Collective for Justice in Sri Lanka

Full Text of Speech by Mythri Jegathesan of Collective for Justice in Sri Lanka, at an Event organized by the New York chapter of SLDF:

“Addressing Sri Lanka’s Undeclared War: Demanding Human Rights, Justice and Peace”, Brecht Forum, New York, 13 May 2007:

Thank you and I am very glad to speak on this panel representative of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum (SLDF) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) so that we can discuss the current situation and what has and can be done in the diaspora and other spaces. Today, I am speaking on behalf of the Collective for Justice in Sri Lanka, an ad-hoc group that came together through organizing a series of events to mobilize individuals in the New York area about issues of justice in Sri Lanka. In conclusion, I will briefly review what has been done and discuss how an open dialogue about the situation in Sri Lanka can best be maintained.

Working within the Collective for Justice in Sri Lanka, I believe that it is not enough to report on the statistics of this undeclared war. Rather, it is necessary to look closely at the lived realities of this conflict that Sri Lankans face on the ground when their everyday lives remain continually disrupted by violence, fear, and intimidation inflicted by the LTTE, various paramilitaries, and the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL). Given the escalation of unchecked violence, there are increasingly fewer and smaller spaces inside Sri Lanka to bring attention to and mobilize around issues of justice. This internal dynamic is in direct correlation with the fact that there are no spaces outside the country to engage in a critical dialogue on the continuing human rights violations, violence against women, and the general fear for personal safety and security in Sri Lanka. I will first give some examples of this unchecked violence and later propose why it is difficult to inform and mobilize communities who live outside Sri Lanka around these issues of justice.

In the North and East, there has been a marked increase of unreported thefts of private homes. These robberies have generally taken place after curfew hours and are carried out by small groups of weapon-carrying men who demand all currency and valuables. In one account, three homes on two roads in a Jaffna village were forcibly robbed in one week, and not one family went to the police as their lives were threatened if they would have done so. In another theft incident in the East, the surviving family went to the police to report the crime and the police directed their concern to the TMVP (Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal) office in their district. The police claimed that they could not help the family in their capacity. Thus, the spaces where civil law was designated as available are now void and excepted from the State’s jurisdiction. Thus, the assurances for civilians have been lost.

Second, there has been constant threat to youth and their personal security in the North and East. Children do not feel comfortable to walk to school and tuition centers, as these places have become prime targets for child recruitment and abductions. Due to intimidation, Human Rights Commission offices and other advocacy groups have little capacity to follow up on disappearance cases, and the perpetrators of these injustices have not been held accountable. We, the Collective for Justice in Sri Lanka, concur with the United Nation’s Security Council’s most recent statement that educational institutions must remain safe and neutral in all conflict-affected areas. This has consistently not been the case in Sri Lanka.

Third, the threat and general fear for women to feel safe in and out the home remain significant concerns and spaces to address violence against women have been severely reduced in their capacities. In the North and East, there have been a high number of unreported incidences of harassment, particularly of young girls committed by the Sri Lankan Army and unidentified youth. Moreover, these are in addition to the number of unreported incidents of rape and sexual assault of women. In one case in the North, an eighteen year-old girl was raped during the theft of a home when the group of robbers found no money or valuables to seize. Due to shame and fear, the assault of the woman went unreported. Other young women have claimed that the houses in their areas have been marked as “having women in it” and that they are consistently followed on their way to and from school by unidentified men. It is not an uncommon practice for many homes to barricade their doors with wooden boards each night during curfew hours and if someone comes to the door, the young women in the house will even hide until their safety can be assured. When personal security within even the private domain cannot be assured, it is necessary to support whatever spaces are available for women to speak against violence and intimidation in Sri Lanka.

Fourth, I would like to discuss the lack of medical attention and shortage of supplies to areas in the North and East. Due to the roadblocks to the North since August 2006, medical emergencies and the treatment chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart problems, and cancer cannot be attended to due to the lack of medical supplies. Furthermore, in order to receive medical clearance from the Government, there is a minimum of a two-week period to leave the Palali Air Base in Jaffna by air. Even then, the flights are consistently cancelled, and their prices have tripled since 2002. For instance, on the flight from Jaffna to Colombo this past March, a mother was carrying a two-week old child with a cerebral growth, which was found at birth. So that her child could receive surgery to remove the growth, the mother was forced to take a commercial flight but only after the two-week military clearance. But due to the time elapsed the newborn would not have survived without significant brain damage. These examples are just some of the ways that the everyday lives of individuals in Sri Lanka have been affected by the escalation of the conflict. Now I would like to discuss why it is difficult to mobilize individuals around these injustices outside the country, particularly in the United States.

First, I want to propose that it is necessary to look critically at where Sri Lanka stands in the context of the South Asian diaspora. Currently, there are processes of solidarity in South Asian diasporic spaces, particularly concerning issues of immigration and social movements among second-generational groups. But a gap remains when it comes to looking critically at conflict-affected areas, particularly regarding Sri Lanka. While it has been internally acknowledged by individuals working within diasporic spaces, this gap has not been bridged. If there are processes of solidarity within the diaspora in recognizing the ongoing injustices in Sri Lanka, what does and should this solidarity look like? The Collective for Justice in Sri Lanka proposes that a solidarity within the South Asian diaspora may have to be structured around areas of conflicts and the injustices that result from their continuation.

Second, it is necessary to take a critical stance on the transmission of misinformation on this “undeclared war.” Prioritizing the sensationalism or spectacle of the conflict between the LTTE and Government of Sri Lanka and using the scripted tropes of the “war on terror” in fact contribute to the deteriorating conditions for individuals living in Sri Lanka. Since the tsunami in December 2004, the international media turned its gaze toward Sri Lanka and unfortunately, opportunities to critically examine the worsening of social and political conditions from December 2004 have been lost. Furthermore, locating accurate and unbiased media reports on the situation in Sri Lanka that adequately gives justice to all affected parties is nearly impossible. Not uncommon to other political conflicts around the world, the media has consistently been the primary mechanism through which the LTTE, paramilitaries, and the Government of Sri Lanka are waging this undeclared war. It is not relevant to view the selective images of artillery fire in Colombo as seen on major news-reporting websites in April 2007. The release of these kinds of images only incense nationalist sentiments within the diaspora and the spectatorial desire of those watching a waged war from safe distances. In reality, there is unchecked violence, the displacements of individuals from their homes, and blood shed for no purpose other than the wielding of political power. Images and narratives of these injustices are rarely given priority. We, in the Collective for Justice in Sri Lanka, advocate for their foregrounding so that individuals outside Sri Lanka can gain a better understanding of the lived realities of this political conflict.

Taking these two proposals into consideration, I will now review past events that have addressed issues of justice that were organized by individuals in the New York area. At Rutgers University, a teach-in was held in April 2005 in order educate individuals about how to empower those in Sri Lanka following the tsunami. The event specifically focused on post-tsunami reconstruction programs that were not given visibility in the media and how to sustain their efforts. On January 15, 2005, individuals came together to hold a benefit in collaboration with progressive empowerment-oriented groups in the New York Area. The benefit raised $12,000, contributing to at least nine different groups in Sri Lanka. Afterwards, the 12.26 Coalition formed to support progressive work in Sri Lanka and, in conjunction with the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum (SLDF), compiled a comprehensive list of Sri Lankan grassroots initiatives that US grassroots organizations could connect with. I will not specifically mention the names of these groups today as their spaces available to carry out justice-related work have been significantly reduced with the escalation of unchecked violence and intimidation.

In March and April 2005, In the Shadow of the Gun, a play that addressed the placement of women’s narratives amidst continual violence and war, toured in North America. In February 2006 on the eve of the four-year anniversary of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, vigils for a just peace in Sri Lanka were held in solidarity in New York, Toronto, and London to support the end of bigotry, violence, exploitation, and silencing of voices in Sri Lanka. With the work of ad-hoc groups such as Artists in Solidarity with Tsunami Survivors in Sri Lanka, the 12.26 Coalition, the Hurricane Katrina/Tsunami Solidarity Project, and the Collective for Justice, spaces have been made available to address issues of empowerment in and outside Sri Lanka, and it is important that this work can continue.

Looking ahead, it is clear that the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002 has no meaning, and violence continues to be inflicted on innocent civilians unchecked and unjustified. But what can be done to keep the dialogue here critical and open? First, we must foreground the injustices—that is, the continuing violence against women, the disappearances and abductions of civilians, and the recruitment of children—and hold the perpetrators of these injustices accountable. In concurrence with groups such as University Teachers for Human Rights in Jaffna (UTHRJ), this framework is needed for communities affected by long-term conflicts for the maintaining of their sanity and personal security. Second, we must remain critical of media reporting on the political conflict and maintain ties with grassroots organizations in Sri Lanka that explicitly deal with injustices. In collaborating with these organizations, we can help keep their spaces open and available as resources for Sri Lankan communities. Lastly, we need to remember that it is not only about having a personal stake in the Sri Lankan situation. The present deteriorating conditions in Sri Lanka speak to a more general trend as seen in examinations of political conflicts around the world and their lived realities for individuals on the ground. I would like to thank you all for your time, and Biju, Fred, and Ahilan for their participation on this panel this afternoon.

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