By Ajita Kadirgamar –
It was exhausting — mentally and emotionally — to sit and listen to Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu reveal fact after fact, story after story to illustrate the hellish depths to which Sri Lanka has sunk in terms of abuse of human rights and the brutalisation of society.
The executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives was guest speaker at the 13th Convention of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Foundation (SLHRF) held in Colombo on Monday, September 2.
He began by picking a bone with UN High Commissioner For Human Rights, Navi Pillay‘s speech at her recent press conference before departing Sri Lanka where she stated, ” I am deeply concerned that Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant, all-embracing state, is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.” We are not heading in that direction he told the audience emphatically, this IS an authoritarian state!
In a civilised society he said, people do not humiliate each other, institutions do not humiliate people. Yet on a daily basis we see example of such base behaviour. People of this country live in fear because of their ethnicity.
“We live in a country where there is a complete collapse of rule of law, underpinned by a culture of impunity.”
The LLRC report is a key document, one of the most critical to be written in recent times in the country’s history. The international community , not to mention the people of the country are saying, please implement the recommendations! Why then he questioned, was the document given to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka to translate? Why did it take eight months?
While Saravanamuttu battered and pounded away at the audience’s moral and intellectual conscience all the while bombarding them with hard hitting stories, facts, statistics and quotes (all delivered off the cuff) the one salvo that hit me like a fist in the stomach had to do with International Day of the Disappeared which fell on Friday, August 30.
A public vigil was organised at Independence Square in the presence of around 200 family members of the disappeared to highlight the crime of enforced and involuntary disappearance in Sri Lanka. I had planned to be there but my visiting foreign guests turned up back in Colombo that evening. Saravanamuttu though not there either because of election related work in the north, was told by a known source that while the vigil went on , the hoards of Friday evening walkers, joggers and fitness freaks just went about their business with not even an ounce of curiosity and certainly not an iota of sympathy displayed for their fellow citizens’ pain as they held candles and clutched photos of their disappeared.
“What kind of a society are we?” he lamented. Do we care more about recreation, burning calories and watching our kids ride their bikes around Independence Square? Could these people not have paused for a moment in silent solidarity? Could they not have sat or walked with the families, asked a question or two, held an age-speckled, wrinkled hand, patted a weary shoulder, ruffled a fatherless kid’s hair? Are the denizens of Colombo so blind and deaf to others’ suffering? Is this how desensitized we are now, Saravanamuttu demanded?
It appears the parks, jogging tracks, pavements, roads and superficial beautification of the city have bedazzled the people into a sense of misplaced euphoria. We the people of Colombo, for whom the partying never really stopped over the past 30 years in our little corner of the world, we seem to feel no pain for the raw and still bleeding wounds of the war survivors, those left behind, those still waiting for a loved one to return. Those with no closure.
If this is the case and we have become so brutalised, then the government has won on several counts. Distract the people from grim realities. .Check. Pamper them with small luxuries they think they have earned. .Check. Sidetrack their attention from the burning issues of the day. .Check. The enforcers have created a nation of zombies.
The very nature of our humanness is our capacity to feel compassion for one another. Human rights is about what we are willing to do to stand up for EVERYONE’s rights, because it is a violation of OUR rights, Saravanamuttu reminds us.
The Sri Lanka Human Rights Foundation under the presidency of B. M. Murshideen may regret inviting Dr Saravanamuttu to speak at their convention. If those present understood the urgency of even a fraction of what he threw their way, they would have gone home in a sorry, despairing state of mind. SLHRF’s current list of 23 “Present and Future Activities”, just got a whole lot longer.
Saravanamuttu left the audience with a forceful, grave challenge. “The majority of Sri Lankans don’t know or don’t give a damn about what is going on. What is the Sri Lanka you want? What can you do to achieve it?