரம் ஒப்படைக்கப்பட்டுள்ளதோடு, அவர் அத்தகைய காயங்களை அவதானித்தாரேயாயின், ஒரு சட்ட வைத்திய அதிகாரியிடம் தடுப்புக் காவலில் வைத்திருப்பவரை ஒப்படைத்து, சட்ட வைத்திய அறிக்கையைப் பெற வேண்டும். நீதவான் அல்லது மனித உரிமைகள் ஆணைக்குழு உத்தியோகத்தர் ஒருவர் தடுத்து வைக்கப்பட்டிருக்கும் இடத்திற்கு வருகை தரும் சந்தர்ப்பத்தில் தடுத்து வைக்கப்பட்டவர் மனிதாபிமானம் அற்ற கவனிப்பின் கீழ் தடுத்து வைக்கப்பட்டிருப்பின், அவர்கள் சிறைச்சாலை கண்காணிப்பு உத்தியோகத்தருக்கு அல்லது பொலிஸ் மா அதிபருக்கு அறிவித்தல் வேண்டும். இது தொடர்பாக உரிய நடவடிக்கைகளை எடுத்து ஏற்புடைய மனிதாபிமான நிலைமைகளை வழங்குமாறு நிர்ப்பந்திக்க முடியாது. சந்தேக நபர்கள் தடுப்புக் காவலில் இருக்கும்போது, துன்புறுத்தல்கள் இடம்பெறுமாயின் அல்லது  பாலியல் வன்முறைகளுக்கு உட்படுத்தப்படுவார்களேயாயின், முன்னைய  பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச்சட்டத்தின் கீழ் அதற்கான ஏற்பாடுகள் இருந்தன. ஆனால்,உத்தேச புதிய சட்டம்  நிலைமைகளை மேலும் மோசமாக்கலாம்.

அமுலில்  உள்ள பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டத்தின் கீழ் கைது செய்யப்படுதல், குறிப்பிட்ட அமைவிடங்களுக்குப் பிரவேசித்தல் மற்றும் பொருட்களை கைப்பற்றுதல் ஆகிய  நடவடிக்கைகளை பொலிஸ் உத்தியோகத்தர்கள் மாத்திரமே  மேற்கொள்ள முடியும். ஆனால், புதிய சட்டத்தின் கீழ் முப்படையினருக்கும், கரையோரப் பாதுகாப்பு பிரிவினருக்கும் இவ் அதிகாரங்கள் கிடைக்கின்றன. அதேசமயம் பொலிஸார், பாதிக்கப்பட்ட தரப்பினருக்கு அவர்களது மனக்குறைகளை எடுத்துக்கூற சந்தர்ப்பம் வழங்காமல், ஒரு கூட்டத்தை, ஒரு பேரணியை அல்லது ஒரு செயற்பாட்டை நிறுத்துவதற்கு நீதவானிடம் கோரிக்கை விடுக்கலாம். மறுபுறம் ஏதாவது ஓர் அமைப்பை, பொது அமைவிடத்தை அல்லது வேறு ஓர் இடத்தைத் தடை செய்யப்பட்ட அமைவிடமாக கால வரையறையின்றி பிரகடனப்படுத்தும், கட்டளையை விடுப்பதற்கு முன்னர், அவ்விடயத்தைச் சவாலுக்கு உட்படுத்துவதற்கு பாதிக்கப்பட்ட தரப்பினருக்கு வாய்ப்பு கிடைக்கமாட்டாது. அதேசமயம் அமைப்புக்களின் கூட்டங்கள், நடவடிக்கைகள் மற்றும் நிகழ்ச்சித்திட்டங்களை நடத்துவதைத் தடுத்தல், வங்கிக் கணக்குகள், வேறு நிதி வைப்புக்களை பயன்படுத்துதல் அல்லது அவற்றை ஈடுபடுத்துவதைத் தடை செய்தல், உடன்படிக்கைகளுக்கு வருவதை தடை செய்தல், நிதி சேகரித்தல், நிதி அளித்தல், சொத்துக்களை ஒப்படைப்பதை தடை செய்தல், நிதி அல்லது சொத்துக்களை ஒப்படைப்பதை தடை செய்தல்,  ஓர் அமைப்பின் சார்பில் அழுத்தங்களைப் பிரயோகித்தல், கோரிக்கைகளை முன்வைத்தல் என்பவற்றை தடுப்பதற்கு அமைச்சருக்கு அதிகாரம் உண்டு.

தற்போதைய பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டத்தில் வழங்கப்படாத, புதிய சட்டமூலத்தின் மூலம் ஒப்படைக்கப்படும் மேலதிக அதிகாரங்கள் ஜனாதிபதிக்கு உண்டு. உதாரணமாக, ஊரடங்குச் சட்டத்தை பிரகடனப்படுத்துவதற்கும், பொது மக்களின் ஒழுங்கைப் பேணுவதற்கு முப்படையினரை அழைப்பதற்கும் அதிகாரம் ஜனாதிபதிக்கு  வழங்கப்பட்டுள்ளது.

அதே சமயம், புதிய சட்டத்தின் கீழ் பகிரங்கமாக மன்னிப்புக் கோருவதற்கும், புனர்வாழ்வு அளிக்கப்படுவதற்கும், சமூக சேவையில் ஈடுபடுத்துவதற்கும் அதிகாரம் உண்டு. இவற்றின் மூலம் இழைத்த குற்றத்திற்கு நஷ்ட ஈடு செலுத்துவது ஏற்றுக்கொள்ளப்படமாட்டாது. இந்நிலைமையின் கீழ் வழக்கு விசாரணைகளுக்கு நீண்டகாலம் எடுக்கப்படுவதனால், சட்டத்தரணிகளின் கட்டணம் என்பன பாதிக்கப்பட்டோர் தாங்க முடியாத அளவு உயர்ந்து செல்கின்றது. எனவே, பலர் நீதிமன்ற நடவடிக்கைகளின் மூலம் தமது குற்றமற்ற தன்மையை நிரூபிப்பதற்கு கஷ்டப்படுவதற்குப் பதிலாக, குற்ற ஒப்புதலை ஏற்றுக்கொள்வதற்கு இடமுண்டு. இத்தகைய சந்தர்ப்பங்களில் குற்றப்பகர்வு பத்திரத்தின்படி சட்டமா அதிபர் குற்றச் சாட்டுக்களை வாபஸ் பெறும் போது, தண்டனைக்காக நீதிமன்ற அங்கீகாரத்தை கோரும் மேலதிக அதிகாரமும் வழங்கப்பட்டுள்ளது.

புதிய சட்டத்தை வரைந்து வர்த்தமானி அறிவித்தலில் வெளியிட்ட பின்னர், சிவில் சமூகச் செயற்பாட்டாளர்கள் இச்சட்டத்தின் மூலம் அரசியலமைப்பின் அடிப்படை உரிமைகள் மீறப்படுவதாக பிரகடனப்படுத்தி, உயர் நீதிமன்றத்தில் மனுக்களை சமர்ப்பித்ததோடு, உயர் நீதிமன்றம் மனுக்களைப் பொருட்படுத்தாமல் மரண தண்டனையை கொண்டுவருவதன் மூலம் அனைத்தும் ஏற்கனவே இருந்ததை விட மோசமான நிலைக்கு தள்ளப்பட்டுள்ளது.

புதிய பயங்கரவாத எதிர்ப்புச் சட்டமூலம் தொடர்பாக இலங்கையின் பல்வேறு மாகாணங்களிலும் இடம்பெற்ற கலந்துரையாடல்களின்போது மதத் தலைவர்கள், ஊடகவியலாளர்கள் மற்றும் சமூகச் செயற்பாட்டாளர்கள் பலர் வருகை தந்திருந்தனர். பல பெண்களின் குழுக்களினால் இக்கலந்துரையாடல்கள் ஏற்பாடு செய்யப்பட்டன. இவற்றில் உருவாகிய முக்கியமான கருத்துக்களும் கோரிக்கைகளும் பின்வருமாறு: ஏற்கனவே அமுலில் உள்ள பயங்கரவாததத் தடைச் சட்டத்தை நீக்கவேண்டிய அதேவேளை புதியதோர் சட்டம் அவசியம் இல்லை என்பதாகும். மட்டக்களப்பில் இடம்பெற்ற ஒரு கலந்துரையாடலில் பங்குபற்றிய 3 தமிழ் நாடாளுமன்ற உறுப்பினர்கள் கூறியதாவது: இந்த வரைபை அவர்கள் எதிர்ப்பதாகக் குறிப்பிட்டனர். ஆனால், தமிழ் தேசியக் கூட்டமைப்பு இது பற்றி தெளிவான ஒரு நிலைப்பாட்டை வெளியிடவில்லை. பழைய மற்றும் புதிய பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டத்திற்கும் தெளிவான எதிர்ப்பை சுட்டிக்காட்டிய ஒரே அரசியற் கட்சி மக்கள் விடுதலை முன்னணி மாத்திரமே என்பதை இங்கு குறிப்பிட்டேயாக வேண்டும்.

கடந்த 6ஆம் திகதி, இச்சட்டம் தொடர்பாக 20 நாடாளுமன்ற உறுப்பினர்களை உள்ளடக்கிய துறைசார் மேற்பார்வைக் குழுவின் கூட்டம் இடம்பெற்றது. இதன்போது சிவில் சமூகச் செயற்பாட்டாளர்கள் மற்றும் சுயாதீன சட்டத்தரணிகளுடன் இது பற்றிய கலந்துரையாடல் இடம்பெற்றது. அடுத்த கூட்டம் பெப்ரவரி மாதம் 20ஆம் திகதி (நாளை) இடம்பெறவுள்ளது. அன்றைய திகதிக்கு முன்னர் இது பற்றிய எழுத்து மூலமான சமர்ப்பணங்களை வழங்குமாறு வருகை தந்தோரிடம் கேட்டுக்கொள்ளப்பட்டது. பெப்ரவரி 11ஆம் திகதி இது தொடர்பாக இடம்பெற்ற கலந்துரையாடலின் போது வெளிவிவகாரஅமைச்சர் பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டத்தை அமுல்படுத்தும்போது மனித உரிமை மீறல்கள் இடம்பெற்றதை ஏற்றுக்கொண்டாலும், அத்தகைய ஒரு புதிய சட்டத்தின் தேவையை உறுதியான நிலைப்பாடாக முன்னெடுத்தார். அரச தரப்பினரினதும் சட்டத்தரணிகளினதும் சட்டமா அதிபர் திணைக்களத்தினதும் கருத்து பின்வருமாறு அமைந்துள்ளது, “புதிய சட்டம் அத்தியாவசியமானது – தற்போது சிறு சிறு மாற்றங்களை மாத்திரமே செய்ய முடியும்.”

ஏற்கனவே, அமுலில் உள்ள பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டம் மற்றும் புதிய வரைவு ஆகிய இரண்டின் மூலம் தடுத்து வைக்கப்படுவோரின் உயிர்வாழ்வுக்கான பாதுகாப்பு, சுதந்திரம், உடல் உள நலத்திற்கான அச்சுறுத்தல் ஏற்படும் அதேவேளை, அடிப்படை மனித உரிமைகள் மட்டுப்படுத்தப்படுகின்றன. அதேசமயம் பரந்துபட்டதும் தெளிவற்றதுமான வரைவிலக்கணங்களின் மூலம், சட்ட ரீதியாக வேறு கருத்துக்கள் முன்வைக்கப்படுகின்றன. அடிப்படை உரிமைகளை அனுபவிப்பதற்கும் ஜனநாயகப் பிரஜைகள் என்ற வகையில் செயற்படுவதும், பயங்கரவாத நடவடிக்கைகளாக மாறுகின்றன. அதேசமயம், இதன் மூலம் நீதிமன்ற மேற்பார்வையையும் தற்றுணிபையும் குறைக்கும், அமைச்சரினதும் பொலிஸாரினதும் ஆயுதப் படைகளினதும் கரையோரப் பாதுகாவலர்களினதும் தற்றுணிபுக்கு ஏற்ப நடவடிக்கைகளை மேற்கொள்வதற்கு அத்துமீறிய அதிகாரங்கள் அல்லது பாரிய அதிகாரங்கள் வழங்கப்படுகின்றன. அடிப்படையில் பொலிஸாரும் அமைச்சரும் விசாரணையாளர்களும் நீதிபதிகளும உரிய வகிபாகத்தை மேற்கொள்கின்றனர்.

தேசிய பாதுகாப்பு, பயங்கரவாதம் ஆகிய சொற்களைப் பயன்படுத்தி, நீதிமன்றம் மேற்பார்வை செய்யாமல் இருப்பதற்கும் இச்சட்டத்தில் ஏற்பாடுகள் உண்டு. இதனூடாக சிவில் சமூக வாழ்க்கை இராணுவ மயமாக்கப்பட முடியும். அதேவேளை சட்டத்தின் ஆட்சியினூடாக நிர்வகிக்கப்படும் ஜனநாயக சமூகம் அமுலில் உள்ள ஒரு நாட்டிற்குப் பதிலாக தேசிய பாதுகாப்பை முன்னுரிமைப்படுத்தி அதிகாரபூர்வமான ஓர் ஆட்சியாக சமூகம் மாறக்கூடும். இது நல்லிணக்கத்திற்கு பாதகமாகவே அமையும். இதன் மூலம் அதிகாரத்திலுள்ளோருக்கு இனத்துவம், மொழி, மதம் மற்றும் அரசியல் கருத்திற்கு ஏற்ப தம்முடன் உடன்படாத குழுக்களை ஒடுக்குவதற்கு சந்தர்ப்பம் கிடைக்கின்றது. அது எதிர்கால நெருக்கடிக்கு (பயங்கரவாத்தை தடை செய்யும் சட்டத்தின் வரலாற்றை நோக்குகையில் இடம்பெற்றது போலவே) காரணமாக அமையலாம்.

பயங்கரவாத தடைச் சட்டத்தை நீக்கி அதற்கு ஒப்பான மற்றுமோர் சட்டத்துடன் தொடர்புபடுத்துவது எந்த வகையிலும் அவசியமில்லை. நாடாளுமன்றத்தின் மூலம் கட்டாயமாக பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டம் நீக்கப்பட வேண்டும். அதனைச் செய்ய முடியும். அமைச்சரவை புதிய சட்ட வரைவை வாபஸ் பெற வேண்டும் அல்லது நாடாளுமன்றத்தினாலேயே அது கட்டாயமாக தோல்விக்குட்படுத்தப்பட வேண்டும். தற்போது அமுலில் உள்ள சட்டங்களின் ஊடாக பயங்கரவாதம் என அடையாளப்படுத்தப்படும் தவறுகள் தொடர்பாக நடவடிக்கை எடுக்க முடியும்.

 தமித் சந்திமால் மற்றும் ருக்கி பெர்னாண்டோ

 


(17.02.2019 அனித்தா’ வாராந்திர சிங்களப் பத்திரிகையில் வெளிவந்த கட்டுரையின் தமிழாக்கம்)

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.

 

The Struggle for Justice

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

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

Dear friends,

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

Rights violations and struggles for justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Rights Education and certificates

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

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

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

Political prisoners and counter terror laws

First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/09/23/news-features/political-prisoners-and-counter-terror-laws on 23rd September 2018

On 14th September, eight Tamil detainees in the Anuradhapura prison, detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) since around 2009 commenced a fast. Their cases are yet to be concluded, with a major reason for delays being the non-attendance of officials from the Attorney General’s department who are prosecuting the cases. One of the cases has not had a hearing for about 5 years. They are demanding to be released or be subjected to short term “rehabilitation” – a form of detention that doesn’t entail a judicial trial and sentence.

The term ‘Political Prisoners’ is used in relation to those detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The Government rejects the term ‘political prisoner’, insisting that cases need to be resolved through legal than political perspective, though the crimes these detainees are suspected to have committed have a political context involving an armed struggle with political objectives. The Opposition leader, who is also the leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has stated in Parliament that “these cases have a certain political dimension and cannot be addressed as purely as a legal issue” and that “circumstances of not addressing the national question reasonably makes it obligatory to address this issue politically”.[1]

Examples of prolonged detention

Prolonged detention has been a hallmark of detention. In the last few years, men and women have been acquitted as not guilty after being detained under the PTA for as long as 15, 10 and 6 years.[2]A 2015 report indicated that as of early 2015, there were persons in detention for 18-19 years under the PTA without having their cases concluded and that it has taken up to 15 years to even file charges in some cases[3]. The National Movement to Release Political Prisoners has indicated there are 107 political prisoners as of now. A July 2018 document provides more details, such as;

* Up to 7 year’s detention without charge being filed

* Up to 13 years detention without completion of trials

* 46 against whom charges have been framed without their cases being concluded – with 16 of them being in detention for 10-13 years

* Another 13 have not even been charged – with 6 being in detention for 5-7 years

They are being held in 10 prisons in Colombo, Negombo, Mahara, Anuradhapura, Kandy, Batticaloa, Polonnaruwa and Moneragala. There are also 37 who have been convicted and 17 who have appeal cases pending. Some have been detained for 15-17 years before being sentenced. The severest sentences range from death sentence, life sentence, 600 years, 200 years and lesser sentences ranging from 1.5 years to 6 years.

Even some who had been released after going through the Government’s rehabilitation for those connected with the LTTE, have been re-arrested. In the case of two such detainees, they were re-arrested in 2010 and charges filed in 2013. After a few months, the Attorney General (AG) had withdrawn the indictment to change the charges. On Feb. 21, 2016, the three suspects had started a hunger strike. They had been brought before courts 36 times by this time. They stopped the hunger strike based on a commitment by the AG to present the amended indictment before courts within 2 weeks. But the amended indictment was only presented to courts in June 2017.

Re-arrests and transfers

Subsequently, the AG had informed them that the case will be transferred to the Anuradhapura High Court, which led to two of them, along with another accused, starting an another hunger strike, demanding the case to be brought back to Vavuniya High Court, insisting they will not be able to get a fair trial in Anuradhapura. The language of the courts in Anuradhpura is Sinhalese, while the language of the Courts in Vavuniya is Tamil. The three Tamil suspects does not understand Sinhalese. It is also very difficult to obtain legal representation for Tamil political prisoners in a Sinhalese majority area like Anuradhapura, and in this particular case, the senior counsel for the three suspects had refused to appear in Anuradhapura.

There is an ethnic bias in transfer of cases of Tamil suspects and accused from Tamil majority North and Eastern provinces to Sinhalese majority areas. When the complainants / victims were Tamils and the accused have been Sinhalese military personnel, cases were transferred on basis of security of accused. In the past, courts in Sinhalese majority areas had accepted confessions made by suspects in detention, whereas Courts in Tamil majority North have rejected such confessions.

Past protests and promises by politicians

In April this year, the “speedy release of all Tamil political prisoners” was one of the ten guarantees the TNA had reportedly sought when they had supported the Prime Minister during No Confidence Motion.[4] In July, TNA leader had promised activists to speedily resolve the problem of political prisoners. According to an activist, a Tamil Minister has not responded for a week to requests for a discussion after the latest fast had commenced. TNA MP and spokesperson Parliamentarian M A Sumanthiran had visited the detainees presently engaged in the fast and taken up the matter with the Prime Minister, but there has been no response yet.

Fasts and protests by political prisoners in Sri Lanka have been common, including in 2015, 2016, 2017 and now 2018. After the 2015 protests, bail was granted to about 40 detainees. Last year, it took a fast of more than a month by three detainees to correct an unjust transfer of cases from Vavuniya to Anuradhapura. When detainees resort to drastic steps such as fasts and protests, there is temporary interest among politicians, media, activists and international community, but momentum and interest had often been lost afterwards, until another fast or protest is initiated by desperate prisoners. The negative impacts on mental and physical health of detainees and their families due to regular fasting is likely to be high, coming on top of the inhumane and degrading treatment and torture they are usually subjected to.

Negative impacts of the PTA

The PTA had resulted in arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention without charges, long drawn out court cases and multiple cases against one suspect. Mental and physical well-being of detainees have been severely affected due to long term detention and as a result of rigorous interrogation, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment and torture. Many detainees have spent most of their youth behind bars. The stigma attached to having been a “terrorist suspect” lingers even after they are acquitted or released by Courts, with society still considering them guilty.

There have been many cases of forced/coerced confessions where the detainee had not even known she/he was signing a confession as she/he could not understand the language it was written in. The detainees currently on a fast have claimed that the only evidence against them are forced confessions.

A 2018 UN report indicated that 80% of those arrested under the PTA in late 2016 had complained of torture and physical ill-treatment following their arrest, in cases which were later dealt with under ordinary criminal law.[5] The same report quoted the most senior judge responsible for PTA cases as saying that in over 90% of the cases he had dealt with in the first half of 2017, he had been forced to exclude the essential confession evidence because it had been obtained through the use or threat of force. The judge in special High Court in Colombo had been quoted as saying he had only been able to accept one out of eleven confessions as evidence, while in Anuradhapura, out of fourteen cases, twelve were said to have been based solely on unreliable confessions.

The PTA has been used against opposition politicians, journalists and rights activists to suppress dissent. I have also been arrested and detained under the PTA and along with others such as Balendran Jeyakumary, and we are considered terror suspects more than four and half years after our arrests.

Do we need a PTA or any counter-terror laws?

The present Government promised to repeal this law more than three years ago. But it is still being used and there is no date announced for it’s repeal. Instead, the Government had engaged in secret processes to draft laws that would replace the PTA. Media reports earlier this month about a draft counter – terror law approved by Cabinet indicates that problematic clauses such as admission of confessions made to Police and enabling the Defense Ministry to be the authority to implement the provisions of this bill as a piece of legislation dealing with national security will be introduced at the Parliamentary Committee stage, eliminating possibilities of judicial review of such amendments.[6]

However, a more fundamental question is whether we need any counter–terror laws. There is wide-ranging powers available under the Public Security Ordinance, the possibility of including new offences under ordinary law, powers of Magistrates to deny bail in a variety of situations etc. Counter-terror laws provides the executive and security establishment extraordinary powers with minimal checks and balances as well as discretion usually vested with the judiciary, negatively affecting life and liberty, rights and dignity of persons, often serving as a license for enforced disappearances and torture.

Comparisons have also been made to the way detainees were treated in relation to the JVP insurrections, highlighting that Sinhalese political prisoners connected to JVP insurrections were released faster or pardoned than political prisoners connected to the LTTE, the vast majority of whom are Tamil. Protests, including fasts unto death, have been held regularly across the country, including by detainees themselves and their families, and discussions have been held with politicians, but with very little results. Until solutions are found for all political prisoners, both through legal and political processes, and unless we stop resorting to counter-terror laws, reconciliation and democracy will remain distant in Sri Lanka. Most urgent, and immediate, is to respond constructively to the ongoing fast in Anuradhapura. Blurb

The term ‘Political Prisoners’ is used in relation to those detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The Government rejects the term ‘political prisoner’, insisting that cases need to be resolved through legal than political perspective, though the crimes these detainees are suspected to have committed have a political context involving an armed struggle with political objectives.

[1] http://srilankabrief.org/2017/10/tamil-political-prisoners-in-sri-lanka-…

[2] https://twitter.com/rkguruparan/status/923671056300339200 and http://groundviews.org/2015/10/05/court-acquits-tamil-mother-after-15-ye…

[3] http://groundviews.org/2015/09/05/pta-detainees-ignored-under-yahapalanaya/

[4] http://www.dailymirror.lk/article/TNA-s-key-role-in-defeating-no-confide…

[5] https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/LK/Sri_LankaReportJuly2018.PDF

[6] http://www.dailymirror.lk/article/Cabinet-nod-for-Counter-Terrorism-Bill… Attachments area

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rich land broken apart

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

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

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

The future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DISAPPEARANCES IN SRI LANKA: 500 DAYS OF PROTESTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

500 days of day and night protests

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

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

Challenges facing families and the OMP

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

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

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

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

Solidarity

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

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

(The writer is a human rights activist)

AMPARA: 100 DAYS AFTER THE VIOLENCE AGAINST MUSLIMS

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

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

100 days after

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

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

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

The lead up to the February violence

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

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

The attack and damages

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

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

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

Police and STF

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

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

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

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

What’s next?

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

[The writer is a Human Rights activist]

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.

Ekneligoda, Sugirtharajan and 24th January

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

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

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

The almost forgotten journalist killing: Subramaniyam Sugirtharajan

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

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

Disappearance of a journalist: Prageeth Ekneligoda

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

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

Free expression today

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

Prospects for justice for Ekneligoda, Sugitharajan and other victims

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

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

“We vehemently refuse to be deceived again”: Protests by families of disappeared, continuing abductions and empty promises

First published on 30th August 2017, at http://groundviews.org/2017/08/30/we-vehemently-refuse-to-be-deceived-again-protests-by-families-of-disappeared-continuing-abductions-and-empty-promises/

Above was the last line in a press release issued on 17th August, by Association for Relatives for Enforced Disappeared in Kilinochchi district, at a press conference in Colombo. It came in context of 6 month long protests by Tamil families of disappeared in the North and East, and empty promises by President Sirisena and much talk about a new Office of Missing Persons.

Today, 30th August, the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances[i]. The above could be a good start to reflect about preventing disappearances and searching for truth, justice and reparations for disappearances that has happened in Sri Lanka. Three trends come to my mind.

Reports of continuing abductions / disappearances and threats to those campaigning

Earlier this month, an activist based in the North was reported to have gone missing[ii]. Last month, there were reports of an attempted abduction of a student activist in Colombo[iii]. Earlier this year, a trade union leader was abducted in Colombo and released after being warned to “mind his own business”. The latter two had happened at the height of protests by students and workers. Based on sworn statements of survivors, the International Truth and Justice Project has reported 21 persons having been abducted / illegally detained and subjected to torture or sexual violence in 2016 and 3 in 2017[iv]. I couldn’t find information about the fate of the first person, but the others have been released, some after warnings and some after paying money. Two weeks ago, the wife of a disappeared man reported having being slapped and warned of “severe consequences” if she didn’t give up the (6 month long) protest she had been part of[v]. And in March 2017, soldiers were reported to have photographed, followed and threatened Northern journalists who were on an assignment to cover a protest by families of disappeared. The soldiers had insisted that the journalists needed to get soldier’s permission[vi]. All of the above, except the trade unionist and student activist, were Tamils.

Lack of answers after six months of protests and meetings with the government

Tamil families of disappeared, largely women, have been engaged in continuous and indefinite protests in five locations in the North and East, for about 6 months. One of their primary demands is that President Sirisena keep a promise he made to them to “release lists of persons who surrendered to the Armed forces in the final phase of the war”[vii] on 12th June 2017. Sinhalese family members of disappeared, like Mauri Jayasena from Anuradhapura also continued their unceasing campaigns to find truth and justice for their disappeared husbands. But despite multiple engagement and dialogues with the government, there have been no answers to them.

Empty promises of institutions and laws

The above trends appear to be largely ignored by the government, and those sympathetic and supportive to it. Instead, they there is optimistic talk about the OMP and a draft bill criminalizing disappearances. Almost as if disappearances in Sri Lanka could be addressed only through these, while ignoring continuing abductions, threats to campaigners, long protests and empty promises.

These three trends indicates a serious disconnect in addressing disappearances in Sri Lanka. But it doesn’t have to be so. The protesting families and many of their supporters are also expecting the law criminalizing disappearances to be enacted sooner than later[viii]. And they are supporting a victim centric, effective, independent OMP to be set up soon and have repeatedly made practical contributions towards this[ix]. They have been engaging with numerous Ministers, Government officials, at the protest sites and also by coming to Colombo. Several families leading the protests and some of their supporters had also served in the Zonal Task Force of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation mechanisms, a government initiative.

But how could families of disappeared have faith in promised institutions and laws when reports of abductions continue to emerge and there are reprisals against campaigners, and when there is no indication of firm, fast and transparent action against those responsible? Other key factors to bridge the disconnect will be if President can keep the promises he made, and if there is more sensitivity and support towards mothers, wives, fathers who have been at roadside protests in the North and East from rest of the country.

Evolution of the protests

The protests started with families of disappeared persons in Vavuniya staging a fast unto death in January this year, demanding information about their family members who had disappeared. Their leader, Jeyavanitha, a Tamil mother, clutches a 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 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 was marred by controversy, as the government had invited some Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MPs, which the families didn’t want. TNA MPs had eventually left, but based on what the State Minister for Defense had told him, 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. More than 6 months after, the meeting had not yielded anything. But in meantime, the families had waited for two weeks and recommenced their protests, which has now exceeded 6 months in it’s second phase.

The Vavuniya protests appeared to have triggered series of protests by other Tamil families of disappeared, with protests starting in Maruthankerny, Mullaithivu and Killinochchi in the North and Trincomalee in the East. Most at the vigil were women. They had to battle cold nights at the beginning and then the heat, dust and rain. While participating in these protests on behalf of disappeared children, women had to send other children to school and worried about safety of teenaged girls at home. Some went to work and came to the protest site in the night. During my visits to them from January to August, I sensed dejection, desperation and waning of spirit and physical strength. But families have disappeared have held on till now.

On 30th May, after 100 days of protesting, the families in Kilinochchi, convened a larger protest, with families of disappeared from all major districts in North and others from East and few from Colombo joining them. Police tried to obtain a court order to prevent it, but the Magistrate refused. Protesters rejected meetings with the Prime Minister and yet another “Committee”, but after a 5 hour blockade of the major A9 road to north, during which only ambulances were allowed to pass, they obtained a meeting with the President, which happened on 12th June – in which the President made promises that have not been fulfilled todate.

The protesters had tried to reach out to Sinhalese, through appeals, letters and banners in Sinhalese. Despite their desperate situations, and weariness in repeating their stories and being photographed by strangers I took with me everytime I visited, we were always warmly welcomed and even offered meals. Some expressed disappointment about lack of support from activists from Colombo and other parts of the country, and from Tamils in the North itself. Two weeks ago, the families came to Colombo to reach out to Colombo based media.

A few Hindu Temples, Churches, shop owners, journalists and Tamil diaspora groups had extended support by providing food. The protest in Kilinochchi has been held in the premises of the Kandasamy Temple. University students, auto drivers, shop owners, clergy have also extended symbolic support by visiting and in April, a day of hartal was observed across the North. Few Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil families of disappeared, including Sandya Ekneligoda, wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda and an award winning prominent activist, travelled several times from Colombo to extend solidarity and support. 

OMP

The President has been stalling the establishment of the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP), promised in September 2015, and for which legislation was rushed through in August 2016, bypassing promised consultations with families of disappeared and public. Then, after 10 months of silence and apparent loss of interest, an amendment was passed by parliament, removing an article that enabled the OMP to enter into agreements with external parties. Suggestions by families of disappeared were not even considered as amendments. And finally, last month, a gazette notice was issued, assigning the OMP to a ministry held by the president – when the constitution prohibits the President from holding this ministry. The requirement in the OMP Act to gazette a date OMP will come into effect is yet to be fulfilled, and there is no indication when this will be done. If the OMP is established under the present ministry it has been assigned to, it’s legal standing is questionable. And so, nearly 2 years after the promise, there is still no OMP, there is no time line for its establishment, leave alone when it will give answers to families who have been waiting for decades.

The OMP is latest of number of Commissions of Inquiries appointed by successive Sri Lankan governments, to address disappearances. According to the government, more than 65,000 complaints have been received by these Commissions since 1994[x]. Despite promises made nearly two years ago, the government has failed to publish key reports of previous Commissions, such as the Mahanama Tillekeratne and Paranagama Commission, the latter having functioned under both the previous and present government.

The government has made legislative provisions have been made to issue Certificates of Absence, but it’s not clear what procedures have been put in place to actually issue these.  Earlier this month, I met government officials across the Killinochchi district who told me they had not heard anything about this.

The government ratified the International Convention against Enforced Disappearances, but without accepting article 31 that will allow families of disappeared and other Sri Lankans to complain to the UN Committee monitoring the implementation of the convention.  The government has also promised to criminalize enforced disappearances,  but that too has not happened for nearly two years. A draft bill was expected to have been debated in parliament, but was postponed indefinitely. And at the same time, the government has failed to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and counter terrorism laws are being drafted without any public consultations, containing draconian provisions that can serve as license for enforced disappearances.

Economic justice

Despite widespread poverty amongst families of disappeared, there are no systematic initiatives to ensure economic justice for families. For many families, poverty is linked to the disappearance of the main breadwinner of the family. The right of the families to reparations has been relegated to an Office for Reparations, an entity that is likely to take even longer than the OMP to be established. There has been no response from the government to appeals for interim relief. But, even amongst supporters of families of disappeared, and amongst families themselves, there appears to be reluctance to talk about this important aspect. This is probably due to fear that it may undermine demands for truth and criminal justice, including through offers of minimalistic, temporary and unsustainable financial and material assistance. “We want our children, not chicken or certificates” thus became a slogan at protests and during hearings of Commissions of Inquiries. Administrative measures such as certificates of justice, interim relief measures or sustainable livelihoods, must be seen as a right by itself that compliments and not substitutes rights to truth and criminal justice. Protests, court cases, international campaigns etc. are likely to be more stronger, sustainable and independent if families of disappeared, especially mothers and wives, have stable livelihoods and are able to feed, educate, house, provide healthcare for one’s children who are still with them.

Moving forward

It’s important for the OMP to be operational as soon as possible, firmly rooted within constitutional provisions, with no ambiguity about its legal standing. At least at this stage, the recommendations of the families of disappeared should be taken seriously, including having families of disappeared and individuals of integrity and competence, who have confidence of many families of disappeared, women, ethnic and religious minorities in leadership positions. Independent international involvement is a must. And the government should criminalize enforced disappearances, upholding the spirit and letter of the International Convention, before the OMP begins its operations.

But the OMP should not be the only focus. The families of disappeared await response of the President to promises he made to release lists of detainees, surrendees and detention centres and publishing of Commission of Inquiry reports that many of them gave testimony to. In context of broken promises in the past, they don’t have much faith in the President’s promises. Hence, they have decided to continue the protests while awaiting a response. But there appears to be little support for these 6 month long protests and urgent demands of the families from the mainstream media and most activists in North & East, Colombo and rest of the country.

This is also a time for families of disappeared to assess their long struggles, recognize some achievements and plan next steps and phases of what is likely to be an even long and continuing struggle. This could include thinking of effective, long term and sustainable alternative strategies to present form of continuous protests. It would be important to think about strengthening alliances in Colombo and across Sri Lanka as well as internationally – with families of disappeared across the country and beyond, and potential allies such as activists, artists, academics, clergy, trade unions and mainstream Sinhalese and English media. The disastrous memorandum emanating from protest in Vavuniya in June, literary saying “we only believe in USA, only USA can help us, USA come and save us”, could serve as a wakeup call for all Sri Lankans. To be conscious of various political influences  on the protests, but not to dismiss what’s fundamentally a struggle by desperate families to find their loved ones who had disappeared. And 30th August can also be a day to reflect why our elderly mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, had to resort to such desperate and drastic calls, undertaking roadside protests for more than 6 months to find disappeared family members.


[i] http://www.un.org/en/events/disappearancesday/

[ii] https://twitter.com/garikaalan/status/900005138412191744

[iii] http://www.hirunews.lk/166456/two-ministers-accuse-police-for-their-attempt-to-abduct-convener-medical-faculty-student-activists

[iv] http://www.itjpsl.com/assets/ITJP_unstopped_report_final.pdf (page 8, section 1 – B)

[v] http://www.jdslanka.org/index.php/news-features/human-rights/702-tamil-woman-activist-campaigning-for-disappeared-threatened-with-death

[vi] http://www.tamilguardian.com/content/tamil-journalists-threatened-sri-lankan-soldiers

[vii] https://english.dgi.gov.lk/news/latest-news/1265-president-meets-family-members-of-missing-persons

[viii] https://www.slguardian.org/2017/07/sri-lanka-womens-call/

[ix] Press Release by Association for Relatives of the Disappeared, 17th August 2017

[x] http://www.mfa.gov.lk/index.php/en/media/media-releases/6502-cabinet-certificates-of-absence

World Refugees Day and refugees from and to Sri Lanka

First published on 21st June 2017, at http://groundviews.org/2017/06/21/world-refugees-day-and-refugees-from-and-to-sri-lanka/

20th June is World Refugee Day. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 65.6 million people have been forcibly displaced globally. I have heard that close to one million Sri Lankans have fled the country to escape violence, war and persecution. I had met few of them in different countries and been struck by their differences in their experiences, challenges, fears and aspirations.

It was alarming to hear that some had fled the country since 2015, including this year. Acording to the International Truth and Justice Project – Sri Lanka (ITJP)[1], they have taken testimonies from 57 Sri Lankan Tamils who had sought asylum in European countries after having faced abduction, illegal detention, torture and/or sexual violence at the hands of intelligence and security officers under the Sirisena government in 2015-2017. There have been many more who had sought asylum during previous governments.

Early this year, in Thailand, I met a Sri Lankan family who had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR. They were barely surviving, with no possibility to be employed legally, struggling to pay for a room to stay in, find food to eat and unable to send children to school. But they were still scared to return home. In 2016, a Tamil journalist / human rights activist who had decided to return to Sri Lanka after going into exile, was detained at the airport and questioned about his activism for more than 24 hours, before being produced before a magistrate and released on bail. His family members were subjected to questioning afterwards.

I also know a few Sinhalese and Tamil journalists and activists who had sought refuge abroad under Rajapakse regime, but had returned to Sri Lanka since 2015. Some had come permanently and some have been visiting regularly. Some had given up benefits of refugee status and possibility to obtain citizenship in a European country which had offered them refugee status. They had not faced any harassments at the airport or afterwards.

Despite rhetoric of inviting those who went into exile to return, the new Sri Lankan government has done very little to guarantee security and assist those who had requested for assistance to return home after being recognized by UNHCR as refugees. In 2015, it literarily took an earthquake for the government to take action to ensure the return of two Sri Lankans from Nepal, who had been granted refugee status by UNHCR.[2]  For around a year, the Sri Lankan government had not assisted two other activists also in Nepal who have been recognized as refugees by UNHCR, and had made repeated requests for the government to intervene to bring them home.

Returning Refugees from India

A significant number of Sri Lankans, mostly Tamils from North and East, had fled to India during decades of war, living as refugees. More than 11,000 are estimated to have returned to Sri Lanka. Despite some limited support from the Sri Lankan government, those who want to return face multiple challenges and the majority of refugees remain in camps in India, uncertain of their future. Like some of those mentioned above, they also fear intrusive visits and questioning from Sri Lankan authorities.

A major challenge they face is lack of legal documents, such as birth, marriage, and death certificates and the National Identity Cards (NIC). The lack of supportive documents[3] of parents has been a major hurdle for children to obtain consular birth certificates and subsequently Sri Lankan citizenship. Many returnees face difficulties in obtaining their citizenship, including heavy penalties and complex documentation requirements. A waiver of penalties is available only to those who possess a return letter from UNHCR, but not to those who return spontaneously of their own accord. Difficulties in obtaining consular documents increase the risk of refugees falling into the category of stateless persons. The inability of refugees born in camps to obtain citizenship (through the Sri Lankan consular process) before return causes delays in their ability to obtain other documents in Sri Lanka after return, such as the NIC, passports, and driving licences. This results in further delays in returnees claiming rights and reintegration benefits, including social welfare schemes, opening bank accounts, finding employment, and enrolling in educational institutions.

Many returnees have ended up being homeless and landless. Some of the refugee’s lands and houses have been occupied by others and refugees have been compelled to live with friends and relatives, in welfare centres or spend their meagre resources on rent. Loss of land documents, land disputes over boundaries and the inability to locate and demarcate land have also been challenges. Some returnees who are able to recover their land are unable to use it for resettlement due to the land being overgrown by jungle growth and wild animals. There are no governmental programmes to provide temporary or transitional shelter.

Deprivation of agricultural land, inability to get fishing licences, and requirement of compulsory guarantors for loans makes it difficult to restart livelihoods. They also face difficulties in finding employment opportunities in both the private and public sector, with limited support schemes available. There are no special employment schemes.

Non-recognition of educational qualifications, including high school / secondary school, degrees and diplomas, obtained overseas while living as refugees, has posed challenges for pursuing higher education and career opportunities. Obtaining equivalent certificates (to recognise certificates from foreign institutions) places an additional financial and procedural burden on returning refugees who are already struggling with very limited resources.[4]

Refugees and Asylum seekers coming to Si Lanka

Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. There are no national procedures for the granting of refugee status. Refugees who come to Sri Lanka are left to the care and protection of UNHCR, which, in agreement with the Government of Sri Lanka, registers asylum seekers and carries out refugee status determination.

About 75% of asylum seekers and refugees in Sri Lanka are from Pakistan and about 15% from Afghanistan. Visa restrictions for these nationals to enter Sri Lanka remain in place and some asylum seekers are turned away at the airport and sent back to the conditions they sought to flee, without an opportunity to present their case or right of appeal, violating the customary law principle of non-refoulement. As of end of 2016, there were 604 refugees who had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR and 576 whose applications were pending at UNHCR in Sri Lanka. In addition to Pakistanis and Afghans, others were from countries such as Bangladesh, Iran, Maldives, Myanmar, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Ukraine and Yemen. Asylum seekers and refugees live in fear of random and unannounced intrusion into their lives by the police and immigration authorities, and the threat of deportation.

UNHCR provides those recognized as refugees with an allowance of about Rs. 10,000 per person or Rs. 22,000 for family with two or more children, which is not enough to cover even accommodation and food and live in dignity in Sri Lanka. Asylum seekers don’t get any allowance and are left to fend for themselves. Few religious groups (Muslim and Christian) and NGOs have been supporting them with education, accommodation, food, healthcare etc. But these have been very minimal, often adhoc and only few have benefited.

The Sri Lankan government doesn’t ensure rights of housing, food, education, healthcare or legal employment to asylum seekers and refugees. No permanent or even transitional shelter is provided by the government. Due to hostility, mistrust, and negative stereotyping from the local community, and threats from police and immigration officers, landlords have been reluctant to rent houses and are known to take advantage of their vulnerable situation and charge unreasonable rental rates and advance payments.

They are not included in government programs for food and nutrition security or social security programs such as Samurdhi, even though this could be done fairly easily and at little extra cost. The treatment and services available to asylum seekers and refugees at public hospitals and clinics is often lacking in terms of care and compassion. In some cases, the provision of treatment is at the discretion of authorities and asylum seekers and refugees who seek medical care are made to feel like they are seeking a privilege, rather than exercising a basic right. Despite having had to flee after experiencing and witnessing atrocities, violence and discrimination, anxieties about family and friends they had left behind and finding themselves in unfamiliar and unwelcoming environment, there is no psychiatric and psychosocial care made available to asylum seekers and refugees.

Although Sri Lankan constitution guarantees “assurance to all persons of the right to universal and equal access to education at all levels”, this is not extended to refugee and asylum children. As of March 2017, there were 106 children of primary school age, of whom 46 were asylum-seekers and 60 are refugees. The refugee children between 6 – 10 years have access to schooling through UNHCR’s support, but a further 167 children of secondary school age, of whom 71 are asylum-seekers and 96 are refugees, do not have any access to formal schooling. Asylum seekers and refugees are also not absorbed into the many government technical education and vocational training systems, which has the potential to help them to learn and develop vocational skills that they could utilise in seeking employment and living independently in their countries of resettlement.

Long way to go

After the end of the war in 2009 and change of government in 2015, some Sri Lankan refugees try to return back, amidst security concerns and minimal assistance from the government. At the same time, other Sri Lankans continue to flee from persecution. And Sri Lanka is failing to provide humane care to asylum seekers coming from other countries, in line with international standards.  Our government and as people, we still have a long way to go towards being a compassionate society where it’s citizens don’t have to flee from persecution and fear and welcome those fleeing from persecution in their countries and coming to us for care and refuge.

[1] http://www.itjpsl.com/

[2] https://samsn.ifj.org/sri-lanka-the-long-road-home-for-the-exiled/

[3] Such as birth certificates of parents, marriage certificates, grandparents’ birth certificates, parents’ consular birth certificates

[4] The expenses include travelling to and from Colombo and the fees for conversions, such as Rs 35,000 for National Apprentice and Industrial Training certificates and Rs 2,500 for university degrees.

In support of religious minorities, rule of law and Lakshan Dias

First published on 18th June 2017, at http://groundviews.org/2017/06/18/in-support-of-religious-minorities-rule-of-law-and-lakshan-dias/

Religious minorities in Sri Lanka – particularly Muslims and Evangelical Christians – faced serious persecution under the Rajapakse Government, which has continued even under the Sirisena-Ranil Government. The Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, who has been hostile towards Evangelical Christians (a numerical minority amongst Christians), now appears to be assisting this Government’s approach of denying the actual problem and attacking those who are attempting to highlight the gravity of the problem. The latest victim is well known human rights lawyer and my good friend, Lakshan Dias.

Given the latest statements from the President and the Minister of Justice, and the general lack of focus on violations of religious rights of Evangelical Christians, I will focus on violence directed towards them (Evangelical Christian) in this article. Some of the systematic violence directed towards the Muslim community has been already well documented.[1]

On 27 May 2017, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) issued a press release, expressing concern about increasing attacks on religious minorities in Sri Lanka.[2] They cited over 20 incidents of violence and intimidation against Christian places of worship across the country in 2017 and over 190 incidents of religious violence against churches, clergy and Christians since 2015. Many of these incidents have been documented on the NCEASL website.[3] The NCEASL press release also highlighted the “alarming increase in the number of incidents led against Muslims”.

On 31 May 2017, the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka wrote to the President, drawing his attention to the “spate of attacks on places of Christian religious worship in the recent past” and expressing grave concern about acts of violence and aggression targeting the Muslim community.[4] The Commission requested the President to “give urgent directions to Ministry of Law and Order and the Inspector General of Police to take all necessary action against the instigators and perpetrators of violence and hate speech targeting the Muslim community as well as other religious minorities.” This clearly doesn’t seem to have happened.

Lakshan’s brave expose and reprisals from President and Minister

On 14 June 2017, during a the TV talk show titled “Aluth Parlimenthuwa (new parliament)”, Lakshan highlighted that Muslim and Christian places of worship are under attack and that 195 attacks against Christians have been reported since 8 January 2015.[5] Lakshan has been a determined and long standing campaigner and advocate on the rights of religious minorities. He often travels far to rural areas, interacts with victimized communities, publicizes their plight, and appears in courts across the country on numerous cases, during this Government and under the previous Government. Although he was referring to the NCEASL report, he is personally aware of many such incidents.

His comments on the TV talk show, especially his candid assertion that Buddhist Monks are behind some of these attacks, drew immediate and angry reactions from a hostile anchor and two other panelists. And within days, it also drew negative reactions from President Sirisena and Minister of Justice and Buddhasasana, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, both of whom were quoted on primetime news of government TV station, ITN on 17 June 2017.[6] President Sirisena said that he had called the Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, and asked from him about attacks on Catholics/Christians (although Lakshan never mentioned attacks on Catholics in the TV talk show). According to President Sirisena, the Cardinal had said that there had been no such attacks. Minister Wijeyadasa misquotes Lakshan as having said 166 attacks against Christians in recent days of this year (what Lakshan actually said is that there have been 195 attacks between 8th January 2015 till todate[7]). The Minister then goes on to say that the Cardinal had claimed no such incidents have happened in Sri Lanka.

Complicity of the Cardinal

The Cardinal on his part has accepted that he doesn’t know that Churches have been attacked to this extent and claims he doesn’t know where this data comes from.[8] This is despite NCEASL incident reports being available publicly for many years, their 27th May 2017 press release and the open letter from the Human Rights Commission etc. The Cardinal’s claim that he is not aware of such large numbers of attacks against Evangelical Christians is difficult to believe, and is likely to be an attempt to sweep these incidents under the carpet, or justify them, given his hostility towards Evangelical Christians. If he is actually ignorant, that shows an extraordinary degree of insensitivity to the rights of religious minorities in Sri Lanka and towards a minority group amongst Christians. His hostility towards some non Catholic Christians is apparent as he refers to them as “fundamentalist Christian groups”. He acknowledges that these Christians may have faced persecution, and that he doesn’t know whether such persecution has been in context of them (fundamentalist Christian groups) building “things like new churches” or trying to “recruit members in areas they had no members”. Cardinal appears to have conveniently forgotten that that for centuries, in Sri Lanka and beyond, thousands of Catholics have been recruited from areas there were never Catholics and that “things like churches” have been built across Sri Lanka by Catholics, including in areas where there had never been Catholics historically.

The President and the Minister appear to be ignorant of the fact that there are many Christian churches in Sri Lanka, and that the Cardinal is only one of the leaders of one of these Churches, the Catholic Church. It’s noteworthy that the Cardinal himself acknowledges that he is only in charge of Catholics in the Western Province (Colombo Archdiocese).[9] There 11 other Catholic dioceses in Sri Lanka led by different Bishops in the other 8 provinces in the country, and there are many other non-Catholic, vibrant Christian communities across the country. Given his limited mandate even within the Catholic Church, his open hostility towards other Christians and his stated ignorance, Cardinal is indeed a very poor choice to consult on matters affecting Christians in Sri Lanka. Indeed, while recognizing Christians as being a numerical religious minority in Sri Lanka, we also need to recognize Evangelicals Christians as a marginalized numerical minority within the Christian community in Sri Lanka, persecuted also by some Catholics, who are the majority Christian community in Sri Lanka.

It appears that both the President and the Minister had not made any effort to contact the NCEASL, even though Lakshan had cited the NCEASL as the institution which had documented the 195 attacks. If the President and the Minister had looked at the NCEASL press statement and incident reports on their website over the years, they would have got a wealth of information about attacks on Evangelical Christians under their watch as well as under the Rajapakse Government. Furthermore, the comments by the President and Minister make no mention of whether they made inquiries with other institutions – such as the Human Rights Commission and the Police – about complaints made to them.

State and Police complicity and refusal to act

An examination of documented incident reports by the NCEASL[10] indicates a range of incidents such as arson, demolition of churches, damage to property, physical assault of clergy and church members causing serious injury, death threats, intimidation, discrimination, forced displacement, and forced closure of churches. Amongst the perpetrators are Buddhist Monks, State officials and Police officers. Police officers have been known to compel Protestant Christian pastors to discontinue religious worship activities.[11] A Police officer, a Hindu religious leader and other community members had also denied burial rites to an Evangelical Christian in a public cemetery.[12]

A common theme in incidents is the seeming reluctance of the Police to act against suspects infringing on the rights of religious minorities. This reluctance appears to be due to influence and pressure exerted by local Buddhist monks, government officials, and politicians. For example, there has been much said and written about the arrest warrants and non-arrest of errant Buddhist Monk, Gnanasara Thero of the BBS, so I will not comment further on it.

Although Sri Lankan law does not require the registration of religious places of worship for any religious body, a circular in October 2008 issued by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs demanded that all “new constructions” of places of worship should obtain approval from the said Ministry. This has not been withdrawn by the current Government. Since the introduction of the circular, Christian Evangelical churches have faced routine harassment, including forced closures by local government authorities who claim such places of worship as not ‘recognized’ or ‘registered’ with the government. Refusal of ‘recognition’ by the state has deprived thousands of Christians of their right to practice their religion. THE NCEASL incident reports indicate that after this Government came into power, more than 50 incidents involving local government and law enforcement officials involved the use of the October 2008 circular to infringe on the rights of Evangelical Christians. The October 2008 circular appears to be used to target the numerically smaller Christian churches in Sri Lanka and not the Catholic and other numerically larger and politically influential churches.[13]

Threat to remove Lakshan from legal profession

Perhaps the most outrageous parts of this drama is the public threat by the Minister of Justice and Buddhasasana to take legal action to remove Lakshan from the legal profession, unless Lakshan apologizes for his comments within 24 hours.[14] Given that a Minister has no role to play in a process of the dismissal of a lawyer, this is clearly a political threat from the Minister.

I am amongst the many victims of injustice on whose behalf Lakshan has advocated in and out of courts. It is left to be seen if some of the many Christians and others Lakshan has defended, campaigned, and advocated for, will stand by Lakshan. And whether and to what extent the Bar Association in Sri Lanka, religious groups, media organizations and others concerned will respond to this threat, which appears to be a threat not just to Lakshan, but to the legal profession as a whole as well as to free expression, religious freedom and the rule of law.

Ruki Fernando is a member of the Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation Commission of the (Catholic) Conference of Major Religious Superiors (JPIC-CMRS) and the Ecumenical group, Christian Solidarity Movement (CSM).

[1] http://groundviews.org/2017/05/22/escalating-violence-renewed-assaults-on-the-muslim-community/

[2] http://mailchi.mp/0f02c4911569/press-release-increase-in-attacks-on-religious-minorities-in-sri-lanka-1208153

[3] http://nceasl.org/category/incident-reports/

[4] http://hrcsl.lk/english/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Letter-to-H.E.-re-Religious-Intolerance-E.pdf

[5] http://www.derana.lk/Aluth-Parlimenthuwa-TV-Derana&vid=18325&page=1 (1.16.17 – 1.16.50)

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMHziODI3yQ&feature=youtu.be (5.47 – 7.33)

[7] http://www.derana.lk/Aluth-Parlimenthuwa-TV-Derana&vid=18325&page=1 (1.16.17 – 1.16.50)

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0s3hdvEKe4s&feature=youtu.be (1.33-2.07)

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0s3hdvEKe4s&feature=youtu.be (2.23-2.33)

[10] http://nceasl.org/category/incident-reports/

[11] http://nceasl.org/pastor-demanded-to-discontinue-religious-activities/

[12] http://nceasl.org/burial-rites-denied-pastor-harassed-at-christian-funeral-2/

[13] The majority of Christians in Sri Lanka are Catholics. The Catholic Bishops are generally recognized as their leaders and have access to powerful politicians. Catholics and Christians in the Churches who are members of the National Christian Council (NCC) are also generally recognized by the government as legitimate and “de-facto” Christians / Churches. But Christians belonging to numerically smaller Churches, many of whom are members of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, are often not recognized by the government and not given opportunities in representative bodies and consultations, even though several of these churches are legal bodies incorporated by acts of parliament.

[14] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMHziODI3yQ&feature=youtu.be (6.37 – 6.57)

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.