BTF & USTPAC Press Release on the Campaign for the Missing, Marking 100 Days

BTF & USTPAC call for UNHRC intervention re intimidation at missing person protests_May302017

British Tamils Forum

 

 

 

 

BTF and USTPAC call upon the UN Human Rights Council to,

a) Request the High Commissioner or his high-level representatives to visit the protestors in Killinochchi to stop the intimidation of the people who are already traumatised not knowing the fate of their kith and kin.

b) Immediately establish an OHCHR Office in the NorthEast.

c) Oversee the setting up of a credible mechanism to trace the missing persons.

d) Assist Sri Lanka to publicise a comprehensive list of people who surrendered during the last phase of the civil war in 2009 – listing the names of all who were detained or arrested, those who are still in custody (names, locations of detention centres), those who have been released, and, if released, to whom they were released.

e) Obtain from Sri Lanka a comprehensive strategy with a “time-bound plan” to implement in full the government of Sri Lanka’s obligations per Resolution 30/1.

 

Violence against Religious Minorities in Sri Lanka

by UCAN (Catholic News Asia) in Vatican Radio, May 26, 2017

http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2017/05/26/violence_against_religious_minorities_in_sri_lanka/1314905

Human rights groups, religious leaders, lawmakers and the United Nations have all called on the Sri Lankan government to take immediate action against sectarian violence and growing tensions in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.  The groups blame the government for failing to halt a wave of attacks on minority groups following the illegal installation of Buddhist statutes.

Anglican pastor Marimuttu Sathivel, a human rights advocate and coordinator of the National Movement for the Release of Political Prisoners, said many Buddha statutes have been erected despite the low number of Buddhist worshipers in the region.  “Extremist Buddhist monks and their organizations spread their religion through harvesting racism, hate and communal disharmony,” Sathivel said.

The Secretariat for Muslims, a civil society organization, has documented 20 such incidents over the last six weeks, including several attacks on mosques and Muslim-owned businesses.  Reports include an attack by unidentified masked motorcyclists on Kohilawatta Ibrahim Jumma Mosque May 15 and at least six petrol bombs caused damage to Kurunegala Mallawapitiya Jummah Masjid mosque on May 21.

The Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a leading public policy research and advocacy think tank, condemned the violence and called on the government and law enforcement agencies to hold those responsible to account and take preventative measures without delay. “The existing legal framework provides law enforcement authorities with ample tools to prevent such incidents and arrest perpetrators,” the CPA said in a statement May 23.  “None of our fellow citizens should have to live in fear or be subjected to abuse and violence on religious grounds,” the statement added.  The CPA said the government must honestly and actively pursue reconciliation. “The basic tenets of good governance require that the law of the land be applied equally to all, without fear or favor, irrespective of the identity of the perpetrators of division and hate,” the CPA statement said.

Civil rights groups blame hard-line Buddhist groups, such as Bodu Bala Sena, the Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balaya, for whipping up hatred against Muslims and other minority religions through hate speech on social media. In 2014, hard-line Buddhist groups attacked Muslim-owned shops and houses resulting in the deaths of four people and injuring 80.

Speaking in parliament May 23 opposition lawmakers blamed the government for failing to halt the attacks on minority Muslims.  Lawmaker Bimal Rathnayake described the attacks as preventable and called on thegovernment to take responsibility to prevent future incidences.

The U.N. has also called on the government to take immediate action against the violence. “I implore the government and all Sri Lankans to stand united against those inciting hatred,” Una McCauley, U.N. resident coordinator in Sri Lanka, said in a statement, May 22.

Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist nation with a diverse group of minority communities including Tamils, Muslims, Christians and the Burgher people, an Eurasian ethnic group.  Approximately 70 percent of the island nation’s population of 21 million are Buddhist, 15 percent Hindu, 8 percent Christian and 9 percent Muslim.

A majority of Buddhists are ethnic Sinhalese who make up most of the population. Hindus are mostly from the Tamil ethnic minority.  Christians come from the Sinhalese, Tamil and Burgher communities.  (Source: UCAN)

Amnesty: Priest Harassed over Memorial to Dear War Victims

by Amnesty International, May 25, 2017

May 25, 2017

URGENT ACTION: PRIEST HARASSED OVER MEMORIAL TO DEAD WAR VICTIMS (SRI LANKA: UA 116.17)


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Sri Lankan priest, Father Elil Rajendram, is being harassed by the police over his efforts to help families memorialize their loved ones lost during the armed conflict.

1) TAKE ACTION

Write a letter, send an email, call, fax or tweet:

  • Stop the harassment of Father Elil and other activists and victims involved in efforts to remember those who died during Sri Lanka’s armed conflict;
  • Ensure families and human rights defenders are free to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and association, without fear of reprisal and in accordance to the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders;
  • Reminding them that the Sri Lankan government has an obligation to deliver truth, justice, reparation to victims and to ensure non-recurrence of violations and calling on the government to permit and support memorialization as an integral part of any reparation mechanism.

Contact these two officials by 6 July, 2017:

Prime Minister
Ranil Wickremesinghe
Fax : +94 (112) 575310
Fax : +94 (112) 57414
Email: info@pmoffice.gov.lk
Salutation: Dear Prime Minister

Ambassador H.E. Mr. Prasad Kariyawasam, Embassy of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
3025 Whitehaven Street NW, Washington DC 20008
Fax: 1 202 232 7181
Phone: 202 483 4025 OR 202 483 4026 OR 202 483 4027 OR 202 483 4028
Email: slembassy@slembassyusa.org
Salutation: Dear Ambassador

2) LET US KNOW YOU TOOK ACTION
Click here to let us know if you took action on this case! This is Urgent Action 116.17
Here’s why it is so important to report your actions: we record the actions taken on each case—letters, emails, calls and tweets—and use that information in our advocacy.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Facing Sri Lanka’s Ghosts

by Devon Haynie, ‘US News & World Report,’ May 18, 2017

With thousands still missing, Sri Lanka’s postwar progress comes to a halt.

VAVUNIYA, Sri Lanka — At some point during its brutal 26 years, the Sri Lankan civil war brought terror or loss to virtually everyone in the country. For Kasipillai Jeyavanitha, a mother of four, the defining moment of the conflict came in March 2009, just two months before the war ended eight years ago today.

She and her family were among thousands of civilians who had been living in the rebel-held territory, and who now found themselves trapped inside a conflict zone as the military made its final, terrifying advance on the group that had fought for her people’s independence.

Kasipillai and her 17-year-old daughter, Jeromy, were running toward safety during a shelling attack when a pickup truck approached. Several men wearing military uniforms jumped out of the truck and, without a word, threw both women in the back, where a group of frightened families huddled together.

“Let us jump now, I’d rather die on the road,” Kasipillai recalls Jeromy saying. Kasipillai told her not to worry, that nothing would happen in her presence. Minutes later, the men shoved Kasipillai and another mother from the truck. The last she saw of her daughter was her blurring face as the vehicle sped off in the sand.

iPhone images from Sri Lanka shot in March of 2017 by USN reporter Devon Haynie.

Kasipillai Jeyavanitha has not seen her daughter, Jeromy, in eight years.(DEVON HAYNIE FOR USN&WR)

Despite years of heartache, Kasipillai felt a tinge of optimism in 2015, when Sri Lankans elected a new president, Maithripala Sirisena, who promised a new kind of leadership. He committed to reform the economy, restore the rule of law, and heal the divided country, including taking steps to find out what happened to the tens of thousands of people who disappeared during the war.

But for Kasipillai and other Sri Lankans, the hopes born just over two years ago are rapidly fading. The tourism industry is booming, filling the teardrop-shaped island off India’s southern coast with Europeans headed to surf camps and elephant safaris, but most Sri Lankans have seen no improvement in their pocketbooks. Few people have been prosecuted for corruption. And eight years after the war’s end, grieving family members have still received no information about their missing loved ones, let alone justice for their disappearances.

Frustration is on the rise, and there’s a sense among many experts that if the government doesn’t change its course soon, the country could see the return of repressive leadership, and possibly – violent struggle.

Since late January, Kasipillai has spent her days sitting under a makeshift, open air shelter, holding a picture of Jeromy – thin, wide-eyed, and in pigtails. Along with 60 other women, Kasipillai’s on a rotating hunger strike to demand that the government disclose what happened to the country’s disappeared. It’s one of a growing number of protests – some over the missing, and some over military-occupied lands – that have popped up in recent months in the Vanni, the arid northern shrubland where the war’s bloody final battles took place.

Kasipillai and her fellow hunger strikers are all Tamil – part of Sri Lanka’s largest minority – who lost relatives in the war’s final months or in the few weeks after it ended. They talk of husbands snatched from their beds by security forces and brothers who disappeared while out for a quick errand. Most of the women sit silently during protests, holding dated images of their loved ones that sometimes double as fans in the oppressive heat.

Kasipillai’s face is virtually expressionless, almost stern. But when she talks about Jeromy, her brown eyes fill with tears. “I miss my daughter,” she says. “Not every day – every minute.” Kasipillai remembers Jeromy as a “jovial character,” an aspiring teacher who plans to help her family after school.

The descriptions are entirely in present tense. Like her fellow protesters, Kasipillai’s convinced the missing are still alive, held in secret government detention camps. But unlike the women sitting behind her, she carries something she believes justifies her intuition, at least when it comes to her daughter.

A Bloody History

It’s virtually impossible to know how many people have disappeared in Sri Lanka since the start of the war, but Amnesty International estimates the number could be as high as 100,000. The U.N. says the country has the second highest number of reported disappearances of all nations since 1980, behind Iraq.

The story of how so many went missing is tragic, complicated and far from short. At its heart, the Sri Lankan conflict is about two groups: the Sinhalese, Buddhist majority, and the Tamil, Hindu minority, both of which have claims to the tropical island stretching back thousands of years. Modern tensions can be traced to British colonialism, during which the Tamils were disproportionately represented in universities and government. In the years after independence in 1948, the Sinhalese-controlled government passed a series of laws to cement the majority group’s dominance, including making their language the sole national language and changing the constitution to give Buddhism the “foremost place” in the country.

In response, some Tamils began pushing for a separate state in what they considered their traditional homelands in the North and East. One rebel group, called the Tamil Tigers, emerged as the most effective guerrilla group advocating for independence. The war broke out in 1983 after the rebels ambushed and killed 13 Sri Lankan soldiers. In retaliation, thousands of Tamils were brutally stabbed, burned and beaten to death by Sinhalese civilians.

The world leader in suicide attacks from the 1980s through the early 2000s, the Tigers killed a sitting Sri Lankan president, an Indian prime minister, and thousands of Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils they considered threats. Known for their zealous dedication, some cadres wore cyanide capsules around their necks to swallow in case of capture.

As the war raged on in the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s, the government responded to the rebels’ ruthlessness with brutal acts of its own. Forced disappearances and torture were favored tools to curb dissent. Many Tamil civilians were picked up in infamous “white vans,” their bodies tortured and dumped – or never seen again.

The rebels were eventually crushed in 2009, under the leadership of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who led the country from 2005 to 2015. While admired by many Sinhalese for defeating the rebels and for visible, large-scale development projects, Rajapaksa also is accused of large-scale human rights violations.

Journalists weren’t allowed in the North at the end of the war, but the U.N. estimates as many as 40,000 people – mostly civilians – were killed in the final stages. No-fire zones were allegedly shelled by the military, and cell phone images by soldiers and the persecuted showed evidence of sexual assaults and executions of rebels and suspected sympathizers. In the years following the war, death squads loyal to Rajapaksa silenced his critics – Tamil and Sinhalese alike.

Despite his human rights record and mounting corruption scandals, many were still shocked when Rajapaksa lost the presidential election to rival Sirisena in 2015. A former health minister in Rajapaksa’s party, Sirisena came to power through an improbable alliance of minorities and moderates from the two main Sinhalese parties. Sirisena pledged to reform the economy and turn the country into a transparent, tolerant democracy. The most politically risky of his promises, however, was his commitment to addressing the legacy of the war.

Just months after he was elected, Sirisena’s government agreed to an ambitious, but nonbinding U.N. resolution. Ahead of an 18-month deadline, his government would start an office of missing persons, launch a truth commission into what happened during the war, award reparations to victims, and create a court with international judges to try those accused of war crimes. At the same time, he had promised his people that he would oversee a new constitution, which, among other issues, would address the touchy subject of autonomy in the North and East.

At first, all signs seemed promising. Sirisena moved to limit his own powers and restored independence to key parts of the government. For the first time in decades, people felt free to criticize the government without fear.

But as the months ticked by, it became increasingly clear that Sirisena had no plans to quickly pursue reconciliation. If anything, the president seemed to backtrack from his pledges, speaking in support of military leaders charged with crimes and distancing himself from the idea of international judges trying war crimes cases. The U.N.’s deadline came and went in March 2017 with the government making scant progress on any of its key pledges.

“He kept saying he was going to deliver. He’s now a totally different person,” says Shreen Saroor, a woman’s rights activist who works with Tamil and Muslim women in the Northern province. “There is no political will. They don’t want to deliver anything to the Tamil people.”

Mounting Frustrations

Every day of her protest, Kasipillai carries a folded pamphlet advertising Sirisena’s 2015 election run. Rumpled, and covered in a thin sheet of plastic, it shows the president wearing his signature white tunic, one hand raised as he smiles and waves to his supporters. In the upper right hand corner, there’s a smaller picture of Sirisena surrounded by school children in white uniforms and red ties. When she first saw the image, Kasipillai’s eyes went straight to a young girl in the forefront, looking off in the distance. Without a doubt, she says, the woman had the same face, and the same thick pigtails, as Jeromy. The only difference was her eyes. They now looked sadder, she says, as if wondering why her parents weren’t looking for her.

Kasipillai swears the picture was taken after Jeromy disappeared. While Sirisena served in various government posts before he ran for president, he never came to visit her daughter’s school. Even if he did, Kasipillai says, she swears her daughter never owned a tie that color.

Kasipillai met with Sirisena once, and he promised to help her find her daughter. But she’s heard nothing since. The silence is confounding to Kasipillai, who doesn’t understand why the president can’t admit what she knows is true: The children are in government custody.

“It’s highly unlikely the children have been killed,” she says. “If they are dead, they have to close down all the courthouses, because they are children and if they can be killed like this, there can be no point in having courts. If they are dead, they must show us the bones.”

Although Kasipillai is losing faith in Sirisena, she still has a sliver of hope that he’ll make due on his pledges. In other parts of the North and East, however, patience is running out.


The Women Left Behind

by Devon, Haynie, US News & World Report, May 18, 2017

Sri Lanka’s civil war ended eight years ago today, but for its 90,000 war widows, the battle continues.

VAVUNIYA, Sri Lanka — It was midnight in 2008 when several members of Sri Lanka’s security forces barged into Rajendran Geetha’s house and took her husband, Sekar, from bed. “We only need him for a brief inquiry,” she recalls them saying as they blindfolded him and tied his hands with a black rope. In front of his wife, two babies and 10-year-old, he was then whisked away into the night.

Now nine years have passed – more than 100 months of desperate pleas and inquiries and paperwork – and yet Geetha still has no idea what happened to Sekar, a mechanic who she describes as a hard-working introvert. Without his income, she’s forced to work on a farm and take on odd jobs to provide for her children – now 18, 10 and 9. Basic expenses, like school books, are unaffordable.

“I think about my husband everyday, but now I am worried about my children,” Geetha says. “If he were here, it would be much easier.”

iPhone images from Sri Lanka shot in March of 2017 by USN reporter Devon Haynie.

Rajendran Geetha lost her husband to the Sri Lankan Security Forces in 2008. (DEVON HAYNIE FOR USN&WR)

Geetha’s experience is hardly unique in Sri Lanka, an island off the southern coast of India where one in five households is woman-led. The brutal civil war that ravaged the country from the early 1980s to 2009 created as many as 90,000 war widows and in the North and East of the country, the area where the fighting took place. Advocates say tens of thousands more don’t know if their husbands are alive or dead. May 18 marks eight years since the end of the war, yet for many women the suffering still continues in the form of high levels of poverty, domestic abuse and sexual exploitation.

While the Sri Lankan government has taken some steps to help its female heads of households, advocates say they’ve yet to see real progress. In late winter and early spring, two U.N. bodies called on Sri Lankan leaders to improve the conditions for its war-affected women. And in recent weeks, women like Geetha have joined protests drawing attention to the military’s ongoing occupation of private land and the country’s missing.

“They are protesting because they don’t have ways to continue their lives,” says Sinnaiya Kalavathy, a field coordinator for the Centre For Human Rights and Development, a nonprofit group that works with women in Sri Lanka’s war-affected regions.

Of the approximately 245 million widows worldwide, more than half live in extreme poverty, according to the U.N. And Sri Lanka’s widows are no exception.

While most of Sri Lanka is not considered a poor country by international standards, the World Bank and other organizations say poverty rates are significantly higher in the war torn North and East. Many women in these areas, who are mostly members of the country’s Tamil and Muslim minority, were displaced during the war and have been unable to retrieve their land.

While they have received some economic assistance from the state, “livelihood is a serious challenge,” says Tej Thapa, an Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch.

Women who lost husbands in the predominantly Sinhalese Sri Lankan military, which crushed the Tamil rebels in 2009, are eligible for pension benefits equivalent to their spouse’s salary. But there is no equivalent program for Tamil wives of killed rebel fighters, or to women like Geetha, whose husband is among the tens of thousands of people who disappeared during the war, allegedly at the hands of government forces.