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Sharmini Peries speaks to Sunila Abeysekera about the so-called defeat of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) at the hands of the Sri Lankan military. Abeysekera is an award-winning human rights defender and the Executive Director of INFORM, an organization working to spread the word on Sri Lankan human rights violations. She says that, “this government, more than any previous government in Sri Lanka, really embarked on a military strategy to displace the LTTE from the areas that it controlled,” and goes on to explain that from the beginning of the offensive, “it became really clear that this military operation was going to proceed with no regard for civilian consequences or civilian deaths.”

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, JOURNALIST, TRNN: Welcome to Women’s Take on The Real News Network. Today I’m joined by Sunila Abeysekera. She’s a renowned human rights activist from Sri Lanka. She’s extremely respected by both sides, the Sinhalese and the Tamils. She has been given the highest honors and awards by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch in New York. Today she joins us in our Toronto studio. Thank you for joining us.


PERIES: Sunila, this is a historic moment in many ways, for both the Sinhalese, the Tamils, the Muslim, the entire Tamil diaspora. They are somewhat in mourning in terms of the liberation struggle’s defeat to the Sinhalese military. How are you feeling at this moment?

ABEYSEKERA: Well, I think all of us who are human rights defenders and who have worked for a politically negotiated resolution of the conflict in Sri Lanka are also in a very—it’s a very depressing moment for us, because I think the way that the war proceeded, the way the international community responded, and what is happening right now, in the face of some kind of a silence, you know, from both inside and outside the country, that’s really hard to bear, because, you know, I’m a person that put, like, 30 years of my life into working for human rights in Sri Lanka, and I think there are moments when you feel really desperate. I’ve felt like this before, I must admit. For example, in the late 1980s, when there were a lot of disappearances in Sri Lanka, also there was a moment when you felt as if nothing you did could make a difference. And I think that’s what I feel right now.

PERIES: This has been a long war. This strategy of the Sri Lankan military to defeat the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] has been in the works for a long time. There is a comment by you in 2006 about how this is the beginning of a surge to defeat the LTTE. Can you explain how that began and why?

ABEYSEKERA: Well, I think that this government, more than any previous government in Sri Lanka, really embarked on a military strategy to displace the LTTE from the areas that it controlled in the Eastern Province first, in 2006, and then [“too-da-VA-nee”], which they have now just completed. And I think right from the beginning, from, I think, maybe the middle of 2006, it became really clear that this military operation was going to proceed with no regard for civilian consequences or civilian deaths. And I think we saw that happen in [“VA-ha-lay”], for example, when there was aerial bombing. The government denied it. It has always claimed that the East was liberated with not a drop of civilian blood being shed, when we know for sure that at least over 100 people were killed in one particular aerial bombing. And I think perhaps for us the real issue is that we didn’t read it right. We always thought that this was the exception.

PERIES: What is it you missed in terms of your reading?

ABEYSEKERA: Well, this moment was different because, I think, the government had decided that civilian casualties would not present them with any obstacle to moving forward. Each time, the previous governments, the military went so far and no further when it was confronted with the possibility that there would be a huge civilian cost. I think from 2006 onwards this government has gone forward with its military strategy, really clearly with this idea that it doesn’t matter; civilians will die, and it doesn’t matter.

PERIES: Was this new kind of confidence of this government endorsed by international forces? Did they have a free wheel to do what they needed to do, so to speak?

ABEYSEKERA: Well, you know, in March this year, when I was in New York trying to lobby, because already in March it was really clear that the civilian cost was going to be tremendous, several quite high-level diplomats and officials in the UN that I spoke to said this is the only war against terrorism that anybody’s winning right now. And for that reason I think the international community really let down the Tamil and Sinhalese, every peaceloving citizen of Sri Lanka.

PERIES: So the cost of that strategy is tremendous.

ABEYSEKERA: Well, democracy has been the biggest casualty, I think, of all, because in the last three or four years, the military strategy has proceeded, also side by side with the political strategy, and the political strategy has been to take decision-making out of the hands of the Parliament, so that today we have a Parliament and a cabinet of ministers that has no idea what is going on in the country. All the military and political and economic decisions are made by small groups of people who report directly to the president and operate entirely outside of the parliamentary structure. So in terms of accountability and in terms of really democratic practice, I think that’s really the biggest casualty of this war in the long term.

PERIES: What are some of these extra-democratic processes that are underway?

ABEYSEKERA: Well, for example, the military operations have always, for the last three and a half years, been conducted by a small task force within the president’s office. And it’s run by, also, the president’s brother, who is the secretary of the Ministry of Defense. And many times, I think, when we’ve talked to government ministers and said, well, you know, we hear that the military’s going to do this and going to do that and can you try and stop it, they’ve been entirely unaware of what’s going on. And I think that the government has always argued that this is necessary when one is carrying out a military operation against a terrorist group like the LTTE. But I think what has happened as a consequence is that the there is no accountability. And today, for example, we confront the reality that the army is entirely unaccountable for the civilian deaths from 2006 onwards, you know? Tens of thousands of people have died in Sri Lanka because of the military operations, and nobody is there to take the responsibility. There is just denial. And because it’s not happening within known structures, we are completely unable to, you know, even figure out where we’re going to put our our claim, you know, when we go to the Ministry of Defense. It’s completely blocked and covered up.

PERIES: Speaking of casualties being democracy, and the media playing a major role in it, for a very long time media, as well as activists like yourself, has been systematically threatened and forced out into exile. What is going on in terms of people like yourself who’s followed this long history and this war and has been the defenders of human rights in the country? What is happening to them?

ABEYSEKERA: Well, I think that the government, alongside its military campaign, had a very powerful campaign to manipulate the media. Of course, the Sri Lankan government controls the television and radio stations that have the broadest outreach in the country, but also to undermine the integrity and the credibility of organizations—human rights organizations, journalist organizations—by raising claims, allegations of embezzlement, fraud, malpractice, you know, completely tarnishing individuals, targeting individuals. And I think there’s been—the threat to the freedom of expression and opinion has been accompanied by a threat to the freedom of association, because, you know, civil society organizations have been really brought before a parliamentary subcommittee, subjected to questioning, had their funding cut off; international humanitarian agencies have had their work permits of their staff, foreign staff, canceled or delayed. So there’s been quite a systematic way of undermining the legitimacy of civil society voices, and then exposing, you know, targeted individuals to a lot of threat and intimidation. And if you look, I mean, the website of the government of Sri Lanka is a really clear example of that, because it regularly carries pieces that target particular individuals. And many of us, many of us have been at the receiving end of these kinds of attacks.

PERIES: And you yourself don’t feel safe being in the country at the moment?

ABEYSEKERA: No. I left last year. I continue to come and go to Sri Lanka, but I relocated because I did feel unsafe. And I think in a country like Sri Lanka, the problem is that when you’re at risk, you’re putting other people at risk as well, so—both at my office and my house. And I think everybody heaved a big sigh of relief when I said I’m going to leave. And that’s really sad, isn’t it? I mean that I have to remove myself so that my mother can have a good night’s sleep.

PERIES: Sunila, thank you for joining us. In our next segment, let’s talk about the current situation and the plight of the 300,000 Tamils that are displaced in the Northeast.


PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Sunila Abeysekera is the Executive Director of INFORM, an organization working to inform the world about human rights violations in Sri Lanka. The major themes of Sunila Abeysekera's work include issues of equality and difference in understanding women's human rights, problems of re-conceptualising the nation-state and principles of good governance from a feminist perspective; problems of representation of women in art and culture; and feminist film criticism. In 1998, Abeysekera was honoured by the United Nations for her contribution to the protection and promotion of human rights along with Jimmy Carter.