Groundviews

British Prime Minister and TNA leaders shun families of disappeared in Jaffna

Photo courtesy Marisa de Silva

Tamil families of the disappeared, primarily from the North, gathered in front of the area between the Public Library and Duriappa Stadium by 2pm, on 15th Nov., as they thought the visiting British Prime Minister would land at the Duriappa Stadium. They were accompanied by some Christian clergy and activists from Colombo. The British authorities had been very reluctant to provide information about Mr. Cameron’s movements, including when I and friends of mine  sought information in London. Later the families heard Mr. Cameron had landed in Palaly – the Air Force-run airport, located outside Jaffna city. So the families and their supporters walked towards the road leading from Palaly upto the Public Library.

Suddenly, a large Police truck was brought and parked across the road, preventing families from getting closer to Mr. Cameron’s car. He went inside the library, without talking to anyone. Jon Snow from the Britain’s Channel 4 TV station, arrived and people gathered around him, crying and holding him, and handing over documents and photos of family members who had disappeared. Some seemed to have thought he was Mr. Cameron.

Almost as expected, the Police used physical force, including on the many women. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Provincial Councillor, Mrs. Ananthi Sasitharan (whose husband had also disappeared after surrendering to the Army) was amongst those beaten. Amidst all the men who had been elected Parliament and the Provincial Council, it seems only this one elected woman Councillor had the commitment and courage to stand with the people. Some Catholic Priests, who had been at the forefront of accompanying and supporting these families of disappeared people, were also beaten and pushed by the Police.

Family members remained, hoping to meet Mr. Cameron when he came out of the library, where he was meeting the Chief Minister of the Northern Province. Police used force to stop people from reaching the entrance to the Library. But Mr. Cameron left without speaking to the families.

Even the Chief Minister and leader of the TNA didn’t stop to talk to the people. One TNA MP came and stood amongst the people for few minutes and left soon afterwards. Ms. Sasitharan’s repeated calls to the Chief Minister, leader of the TNA and other TNA MPs went unanswered.

It was a huge let down to all the families of disappeared, who had travelled far, from different parts of the North, hoping they would be listened to by Mr. Cameron, who had promised to shine a light on the North, deliver a strong message and ask tough questions of the Sri Lankan government.

In the end, what the families got for all their efforts to meet Mr. Cameron was to be beaten, pushed and insulted by the Police.

Organizers are hoping that Mr. Cameron will at least take strong action on the petition they had emailed to the British High Commissioner in Colombo and also handed over to journalists who were there.

However, Mr. Cameron did visit people who remain displaced and unable to go back home for decades due to land occupation and the Uthayan newspaper, whose Editors, reporters and other staff have been killed, abducted, assaulted and threatened repeatedly and had their offices, equipment damaged and destroyed.

According to a report by a person who claims to have spoken to the Chief Minister, Mr. Cameron’s meeting with the Chief Minister in the Public Library was one where the Chief Minister had highlighted key concerns about Tamils in the North. But significantly, addressing  disappearances doesn’t seem to have featured amongst the top six priorities. According to the same report, the “Chief Minister noted that the PM’s car was mobbed by the dear ones of those who were missing. There were shouts and sobs and an open expression of grief. The PM’s desire to meet them was being served.”

The desires of Mr. Cameron and the Chief Minister may have been served. But clearly, the families desires to meet and talk with Mr. Cameron and TNA leaders yesterday, to share their pains and struggles, was not served. It was painful to realize that even Mr. Cameron was not interested to meet these families, even for few minutes, particularly after they had been stopped from going to Colombo for a human rights event by the Sri Lankan government, just two days previously.

Like in Jaffna, on that occasion too these Tamil families of disappeared from the North – mostly women – were armed with photos and stories of their loved ones who had surrendered to the Army and then disappeared, were abducted from houses or in transit, or simply went missing. They also carried stories of their struggles to survive, to find the truth and seek justice. Stories about insults, threats and harassments they themselves had to undergo. It’s worthwhile to remember they had been similarly obstructed from going to Colombo on repeated occasions before this.

On 14th Nov., the few families who did make it to Colombo were detained by Police, after the Police had obtained a court order to stop the human rights event itself. One person was arrested.

Why does the government stop these families, civil society and opposition parties from engaging in peaceful and democratic activities to express dissent, seek truth and justice? Does the government want to encourage armed and violent struggles instead?

And why did even those who profess to support them, like Mr. Cameron and top TNA leaders, ignore them, even as they stood face to face?

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Videos and photos from journalists and activists who were there, including Britain’s Channel 4 station journalists who had visited Jaffna with Mr. Cameron, capture some glimpses of the the events.