Photo courtesy New York Times
‘Her discourse, even when ‘theoretical’ or political, is never simple or linear or ‘objectivized’, universalized; she involves her story in history’. – Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement, The Newly Born Woman, 1986.
My first meeting with Sunila Abeysekara was unforgettable. It was July 1976 and I was being held at Slave Island police station. I was waiting in my cell for yet another excruciating round of torture, which I had been subjected to since I had been abducted two weeks ago from my university boarding house.
All of a sudden, as if from nowhere, a young, smartly dressed woman, of middle class appearance was standing in front of my police cell. She called me by name. This was the first visitor I had seen since my capture. CID had not recorded my abduction or my presence in the police station and did not allow anyone to see me. During my captivity, I was tortured continuously, until I felt my body and mind slipping away from reality I had started doubting my existence. My torturers told me that I would not be going home this time. My arms were so swollen and my hands so injured (they had pulled out my finger nails) that I couldn’t button up my clothes and was reduced to wearing only my underwear. Sunila and I started our friendship in these extraordinary circumstances. She had brought a message for me, from Kelaniya University, to tell me that the Student Council would be launching an all out strike the following day demanding an end to my torture and my immediate release. Her courageous presence before my police cell, even for a few minutes, ensured that there was a witness to my abduction and torture.
During one of my last meetings with Sunila, just a few weeks before her death, she recollected how we had first met and how she had persuaded the police officer on duty that day to let her see me. She also requested that I document such events. This article attempts to rediscover and pay tribute to Sunila’s contribution over nearly four decades of the most repressive period of our history. Her activism evolved and was shaped by the country’s turbulent, violent and murderous political history. In turn, she shaped the human rights campaign in Sri Lanka.
‘Political, social and economic events everywhere in a silent conspiracy with totalitarian instruments devised making men superfluous. The implied temptation is well understood by the utilitarian common sense of the masses, who in most countries are too desperate to retain much fear of death’ observes Hannah Ardent (P. 624, 2004).
During this period the capacity of both the Sri Lanka state and the armed groups to find peaceful political solutions was ignored, despite that fact that there was political space for dialogue and negotiations. Even if there were such moves it was confined to cynical manipulations to regroup for the next step in the hope of vanquishing the other by the brute force. The JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) youth insurrection in 1971 in the South and particularly their Sinhalese rebellion during 1987-89 as well as the LTTE’s (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) 30-year secessionist war against the Sri Lankan State that ended in 2009 went through such phases until finally the state eliminated their leaders and decimated their ranks.
In Sri Lanka, during the period of these uprisings such heinous crimes of making people ‘superfluous’ have happened at alarming scale. In all those uprisings the casualty figures that have now emerged speak of human carnage and highlight the relevance of Arendt’s observations. The responsibility of these crimes rests with their perpetrators – both the state and non- state armed groups. However, effects of these crimes and the wounds they have left on civil society have fallen to the rest of us to grapple with. Thus Sunila became fearless in campaigning for human dignity and the right to life.
Sunila had started her human right activities with the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), which had been formed to campaign for the release of political prisoners following the youth insurrection led by the JVP in 1971. Following the release of the political prisoners in 1978 by the UNP (United National Party) government Sunila briefly joined the JVP and edited their English weekly ‘Red Power’. But in 1980, she left the JVP following a major disagreement. From this point onwards Sunila concerned herself with campaigning for human rights and never joined partisan politics again.
The early 1980’s were defined by the National question – and it became a litmus test for the left in Sri Lanka. This was the decade, which witnessed successive repressive regimes. Draconian legislation such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and Emergency Regulations were introduced, to remain in place for decades. Tamil political grievances were taking centre stage with the ascendancy of Tamil militancy. Sunila worked with MIRJE (Movement for Racial Inter -racial Justice and Equality), helping to spearhead a huge campaign raising awareness of Tamil democratic and political rights. This campaign was alive throughout the decade until the late 1980’s and beyond. Sunila played a major role in taking the anti- chauvinist and pro- democratic discourse to the Southern Sinhalese hinterland in support of the just demands of the Tamil community.
In1987-89 JVP launched their military offensive against the government after the 13th Amendment was introduced to devolve political power to the Tamil community. The JVP hunted all those who supported the devolution of power to the Tamil community, assassinating them without mercy. Left activists also became their main targets and all the women activists including Sunila who supported 13th amendment went underground or had to lie low from the JVP. During this period I worked closely with Sunila and she supported me and countless other activists who were having to live an underground political existence at the time. Sunila constantly put her own life at risk in order to help others to live. She used to visit detainees at police stations, prisons and other places such as those who were living underground, to offer vital support to them when necessary. Such visits had a profound effect on those she helped. Much of the help she gave others was not widely but was invaluable to those people. One such example was her support and help when my wife Rajani was assassinated by the LTTE. I was still underground and Sunila undertook the most difficult task of organising my safe passage to Jaffna to attend Rajani’s funeral. Sunila also led a group of activists from the South to join a protest march in Jaffna town one month after Rajani’s assassination. In Colombo Sunila organised a commemoration meeting around that time.
Her commitment to human rights extended to those who opposed her – she was perturbed and shocked by the Government’s atrocities against JVP activists, who were murdered and dumped on roadsides. Half-burnt bodies were familiar scenes in the Sri Lankan countryside at the time. Sunila never fell into the grip of a chauvinistic fervour based on any naïve notion of patriotism, which has been so much used by the government even after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in order to prevent the devolution of political power to the Tamil community. In this sense, Sunila was a true Sri Lankan and patriot in our time. Sunila never supported the LTTE and their separatist agenda. However, Sunila would have differed from me as a political activist in the way I characterized the LTTE politically and my response to their atrocities. Throughout the 30-year war between the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil militancy, Sunila campaigned for Tamil political rights despite constant intimidation and threats to her life. Sunila’s commitment and activism in defending all our rights was crucial in view of the massive violations of basic rights, human dignity and the right to life throughout the period. She defined our age and time, and she accomplished it with passion, conviction and consistency.
I believe Sunila’s feminism was at the heart of her commitment to the democratic rights of the Tamil community, her outlook transcending tribal and national boundaries. Her practice demonstrated an active commitment to providing a voice for families, men and women and children who are unable to survive without outside support in times of adversity. She demonstrated a deep sense of humanity irrespective of ethnicity, language, religion, gender, class and culture and political affiliation in time of need. This was particularly true during the war. Sunila also created a number of structures in order to achieve these objectives. The organizations she founded such as INFORM and Women and Media are still active and carrying out the work Sunila had started. Her work through these organizations have been able to enlighten many women who are following the path she opened up. Sunila’s multi talented repertoire as an artist, actress and singer also made it possible for her to approach and work with people with an added ease and effectiveness.
Her voice, which had been so crucial, is still needed, just as much as in the past and her demise is a terrible loss. There has been little improvement, despite the great cost of the war in both human and material terms. A mob culture has a stranglehold on our political dialogue and our human rights. As a nation, we still have little respect for the rights of minorities. There is no guarantee that our politics will become more humane. The election violence in Uva Provincial election has shown how a violent political culture intimidates people and replicates that fear locally.
A year ago on 12th September 2013 Sunila’s funeral was attended by thousands of people from all over the country. The funeral procession from her home to the Godigamuwa cemetery in Maharagama was led by her mother, daughter and Sanjay her son who tragically passed away this year in May after a long battle with cancer. Their grief stricken faces that day leading the procession were marked with sense of pride about Sunila’s work and her life. I was able to share their grief as well as the pride at that moment. Sunila’s daughter Subha addressing the gathering telling the crowd that her mother always reminded them to earn the trust of the people rather than earn wealth. The thousands of people who gathered to pay their last respects to Sunila stood as testimony that Sunila always had practiced what she had preached to her children.
Sunila’s irreplaceable and uncompromising work on the issue of human dignity and right to life was recognised internationally when she won the United Nations Prize in the field of Human Rights in 1998 and the Human Rights Defender Award by the Human Rights Watch in 2007. She worked tirelessly to build a safer world for the younger generation and for us. Her devotion to the well being of others has to be an example and inspiration for others. Such people are rare. It is our duty to educate the younger generation about Sunila’s work and how it could be used to build an inclusive nation with all our ethnic communities. There will be a day that our future generations will salute Sunila as a great patriot who devoted all her life and worked fearlessly to build a safer and more inclusive world for all Sri Lankans.
- Arendt, Hannah, 2004, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Random House, Inc. New York: Schocken, p.624
- Cixous, Helene, 1997, ‘Sorties’ in Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (eds.)
- Feminisms, Oxford University Press :Oxford, pp. 231-235.