*Pioneering empowerment of women political activists * Promoting women’s Leadership in Sri Lankan History (Her+ Story)
Commenting on the amendments to the Local Government Electoral (Amendments) Act no. 12 of 2012, Minister Musthapha said the amendments had been gazetted and tabled in the Order Book of Parliament. Under the proposed new amendments the ratio of local government members elected under the first past the post system will be reduced to 60% from earlier 70% and the number of representatives chosen under the PR system will be increased to 40% from 30%. The women representation will be 25%.
Religious leaders, Your Excellencies, Honorable Ministers and Members of Parliament, Political activists and civil society colleagues, friends;
I wish to simply say, thank you, to all of you present here, for sharing this moment of peace with me and the National Peace Council by expressing your commitment to peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
All of you are aware about the challenges that men and women in my country face while working for peace, and for the protection and promotion of human rights. Many have lost their lives for this work. Several others have had to leave the country.
Therefore, while accepting this award, I must say honestly that I am only one among the thousands in many movements and organizations since the late 1970s to have toiled tediously for justice and peace in Sri Lanka. This is more “their” award than mine, and I would like to dedicate this award to my compatriots.
Receiving this award poses a challenge to me as the recipient. And I am sure NPC is also challenged in the selection process, and as time goes on, your processes will face numerous complications. As a peace activist as well as a human rights defender I wish to appreciate the recognition and encouragement given to all of us through this award. Thank you for choosing to make an ‘intervention in relation to peace and human rights in Sri Lanka.
My own interventions for inter-racial harmony and human rights began in the early 1970s as a student activist involved in the Student Christian Movement (SCM) and evolved through exposure to various struggles. The promulgation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act was one which posed huge threats to us in the late 70s. I was privileged enough to be guided by a veteran lawyer; the late Mr. VSA Pullenayagam, to take up law and later, enter the corridors of the Supreme Court and High Court searching for justice.
And how many times did we face disappointment? Men and women who disappeared could not be found even during that period. But nobody asked us to go and ask GOD for the disappeared. In the past, compensations for human rights cases remained at Rs 15,000 or less, police officers found guilty of beating up Comrade Vivian Gunawardhena, a leftist women rights activist, received a promotion. In 1982, immediately after the arrest of Dr. Rajasunderam, who was later killed during the prison riots of 1983, I was hauled before the 4th floor (CID) and interrogated by security forces. The reason was that my constant visits to Vavuniya and Batticaloa, “bothered” the authorities. Then, as now, peace building efforts were a “stressful matter” for political authorities.
While the authorities branded us as criminal elements, the so called “patriotic forces” in the 1980s called us traitors to the motherland. The Patriotic Front which emerged in 1987 went on a killing spree against all those who welcomed the Indo-Lanka Peace agreement. I had delinked myself from the legal profession in utter frustration at this point. I became an activist, believing that the people’s struggle, class struggle was the only solution for growing repression and tensions among the Sinhala and Tamil community. We faced grave dangers during this period and there were many persons like me who had to be saved from State repression, as well as the violence of the JVP led fascist Patriotic forces. Our journey in search of peace and racial harmony has been very long. Each era has brought different challenges, compelling us to find platforms and movements consistently committed to find a political solution to the Tamil national struggle. We have now formed the Platform for Freedom with such a vision.
It is very difficult to speak the truth that we have to deal with the challenge of re-imagining a different country, a shared-power paradigm. I remember the challenge posed by the forced expulsion of the Muslims from the North made to our work in the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality in the late 1990s. Having to deal with hierarchy of victimhood is indeed difficult. I have been often criticized by my Muslim colleagues for leaning more towards the Tamil struggle.
It has been challenging to wade our way through the Minority and Nationality discourse in the international arena. For some these are categorized compartmentalized projects, achievements for one community vis a vis another. My engagement at the UN level in the World Conference Against Racism, where a divided world struggled to find common answers will never be forgotten. I did not know with whom I could share a cup of coffee in Durban without being labeled as a Palestinian stooge or as a Zionist conspirator. We are re-living this same history, in Sri Lanka today, unfortunately, at all levels.
There are many people who supported my journey for peace and human rights. Particularly I must mention the principles driven into our minds by the leaders of the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) from our young days regarding the unresolved National Question of Sri Lanka.
I am sad that Comrade Annamalai a lawyer alleged to have been killed by a gang of young political activists in the North is not here. Once during a youth meeting in Point Pedro, Jaffna, he told me about the simple way to understand the Right to Self-determination in relation to the citizen’s social contract with the state. He said it is like marriage. He told me “When we sign on the dotted line remember that it also means we have the right to divorce.” Accepting the Right to Self-determination does not necessarily mean separation if we make our terms of being together equal, just, sharing power. If domination and violence enter that relationship and people are subjected to undignified living day in and day out there is no option than separation. This is how he explained to me what was happening in the North in the late 1980s.
What is peace? It is not merely the absence of war and the silencing of guns and shelling around us. The meaning of peace in Sri Lanka for Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burghers, Malays, Kaffirs and the Wannilaye Aetto bring different images and expectations today.
For children in the North and East what is peace without their parents? What is peace for women who are searching for their children and loved ones? Can we just be contended by the talk of Constitutional re-framing and the 400 pages of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and think about PEACE and RECONCILIATION only through the implementation of the recommendations?
Yes a space has opened up to address issues of governance, the establishment of the rule of law, reducing or removing the presence of the military from day to day life, singing the National Anthem in Sinhala and Tamil, learning each other’s languages…..we have a list.
Among all this sophisticated, high sounding phrases I hear the small sounds of women….one woman is holding up the picture of her disappeared son, another is showing a picture of a daughter who surrendered to the army as they were crossing Nandikadal…another woman is asking me how she could find the jewellery she had pawned, as she had handed over the receipt to the soldiers for safe keeping.
How can we deal with these memories? Memories of women have become powerful in the post-war Sri Lanka. Channel 4 depicts such memories. Should we ask families and ourselves to forgive and forget? And say that these images are concocted stories? For reconciliation to be just and honest public acknowledgment, we could argue, is the sine qua non of finding a place, a voice and a story for the communities, affected.
We have worked for a long period. Some 30 years and beyond. I must also mention the consistent journey of Mothers and Daughters of Lanka the women’s network I am involved closely for over 25 years that nurtured and prodded us.
Permit me to say that our work has become more challenging today, to transform the memories into peace. The dominant image surrounding us is war and victory. The story of the vanquished has never come to the centre stage of making of history. In Sri Lanka today peace builders have to challenge the only memory that is allowed by the State. The huge ‘billboard’ of the victory showing huge burly male figures. We are often asked the question “Do you have the critical mass of public opinion that will sway this administration from its proposed goal?” And, often we are caught up in this numbers game. The answer is, those of us who want ‘change’ must create the mass. These questions can discourage us in the present circumstances.
The conflict has not only broken trust and confidence among the people, it has also brought polarization and segregation among civil society. While we did not experience talk like `she is a Sinhala, can we trust her?’`She is a Tamil or a Muslim only speaking about their own problems…’ in the seventies – today; these have become real challenges weakening the emergence of a joint platform of united voices from within the country.
While recognizing the need for advocates from the affected communities firmly believing in the need for strengthening leadership from grass-roots to emerge I would also like to call for more joint deliberations amongst us and to move away from linear thinking. The challenge before us is to become a social movement for peace. For this we have to think differently. We are used to counting the numbers after every workshop. Raise awareness first and things would fall into place seem to be our way. We must learn from social movements around the world. Awareness raising and action have to go together.
Peasants and indigenous communities have created extraordinary moments of change – from local communities stopping a new proposed highway, to whole societies achieving the recognition of civil and human rights, to nation overthrowing oppressive regimes. I think we have, as civil society in Sri Lanka, run into difficulties in the area of developing action to build or to create the alternative. In peace building we are taught to think of a multi-dimensional approach. Personally I am committed to such a process. Rather than using a term like “versus the other” we have to begin to focus more about the nature of the change sought and how multiple sets of interdependent processes will link people and places to move the whole of the system toward the change. I hope that our work related to seeing the recommendations of the LLRC implemented would reach such heights linking it with the call for accountability in the UN Panel of Expert Report.
I wish to salute the National Peace Council (NPC) for all the hard work done to keep the flame of peace alive amidst us like the OLYMPIC torch. I have never failed to respond to requests from NPC to join them as a resource person. I know how difficult it is to manage and maintain organizations in Sri Lanka with fewer resources under trying conditions. Joe you have known me for years. Anita and the Nesiahs have known me from student days. Devanesan I have met your father and brothers in Jaffna during SCM days. Saroja I still have the note somewhere you sent me while moving to security in the late 90s. Tony you and I have theologically clashed over mission of Christ during our student days. Sivagurunathan the interpreter cum colleague who partnered me in all this work. So you all have made me and moulded this peace award in a way. I must also thank the close community in my household my son and Vasudeva for understanding the life of this activist mother and woman.
Finally friends we must realize that the powers that suppress true peace in Sri Lanka fragment day by day. How can they stay together when their objectives are selfish and shrouded in personal glory and gain? It is up to us, now, to work together, as we once did in the past, as citizens for peace.
Let me conclude by a quote from Albert Einstein
Logic will get you from A to B
Imagination will take you everywhere.