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In 2012, more than 6,500 Sri Lankan asylum seekers arrived in Australian waters by boat, an increase of about 30 times compared to previous years. Many wonder why the asylum seekers endanger their lives by embarking on treacherous journeys with people smugglers despite the bloody conflict having ended in 2009. According to Paul Komesaroff, Monash University; Paul James, RMIT University, and Suresh Sundram, University of Melbourne:
In 2009, the long Sri Lankan civil war ended with the government forcing a complete defeat for the independence struggle of the Tamil Tigers (known as the LTTE)… More than 100,000 people were dead, hundreds of thousands had been displaced, large parts of the country — mostly in the Tamil north — were devastated. Families and communities were divided, and there was a legacy of suspicion, resentment and trauma… the problems that generated the civil war – which go back to the complex legacy of colonialism and the Tamil conviction that their culture and political rights are not protected – remain unresolved… They do not see a future for themselves (in Sri Lanka). They are leaving because their hope, depleted by decades of conflict, has not been restored by the cessation of hostilities and the restoration of some level of material wealth.
To explore this topic further I attended a public lecture by Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena who is a prominent lawyer, media columnist and human rights defender currently serving as deputy director of the Law & Society Trust in Colombo, and as head of its civil and political rights programme. She has worked as a senior legal consultant for the International Commission of Jurists, for whom she wrote Still Seeking Justice: Rule of Law, the Legal System and Commissions of Inquiry in Sri Lanka (2010). She has published widely on a diverse range of topics, from habeas corpus to violence against women, and is a senior legal columnist for the Sunday Times newspaper.
Kishali stated that since the ceasefire:
…heightened repression of ethnic and religious minorities has impeded the country’s post war growth. A militarised, politicised and corrupt police force whose endemic use of torture in law enforcement under extraordinary powers through special anti-terrorism laws has resulted in the serious breakdown of law and order. Political subversion of the judiciary following the arbitrary impeachment of the Chief Justice this year has ruptured public confidence in the proper functioning of the legal system.
Kishali stated that the system of justice has deteriorated and emergency law upheld by the military is still in place even though the war has ended. In May a Sri Lankan Muslim leader was imprisoned under emergency law for speaking out against attacks on the Muslim community. Kishali stated that no court case was heard and after a month the President pardoned the parliamentarian. Kishali feels that the Tamil and Muslim people of the north and east of Sri Lanka feel marginalised and second-class citizens having witnessed the destruction of sites of worship, vandalism, boycotting of their businesses, failure of police to help, and torture and disappearance of youth. As a result they feel they don’t have a home in Sri Lanka and choose to flee. Surprisingly, even the majority Sinhalese Buddhists have experienced violence in recent times:
Mass public demonstrations against a ground water contamination scandal in the Gampaha District took a deadly turn (on 1 August 2013) after the military was deployed to disperse the protests and the resultant tension left at least one person dead and over 20 injured, according to police and hospital sources.
Kishali shared a personal anecdote of a Tamil eye surgeon who sought her assistance when his father-in-law, the Vice Chancellor of a Colombo university disappeared. The father-in-law was attending a seminar in a high security zone of Colombo but while returning home he was abducted. On behalf of the surgeon, Kishali approached the police and courts but no investigation or judicial process was instigated. Ironically the surgeon had been operating on the eyes of Sinhalese soldiers when he received the call stating that his father-in-law had been abducted.
Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena raised the question ‘Is Rule of Law relevant to the Commonwealth considering that Sri Lanka is hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) meeting this week. Canada and India have boycotted the meeting and an Australian Senator Lee Rhiannon was on Sunday detained in a Colombo hotel and had her passport confiscated while on a 4 day fact-finding trip to investigate claims of human rights abuses. Senator Rhiannon called for the Abbott government to boycott the meeting.
Next I will need to watch the film No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka that so upset the British Prime Minister David Cameron and caused him to call for an international inquiry into allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka.