Dr Brian Senewiratne is our hero and more precisely our hero amongst the Sinhalese. So much so I had written an ‘Ode’ to him in 2006 and my husband wrote about him in October 2011 calling him a true consummate humanitarian – both of which I want so much to share – especially when I read some of the flak he gets for fervently defending the Tamil people in Sri Lanka and drawing world attention to their plight. It’s during these times I feel sick in my stomach and want to shout out loud to the whole world and to the Sinhalese people what a great man and a rare Gem he truly is.
I have always been interested in politics and government and was a keen follower of the Tamil Satyagraha movement; an interest triggered off at school during my Government and Politics lessons. I used to admire the Federal Party leader S.J.V Chelvanayakam ; I watched him in awe as he took his walks in Galle Face Green, he was then already suffering from Parkinson’s disease. When I was a little girl I remember one of his sons, Vaseeharan was my uncle’s good friend; and they used to study together in our veranda. SJV was the darling of the Tamil Nation and mine too and Brian to me was the Sinhala equivalent.
There was a time when I only heard of him, read about him and of course admired everything about him from a far for I had never met Dr Brian Senewiratne at that point. I couldn’t believe that there even existed one such rare specimen of Sinhala origin, that I know of, who genuinely cared for the welfare of the Tamils as much as he cared for the wellbeing of his own Sinhala brethren; someone who could feel so passionately for the rights of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka the way he does.
I have some early recollection of my fleeting moments with Sinhala leaders. I remember garlanding Sir Oliver Gunetilleka, Governor General of Ceylon as a little girl, when he visited the Kalalaya School of Dance along with, if I remember right Rajendra Prasad, President of India.
Next was SWRD Bandaranaike who stopped with his entourage at our house, a beautiful bungalow built by the British, surrounded by a landscaped garden, that had the most exotic flowers, the house set on top of a hillock, amidst manicured tea plantations, with a magnificent view – that was when my father was then Executive Engineer, Public Works Department (PWD), in Norwood, Mr. Bandaranaike needed to use the bathroom. Before they arrived I remember we were given prior notice only of a few minutes.
There after I remember receiving prizes from Mrs Jayawardene at our school prize-giving when Mr and Mrs JR Jayewardene were chief guests.
Finally it was at our wedding reception when the Governor General, Mr. William Gopallawa and Mrs Gopallawa graced the occasion with their presence.
But my moments with Dr Brian Senewiratne are neither fleeting nor ceremonial. We have an awesome relationship and I simply adore him to the core. He is my Sinhala Hero and here is my Ode to him written way back in 2006:
An Ode to Dr Brian Senewiratne
By Usha S Sri Skanda Rajah, Canada, 23 May 2006
Dear Dr Senewiratne
We hail you
As the voice of reason of the Sinhalese
May your tribe increase
And become the driving force
To bring real unity to the island of Sri Lanka
May your kinsmen heed your call
To bring Peace and Prosperity
Security and Safety
Equity and Equality
To all the people of the island
Sinhalese Tamil Muslim and Burgher
In your quest for Justice and Fairness
May not your critics stop you
They do not understand the wisdom of your words
They may rant and rave
And call you names
For all they want is supremacy
We laud you for your courage
And for your futuristic vision
You’re not a traitor
For you love your people too much
And they must know
It’s the racists and the religious extremists
Who send Sri Lanka
To the age of savagery and destruction
If people see
That all you want
Is for the Pearl of the Indian Ocean
To regain its lustre and beauty
And that freedom for the Tamil speaking
People of the NorthEast
To determine their own destiny
Does not mean doom for the Sinhalese
But rather the advent
Of a bright new horizon
Of hope and glory
Of progress and dynamism
For they would be free
Free from the shackles
Of enmity and intolerance
Of those who spread hate
And those who cannot lead
Of the highest calibre
And of spiritual wisdom
Who are willing and able
To accept the offer
Of peace and friendship
By Leader Velupillai Pirapaharan
Based on equality of status
And self determination
For both the Tamil speaking people
And the Sinhalese people
Muslim Christian Hindu and Buddhist
Free at last the people would be
Free to pursue their dreams in peace
Free to realize their full potential
Free truly to determine their destiny
And reap the rewards of freedom for all
With dignity and mutual respect
And you Sir shall become
The true emancipator of the people
And be honored as a hero
For your daring and foresight
Dr. Brian Senewiratne – A True Consummate Humanitarian
By Sri . B. Sri-Skanda-Rajah PhD Cantab
Dr. Brian Senewiratne’s steadfast commitment to defending human rights and promoting social justice is an inborn trait, a passion that is so visible in his demeanour and speech that it captures one’s heart the minute you interact with him – that he has fought relentlessly and tirelessly for people who are marginalized and persecuted, based on ethnicity, race, religion, language and culture his whole life, makes one feel inadequate in front of him. Dr. Senewiratne has been indefatigable in his efforts to defending the rights of all oppressed communities in Sri Lanka as well as both displaced peoples in Sri Lanka and convention refugees seeking asylum in Australia. In this regard he has virtually devoted his life to raising awareness of the plight of these peoples through education, international advocacy, lobbying and engagement.
Dr. Senewiratne belonged to the ruling majority community in the island of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and is closely connected to the Bandaranaike family that has produced two Prime Ministers and a President. Despite his privileged background he chose to break ranks to wage a courageous and often lonely campaign against the inexorable atrocities committed against the Tamil community ever since the island was granted independence from British rule in 1948.
Dr. Senewiratne had a strong sense of right and wrong from an early age. In 1948 as a sixteen year old student at an exclusive private school in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) he chose to espouse the cause of nearly a million long time citizens of Ceylon of Indian Tamil origin who had their citizenship revoked and were disenfranchised by the majoritarian Sinhalese government solely with the objective of capturing in excess of two-thirds of the seats in parliament so as to enable Sinhalese majoritarian governments to approve legislation that would be inimical to the interests of the indigenous Tamils of the island. He spoke out publicly in support of the Tamils of Indian origin who were arbitrarily rendered stateless; the very people who had lived in the island since the 1840s and toiled for more than a century to develop the world-renowned ‘Ceylon Tea’ that became the mainstay of the island’s economy.
When he saw the rights of the indigenous Tamils in the island were impinged upon by successive majoritarian Sinhalese governments of Sri Lanka and peaceful democratic protests by the Tamil parliamentarians and other concerned citizens were put down by government-sponsored pogroms and by military force, Dr. Senewiratne made it his mission to defend the rights of these marginalised people to live with equality, dignity and security and without discrimination in the country of their birth, enjoying the same rights and privileges accorded to the majority community.
In 1956 as an undergraduate at Cambridge University he firmly opposed the Official language Act which sought to establish the Sinhalese Language as the only official language to the exclusion of both the Tamil and English languages in Sri Lanka. He organized a series of protest marches in London to oppose this clearly racist move. And when his paternal uncle the then Prime Minister of Ceylon, Mr. SWRD Bandaranaike came to London, he declined an invitation to meet with him purely on principle that his uncle’s actions were unjust and undemocratic.
In 1972, as Professor of Medicine at the University of Peredeniya he took up the cause of Plantation Tamils again, when they were hounded out of their miserable dwellings by Sinhalese goons during the term when his aunt Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was Prime Minister ( she was also the first woman Prime Minister). He did what he impishly referred to as, “my nocturnal ward-round” wherein he traversed the streets of Kandy picking up dying Plantation Tamils, so that they could be given immediate medical attention in hospital and if they could not be saved to die with dignity.
Dr. Senewiratne’s outspoken ways, strong convictions and activism made it increasingly difficult for him to remain in the island and 1976 he chose to immigrate to Australia and hasn’t been able to return since.
In Australia he continued to challenge the Sri Lankan Government of J.R Jayewardene accusing him of devaluing parliament and setting up a Presidential dictatorship intended to circumvent the constitutional safeguards that had been designed to protect minority rights.
Following the genocide of Tamils in July 1983 Dr. Senewiratne published a book titled “The 1983 Massacre – Unanswered questions”. In it Dr. Senewiratne held the Sri Lankan government responsible for the crime of genocide. Over 20,000 copies of the book were distributed round the world. As an expected reward for his efforts he was accused of treason and his next publication titled “Human Rights Violations in Sri Lanka” was banned in Sri Lanka.
Since then he has campaigned with greater vigor for the oppressed in Sri Lanka highlighting violations of human rights by documenting the incidents and distributing number of DVDs to draw attention to the humanitarian tragedy in Sri Lanka. Dr. Senewiratne has over the years authored over sixty articles and delivered numerous lectures supported by power–point presentations and video clips relating to human rights violations in Sri Lanka.
He has engaged, educated and lobbied parliamentarians and human rights groups in his own Australia as well as Canada, France, Germany, India, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, USA and the EU. He has addressed European Members of Parliament in the EU parliamentary complex chaired by Robert Evans EU MP, Britain’s’ most senior MP to the EU. In July 2008, Dr Senewiratne met with Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town and other ANC leaders and politicians to discuss the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka.
His mission is to also inform and motivate the youth to take a courageous and determined stand against violation of human rights and the abuse of democracy. He has addressed students at several Canadian universities including the University of York and the University of Toronto (UFT).
He has been honored in the US, Canada, Malaysia and Australia. Some of the citations read as follows: “An International Crusader for Human Rights and Dignity the World Over”, awarded in the US, “A Promoter of Justice for All and for Tireless Contributions for Upholding Justice and Human Rights” awarded in Canada, “ For the Excellent Contribution to the International Sri Lankan Diaspora in Promoting Peace and Goodwill and for Campaigning for Human Rights and Safety of Globally Displaced peoples” and “In Appreciation of Your Outstanding and Exceptional Contribution to the Tamil Community in Sri Lanka” in Australia.
In March 2009, Canadians for Genocide Education – an umbrella organization comprising some 48 multiracial and multi-religious organizations selected Dr Senewiratne to receive their prestigious ‘Educator Award’ for 2009 in recognition of his outstanding contribution to genocide education and prevention and to deliver the annual ‘Genocide Education Lecture’ at the University of Toronto. Titled, “Peace with Justice in Sri Lanka. Genocide of Sri Lankan Tamils. Its Causes and Solution”.
Dr Senewiratne has addressed meetings and rallies in Brisbane in support of asylum seekers organized by the Refugee Action Collective (RAC) and Amnesty International. He was one of four speakers invited to address the University of Sydney’s Democracy Forum in the Faculty of Law and International Law; the others were Prof Ivan Schirer (IGEP member), Shiva Pasupathi, former Attorney General of Sri Lanka and Prof Paul Dominic, Prof of Law.
Despite his age he has not slowed down in his mission to deliver justice, human rights and dignity to the voiceless and less privileged. In his pursuit for justice for victims massacred in May 2009 during the final phases of the war in Sri Lanka, he continues to give media interviews and address meetings. He addressed the Socialist Alliance (Brisbane) to give a background to the Sri Lankan problem before the UK Channel 4 video, “Killing Fields” was screened in Brisbane and then to lead the discussion on what could be done about it.
He has given Radio interviews on the current humanitarian situation in the North and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka in both Perth and Melbourne to apprise the Australian people on the still ongoing persecution and plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
He was elected by Peter Arndt, Head of the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane, Peace and Justice Section, to join this select group to campaign for peace and justice in Sri Lanka. He has also acted as a lay preacher.
Dr. Senewiratne’s international advocacy work and activism illustrates his dedicated and exemplary service to the cause of human rights, human dignity and social justice. His life’s work, both as a health professional caring for the sick and as a human rights advocate, championing the rights of the underdog, acting with the courage of his convictions, is a testament to what a true consummate humanitarian he is. Undoubtedly he is a living legend and we salute him.
NB: Since writing this Dr Brian Senewiratne has written many more articles and authored a book on: Rape Of Tamil Women, Men And Children By Sri Lankan Armed Forces And Their Collaborators