26 September, 2020

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‘A Slap On The Wrist’: Sri Lanka At The UNHRC

By Phil Miller

In a hotel by the tranquil shores of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam is catching his breath from the relentless repression faced by Tamil activists in Sri Lanka. He is here to attend the UN Human Rights Council’s 22nd session, which will examine the situation in his homeland this month.

Ponnambalam got into trouble with the Sri Lankan government just for trying to travel abroad. Not surprisingly they want to keep an eye on him, given his track record as an outspoken politician fighting for Tamil people’s rights. Ponnambalam was a Member of Parliament for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) from 2001-2010, until his section of this coalition – the oldest Tamil political party in Sri Lanka, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress – withdrew in 2010 to establish the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF). Ponnambalam is currently president of the TNPF, an organisation which prefers to work with civil society rather than the government of Sri Lanka.

Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam

Ponnambalam monitored closely the fate of the Jaffna University students arrested at the end of November for their commemoration of Tamils killed in wars against the Sri Lankan state. “After the first pair of student leaders had been interrogated for many hours, the Student’s Union got worried and asked me to intervene. I was aware if I got involved the government would claim political parties were behind the students’ protests, which absolutely was not the case. So I contacted the most senior lawyer in Jaffna. She found out that a special team was coming from Colombo to interrogate the students. It was clear they would not be released soon. The next day, I found out two more students had been detained, including the union secretary who had requested my help”.

Ponnambalam gives insight into how the Sri Lankan state treated these students: “The Terrorist Investigation Department were the arresting authority. They used a three month detention order and transferred them to the Joint Services Special Operations camp in Vavuniya and then the secretive Welikanda military detention complex – this ‘rehabilitation’ site should only be used if people surrender their links to a banned organisation as set out in the Prevention of Terrorism Act. There were no grounds to use this against the students. I asked their parents to challenge the detention but they were too frightened. The students were eventually released out of the blue last month”.

This incident is in stark contrast to the mantra of reconciliation promoted by British officials in their depictions of post-conflict Sri Lanka. Ponnambalam is critical of their use of language, saying that “structural genocide, not reconciliation, is the phrase which most accurately describes what is going on.” He explains how after the massacres of Tamils in the Vanni in 2009, the genocide has taken new forms. “Even the development and reconstruction that they speak of is mostly infrastructure. These roads are arterial roads used to mobilise the Sri Lankan military. Everyone knows that. It is being done to systematically undermine the national identity of Tamil people”.

He is adamant that the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa is not uniquely problematic. “The land grab is not peculiar to this regime. It has been happening for the last 65 years. The only time it stopped was during the armed struggle of the LTTE, because then Sinhalese people were not willing to settle in the north and east”, where a de-facto Tamil state existed.

Although he was in Geneva to observe the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) session on Sri Lanka, he was pessimistic about the prospect of a satisfactory outcome. He dismissed the new US-drafted resolution, which will only “give the Sri Lankan government more time”. He bases this on the fact that a similar resolution was passed last March at the UN HRC which, he says, “did nothing to curtail the genocide. This resolution will be nothing more than a slap on the wrist”.

Looking back, he reflects how “a lot of people said that resolution was ‘against Sri Lanka’. Not at all. It was just a resolution on Sri Lanka that put it on the international agenda. It did nothing to positively change the situation on the ground. Don’t take my word for it. Look at the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ own report on it. Surely a decent resolution would have addressed the concerns of the day, and made a positive impact on the ground? In fact, things have got worse. The government has become more aggressively anti-Tamil, moving towards authoritarian rule. So how can that resolution be called ‘against Sri Lanka’?”

Ponnambalam pointed out how the terms of debate are still fixed on whether the government is implementing the recommendations of their own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). “The resolution was based on the LLRC, whose commission was appointed by the government. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group all rejected the commission’s members. One of them was a known government apologist who was the Attorney General at the time. Our party said outright that you can’t take the conclusions of a fundamentally flawed commission, so we refused to even go into its merits.

He continued to highlight the weakness of the international community. “The second part of the resolution talked about internal accountability – for the very same government accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and what we call ongoing genocide”.

Ponnambalam believes Tamil women are playing a lead role in defending their communities from the Sri Lankan military. “The women are at the forefront of bringing to the world the issues on the ground, through various non-violent acts. For example, it was the women who demonstrated against their land being taken by the army in Keppapilavu. Then it was the mothers protesting about their disappeared children. The most vulnerable in our society are the most active in resisting”.

The deportation of Tamils to Sri Lanka has sparked controversy, amid reports that people sent back are imprisoned, raped or subjected to other forms of torture. In February the British High Court finally suspended the removal of Tamil refugees, pending a review of the situation due in May. Ponnambalam was unequivocal about the danger inherent with these deportations. “There is ample evidence to suggest that ordinary Tamils (let alone those who have gone abroad and sought asylum) are facing an enormous threat to their life in Sri Lanka. Elderly people who have been non-political for 25 years are suddenly being detained. So can you just imagine what reaction awaits people who have gone abroad, sought asylum, accused the Sri Lankan government of persecution… This criticism is the number one criteria for getting the State security apparatus against you. These people are not going to be taken lightly, and there is documentary evidence that they have been tortured on return.”

He also warned activists how the situation may evolve. “Some people are interrogated as soon as they step off the plane. No doubt the authorities will get more sophisticated – they will document people as arriving safely only to snatch them later”.

*Phil Miller works for the Stop Deportations Network. This article is first appeared in OpenSecurity
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Latest comments

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    A very complex issue with no easy answers. If there is a genuine aspiration of the minority communities to settle their grievances within a democratic and civic framework, the governments of Sri Lanka must extend their full co-operation and embrace them with open arms.

    People’s lives are too short, to keep playing politics, or playing psychological games with a view to undermine institutions that promote harmony and peaceful co-existence.

    People must try to identify themselves more as Sri Lankan than Sinhala or Tamil or Muslim, however hard that may seem, especially those who perceive a deterioration of traditional claims to territory or geographic demarcations that highlight ethnicity or religion.

    • 0
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      Good points. Unfortunately our politicians have taken the colonial method of divide and rule, and implemented it in our country, much to the detriment of peace and unity badly needed right now.
      We are deliberately provoked into turning against each other, and causing much unrest, and suspicion of other races. A deliberate plan to keep the population distracted from what is really happening in the country, and the serious issues at the UNHRC. We are also inviting alien influences to further divide us and keep us in turmoil. It seems Sri Lankans are blind to the consequences of such irrational behavior, and dumb enough to not see through all these devious machinations. Hot headed reactions and hatred for fellow Sri Lankans will be the downfall of the entire country, if we go on this way. The UNHRC has valid reasons to investigate the war crimes the government has been accused of, and the right thing to do is cooperate and clear their names.
      It does not matter which country has done worse, and doing the same – we are Sri Lankans and we expect our government to be above it.

  • 0
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    GP’s thinking tallies with MR’s specially GR’s and Hakeem’s thinking. Our thinking is that the communal bias nature of thinking is what eats up country’s health and wealth. The western philosophy of divide and rule still works in the country. Whether it is Sinhalaism Tamilism or Muslimism is personal specific and cultural to each community; it is not in any way political economic or educational. Bodu Bala Sena Ela Urumaya or LTTE or Muslim Congress should not be given political status. Their activities should be limited to promote their own cultural interests. This country is Sri Lanka and we all are Sri Lankans. Politically economically and educationally we are not Sinhalese Tamils or Muslims. Any of you don’t try any of the ordinary poor innocent Sri Lankans to put into this communal dungeon. What they need is one government for whole country which sincerely addresses the genuine needs and requirements of the entire nation, a political system which is conscious of burning issues of the entire nation, a strong economy for the country which is capable of providing better living standard for the entire nation, a legal system which is capable of protecting the rights of all SriLankans equally and keep the rulers within their limits of power given by the people who elect them and an education system which will place the sons and daughters of Sri Lanka in a superior position not only in the region but above all countries in the world.

    • 0
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      I agree with you. I am against race/religion based political parties. They further exacerbate an already delicate situation. Until we can see that there is very little hope of progress.

      There is no will or desire in the majority of minority communities for this change so people cannot evaluate its necessity in being an integral part of the long term solution.

      The moment parties get into the act of protecting their own, then you automatically divide them into a corner they cannot get out of.

  • 0
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    The issues will remain complex and intractable, until the politicians of all kinds- Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and any other- begin to issues confronting the people, as those of humans. Most people are far ahead of these politicians in their thinking. This will not happen until the quality of our politicians improve. Unfortunately, the present system does not permit the people to elect the best and discard the worst. We are the victims of our politicians and the system they have desginged for their benefit.

    The Minister of transport was advising SLTB workers yesterday to have more children, reflecting the views of the BBS! What is he doing to improve public transport? Gajendrakumar Ponnampalam, is highlighting the Jaffna University student issue, without context and divorced from the societal response to this. It was issue contrived to bring out the result expected. The result was as expected and created one more grievance. This is politics in Sri Lanka.

    The problems that confront the people in the north and east are much bigger than the issues highlighted by politicians. The needs of the young widows, older widows, abandoned wives, orphans, ex-LTTE cadres, war-disabled, drug and alcohol addicted, unemployable and dirt poor: the problems relating to unsatisfiable expectations, unemployment and under employed, insensitive, inefficient and corrupt public servants; are rarely highlighted. All issues are viewed from a blinkered communal and political angle. The needs of the people are the least important in the political equation. I wonder whether these politicians are in tune with ground realities. They thrive on problems and not solutions. Our politicians are kike maggots that thrive in dirt. Unfortunately, they also create the dirt they need to thrive.

    We need scientific and objective management in this country urgently. Unfortunately, we are destined not to have it.

    Dr. Rajasingham Narendran

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      I am in agreement with you on the fact that the Politicians of today are part of the problem, and honestly I do not believe they wish to solve the problem, because then they feel they may become surplus to requirements!

      We must go back to basics and find out what really ails the people, not what the pols think they need. I am glad that we have some very dedicated people in voluntary services, who work without any publicity under very difficult conditions to make a change. They need more publicity.

      Sadly the Govt. calls them NGOs and suppress the little they try to do, making matters worse. Most NGOs are dedicated to the cause they are set up for and get put into the same baggage as a few of the rough diamonds intent of spreading discord.

      Let us use the NGOs to highlight the societal problems facing our people in all parts of the country and deal with the real problems of Sri Lanka and not let it be just a communal or war related issue.

      Real problems are not tackled, whilst we still argue about the past without a purpose.

    • 0
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      Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

      On a rare occasion Colombo Telegraph published a story on my people to which I was expecting a prompt and forthright comment from you. I am disappointed with your attitude to my people’s survival as you have ignored completely the story under:

      Survival Calls On UN To Stand Up For Wanniyala-Aetto

      Tamil/Sinhala problem can wait but not ours.

      • 0
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        now, nobody can wait and not willing to wait,
        so government has got only answer, as they are not for compromise.
        do it or die for it ?????????.

      • 0
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        Native Veddah,

        Thanks for the invitation to comment. The Veddahs are indeed a people to be pitied. I have not seen any Veddah living the life of their forefathers. The ones I have seen are play acting. Many of them are not real Veddahs by origin. There are no R.L.Spittels to espouse their cause, any more. The Veddahs are on show now and perform for a fee. The Veddahs will be lost to Sri Lanka and the world soon and will be absorbed into the Sinhala or Tamil communities near whom they live. Their disappearance will severe a vital link to our past and that of modern man.

        They should be encouraged to remain Veddahs retaining their culture and language, while being also encouraged to enter mainstream life. They should be declared a national treasure and salvaged from the fate that is already overtaking them. They represent a gene pool that connects modern man to the first primate that stood up in Africa to become the fore father/ mother of all us. Unfortunately, this country-government and people- is absolutely incapable of such an enlightened approach.

        Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

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          Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

          I expected your comment under the “Survival Calls On UN To Stand Up For Wanniyala-Aetto” story elsewhere in this forum.

          Thanks anyway.

          Lip services to Veddah’s survival is not enough. When you meet the vein and the powerful next time around give them a good bollocking they will not forget in their life time.

          This is the least you could for my people.

  • 0
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    When Kath Noble argued that except for one instance UN has not been successful in prosecuting war criminals, I couldn’t disagree with reality but was wondering if something may have changed in this new Millennium and enough countries have become serious about preserving Human Rights, Individual Freedoms and Rule of Law. But I see that the “Policeman of the World” and its deputy in Asia are no different to the police in Sri Lanka pandering to those who wield power and constantly looking to “soften” the footpath for them.

    The US is “softening” the resolution and the CHOGM will be held in Sri Lanka, giving a stamp of approval to inhuman, grotesque behavior. Japan is ready to put in a good word on Duminda Silva of the world in exchange for a couple of elephants (that’s cheap!) and Australian opposition is prostituting themselves hoping that Rajapaksas will ask the Sinhala community in Australia to vote for them. Oh well, so much for hoping that humanity has progressed since the dark ages. What was all this hoop-la about for the last couple of months?

    Victims who were abducted, tortured, raped, murdered and then mutilated (what’s their obsessions with female breasts?), just so they can take souvenirs photographs. They didn’t have their ordeal softened by the Rajapaksas. But then these victims didn’t wield power like the Rajapaksas do either. These subhumans better hope none of the religions are true because if any one of them are these animals will have hell to pay someday.

    SETI is still trying to contact extra-terrestrial-beings. But if this is how the most advanced species on this Earth behave, do you really want a “more advanced” species to find us here? They’ll probably turn us into a juice sacks and suck us out with a straw. And judging by body shapes one sees these days how could you blame them?

  • 0
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    When Narendran and his likes (most politicians) are more concerned of “their” own survival if they thought of “others” then the country will move forward but I am not holding my breadth for him (or his likes) to change in this life time or the next.

  • 0
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    Dear Dev,

    My survival does not depend on the government or the politicians. I can live out the few years left in my life without their help or protection. Thus, you can expect no change in me. However, the much required change has to happen in you and the likes of you. Talk about the suffering Tamils and other Sri Lankans. Give them priority over the dead. If you are a Hindu, attribute the reason for their deaths to their karma. If you are a Christian, believe that they are in heaven. Either way, they are beyond our help. However, the living are here and they need our help.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 0
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    Hilarious! “The land grab is not peculiar to this regime. It has been happening for the last 65 years. The only time it stopped was during the armed struggle of the LTTE, because then Sinhalese people were not willing to settle in the north and east”, where a de-facto Tamil state existed.” That 30 year period was without a doubt the biggest effort at land grapping and ethnic cleansing documented in Sri Lanka. The ethnics being cleansed (gotten rid of) were Muslims and Sinhalese, what the hell are you talking about. Before that period people lived together in harmony, under one oppressor, the colonialists. Everyone is talking about war crimes and genocide, but no one is pointing fingers at the LTTE or their supporters during the war, the TNA. As an outsider who has read extensively and traveled widely across your country, the hypocrisy coming from the pages of such paper is second only to the stance being taken by the US in Geneva.

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