Solidarity

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.

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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.