Featured image courtesy Rasmila

At 7:30 am in Mullikulam on March 23, a group of villagers decided to begin a protest, demanding for the return of their land.

The residents of Mullikulam have been living ‘as refugees’ for 11 years, in their own words. Most of their land has been occupied by the Navy. Within 2 hours, according to a participant, the police arrived at the scene of the protest. “They asked us, do you want to protest, or do you want your land back?” he related. Undeterred, the protesters decided to continue their efforts.

 Photos courtesy Mannar Social and Economical Development Organization

The residents of Mullikulam are only the latest to join a string of protests held across the North, in the run up to the 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva.

On March 23, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on Sri Lanka. Amounting to a technical rollover, it gave Sri Lanka two more years to fulfill the commitments made in a resolution co-sponsored in 2015.

“The very reason the people are protesting is because they have seen no progress in their cases,” human rights activist Ruki Fernando said.

“The representations made by Sri Lanka in Geneva… are completely disconnected from the lived day to day experiences of the protesters. Their perspectives and aspirations are the opposite of what the Prime Minister is saying. The Foreign Minister is not speaking about their daily experience. So they are trying to provide a counter narrative.”

The wave of protests is a relatively new phenomenon, sparked both by the Human Rights Council sessions, but also, perhaps, by frustration about the passage of time. “Some people I met with said they felt a fresh burst of hope when President Sirisena was elected, that he might be able to do something,” Ruki said.

“They have given the government quite some time. Two years is a long time for a mother searching for her son, or a wife searching for her husband.”

“After giving the government some time, they have no faith in this government either. So they’re expressing their frustration.”

This expression was however a positive sign in itself, indicating increased space for dissent and protest, Fernando said.

The protests, which have been extensively covered on Groundviews, highlight a range of issues – from militarisation and land issues to the struggles of the newly resettled and the families of the disappeared.

For the most part, the response from Sri Lankans outside of their own communities has been minimal. “A very few people, such as shopkeepers, drivers and the clergy, did support these people’s struggle.

“It’s a small group of people, but it is a silver lining. Overall however, there is a sense of deep frustration,” Fernando said.

Families returning to Pilakudiyiruppu for instance, were shocked to find their property damaged by the military, in apparent anger. “This is the opposite of what a gesture of reconciliation should be.”

In the backdrop of families of the disappeared calling for information about their loved ones, there has been little progress on the set up of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) beyond the passage of legislation.

“There was an attempt to pass an amendment that effectively reduced the powers of the OMP. If passing amendments, it’s also possible to take into consideration the requests the families of the missing have made,” Fernando pointed out. This amounted to, among other things, changing the name of the Office to the Office of the Missing and Disappeared, and including provisions that guaranteeing the direct involvement of the families of the disappeared in the office. “The Government has been willing to pass amendments… but only amendments that weaken provisions of the OMP. How do we expect families of the disappeared to be confident in the process?” Fernando asked.

For Fernando, this is as much a personal issue as a crisis of conscience. Three years ago, Fernando along with his colleague Father Praveen were detained by the Terrorist Investigations Department (TID) apparently in part due to efforts to look into the case of Balendran Jeyakumary, the mother of a missing child.

“Jeyakumary was physically released around 2 years ago. Yet, she is still under investigation. She still has to go to courts. She is still criticised by the community.” In fact, the repercussions for Jeyakumary are financial as well, “She says it’s difficult to even find a job, because she has been herself labeled a terrorist suspect, and people are afraid they will get persecuted by the TID,” Fernando said. So while Jeyakumary is no longer detained, she is still facing the repercussions of the arrest – all because of her struggle to find her son, whose photo she claims to have seen in a government run rehabilitation centre. Three years later, and two years after a new Government has been elected, there is no progress on Jeyakumary’s case. Fernando himself sporadically faces interrogation – most recently, two weeks ago while visiting Pilakudiyiruppu and two years ago, when he was detained at the airport. “I was only detained for a couple of days, but the people in the North face far more social consequences after being detained,” Fernando said.

In this context, the comments made at the Human Rights Council are jarring when juxtaposed with the experiences of those still recovering from the conflict. Sri Lanka has two more years to implement the commitments it made in 2015. It remains to be seen whether, two years from now, women like Jeyakumary will be any closer to having answers.