Notebook of a Nobody

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Abductions and arbitrary arrests are once again reaching alarming proportions, together with extra-judicial killings by all sides involved in our little dirty war. Often, abductions are followed by beatings (as in the recent cases of media persons) or mysterious disappearances. Pious statements of condemnation and “explanations” from apologists ring hollow because there is no redress for the victims and their families. Nobody is charged with these offences and the usual excuse is that there was no evidence or that no eye-witnesses have come forward. This certainly is not the professionalism that we expect of the law enforcement authorities. Our Police have had an enviable record in cracking complex crimes in the past. But now a culture of impunity exists when it comes to crime associated with political figures. It gives rise to a feeling shared by many that these crimes are being committed on the direction of political powerful masters.

Take the case of Joseph Pararajasingham, who was killed as he attended Christmas Mass at the Batticaloa Cathedral in 2005. There were several eye-witnesses who identified the killer but the Police have chosen to release this suspect. A Commission of Inquiry headed by High Court Judge Mahanama Tillakaratne was appointed to investigate this and similar crimes. We do not know what conclusions the Commissioner has arrived at. In any case, the report released in 2007 is presumably gathering dust in the PresidentA?a??a??s Office. The family has understandably lost any faith that the killers will ever be brought to justice.

But this is not an isolated case. Hundreds have been abducted and have disappeared; many have been openly killed. All parties A?a??a?? the LTTE, TMVP, EPDP and the security forces A?a??a?? are widely believed to be responsible for one or the other. The killing of the innocent students in Tricomalee, the aid workers in Mutur (both in the Trincomalee District), the Tamil and Muslim civilians in Allaipiddy (Jaffna District), in Pesalai (Mannar District) and Pottuvil (Ampara District), in the Farm School in the Vavuniya District, and the spate of civilians killed in bus bombings in Kebittigollawa (Anuradhapura District), Buttala (Moneragala District) and in several areas of the Colombo District show that terror from all sides covers all parts of the island. The cited incidents are only the ones that are well known. There are daily incidents of terror that are a part and parcel of the life of civilians in the North and East. Elsewhere, a fear psychosis is building up.

Community Level Peace Building

These abuses of human rights cannot be left for self-correction by the very forces engaged in these abuses. The civil society, the media and even our religious leaders have been basically intimidated into near silence. Nobody likes to be beaten up or incarcerated without charges for months. Except for a few with discernment, the public are deprived of access to the stories of abuse. History has shown that genuine peace building must grow as a peopleA?a??a??s movement. In MarcosA?a??a?? Philippines and in SuhartoA?a??a??s Indonesia it was peopleA?a??a??s power which overthrew repressive regimes. In South Africa and Northern Ireland, a peopleA?a??a??s movement supported by international pressure helped to restore peace and democracy. Such a peopleA?a??a??s movement is what this country needs at this stage. We need civil society and religious leaders who will challenge A?a??E?traitorA?a??a?? labels (as President Rajapakse courageously did during the 1988 insurgency) to give leadership to the people undergoing trauma.

Prof. Daya Somasundaram, then Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Jaffna and co-author with his colleagues in the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) of the Broken Palmyrah, addressed the 2002 Annual Sessions of the Jaffna Science Association. What he stated in the context of Jaffna in 2002 is valid for the country as a whole today. He said: A?a??E?Community level peace building activities have to be initiated. The mode of thinking and acting has to change from a conflict-habituated system of suspicions, grievances, ethnocentrism, violent solutions and confrontation to a peace system with give and take, accommodation, flexibility, forgiveness, non-violence and a wider world-view. A fixed belligerent posture should not be engineered or orchestrated, but a creative response allowed to grow independently and spontaneously from below. Only then can genuine peace be sustained.”

Somasundaram is quite right that new initiatives need to taken at the grassroots. We should think anew and take a broader view of understanding the mind and frustrations of the A?a??E?otherA?a??a??. The media should set an example in this, despite the dangers involved. Too often, our media, particularly the Sinhala and Tamil media, do not promote the themes of national harmony and the respect for the human rights of all communities. Inconvenient truths are suppressed or worse, distorted. The media can be an indispensable tool for promoting public respect for democracy and human rights. Self censorship as practised now, for whatever reason, defeats the purpose for which the media exists A?a??a?? to disseminate knowledge and awareness. Chauvinism, from whomever it emanates, needs to be exposed for the harm it does to the future of our country.

Apologists and Red Herrings

We referred earlier to the case of 17 ACF workers who were killed in Mutur. This is being investigated by the Government appointed Commission of Inquiry (CoI). But it is indeed a pity that Prof Rajiva Wijesinha in a newspaper article this week has again returned to the theme of blaming the ACF for not withdrawing its workers from Mutur earlier. To borrow a phrase from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it is obscene to draw this red herring. 17 young persons have brutally shot and killed in cold blood. We should find and punish the killers of this heinous crime. The University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) by meticulous research have been able to present evidence that identifies the killers. We should assist the Commission of Inquiry to investigate independently, including the evidence presented by the UTHR (J), and make their findings. It is truly obscene for this liberal turned apologist to draw a red herring by trying to shift the blame on the ACF. The ACF may or may not have exercised good judgment in keeping its staff in Mutur on that fateful day. The ACF exists to provide assistance in precisely such situations but this was an extraordinary situation, which the local management may not have realised. But that is not the real issue. These young persons have been brutally murdered. The real issue is to identify and bring their killers to justice.

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Whilst on the Mutur massacre, it may be pertinent to refer to another red herring that has been drawn in respect of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry headed by retired Supreme Court Justice. An eleven member International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) headed by retired Indian Supreme Court Chief Justice P N Bhagwati were present as international observers and to assist the CoI. The IIGEP withdrew earlier this year citing various reasons why they felt that the CoI may not be able to arrive at the truth. One of the reasons they gave was that there was a conflict of interests in the counsel from the Attorney GeneralA?a??a??s Department being closely involved in the collection and preparation of evidence and leading the questioning of witnesses. At least one of the leading counsel for the CoI had reportedly advised some of the original police investigations that are to be examined by the CoI. Counsel for the security forces whose conduct is under investigation have predictably drawn a red herring by accusing one of the Commissioners of a conflict of interest and accusing the Chairman Udalagama, a person of undoubted integrity, of misconduct. Are these 17 young persons and their families entitled to justice. There have been disturbing reports of the intimidation of witnesses, some of whom have had to flee the country. Others have simply refused to come forward out of fear.

Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe

Soon after the 1983 pogrom, and shortly before his death, Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe gave a stirring and oft-quoted pastoral address to his flock at Kurunagala. What he said then still remains valid after twenty five years: “The urgent demands of our national crisis must overcome personal, party and petty interests. We must pray for and support those who are trying to build convergence in the midst of divergence. Renewed dialogue between the Sinhala and Tamil leadership should not be delayed. The possibility of renewed violence remains in the background like a dark shadowA?a??A?. A genuine sharing of power between the majority and minorities has to emergeA?a??A?. There must be a real determination to reach a settlement. Otherwise, there will be increasing disorder along with increasing dictatorship.


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