1 October, 2020

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New Year Reflections

By Shreen Abdul Saroor

Shreen Saroor

As 2019 winds down and the democratic space quickly closes around us, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the past year and the monumental human rights challenges ahead. 

Nothing much happened after rescuing the country from a constitutional coup. The PM forgot why the masses protested and why MPs joined before the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal to reinstate him. Meanwhile, Sirisena became a lame duck.  Ignoring warnings from international intelligence agencies, local officers, and the Muslim community (especially in Kathankuddy), over 260 Catholic and Christian worshipers, tourists and locals were murdered on Easter Sunday. As a direct result of their unforgivable lapse, Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe have brought our country to its present abyss. 

Everything changed after the Easter attacks. Overnight, the entire Muslim community was labeled terrorists, with every Muslim made to feel responsible for the Easter attacks.  We saw raids, insults, random arrests, and detentions simply because one believed in Islam or had a Muslim name. Vigilante mobs burned and raided Muslim villages, destroying homes, businesses, schools, and mosques. Refugees and asylum seekers were evicted and left with no place to go. Rumors targeted Muslim doctors and professionals, with one doctor arrested and accused of sterilizing Sinhala women—a charge his captors are still seeking to substantiate to justify his arrest. A group of unelected violent “monks” forced the mass resignation of Muslim Ministers, State and Deputy Ministers. 

As always, Muslim women suffered the most. Niqab-wearing women still have no access to public spaces. Since the Emergency Regulation ban and J.J. Rathnasiri (now secretary to the justice and human rights ministry) signed the government circular, these women have faced constant harassment and intimidation. Families detained for their supposed links to the banned terrorist group SLNTJ are housed in squalor, with surveillance and social ostricisation leaving women and children particularly at risk. 

Mr. Sirisena insulted the Presidential pardon to the level, the women’s groups that opposed the death penalty are now compelled to challenge the possibility of a rehabilitation for criminals convicted for grave offences. Pardoning Gnanasara, who was convicted for contempt of court, was not only an abuse of power but was a slap on the face of the judiciary

The Easter attacks paved the way for Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory. Since then, civil society groups have been under constant surveillance.  There was quiet monitoring before, but it is now so visible, so blatant, so threatening. NGOs have been compelled to submit all kinds of information —not just the program, donor, and staff information requested in the past, but particulars of community-level activists and their immediate family members. With media outlets and social media carefully monitored for any signs of dissent, civil society and journalists have self-censored their words and actions. Women’s activists who worked on projects to reconcile, counsel, memorilise and lobby the government to reform unequal laws or discriminatory practices are now stranded. Those assisting families of the disappeared to approach the government-established Office of Missing Persons (OMP) face even more overt intimidation. A handful of brave women lawyers now fear for their family members’ safety. Some OMP commissioners wonder if they should quit or wait until they are forced out. The victim in the landmark military rape case has apparently gone into hiding despite her resilient nature in withstanding severe harassment and intimidation to have named the perpetrators probably in fear of further intimidation. Her appeal is before the Supreme Court.

A female staffer in the Swiss Embassy was abducted, held against her wishes and allegedly molested. The government took her information and has since charged her with ‘bringing the government to disaffection’ and imprisoned her. Treason! Many shuddered, but few felt brave enough to speak. Her story sends a dark message: if you are abducted and molested, keep quiet. If you speak about human rights violations, you are a liar and a traitor peddling a foreign conspiracy. “Be a patriot and support country’s development. Do not talk about justice or accountability. Past is past” is now the survival mantra. Militant Buddhist monks and former Army men will be correcting us if we do not obey.  Already there are videos of supposed monks slapping and degrading Christian pastors for conducting prayers. This is our new reality.

With the situation deteriorating, it is disheartening to see the international community taking a break from transitional justice and reassessing the situation. Although the Swiss embassy staffer’s case is being pursued, foreign diplomats are heard to say that in a democracy, voters decide a country’s path. Indeed, Sri Lanka is not the only country dealing with Islamophobia in Asia. What started in Myanmar with making Rohingyas stateless has spread to similar anti-Muslim Hindutva efforts in India. Here, as there, majoritarian politics will trample minority rights.

So where to from here?

On Muslim human rights, MP Athuraliye Rathana is to bring (already gazetted) a private member Bill to abolish Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act. This will force the hand of progressive Muslims, who have fought for years to reform the archaic Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) to respect the rights of Muslim women and girls.  These efforts were thwarted when Mr. Wickremesinghe, our first female justice minister Thalatha Atukorale, Muslim MPs, and communal-minded and backward-thinking Muslim men allied with ACJU split the recommendations made by Justice Saleem Marsoof’s committee. Now, to oppose Rathana’s racist Bill, all may have to join hands with the spoilers of reform—the ACJU and regressive Muslim politicians and individuals—to defend the very law that women have vehemently been opposing. 

On transitional justice, 2020 will see a complete rollback of efforts to deal with the past.  The two transitional justice mechanisms in place—the OMP and Office of Reparations are stalling (with those who have engaged now at risk), while the remaining two mechanisms will never materialize. The President has already declared the U.N. Human Rights Council irrelevant, and his administration might table a resolution in the upcoming February 28th HRC session seeking to walk back prior commitments. 

Domestically, we may lose our hard-won 19th Amendment to the Constitution. The TNA will pay the price, with Karuna, Pillaiyan, other extreme Tamil nationalists, standing to gain in upcoming elections. It is likely to be so with the Muslims; moderates likely to lose the leverage. The April parliamentary elections are critical for women and minorities. If one party achieves a 2/3 majority with a weak showing by minority parties, that will only strengthen the power already concentrating in the Rajapaksa brothers’ hands. Before long, the military will be back in civil administration from running government offices to sweeping the parks and clearing drainage. The worst excesses of the Rajapaksa years, from corruption to silencing dissent, likely to return.

The only glimmer of hope is in the power of the human spirit. As walls close around us, mothers and wives of the disappeared in the north, east and south are resilient. On December 30, they held their usual month-end protests.  Sandhya Ekneligoda continues to appear in courtrooms to pursue her husband’s disappearance even as the chief investigator, who has been investigating the disappearance, has fled the country. She now heavily relies on the witnesses to testify at the trail to prove her husband’s abduction. It is too much to ask of ordinary people to put their lives, their children, and their staff at risk day in, day out. But the persistence of those brave souls who continue to speak the truth and demand justice gives me hope that the struggle will continue, and the people will persevere.

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Latest comments

  • 6
    1

    In short “Welcome to our Sorry Lanka”. If the issue is just a bunch of individuals or a party then there is always hope of returning to sanity. But in Sorry Lanka, it is the people who are immoral and full of racial hatred, who keep bringing back these politicians like a revolving door. The same people who held power for almost a decade are now promising of miracles and yet our public leave alone questioning the credibility they readily come up with lame ,stupid excuses , some of which the politician him self would not have dared. The alternate was RW and MS, who were given the mandate to take us back to sanity, and only now our people realize they are worse than criminals and crooks . Still I will not be surprised either one or both getting re-elected by the very same people for more of insanity. When we have such immoral public , what else do you expect other than miracles.

  • 10
    1

    Dear Sister thanks for the good article@

    Never forget this is good old srilanka where criminals have come back to power, with unexpected mandates by the very same people, that once SENT rajapakshes home.
    .
    To me, I have been making every effort to understand LANKEN AVERAGE MIND SET, and one who lives out of the country for ages, I dont see any difference between lanken people and far illiterate PAKISTANIS or any tribal nation in Africa.

    Even if we called that our country is one of the oldest DEMOCRACIES in the asian continent, some leaders – for their political blindness, have abused and taken own people as HUMAN shields. Untruths have made the gullible inthe country – like incurable patients.

    Some thought, good governance leaders open doors majority to open theirviews AND enjoy the freedom, but that is taken by them from the other end…. and good governance leaders were somehow defeated as THE ARCHITECT of good goverancne, late Rev. Sobith Thero then predicted.

    All in all the entire country – to my eye is a big STINKY garbage mountain covered by a decorated outer cover. So all inside is decayinng and set all kind of ENVIRONMENTAL detrimental gases.

    This situation would not change, so long EVERY SINGLE CITIZEN would better realize what it means to support CORRUPTION and ABUSIVE free nation. Meaning they should each contiubute their part by becoming better citizens.

    THE SADDEST TELECAST CAUGHT BY MY EYES FEW DAYS AGO IS – PRESIDENT OF THE COUNTRY PAYS A VISIT TO COUNTRY S RMV – AND QUESTIONs AS TO WHY NO BETTER SYSTEMS HAVE BEEN IN PLACE, EVEN IF PEOPLE#S ISSUES AND COMPLAINTS HAD BEEN ON A RISE OF ILL PERFORMANCES OF THE AUTHORITIES –

    iF a country PRESIDENT to react that way, so WHAT IS THE ROLE of responsible MINISTERs ? And the core officers and commissioners of thoese institutions ? Are they not qualified people ? even if we always keep on boasting about our PROESSIONALS and their qualifications ?

  • 7
    0

    Anti corrupted forever, You said it . Anyone who had stepped out of Lanka and returns will feel the stench right away , but public which lives there, day in day out , seems to have normalized the gross dysfunction. So much so ,when our public vote , let alone the country , they do not even think of them self, family or their future generations . They only vie for the misery caused to their neighbors.

    • 1
      0

      Chive,
      be them sinhalaya, tamils or muslims all our srilankens should be made accountable for the mess.
      Not in same proportions, but minorities are also to be blamed.

      They none of them care much about NORMs.

      Wigie speaks right, but he is not CLEVER enough to deliver his best being close to his brother in law WASIDEWA.
      If wiggie or the like were that HUMAN, and take the side of tamils that are really in need, he could get things done by any means.
      Instead to seek for conflicts and rabblerousing has blocked them on their way.
      I do believe, that has lot to do with LANKEN wounding culture rather than anything else.

    • 1
      0

      Chive,

      do you have ever met surgeons or medical doctors that would perform their OPs making mistakes one behind the other ? If yes that should be rarity.

      However, in our mother land, people let HIGH CRIMINALS; that have broken records going beyond all ethics and morals are praised.

      Cheap kind of media MEN handle almost everything in the country, Making every efforts their higher rates. Rates regardless of lies or misleading TELEDRAMA, are placed above the law. So media control AUTHORITIES stay tied their hands behind, nor would the lawmakers bring new law reforms as if they behave penisless men.

      If EU countries bring laws and LAW REFORMS almost every weeks and get passed them in favour of their performances… why our LAW MAKERS lag them .. or take yearrs to make even an inch of changes ?

      Constitutional analysts STAY as if they are not responsible. Law makers donot try hard enough …. as is the case in EUROPE or AMERICA.

      Each time after getting elected, by the votes of citizens, they just make circle walks, until next terms is reaching. What they have achieved all together is SEEN as nothing or not good enough to be mentioned…. this is common to LANKEN PARLIAMENTS and any other institutions. Why ?

      ENTIRE MIND SET SHOULD BE SUBJECTED TO PARADIGM SHIFT – then only tangible changes can be made.

      Gota is now elected, WHAT GOOD HE HAS MADE SOFAR ?

      Tomorrow they will waste again few millions for the big gathering, but WHO WOULD PAY OFF THEIR BILLS if not tax payers. Are our people that stupid ?

  • 7
    2

    Shreen,
    I cannot admire you enough for your courage in the 14 years that I have known you.

    A hundred years ago Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam voiced his vision for Ceylon as a modern welfare state with social equality, where the minorities are protected. This was sabotaged by the ‘fathers of Ceylon’s independence’ who collaborated with the British to undermine the rights of the Indian immigrant labour as envisaged in the prospective Indian Emigration Act of 1922 – mind you, even the Ceylon Act of March 1923 termed them ‘immigrants’, not ‘stateless’. Since then the quest of Sinhalese politics has been the search for national enemies, first the Indian labour, then, post-independence, the Tamils and lately the Muslims. The present government is going in full career along the same lines. Now we are as further from the Swiss model as a nation could be, except that we send our refugees there and make unseemly noises when they are accepted.

    The question anyone who wishes the Sinhalese well should ask their leaders is, what have they really achieved in the last century?

    No country that ill-treats its minorities would ever become great, even if it sends rockets to the moon. Such treatment of sections reflects a deep social malaise. The minorities learn to live with the kicks and come back undaunted to the amazement of their tormentors.

    Now, for a point of contact with you, Shreen. I received a letter from Dr. Kasipillai Manoharan today, whose son Ragihar was killed on the Trincomalee sea front exactly fourteen years ago by our ‘heroes’. He is still awaiting justice that he hopes would be delivered in the councils of Geneva — in Switzerland.

  • 6
    1

    Shreen,
    Your work with women empowers a half of us. I have seen women trained by you contributing strongly to society, speaking up gently with reason, and getting elected.

    The much unjustly maligned NGO system you are safeguarding and using with effect is in danger and we must all stand behind you if the gains made by women are not to be reversed.

    Justice for us, for all minorities, can come only from outside. Sri Lanka is broken. Our intellectuals have failed us. The good Sinhalese have been beaten into silence.

    Please do not let up on your work in Geneva. (I am not putting you in any greater danger because those from whom danger can come already know you. You are braver than any man I know)
    Jeevan

  • 2
    0

    Anti corrupted and Simon, I totally agree with your views. Trust me when I addressed Lankans it includes everyone including Tamils and Muslims . The Politicos of the minorities have turned out to be their worst enemies .

  • 3
    2

    Indeed the struggle continues in defence of the nation against treachery, lies and disinformation.

  • 5
    0

    Dear Shreen,
    .
    I know that you have been campaigning tirelessly for Muslim women’s rights. So why not go along with Rev. Rathan’s Bill. I know that he’s a racist, but what are the unsatisfactory clauses in what you say that he has gazetted.
    .
    Let’s not oppose it just because we dislike Rathana.
    .
    There possibly is much that I don’t understand. I’m too tired to say more now.
    .
    Best wishes for 2020!
    .
    Sincerely,

    Sinhala_Man

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