366 Days Roadside protests in Kilinochchi | Sunday Observer

366 Days Roadside protests in Kilinochchi

Pix: Lucille Abeykoon
Pix: Lucille Abeykoon

A year after a group of families of the disappeared began a roadside protest in the North, a human rights activist writes about the anguish of those still waiting for answers about missing loved ones; and how they are unwilling to give up the search

Three hundred and sixty six days (as of Feb 20) is a long time to be at a 24 hour roadside protest. That’s how long Tamil families of the disappeared in Kilinochchi have been there. In the coming days and weeks, protests by families of the disappeared in Vavuniya, Mullaithivu, Maruthankerny (Jaffna district) and Trincomalee will also reach one year.

Most of the protesters were elderly mothers and fathers and those physically and mentally injured by the war. They have been braving the sun, rain, cold, dust, insects and the mosquitoes. Some had been hospitalized. I was told seven women had died over the past 366 days. One woman leading the protest in Mullaitivu was assaulted, and received threats to stop. The protesters have been subjected to constant surveillance. While protesting, they had also struggled to take care of their children at home, engage in livelihoods, find the bus fare to come to the protest site and a range of other practical problems. From the day I first met them a year ago, and through subsequent visits, I have seen them falling ill, hungry, cold, sweating, their spirit and physical strength deteriorating. But they have not given up.

They have told me, their protest is not levelled against the government, military or any other. They just want to know whether their disappeared children, grandchildren, husbands, are alive or dead. Many believe their loved ones are alive and want to know where they are being held. They want to see them. If dead, they want to know what happened and to receive their remains. Many protesting families witnessed their loved ones surrendering to the Army before their own eyes, and thereafter never seen again.

Evolution of the protests

The protests started with some families of the disappeared in Vavuniya staging a fast unto death in January 2017.

As health conditions of the elderly women fasting in Vavuniya deteriorated, the State Minister of Defence met the families at the protest site. He promised a meeting with several senior Ministers in Colombo, and the families agreed to temporarily suspend the protest. That meeting happened, but never yielded anything, and after waiting two more weeks, the families in Vavuniya recommenced their protests, and reached the one year mark yesterday, February 24, 2018. Around the same time, protests started in four other places in the North and East.

Other struggles and the ethnic factor

Not all Tamil families of the disappeared in the North and East are involved in these protests. Several have filed Habeas Corpus cases, which are pending in courts in Jaffna, Mullaithivu, Vavuniya, Mannar and Colombo. Last year, some families of Tamil men who were taken away by the Army in 1996 in Jaffna, filed fresh Habeas Corpus applications.

Based on this, an Army officer, alleged to have been responsible and now serving as a Major General in Mannar, has been summoned to appear before courts. In different cases filed in Mannar and Colombo in relation to different incidents, Police investigations have revealed the complicity of the Navy in disappearances.

Last year, families of the disappeared in Mannar published a book with the stories of their loved ones. There have also been protests on significant days, such as, International Human Rights Day and the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

To me, in a way, the year-long protests in five places symbolizes the hard and long struggles waged by the vast majority of families of the disappeared.

There is also an ethnic factor in the protests and campaigns. A large number of Sinhalese have also disappeared, mostly in the late 1980s.

Their families, through movements such as, the Mothers’ Front and supported by domestic and international rights activists and politicians that included former President Mahinda Rajapakse and the present Minister Mangala Samaraweera, campaigned heavily for truth and justice in the 1990s, which was a factor in toppling the repressive UNP government of that time.

Support for the protests

But, in recent years, Sinhalese families have not been campaigning so visibly, with a few exceptions like Sandya Ekneligoda and Mauri Jayasena, whose husbands had disappeared in 2010 and 2013 respectively.

The last few years, especially, 2017, have seen many protests in Sri Lanka. The most visible had been a series of sustained protests by students against the privatization of health and education.

There were also several month-long overnight protests in Colombo against the exploitative manpower system by workers. Communities negatively affected by development projects, such as, in Jaffna, Bandarawela and Colombo have also been protesting, while there were also protests against caste-based oppression by communities in Jaffna, and campaigns demanding justice and freedom for political prisoners, which included a fast by three prisoners.

Months-long, day and night protests were also held in the North, demanding the return of lands occupied by the military. Some of these protests had achieved their aims, while some ended without clear results.

But, along with protests to regain military occupied lands in the North, the protests by families of the disappeared are the longest running. The latter has been internationalized and seem to be the most controversial and immensely political, despite the deeply personal nature of the problem.

This is probably why there have been very few sympathizers and even a less number of people who want to actively support the protests.

Although some Northern Tamil politicians and political commentators appear to be ignoring the protests and not recognizing their significance, the protests have received significant support and sympathy in the North. Hindu and Christian clergy and institutions, journalists, university students, three wheel taxi drivers and shop owners etc. have extended support, in addition to politicians and activists. However, solidarity and support from the rest of the country, especially Colombo, has been minimal. Despite all the protests being led by women, with the majority of participants also being women, Colombo-based women’s movements, both new and old, do not appear to be actively supporting their sisters at the protests.

Although some Northern Tamil politicians and political commentators appear to be ignoring the protests and not recognizing their significance, the protests have received significant support and sympathy in the North. Hindu and Christian clergy and institutions, journalists, university students, three wheel taxi drivers and shop owners etc. have extended support, in addition to politicians and activists. However, solidarity and support from the rest of the country, especially Colombo, has been minimal. Despite all the protests being led by women, with the majority of participants also being women, Colombo-based women’s movements, both new and old, do not appear to be actively supporting their sisters at the protests.

A prominent exception has been Sandya Eknaligoda, wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who had been travelling to the North and East to join the protesters regularly. She was also able to mobilize a few other Muslim, Sinhalese and Tamil families of the disappeared from around Colombo to join in solidarity.

Considering the unprecedented longevity, widespread nature, intensity of the protests and the desperation of the protesters, there has been minimal media coverage of the protests on mainstream Sinhalese and English media. Other Colombo-centric protests and struggles, such as, that against the privatization of health and education by university students, and against the sexual abuse of children in an orphanage in Colombo, received much more mainstream media coverage. I can’t help wondering whether the political controversy about the protests, the ethnic factor and the fact that these were happening in the North and East may have deterred Sinhalese and English media adequately covering the issue.

Domestic and International dimensions

On the 100th day of the protest in Kilinochchi, the protesters blocked the A9 road for about five hours and demanded to meet the President. Since then, the President had met the protesters at least thrice, but solutions remained elusive and protesters lost faith in the political leadership. The protesters had also met Ministers and other Government officials, and tried to engage with the Sinhalese public, with appeals and banners in Sinhalese. In contrast, a statement issued in solidarity with the protests by organizations working primarily in the North and East focused their demands on the international community. A lack of response, support and sympathy from within Sri Lanka, coupled with a push from some Tamil activists and politicians, appear to have made the families also lean more and more towards foreign diplomats and UN officials to find the answers they are seeking.

The future of the protests

The protests are far from over. And, the answers sought by the protesters still seem distant. Their courage and determination has been exceptional, but it has come at tremendous personal cost. The future of the protests has to be and will be decided by the families. But, as the five protests complete a year, I hope the families will have the space to assess what has been achieved and plan ahead, perhaps to a transit to a different form of struggle, which may be more sustainable, less costly on themselves and have the potential to bring them closer to the answers they are seeking. It is also a time for those of us who have been associated or sympathetic towards the protests and the cause, to engage in some self-reflection about the roles we have played, might have played; how we might better support continuing struggles in the longer term, and mobilize more support.

The writer Ruki Fernando is a well-known human rights activist, who works closely with families of the disappeared

Courtesy: A version of this article appeared on Groundviews

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