Image courtesy The Telegraph
It is now 4 years after the end of the war. The way we Sri Lankans will remember the end of the war is likely to demonstrate once again how divided we are, as North and South, as Sinhalese and Tamils.
Some Tamil friends in the North told me that they will try to have some events to remember the large numbers who were killed and disappeared, despite the past threats and intimidations. “We will try to have it quietly and low profile way” was what one friend told me. It is unlikely that families of those killed, disappeared, injured, those whose land has been occupied by the military after the war, will be in the mood to celebrate. This of course should not be confused with the fact that they are indeed relieved the war is over – that they don’t need to be in bunkers, duck shells, bombs and shooting, run over dead bodies to save their own lives, try to hide from forced recruitments etc.
On the other hand, the government has announced grand celebrations in Colombo, with the annual “Victory Day Parade”. Based on last three years experiences, there is unlike to be any mourning, grieving or even remembering of Tamil civilians killed, injured through government action – although it’s possible that those killed and who suffered at the hands of the LTTE may be remembered. .
It is also now one and half years after the Presidential Commission on reconciliation (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission – LLRC) finalized its report and handed it over to the President. In March 2012 and 2013, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva passed resolutions on Sri Lanka, which the Sri Lankan government bitterly opposed, branding supporters as traitors. The resolutions called on the government to implement LLRC recommendations, address accountability issues and noted the ongoing human rights violations. To me, these are two of the most significant developments after the war and the both Geneva resolutions were linked to the LLRC.
Who went to LLRC and Geneva and why?
I read the LLRC report a couple of times and in 2012, I travelled across the country giving talks in towns and cities to Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. And I had chance to listen to and dialogue with diverse and even opposing responses – supporters and skeptics of the LLRC.
But my strongest impression of the LLRC is of the hundreds of people – mostly women – from the North and East who braved threats and intimidations and spent their meager earnings to travel a long way to tell their story to the LLRC. They were mostly mothers and wives of persons who had either disappeared or been detained. Many came clutching photos of their loved ones the came to give testimony about. There were also those who had survived the last phase of the bloody war in bunkers and running over dead bodies, had seen their family members and neighbors killed, children recruited and houses reduced to rubble. There were also those who told stories of not being able to go home as their houses and lands were occupied by the military. Many of them cried – while giving their testimony, while listening to others, when they were denied the chance to give their own testimony or were stopped abruptly by Commissioners.
Likewise, my strongest impressions from UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva last March are of a group of Sri Lankans who went there separately. One was a Tamil doctor, Dr. Manoharan from Trincomalee, whose son was murdered on the beach in January 2006. Another was Mrs. Sandya Ekneligoda, a mother of two teenaged boys and husband of journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda, who disappeared in January 2010. With her was Sithi, the mother of a Muslim boy who disappeared in Colombo. Sisters and brother of murdered government MP and politician Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra were also in Geneva telling their story.
What made them all go to the LLRC and to Geneva? To discredit the government? Earn dollars? Unlikely, as they all had bigger problems – very serious ones – about their beloved family members who had been killed or disappeared. For how many of us will discrediting the government and earning dollars be the priority if our own husbands, sons, brothers and sisters have been killed or disappeared?
I suspect they went to Geneva because despite all their efforts for many years, they had not been able to find answers and justice in Sri Lanka. Through Courts and institutions such as Police, Human Rights Commission and various Presidential Commissions of Inquiries. And they are amongst the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Sri Lankan families who seek acknowledgment, truth and justice.
It may also be pertinent to note that in May 2009, a resolution was passed at the UN Human Rights Council that was essentially drafted by the government of Sri Lanka or those supporting it, and in favor of the government. However, since then, countries such as India, Korea, Africa and most in Latin America, have voted against the government of Sri Lanka in the subsequent resolutions in 2012 and 2013. While the language of 2012 and 2013 resolutions are very mild in relation to the ground situation, the language has become slightly stronger and critical from 2009 to 2012 and 2013. The number of countries voting against the government of Sri Lanka doubled from 2009 to 2012 and further increased in 2013.
Ground situation after war – amidst the LLRC and Geneva resolutions
Even as the UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva were going in March 2013 and the resolution was being negotiated, in Vavunia, in Northern Sri Lanka, the government stopped hundreds of families of disappeared persons from going to Colombo for a peaceful protest. In Colombo, a human rights lawyer was threatened.
In the two months since the Geneva resolution of 2013, a meeting of the opposition Tamil National Alliance was attacked in Killinochi and the popular northern Tamil daily newspaper, Uthayan was attacked twice in April. Businesses of Muslims were attacked. A peaceful vigil I attended in Colombo was dispersed by Police who had also threatened and arrested some of the participants.
What has been happening in the last four years after the war finished?
Positively, I remember few political prisoners being released, some people displaced people were able to go back to their own villages, fisherfolk and farmers had restarted activities. I had seen some roads in the Vanni becoming better and electricity to some areas which had never seen electricity. And some new buildings have come up in the war ravaged Northern Province, such as hospitals, schools, government offices, markets, telecommunication, banks etc.
There is less fear of being caught up in a suicide bombing, of being stopped at check points, round ups and arrests. But I have also have met who continue to live in fear – women in North who live in fear of sexual abuse. Journalists and human rights activists fear assassinations, abductions, long and repeated questioning by intelligence agencies and arrest. Those arrested for any reason fear being tortured. Religious minorities fear their traditional practices maybe curtailed and places of worship, businesses attacked. Citizens fear that the military may occupy their traditional and legally owned land. Judges, lawyers and religious clergy live in fear, due to their criticism of the government. These fears are not imaginary – very much real in the last four years after the war.
Overall, my experiences have been negative – many emails, sms messages calls I get gives me little hope to be optimistic about reconciliation, human rights and freedom. People I regularly encountered – Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims – from all parts of the country – includes families searching for loved ones who had disappeared. Families searching for justice for loved ones killed (during war, during protests, inside prison etc.). Political prisoners and their families awaiting release or just and speedy trials. People whose land is occupied by the military. Lonely, frustrated and anxious refugees, who now live overseas after having fled in fear of their lives, leaving behind their children, wives and parents. Asylum seekers who had been deported back and detained and tortured on return. Those seeking decent houses, livelihoods, better healthcare and educational facilities. Those who would like to commemorate loved ones who had been killed and have funerals without interference of police and military. There are more.
These are amongst the Sri Lankans searching for the meaning of reconciliation, four years after the end of the war.
At a broader level, in the last four years, in presidential, parliamentary, provincial and local government bodies, the government won comprehensively in most parts of the country. But in the Tamil majority North, including the areas which saw the bloodiest last five months of the war, the government suffered heavy defeats – despite claims of having liberated the Tamils and treating them so wonderfully in the last four years. The 18th amendment to the constitution was passed in parliament, strengthening the executive presidency by allowing the President to stay in office any number of times and taking away the independence of statutory oversight institutions established under the 17th amendment. Militarization of the country – particularly the North – continues unabated with the military making decisions related to relief, development and running restaurants, shops, resorts, boat services etc. and also interfering in the field of education and sports. The once respected Civil service and Foreign Service are also militarized. Retired military officers are getting posted overseas as diplomats and occupy the posts of district secretary and provincial governor – some of them being suspected to have been involved in serious abuses of human rights and war crimes.
There is no serious and genuine attempt to seek a political solution to the ethnic conflict, to address root causes for the war. This government continues the deliberate violation of constitution by not implementing the 13th amendment to the constitution, which offers the barest minimum of devolution of powers. Instead, the family rule has been consolidated – with the President appointing his brothers to power positions of the Secretary to the Ministry of Defense and Minister of Economic Development. Another brother is the speaker in the parliament and the President’s son is also a member of parliament. Several other relatives hold positions in provincial government, diplomatic missions and government corporations.
In the face of all so many past and ongoing violations of human rights, impunity reigns supreme.
The police have often stood by watched violent and illegal acts by those suspected to be government supporters, not arresting and pursuing the prosecution of suspects, even when suspects have been handed over to them and there is clear evidence indicating who is responsible for violations and violence. On many occasions, the police themselves are responsible for atrocities.
On several occasions, when I called the hotline of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on urgent matters like disappeared human rights activists, peaceful protests being dispersed, they refused to take prompt action. The NHRC has also failed to condemn, address and take public positions on many of the incidents and trends described above above despite widespread availability of information and numerous complaints. They have even failed to show solidarity with victims, their families and human rights activists, and ignored numerous recommendations and appeals from human rights activists, despite claiming to be engaging with human rights activists.
Courts in Sri Lanka have also not been able to respond to the crisis or have been painstaking slow to the extent of being irrelevant – a good example being the way habeas corpus cases are delayed despite being matters of life and death.
Indeed, seeking remedies through these institutions has become a burden to victims, their families, genuinely committed lawyers and those supporting them. Many times, I have experienced, witnessed and have been told how complainants have been harassed, discredited and even threatened by these very institutions when they seek to complaint and seek redress and justice.
All the above also indicate the government’s utter contempt for it’s own reconciliation commission’s recommendations. The LLRC advocated singing the national anthem in two languages, but this was flouted even in significant national events like the celebration of independence from British. One and half years after the LLRC’s final report was handed over to the President, no efforts have been made to implement it’s key recommendations such as organizing events to remember victims of the war, appoint a Commissioner to investigate disappearances, appoint an independent advisory committee to monitor those arrested and detained under national security laws, establish an independent institution to address grievances of all citizen, specially minorities, arising out of abuse of power, de-linking the Police from the Ministry of Defense, appointment of an advisory and monitoring body for detainees and publishing a list of detainees. No efforts seem to be made to change existing laws or frame new laws recommended by the LLRC such as to ensure right to information, criminalize disappearances and provide adequate time for judicial review of proposed legislature.
After much campaigning and pressure, the Sinhalese and Tamil versions of the LLRC’s final report has been made available – but hidden away in a government website that’s accessible to only small number of Sri Lankans.
High profile defections from the government
In the above context, it is not surprising that the government seems to have lost of some of it’s high profile defenders and supporters. The first was the former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka who went on to contest Presidential elections against President Rajapakse within months after the end of the war. Former Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka is another who is very critical about the government’s post-war conduct, after being a key architect of the pro-government resolution in 2009. His partner in crime to defend the government in the face of international criticism on human rights violations, government MP and Presidential Advisor on Reconciliation, Prof. Rajeewa Wijesinghe too has been critical about the government’s approach towards reconciliation. Even the government ally Sri Lanka Muslim Congress has turned against the government on some issues, such as the recent electricity tariff hikes and it’s leader, who is also the Minister of Justice, has been openly critical of some government actions.
Even the 43rd Chief Justice, who was impeached early this year, had given decisions favorable to the government during the earlier part of her term, before delivering verdicts that were seen as pro-devolution and against the government. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka, which had backed the government in it’s campaign against the report of the Panel of Experts of the UN Secretary General on accountability, and had been relatively silent in the face breakdown of rule of law in the country, has been openly critical of the government in recent months.
There has also been growing resistance to these continuing violations and unwillingness of the government to acknowledge and address past violations. Many victims and their families went to the LLRC to tell their story, to seek acknowledgment of truth and justice. Many victims and their families are going to Geneva also to seek justice internationally if it’s not forthcoming nationally.
A good example of this is Sandya Ekneligoda, wife of journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda, who disappeared 2 days before the first major elections after the war. Sandya has gone to police stations, National Human Rights Commission, local Courts, wrote to the President, the First lady, Ministers, MPs, protested on streets of Colombo and worked hard with the few sympathetic journalists to keep alive the Prageeth’s case locally. But she also went to Geneva and elsewhere, to seek international support to seek information about her husband and justice.
As I mentioned at the beginning, despite threats, intimidations and sabotage by the military, some Tamils in the North are getting ready to remember their loved ones even as the government will celebrate and have a Victory Parade in Colombo. When the police tried to block the funeral of young Nimalaruban (killed in prison) being held in his hometown of Vavuniya, his mother took the fight to the Supreme Court to bring his body home and have the funeral in Vavuniya. When Jaffna University Student leaders and dissenting Muslim politician Azath Sally were arrested and detained, there were wide spreads protests in the country (supported by those outside) which led to their release. When Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a group supported by the Secretary to the Ministry of Defense, was promoting a brand of Buddhism that seemed to marginalize religious minorities and unleashing hate speech towards them, a facebook group calling themselves Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena challenged their version of Buddhism and even organized a vigil right outside the BBS headquarters (Though the vigil was broken up by the Police, the message was communicated powerfully). Political prisoners protested inside prisons while their families and supporters protested outside. Families of those disappeared continued to agitate and again, even when a major protest by these families was stopped in it’s track by the Police, the message was communicated. Families of LTTE leaders who had surrendered to the army and disappeared filed cases in courts. People whose land is occupied by the military continue their protests and also plan to file more court cases. Lawyers and judges flexed their muscles and showed their condemnation of the attacks on the independence of the judiciary, in courts, on the streets and elsewhere. Journalists continued to demand their rights to write, speak and broadcast as well as justice for past attacks. Most recently, thousands marched in Colombo against electricity tariff hikes.
In early 2012, we also saw Tamil and Muslim activists issuing public statements, acknowledging their failures in the past to empathize with and support other communities who were victimized during decades of war and committing and calling on everyone to work towards justice for all. In the more recent past, a Tamil member of parliament from the leading Tamil party in parliament, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), admitted that the eviction of Muslims from the North in 1990 by the LTTE, was an act of ethnic cleansing. Prominent MPs in the TNA expressed solidarity with Muslims who had been under attack recently. Muslim and Tamil women in the North have been attempting to dialogue and even issue public statements recognizing each other’s concerns and aspirations. These attempts – even if limited – to look inwards and extend solidarity and work together in a spirit of justice for all, indeed, brings fresh hopes towards reconciliation.
Justice after three decades – Latin America and elsewhere
And there is also hope internationally. Last week, in two separate emails, I read that a serving General in Uruguay was convicted for 28 years for 1974 murder of an activist and that a former Guatemalan dictator was convicted for 80 years for genocide. Argentinean courts continued to deal with the 1976-1983 “dirty war” era crimes such as murder, enforced disappearances, torture, stealing of babies etc. – a dictator was given a 50 year sentence and several other high level military officials were given long prison sentences. Closer to home in Asia, in the last few years, a leader of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia was sentenced to life and trials for two others commenced. The International Criminal Court continued to issue indictments on individuals from several countries. In March 2013 in Geneva, even as they adopted a rather soft resolution on Sri Lanka, the UN Human Rights Council appointed a Commission of Inquiry in relation to North Korea, after extending the mandate of the previously appointed Commission of Inquiry for Syria.
Towards reconciliation, rights and freedom
There doesn’t seem to be much difference in the way the Government has reacted to the LLRC, Geneva resolution and even decisions of Sri Lanka’s highest courts – treat them with utter contempt ignore them or throw them out if the government doesn’t like them. And call their supporters traitors, terrorist sympathizers at best and at worst attack and threaten them.
If the government wants to be serious about reconciliation, perhaps the best way to start is to provide credible answers about their family members to Sri Lankans who went to Geneva two months ago – to Dr. Manoharan, Sandya Ekneligoda, Sithi, and brother and sisters of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra. So they don’t have to go to Geneva again. And also respond to those who went before the LLRC. And thousands of others who await answers to their complaints to Police, Human Rights Commission, Courts and previous Commissions of Inquiries. And to all those protesting on variety of grievances – such as political prisoners, families of those disappeared, people whose lands are occupied by the military.
If this will start happening, then maybe we can still dream of reconciliation, rights and freedom in our lifetime. And it will help Sri Lankan citizens and the world to feel that we are a civilized country that cares about all it’s citizens, especially minorities, vulnerable persons and those with dissenting views, and where rule of law prevails.