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Sri Lankans united in lack of faith in justice

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By Tejshree Thapa

The refrain I heard over and over again, travelling through Sri Lanka’s southern Sinhala belt, was this: “Politicians rise on the bodies of our dead children.” 

Parent after parent, across political divides, repeated this phrase. Politicians, they said, promise justice and accountability only to win votes. But when the time comes to act on the tens of thousands of enforced disappearances, killings, cases of torture and sexual violence, and other grave human rights abuses by all sides during Sri Lanka’s nearly three decades of civil war, they all renege on their campaign vows. The sense of despair is palpable, even as people cling to the hope of justice for their dead children.

In this country of 20 million, 200,000 people have died in violent conflicts since 1983. In the south from 1987 to 1989, the insurrectionist Sinhala Marxist movement, led by the Janatha Vimuktha Peramuna (JVP) party, attacked Government facilities and executed political opponents. Government security forces and “death squads” operated with impunity, forcibly disappearing and executing anyone deemed to be a JVP member or supporter. For many years Sri Lanka held the ignominious record of having the highest number of “disappearances” in the world. 

In the north, civilians, largely but not exclusively Tamil, bore the brunt of horrific abuses by both the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Government security forces. LTTE suicide attacks and car bombings targeted civilians in southern cities. The LTTE was militarily defeated in May 2009, but at a heavy price to civilians. United Nations estimates put civilian deaths during the final months of the war as high as 40,000. 

The abuses during the separatist conflict in the north were documented by local and international human rights groups and two United Nations inquires. While the serious abuses in the south received coverage at the time, they have received almost no attention since.

One man told me he lost his entire family – father, mother, sisters, and uncle – allegedly at the hands of the JVP. He says they were shot and their house burned down with their bodies inside. One of his sisters was 15. He was 21. He said that the murder of his family members, who were involved in mainstream politics opposed to the Marxist movement, had driven him to join the Army. Yet, 30 years later, he says he is still waiting for answers.

I heard this same lament from parents whose teenage children were killed by Government security forces for alleged sympathies with Marxist political positions. Security forces took teenagers from their homes as they were preparing to sit for their exams or from the streets as they did errands, and their families these many years later have no answers, no apologies, no bodies.

Another man I spoke with, a student at that time whose many classmates became victims, survived by fleeing the district and hiding with relatives. He said he had not been involved with politics, but witnessing what the army did to his schoolmates drove him to join the JVP. “I understand the injustices that Tamil youth must feel,” he said. “I experienced that same feeling of injustice at that time.” 

These injustices are three decades old, but the wounds run as deep as ever. 

In 2016, the Government appointed a Consultation Task Force on Transitional Justice to seek public opinion on how to deliver justice for past human rights abuses. The task force gathered input across various communities and submitted an exhaustive report with comprehensive recommendations for accountability. But the Government has responded with silence.

Many in both the north and south read this silence as a rejection of the report’s recommendations for reconciliation and justice. They have similar accounts of grief and loss. Those who family members remain “disappeared” endure the added pain of not knowing their fate. But the initial willingness to engage with the authorities is fast fading, particularly given the Government’s sluggish and shadowy response to its promises to obtain justice.

One element that unites both north and south is the need for international attention and participation for any possibility of justice and accountability. Most victims and victim families repeat the need for continued international pressure and participation. The Consultation Task Force report reached the same conclusions. While Sri Lanka is expected to deliver a report on its progress on transitional justice before the UN Human Rights Council in 2019, many believe that meaningful action by the Government and the international community must be taken now. 

In the southern town of Embilipitiya, I asked a father, still grieving 28 years after his son’s murder, if he thought the current Government could provide the justice promised to the United Nations. He burst out in surprised cynical laughter: “I have no faith at all. The only reason my son’s case got any attention was because of international pressure. But how long will that last?”

(The writer is a senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.)

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