Groundviews

“Building the base”: An interview with Sunila Abeysekara about post-war Sri Lanka

Sunila, how do you look at Sri Lanka today?  There are different interpretations ranging from a constitutional dictatorship to clan- run ‘deep state’? And you have decades of human rights activism behind you; you have been to the Geneva Human Rights council for nearly a decade to campaign for rights in Sri Lanka, but today Geneva has become the “f word” in dominant political discourse in Sri Lanka? Why? 

Indeed it is true to say that President Rajapaksa, his brothers and son and nephews, whatever you know, they constitute a block, a family block that actually controls the political and economic future of our country at this moment. So definitely it is not a democracy. Definitely what has happened in the past months have shown us that there is no rule of law and the constituent features of any democracy; the independence of judiciary, the freedom of the press, all these, do not exist in Sri Lanka. So, at least one can say, it is not a democracy and that we do not live in a democracy. But I think for any civil society activist, as I am, the big question to be asked is why this is different from whatever challenge we have faced in the past, because we have certainly faced a lot of challenges in the past. What is the difference, and what is the difference in terms of the State but also what is different in terms of civil society.

And I think for me, in this interview it is more important to actually be  a little self critical and reflective about civil society activism and try and understand what the difference is and why we are all in such a situation today where there  is no or as  you know very little, resistance. The resistance is scattered and there is no cohesive or coherent response to what is happening with the State and with the Rajapaksa family.

I am a person who has been involved in civil society activism from 1970s in Sri Lanka. This is a moment, I think if you remember even during the Premadasa era, for which, for many of us  was the worst period in our known history; in 88- 89, all the disappearances in South and in 1990 all the disappearances in the East; the arrest and detention of anybody who protested the killings of people who were resisting. In spite of all that, there was a very positive movement in which people documented the disappearances, in which we went out into the international community, to the human rights community with our documentation, where we were able to get the international human rights community to visit Sri Lanka, and where the Government itself created commissions and made a space for the victims and survivors to give their testimonies, where there was a discussion about compensation and about other kinds of reparation for the victims and survivors. There was a conversation; there was a possibility and there was a small space for the international community to play a role.

If you look at even 1971, and if you look at the Amnesty International Campaign; Island behind Bars, for example, that was a very critical thing; when tens of thousands young people were put in to these temporary camps – rehabilitation camps as they were called at that time – and then there was a big global campaign which was talking about these things. Now today I think we have come to the point where any kind of international intervention is seen as negative. Where there is no understanding of something called constructive criticism. Where resistance and opposition to whatever the government is doing is understood only to be anti-government, anti-Rajapaksa. You cannot have any criticism just based on democratic principles and on human rights principles.

So I think there is a very interesting and challenging way in which the Rajapaksa regime has created an opinion among the public that outside interference and any kind of intervention by outside bodies is wrong. And I think that’s really interesting if you look in the last 2 or 3 years, if you look at Wimal Weerawansa and his Fast to Death outside the UN for example, if you look at the way that every time you talk about the panel of expert’s report that was commissioned by the Secretary General of the United Nations, the Government’s response is to say that oh! these people are trying to take Mahinda Rajapaksa to ICC and they are going to hang him. There is a fear. The Government has created a false fear of the International Criminal Court. There is no way that the President or the Secretary to the Ministry of Defense, or anybody, can be taken before the ICC in this way. But they have created the impression among the general public that if you talk about intervention, you’re talking about taking  the Rajapaksas to the ICC. So there is a fear psychosis created about the International Criminal Court; fear psychosis about the United Nations; fear psychosis about Geneva.

You know people do not know where Geneva is on the map. But they know about Geneva, because all the time and every year now – and again they have started. By the time it is February, when the Human Rights Council meeting starts in Geneva at the end of February, then in Sri Lanka all the Sinhala papers, the Sinhala television stations, they will be talking about Geneva, Geneva; this is the place where the anti-national, anti-Sri Lankan people go to and where they will say things against Sri Lanka.

It’s so interesting that the Rajapaksa regime is equated with Sri Lanka. If we criticize the Rajapaksa regime, we are anti-national. We are anti patriots; we are people who are criticising our country. We are people who do not care about our country. And I think that is utter nonsense. But somehow, the Rajapaksa regime has manipulated the media, they have got really good control over the mass media in Sri Lanka, over the print and electronic media and they have created this kind of an idea among the people. So when the civil society activists try to point out that the impeachment of the Chief Justice was not done in a proper way – that is the criticism. It is not saying that Shirani Bandaranayake was a great Chief Justice, I think many people know that in fact she was a Chief Justice who was biased towards the Rajapaksa Government for some time.  But at a certain point, for many different reasons, her own reasons, she changed. And when she changed they started this campaign against her that is in a way completely against due process. That is the only criticism we have. The moment that we say that the impeachment was wrong, then we are labelled as being anti government, anti- national, and anti-Sri Lankan and so forth. There is a very intense polarisation in the country, the ordinary people who listen to the radio, who watch TV, who read the papers have all somehow been fed the impression that the government is very strong, that it is economically viable, that any kind of outside interference is an imperialist’s plot. You know you find in newspapers all these old-fashioned words, but also that it is anti-national. And, so it has become very easy to silence the voices of dissent and resistance within civil society. That’s one thing.

The second thing is that I think if you look at the last years and the development of civil society organising and mobilising, there is so much very good work being done. For example, on rights of people with disabilities, on prevention of spread of HIV/AIDS, on environmental issues. But these are happening in small pockets and they are not connected to any broader understanding of the national picture. They are not looking at the big picture. So there is a lot of activism. I think there is a lot of civil society activism in Sri Lanka right now. But the activism that is there is very fragmented. It is very issue specific and it is not connected to any network that is looking at the broader issues of democracy and rights in Sri Lanka. So that activism is isolated and it doesn’t have any impact on the big picture.

Yes, this disconnection between international human rights activism and local activism is one of the issues we face. On the other hand Sunila, as we now know, more than 150 skeletons have been unearthed in Matale. It’s clear they were tortured before burial.  And there isn’t a single word coming from the civil society on these issues. The civil society could have appointed a commission for this. You know those days we could have appointed a commission of independent people instead of waiting for the government to do it. Take for example the gang rape in Nugegoda, this mass grave in Malate, and how people have been treated in the Vanni – No mass action. Why this insensitivity? Is this a post war phenomenon?  How do you look at this inaction?

I think that one thing is that there’s climate of fear that has been created.  We are very familiar with this from 1989 also, we were also saying that there’s a climate of fear. And I think people have seen before their eyes, that there is impunity. If you look at, for example where Mervin Silva tied a person to a tree, and ultimately he says, no no I tied myself to the tree. So I think people through the media have seen very clearly that there is no justice, and that impunity of the people who work for the government is very strong. I think in the Matale case, there is also a fairly big concern from the side of the Government because I think there has been a lot of talk that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was actually one of the army officials who was in charge of Matale during the time which these bodies in the mass grave might have been put there. So there’s a reason why government should be very careful about handling this.

I think also the organisations of families of the disappeared – you know I was thinking, that if you read the stories from other countries, you know, Guatemala and Uruguay, whenever there is any mass grave  that is found, immediately people will come looking: Is my son here?  Is my daughter here? Is my husband here? People come from all over the country, the moment the word goes that a mass grave is discovered. In Matale we have not heard that any such thing has happened. It has not been given any publicity and the organisations that worked for the rights of disappeared people have become almost non-existent now. The organisations for example that sphere headed the Sooriyakanda investigations, those organisations no longer exist. Mother’s Front does not exist, Organisation of Families of Disappeared does not exist. So, only the small groups, like the Right to Life group in Negombo, they are the only ones who do exist. But they also have not come forward to take on this because I think it is because of the general atmosphere.

So, I mean, I’m not in Sri Lanka now. And I haven’t been there for the last year, so I am hesitant to be critical. To say why they don’t do this and why they don’t do that. But I think that there’s a general level of fear and apathy. Nothing will happen, nothing will change if we do anything because no matter what we do, the government has enough power, enough money, enough control over the media, enough control over the parliament. Whatever we do there will be no result. So better to just be silent. I think there’s a sense of apathy, which is the most dangerous thing. Because I think through history people have always said that there’s nothing as dangerous as silence of good people. And that is the challenge that we are facing in Sri Lanka today; that almost all the good people are silent.

Is this because of the issue of no  active, credible, clean political leadership, like Chandrika in early 90s, or someone like J. R who had a plan come to power.  Even if you look at Rajapaksa, he had the image of fighting for people’s rights. Is there a vacuum of political leadership? On the other hand, in civil society activism also we don’t see the leadership and organisations that could play a leadership role. For instance if you look at the post 1971 period, without political party backing there was a strong campaign fighting for the release of political prisoners that was led by a trade union which was not an affiliate of a political party. And then we have this Wellassa Campaign against Sugar Multinationals. And we had the campaign of FMM on press freedom in the early 90s. They were not linked to political parties and actual political leaders came out of them. Chandrika became part of the peasant movement to establish her leadership. Today we don’t see this, on both sides. Do we have to wait for Messiah to come and lead the people? Where does the resistance come from in Sri Lanka? What are the potential areas of resistance that can become a national resistance?

That’s a very complex question Sunanda, because, I don’t believe that we should wait for Messiah. That’s for sure. I think that one of the cleverest things Mr. Rajapaksa has done is that over a period of 4 or 5 years, he actually split all the potential oppositions to him – from the LTTE to JVP to UNP to SLMC. So he has achieved a very comfortable situation for himself for the next two years because I don’t think that all these splits of these parties happened organically, I think they were also engineered. And I think that the present regime played a big role in engineering this and now they are going to enjoy the benefits of that.

In both the Sinhala and Tamil communities, one generation got killed. From 1971 up to 1990s, so there’s a vacuum. There are so many people who could have been good potential people for Sri Lanka who are now dead. So that’s a reality that we are facing. There’s a vacuum in the political leadership because of the massacre and because of the killings of potential political leaders. In terms of civil society, I would like to say again that the challenge is that the activism is scattered, that activism is splintered. We have to think how it is possible to bring together the progressive groups that are fighting for rights in different ways, for individual rights or for collective rights. I think this is the political, analytical challenge, that you have many people who say of course we will fight for the rights of people with disabilities, or we will do a lot of work to spread the word about preventing HIV/AIDS. Many young people are doing many creative things, but if you ask them what about democracy in the country, what about the impeachment, do you think the impeachment was done in a democratic manner – they will not have an opinion. If you ask them what about the strike of university teachers, they will not have an opinion. So the challenge is really to see where are the individuals where are the groups that you can reach out to; to say that you cannot have a struggle for rights of one community, one group, one sector of people which is not linked to a broader struggle for democracy and rights for everybody in Sri Lanka. I think for me, that’s an analytical and political challenge that we are facing right now.

Now you and I both belong to the old generation. When we were young at times we created movements, we led movements. You were a leading figure in the Women’s and Human Rights movements; I played few leading roles as well, for media freedom and for peace. That was actually when we were young. And we started also quite young, all of us. Our generation, there was such a leadership, like the famous Fernando brothers, and so many at the provincial levels. They provided inspiring leadership to civil society movements. And which were actually interlinked also… because we all had a kind of a common political history of 71 and post 71. Now today if you look at the young people, is there a young generation of leaders if one to scan the Sri Lankan scene, do we see any potential areas of that kind of leadership emerging?

I think the big difference between us and the present generation is that they lived through the war. For them it is the war and the ethnic conflict that is the defining thing, for us it was not. And I think because war was the defining thing, because they lived with the reality of bombs and disruption of their daily life because of the terrorist activities of the LTTE, because they experienced that, I think their whole political understanding of present reality is overwhelmingly shaped by the fact that this government has won the war and that this government has stopped the terrorism of the LTTE. And I think that makes a really big difference. I’m talking about the southern Sinhalese. If you look at young Tamil people in the North and East, their ideals also have been completely shaped by war in a different way and they have seen the crushing of LTTE and the crushing of their everyday life, so they don’t have the possibility or the potential to resist. They cannot even imagine it, at this point. So this is a very low moment in our history. I’m not very hopeful for the next few years, 2 or 3 years, that anything significant will change actually. I think we as civil society activists, we have to continue to try, to do what we can, to raise our voices, even if we are a minority voice, even if we are attacked. But the idea of developing, you know, doing some mass mobilisation or developing numbers to back our struggle, I don’t think that is going to happen in the next few years.

Is this  in your opinion  the main issue to be tackled, the war and how we understand the war , how we understand the Tamil grievances is that a key role in creating these linkages and having a holistic  approach?  Is that the main problem, other than the fear psychosis?

Actually, I doubt it. I think that we have to be really clear that polarisation between South and North and East is very strong, polarisation between Sinhalese and Tamils is very strong, even in terms of civil society, young people, whatever it is. Polarisation is so strong that it is perhaps better and more productive to think of what issues are really affecting people differently; Southern and Northern people differently.

I think in the South, economic issues are very strong, land issues are very strong, same in the North and East. But they are being experienced somewhat differently.

Two years ago when we did a human rights day meeting, there were different groups from North Central Province, from Puttlam, from Monaragala, from Badulla,  from Ampara – everywhere, everyone spoke about land issues. Land is a very big issue in the South to ordinary rural people, to rural communities. And I think that there is a potential to build a strong movement for land rights and the rights of rural people. But I think it has to be done differently in South from the way it has to be done in the North and East. Certainly from me, land issue is a key area in which we are not paying enough attention.

So finally, do you think for us, the civil society, the main issue at this time is not thinking of a regime change politically, but to have a rights based approach and try to build a holistic campaign/approach which could link all the groups fighting for their rights? Is that what we should do at this moment?

Yes, definitely I think so. The challenge that faces us today is that we are not doing the work that we should be doing at the level of communities.  As you are saying, use a rights based approach and see whether we can draw the different groups that are working on different areas of rights together. But also develop the idea that resistance and opposition is a part of a democratic regime and that we should not be afraid to resist. All of us have done it in the past, and maybe in the last two years we have not been doing it as well as we should be doing it. We have to really be much more thoughtful and imaginative when it comes to going back. You and I, as you say have a history of going back to building the base. Once more that is the challenge.

Building the base.

Sunanda Deshapriya in conversation with Sunila Abeysekara
6th Feb 2013
The Netherlands