In a hotel by the tranquil shores of Switzerland's Lake Geneva, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam is catching his breath from the relentless repression faced by Tamil activists in Sri Lanka. He is here to attend the UN Human Rights Council's 22nd session, which will examine the situation in his homeland this month.
Ponnambalam got into trouble with the Sri Lankan government just for trying to travel abroad. Not surprisingly they want to keep an eye on him, given his track record as an outspoken politician fighting for Tamil people's rights. Ponnambalam was a Member of Parliament for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) from 2001-2010, until his section of this coalition - the oldest Tamil political party in Sri Lanka, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress - withdrew in 2010 to establish the Tamil National People's Front (TNPF). Ponnambalam is currently president of the TNPF, an organisation which prefers to work with civil society rather than the government of Sri Lanka.
Ponnambalam monitored closely the fate of the Jaffna University students arrested at the end of November for their commemoration of Tamils killed in wars against the Sri Lankan state. “After the first pair of student leaders had been interrogated for many hours, the Student's Union got worried and asked me to intervene. I was aware if I got involved the government would claim political parties were behind the students' protests, which absolutely was not the case. So I contacted the most senior lawyer in Jaffna. She found out that a special team was coming from Colombo to interrogate the students. It was clear they would not be released soon. The next day, I found out two more students had been detained, including the union secretary who had requested my help”.
Ponnambalam gives insight into how the Sri Lankan state treated these students: “The Terrorist Investigation Department were the arresting authority. They used a three month detention order and transferred them to the Joint Services Special Operations camp in Vavuniya and then the secretive Welikanda military detention complex – this 'rehabilitation' site should only be used if people surrender their links to a banned organisation as set out in the Prevention of Terrorism Act. There were no grounds to use this against the students. I asked their parents to challenge the detention but they were too frightened. The students were eventually released out of the blue last month”.
This incident is in stark contrast to the mantra of reconciliation promoted by British officials in their depictions of post-conflict Sri Lanka. Ponnambalam is critical of their use of language, saying that “structural genocide, not reconciliation, is the phrase which most accurately describes what is going on.” He explains how after the massacres of Tamils in the Vanni in 2009, the genocide has taken new forms. “Even the development and reconstruction that they speak of is mostly infrastructure. These roads are arterial roads used to mobilise the Sri Lankan military. Everyone knows that. It is being done to systematically undermine the national identity of Tamil people”.
He is adamant that the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa is not uniquely problematic. “The land grab is not peculiar to this regime. It has been happening for the last 65 years. The only time it stopped was during the armed struggle of the LTTE, because then Sinhalese people were not willing to settle in the north and east”, where a de-facto Tamil state existed.
Although he was in Geneva to observe the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) session on Sri Lanka, he was pessimistic about the prospect of a satisfactory outcome. He dismissed the new US-drafted resolution, which will only “give the Sri Lankan government more time”. He bases this on the fact that a similar resolution was passed last March at the UN HRC which, he says, “did nothing to curtail the genocide. This resolution will be nothing more than a slap on the wrist”.
Looking back, he reflects how “a lot of people said that resolution was 'against Sri Lanka'. Not at all. It was just a resolution on Sri Lanka that put it on the international agenda. It did nothing to positively change the situation on the ground. Don't take my word for it. Look at the High Commissioner for Human Rights' own report on it. Surely a decent resolution would have addressed the concerns of the day, and made a positive impact on the ground? In fact, things have got worse. The government has become more aggressively anti-Tamil, moving towards authoritarian rule. So how can that resolution be called 'against Sri Lanka'?”
Ponnambalam pointed out how the terms of debate are still fixed on whether the government is implementing the recommendations of their own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). “The resolution was based on the LLRC, whose commission was appointed by the government. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group all rejected the commission's members. One of them was a known government apologist who was the Attorney General at the time. Our party said outright that you can't take the conclusions of a fundamentally flawed commission, so we refused to even go into its merits.
He continued to highlight the weakness of the international community. “The second part of the resolution talked about internal accountability – for the very same government accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and what we call ongoing genocide”.
Ponnambalam believes Tamil women are playing a lead role in defending their communities from the Sri Lankan military. “The women are at the forefront of bringing to the world the issues on the ground, through various non-violent acts. For example, it was the women who demonstrated against their land being taken by the army in Keppapilavu. Then it was the mothers protesting about their disappeared children. The most vulnerable in our society are the most active in resisting”.
The deportation of Tamils to Sri Lanka has sparked controversy, amid reports that people sent back are imprisoned, raped or subjected to other forms of torture. In February the British High Court finally suspended the removal of Tamil refugees, pending a review of the situation due in May. Ponnambalam was unequivocal about the danger inherent with these deportations. “There is ample evidence to suggest that ordinary Tamils (let alone those who have gone abroad and sought asylum) are facing an enormous threat to their life in Sri Lanka. Elderly people who have been non-political for 25 years are suddenly being detained. So can you just imagine what reaction awaits people who have gone abroad, sought asylum, accused the Sri Lankan government of persecution... This criticism is the number one criteria for getting the State security apparatus against you. These people are not going to be taken lightly, and there is documentary evidence that they have been tortured on return.”
He also warned activists how the situation may evolve. “Some people are interrogated as soon as they step off the plane. No doubt the authorities will get more sophisticated – they will document people as arriving safely only to snatch them later”.
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