By Dr. Farah Mihlar
Colombo, June 3 (DailyFT): To effectively and successfully defeat the Rajapaksas and bring about transformative justice and accountability, a strong, united effort inclusive of all Sri Lankans is something we can neither compromise on nor delay
The mass uprisings and public protests centred at, though not limited to, GotaGoGama (GGG) are of epic significance in Sri Lanka, which in its post-independence history has not seen such a diverse, inclusive and sizable resistance movement for justice and accountability. Beyond the coming together of so many people across class, caste, age, gender, religion, ethnicity and other forms of identity; there are other unique aspects.
These include the genuine search for sustainable change, justice and accountability beyond the immediate demand of ‘Gota Go Home’; the immense courage and energy of the leadership, particularly youth, in the face of forceful state obstruction and attacks; and the use of space to creatively learn, unlearn, understand, develop and grow in the process of change. The starting point of this article is to recognise these factors and to acknowledge with humility how privileged I felt to be part of the protests, even if only for a few days.
The focus of this article is on the struggle for accountability and in doing so I don’t want to discount the severity of the current situation with continuing shortages in food, medicine and fuel. From its inception the heart of the GotaGoHome movement has been the quest for justice and accountability; people identified the Rajapaksa core ruling family as responsible for the country’s present crisis, wanted them out of government and to face justice. This call for justice is resoundingly loud, clear and consistent, but there is a notable gap in it – the voices and views of the people of the north and east who have also been demanding accountability for crimes they suffered in the hands of the same perpetrators – Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa (henceforth Rajapaksas).
Indeed, there are representatives of families of disappeared at GGG where there was also for the first time ever on 18 May 2022, a memorial for those who died in Mullivaikkal. A few north-eastern activists have participated in the Colombo protests and there have been one or two small protests in the north and east; all of these are important but compared to the larger picture marginal. At GGG there is virtually no mention of the Rajapaksas’ war record of injustice, there is minimal representation of people from the north and east, and language itself is a major issue within the protest site as there is very little written or spoken Tamil content. Why aren’t people in the north and east who have been demanding for accountability from the Rajapaksas for so many years joining these protests and building on the momentum to achieve a common objective?
It is perplexing that in such a momentous point in history where the people of Sri Lanka want accountability from the same group of people a fissure remains across the old conflict lines of ‘north-east’ and ‘south’. Viewing this through a purely majority-minority lens may be too simplistic as the Rajapaksa sponsored and organised attacks and violations against Muslims have been acknowledged and there has been a concerted effort to include some minority groups. This article explores why in this historic moment of resistance, despite an obvious common goal for justice and accountability from the very same perpetrators, this divide remains.
The views presented here are only a snapshot, taken from a small sample, but its findings are important and worth publicising. A further qualification is that the references to movements outside to the north and east is limited to the main protest sites in Colombo. This article has two parts to it, the first seeks to understand the reasons for this divide, and the second makes the case for bridging this gap.
Perspectives from the north and east
I want to start with the perspectives from the north and east as they remain absent from the larger resistance movement. There is no doubt that people in these areas are also struggling with the economic crisis, even if many of these issues are not new to them. Throughout the war, people in the north and east suffered without food, medicine and fuel due to various government embargos aimed at preventing access of these to the LTTE; people have learnt to live on yams and the few vegetable they can grow at home, children studied for decades only under the light of kerosene lamps and many were affected by frequent medicine shortages, including basic painkillers like Panadol. They now sympathise with the situation in the rest of country and recognise how very much more difficult it is to survive like this in big cities and the capital Colombo.
In the east of Sri Lanka the effects of the current economic crisis appear to be felt more deeply than in the north. Many people there are more dependent on the national trade and economic links and therefore are affected by the fuel shortages. They also have less support from Diaspora funding than those in the north. In both areas the pinch is felt most by women, who as a result of the loss, disability or disappearance of a male family member are now sole providers for their household.
There are up to 1 million women in this position in the north and east and in the current environment their earning capacity is minimal. Some of these women labour in nearby farms, others produce rice packs for sale from home, sell vegetables/fruits from their garden or work as domestic workers. During the COVID-19 lockdowns significant numbers lost access to income and fell deeper into debt. The present catastrophe has pushed them further down the economic ladder and with them their families, children and elderly, are facing poverty or starvation.
Yet, the aragalaya of the people of the north and east against the Rajapaksas is fundamentally for a different reason: ‘our struggle is for lives, their struggle is for gas, electricity and fuel.’ This was not said to belittle and there was a clear understanding of the importance of these items to save lives. Rather, the point had two aspects: firstly, that people in the north and east have been on an aragalaya for justice against the Rajapaksas since at least 2009; secondly, that their struggle has been over the killings and enforced disappearances that the Rajapaksa family were directly responsible for.
The reasons for the public resistance movement calling on the Rajapaksas to be accountable for their role in the current economic crisis has broad acceptance across Sri Lanka. However, the crimes they committed in the north and east are doubted, contested and at times denied.
I therefore want to take a moment to revisit some of these allegations in order to establish the Rajapaksas’ scope and propensity to violence as well as to ensure a more inclusive sense of justice for all people of Sri Lanka.
The list of war crimes allegations against both the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) is long and well-established in national and international investigations, but I can only focus on a few specific cases here. The first is that in the last stages of the war when the civilian population of the Vanni were trapped on a narrow landmass amidst heavy fighting, the Rajapaksas misled the country and the international community by claiming that the total number of people caught up in fighting was only between 50-60,000, even though local government statistics showed up to 400,000. Consequentially, for months, only sufficient food and medicine for this number were sent, effectively starving and threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
I have interviewed people who spoke of the horrors of this time when they simply had no food for their children for days. I spoke to a woman who gave birth and struggled to produce breast milk for her baby as she herself had not eaten properly for weeks. As in the city now, black market racketeers inflated the prices of the few available food items; milk powder selling at over Rs. 1,000 was part of the daily experience of the people in Vanni at the time.
At the very end of the war when only rice was available, it was made into kanji and when this was being distributed the military allegedly bombed the queues, killing hundreds. Babies, children and entire families died; there was no media to report on them, no one to properly document; they simply became a number that was later denied. Under international pressure the Rajapaksas created ‘no-fire zones’ – safe spaces that civilians could escape to, once there they reportedly shelled them, killing hundreds at a time.
Arguably, in a situation of war some civilian toll has to be expected, but the critical point here is that so many thousands of innocent civilians lost their lives due to this policy to starve and attack them in a targeted manner in order to defeat the LTTE. There is no doubt that the LTTE were also responsible for the civilian plight, mainly by trapping them in this situation, their leadership was eventually destroyed but the Rajapaksas are yet to account for these crimes.
For the people of the north and east the destruction that the Rajapaksas are capable of is no surprise, many of them have been protesting about this since at least 2009. During and after the war thousands of young Tamil men and women were allegedly picked up by the military and in white vans from their homes and the streets, for no obvious reason, never to be seen again. When the war ended the military announced to all of the trapped civilians that if anyone had even worked for one day for the LTTE they should surrender to them. Several families handed over their loved ones, children, husbands, wives, who had no involvement with the rebels, they may have only dug a bunker for them in the last few days or nursed the sick. Many of these people were put into buses, taken away and never seen again. Families of enforced disappeared have been engaged in protest since the end of the war, they simply want to know, “What happened to my child? Just tell me, is he alive or is he dead? Where is he? If he is dead, why did you kill him? What did he do to you?”
The neglect of the perspective of those from the north and east not only discriminates and marginalises them but raises serious questions on whether this movement and the present fight for justice is ‘national.’ The eight point demands for justice by a segment of the GGG protestors acknowledged disappearances and human rights violations against all people, but failed to mention any of these specific crimes that are internationally documented as having taken place under the Rajapaksas’ command. If this protest movement is to lead to a genuine sustainable change in Sri Lanka through a process of justice accountability, then it cannot afford to be exclusive and represent only part of the citizenry, it needs to recognise the entirety of crimes committed by this regime against all people.
Bridging the gap
Bridging this gap is essential to ensure that this protest movement can achieve genuine meaningful justice for all people of Sri Lanka that leads to new beginnings rather than being divided by old animosities. There are also important lessons to learn through such a coming together, which I will briefly run through here. Firstly, acknowledging the severity of the crimes allegedly committed by the Rajapaksas permits a fuller understanding of their capacity for violence, which has not yet been fully witnessed by a majority in the ‘south’. Sections of the Muslim community, political opponents, human rights activists, journalists and dissenters from the south who have stood against or challenged them are also witness to this.
Secondly, questioning why the majority of Sri Lankans are still unable to see the full extent of their crimes in the north and east provides insight into the Rajapaksas’ strategic ability to deceive, mislead, deny and cover up. That even at such a major turning point in the country’s history, there is a major reluctance to consider war time atrocities, in spite of the overwhelming publicly available evidence is testament to the Rajapaksas propaganda.
This in turn raises questions on what fate can befall the current protest movement. Those seeking justice in the north and east were presented as LTTE supporters or sympathisers, perpetrators rather than victims, untrustworthy, false claimants, traitors, trying to damage the country. With the exception of the first, all other accusations may, in time, be laid on those involved with and supporting the GGG protest movement. As protests in the north and east continued, leaders and activists were continuously arrested and held in detention without charge under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), various methods were used to supress the protests, ranging from force and violence, arrests and detentions; both of which we have seen in the GGG context, but additionally continuing and incessant harassment and false targeting of family members.
A leader of the families of disappeared in the east was followed, questioned, visited at all hours of the night and eventually illegal alcohol or kasippu was planted in her son’s three-wheeler and he was arrested and charged with a crime he had not committed. Sandya Eknaligoda, who has been searching for justice for the disappearance of her husband, journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda, has for over a decade faced threats, intimidation, harassment from the authorities and from the general public who have framed her as a ‘traitor.’
I am not arguing that the use of violence and intimidation are specific to the north and east, but the overwhelming militarisation in this area provides an infrastructure that makes it much more widespread and gives us a sense of the scope and capability of the Rajapaksas to violently oppress. Such methods are aimed at exhausting protestors and isolating them within their family and support circles to the point it becomes impossible for them to continue fighting for their causes.
Importantly, some of these techniques continued when the government changed in 2015, which brings us to the third critical lesson to be learnt from the north and east experience. Gota must go and face justice, but the previous government showed that other politicians can hardly be trusted and reforms have to address structures and systems, not only individuals. The families of disappeared began their organised protests in the north and east during the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, neither of these politicians showed any interest in their search for children.
Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tactic was to appear internationally engaged in claims for justice, including through supporting resolutions at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), whilst totally ignoring and undermining claims for justice by victims on the ground. Not even the basic level of respect for elders, which we as Sri Lankans pride ourselves for having, was shown to the mother of disappeared who sat continuously for hundreds of days in the scorching heat on the main roads of the north and east.
Official disregard continued until, exhausted and ill they struggled to sustain the protests with strong momentum. Over 140 mothers who were involved in the protests have since died without even finding out what happened to their children, let alone finding justice.
Such tactics and systems of extreme violence and oppression are endemic to the Sri Lankan state and political culture and we can be confident that even if under Ranil Wickremesinghe’s premiership GGG will not be ‘touched’ other means will be used to crush, exhaust and defeat the protests.
It is not surprising then that those in the north and east are tired, doubtful and fearful of joining a larger country-wide movement. Some activists are bitter at how their protests were ignored by southern tourists who passed them on the A9 on their way to holidays in Jaffna. Nevertheless, some expressed solidarity and support; ‘in our hearts we are with them even if we aren’t physically there.’ Why the reverse isn’t taking place and the issues and suffering of those in the north and east aren’t making it to GGG and other ‘national’ protests, is a question that needs to be confronted before it is too late.
Asking the necessary questions, recognising the ideological underpinnings, and breaking down barriers is the internal struggle that is necessary for the external one to succeed and bring meaningful change. To effectively and successfully defeat the Rajapaksas and bring about transformative justice and accountability, a strong, united effort inclusive of all Sri Lankans is something we can neither compromise on nor delay.
(The writer is a human rights activist and a researcher, and lectures in a UK university.)