Wages of conflict

Sri Lankan human rights activist Ruki Fernando talks about communal conflicts in his country in the aftermath of a prolonged civil war

South Asia has low ratings on all human rights indictors in international reports. Sri Lanka is no different. It was hoped that the country would learn its lessons from the prolonged civil war that ended in 2009 and its leaders would develop more egalitarian policies. But it appears that the ruling elites have preferred a majoritarian rule that, more than anything else, contributes to communal conflicts and mistrust. Nevertheless, minority groups, workers, the youth, and the NGOs have launched strong resistance movements in all parts of the country.

Sri Lankan human rights activist Ruki Fernando says global communities should support the ongoing movements to stop wide-ranging discrimination in his country. He says the youth, workers’ groups, women and minorities strongly resist discriminatory policies in Sri Lanka against religious and ethnic minorities. He sees communal tensions on the rise and clearly holds the administration responsible for the trend.

Fernando has been working hard for years, in collaboration with domestic and international organisations, to protect various minorities. He has been an audacious advocate for justice and equality at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and has given presentations at regional and international forums. He has also provided briefings to diplomatic visitors such as the Special Rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council and representatives of international organizations working on humanitarian issues. For the last few years, he has been monitoring and documenting human rights violations and the ongoing ethnic conflicts in Sri Lanka. To make the government accountable, he disseminates this information to key stakeholders, including foreign diplomats, UN officials, international NGOs and media outlets.

For these reasons, he is not very popular among political leaders and administrative officials and has been subjected to interrogation, threats and constant surveillance. The government imprisoned him in 2014, imposed restrictions on his overseas travel and confiscated his communication equipment.

In the following interview, he discusses widespread atrocities against minorities, violations of human rights and the resistance movements in his country.

The News on Sunday (TNS): In a recent webinar in the US organised by the South Asia Democracy Watch in collaboration with the Amnesty International and the SMU Human Rights Programme, you said that Sri Lanka’s resistance movements should not be ignored. Would you elaborate on this issue? How effective are these resistance movements?

Ruki Fernando (RF): During the last few years, one of the most robust resistance movements came from Tamil families of disappeared people in the North and East. Their 24-hour protests led to greater awareness of the problem in Sri Lanka and abroad. The agitation also inspired strikes across North and East and developed solidarity movements in Colombo and overseas. There have been some sustained protests by the displaced persons whose land had been occupied by the military. As a result of these protests, the military authorities have returned some of these properties to their owners. This year, farmers in the South were impacted by illegal activities and deforestation. Women, adversely affected by micro-finance loans in the North Central province, also launched similar protests.

These movements got attention from the authorities, politicians, and international organisations due to media coverage. The farmers‘ struggle has also led to some positive responses by the government, who accepted their demand after a long campaign by the tea plantation workers and their supporters for a minimum wage of Rs 1,000 (around $5) per day. Spontaneous protests by students and others in Jaffna about the overnight destruction of a war memorial at the Jaffna University led to a commitment by the vice-chancellor to build a new memorial within a few days. A sustained campaign that continued for a year to stop the forced cremation of the Covid-19 victims achieved success. Families now have a choice of burial or cremation, both under the safety guidelines. Although the results of these protests often failed to come up to the expectations of protesters and campaigners, these movements have played a significant role in bringing about some positive responses from the government and kept alive hopes for rights, dignity, and democracy in an otherwise hopeless environment.

“The marginalisation of Tamils, Muslims, and other vulnerable communities has been an unfortunate development in Sri Lanka. Muslim places of worship, businesses and houses have been attacked for many years. The trend has been continued under this government. The Easter attack on Christians by some Muslim extremists and Covid-19 have exacerbated this situation.

TNS: The UN Human Rights Council has recently passed a resolution to monitor information and preserve the evidence of human rights violations in Sri Lanka. What is the government’s reaction to this decision?

RF: The government has rejected the UN resolution, which means it would refuse to cooperate with the Council and may even be hostile to Sri Lankans, including survivors. Strangely, the government had also claimed victory in the Council, insisting that 14 of its members who abstained from voting opposed the resolution. Overall, of the 47 member states, 22 voted in support of the resolution, and 11 opposed. Despite this uncooperative attitude of the government, victims’ families, affected communities and activists support the resolution.

TNS: The Sri Lankan government is marginalising Muslims and other communities in the country. It has banned the hijab, closed more than 1,000 madrassas, confiscated books on Islam, and bodies of Muslims dying of coronavirus are being cremated, denying their Islamic burial. Your comments?

RF: The marginalisation of Tamils, Muslims and other vulnerable communities such as refugees, LGBTIQ persons, migrant workers, and free trade zone workers, has been an unfortunate development in Sri Lanka. Muslim places of worship, businesses and houses have been attacked for many years. The trend has continued under this government. The Easter attack on Christians by some Muslim extremists and the Covid-19 have exacerbated this situation.

TNS: How are other religious minorities such as Hindus and Christians being treated in Sri Lanka?

RF: Evangelical Christians have been under attack for several years. This includes physical attacks on churches and pastors, threats and intimidation, obstruction to church services and other discriminatory measures. Hindus have also faced problems, especially when some ancient Hindu temples and sacred grounds were claimed as Buddhist archaeological sites.

TNS: Citizens in Sri Lanka can be detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for over a year without legal rights to defend themselves in a court of law. Is there any movement to repeal this draconian law?

RF: During and after the civil war, those detained under the PTA, most of them Tamils, have been considered political prisoners. There have been campaigns for several years calling for their release. A significant number of these detainees were released or given bail during 2015-2018. Most of the detainees have been Tamils, but since the Easter attacks on Christians, hundreds of Muslims have been detained under the Act and no one has been charged even two years after the attack. Their families are facing numerous problems, including economic deprivation, deteriorating health, lack of education and psychological issues. Other issues include killings of detainees in 2020, the spread of coronavirus in jails and restrictions on visits.

TNS: Would you like to discuss the ongoing development projects in Sri Lanka and related environmental concerns?

RF: Several communities have been opposing some development projects, such as the Port City project in Colombo and Uma Oya project in the hill country. These communities are concerned about the negative impacts of these projects. Studies by environmentalists and professionals have also substantiated their concerns. Since the new government took over, the youth and environmentalists face threats, intimidation, and harassment for raising voice against environmental issues, especially the destruction of forests and biodiversity.

TNS: It looks like democracy and freedom of expression are under siege in most South Asian countries. How would you compare violations of human rights in Sri Lanka with other South Asian countries?

RF: Although my information is limited, my impression is that freedom of expression and dissent, in general, is under siege in most South Asian countries. Ethnic and religious minorities and other vulnerable communities like refugees, workers, farmers and people having unusual sexual orientations face marginalisation, discrimination and harassment across the region.

The author is co-editor of a recently published book, From Terrorism to Television: Dynamics of Media, State and Society in Pakistan (Routledge, 2020). He is an academic scholar and freelance writer based in the United States.

Wages of conflict