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March 18, 2014

Sri Lanka: A New Wave of Terror

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

A fortnight before the UN Human Rights Council is to vote on a resolution on Sri Lanka, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government has launched a sudden crackdown in the country's Northern and Eastern provinces. Several citizens have been arrested and a woman activist, campaigning to discover the fate of her child-soldier son who 'disappeared' while being rehabilitated by the government, has been detained under anti-terror laws.


Rights Campaigners and citizens arrested under Anti-Terrorism Laws

Tisaranee Gunasekara

Jeyakumari Balendran spent the last several years trying to discover the fate of her child-soldier son. She surrendered the boy to the Lankan authorities at the end of the Ealam War. A photograph of the boy engaging in physical exercises with other former LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) combatants appeared in an official publication showcasing the Lankan government's rehabilitation programme. Then the boy vanished.

Last week, Jeyakumari was arrested and detained under anti-terror laws.

Jeyakumari's story is the story of her community in microcosm. Her two older sons joined the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) voluntarily and were killed in the war. Her youngest son was forcibly conscripted in the final stages of the war by the LTTE. After he vanished, Jeyakumari and her daughter devoted themselves to the sisyphusean effort of uncovering his fate.

That was how Jeyakumari came into limelight -- and the attention of the authorities. She gave evidence before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by the Lankan government; she led demonstrations, met politicians and gave media interviews. What made Jeyakumari's case special was that she had incontrovertible proof that her son survived the war, was surrendered to the government and was in governmental custody - proof provided not by a Channel 4 video but by an official government publication, and, therefore, incontestable by the government. "She has a strong case against the government because it published a photograph of her son in a government book depicting rehabilitation of rebel fighters" [i].

If her surrendered-son is dead, it would indicate that war crimes continued to happen, post-war.

The Lankan state thus has every reason to be concerned about Jeyakumari and her relentless struggle to unearth the fate of her son.

Tony Benn, that giant crusader for justice who died last week, said, "I think there are two ways in which people are controlled. First of all frighten people and, secondly, demoralise them." The two tactics are often interconnected. Frightened people become demoralised easily; they are more likely to abandon their public struggles and retire to their private spaces. Jeyakumari's arrest might work as a potent disincentive and make many Tamil civilians abandon their own efforts to discover the fates of their loved ones.

The authorities claim that Jeyakumari was harbouring an LTTE intelligence operative who had shot at the police. They also claim that a mine-detector was found inside the house. The aim is to justify the arrest of Jeyakumari by labelling her a 'terror suspect'.   

Jeyakumari Balendran is Tamil; her home is in Killinochchi, in the Tamil-majority Northern Province, hundreds of miles away from the commercial capital Colombo. It is a de facto occupied-territory, almost inaccessible to national and international media. In such a restrictive environment lies and truth are easily interchangeable. The state and its armed forces can act there with a degree of freedom and impunity they do not yet possess in the rest of the country. Therefore the police and the army could surround Jeyakumari's village in military-operation style, seal if off, interrogate her and her little daughter for hours, take her before a magistrate in the dead of the night and detain her under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act. Currently she is being detained in a prison in Boosa, in th e Southern Province (at the opposite end of the country); she has no access to a lawyer or the outside world and no news about the fate of her little daughter, apart from what her persecutors choose to tell her. 

It was Jeyakumari Balendran, the mother, who braved the Lankan state and the ubiquitous and hostile military. The same maternal love can be used to silence her. After all, her only surviving child, her 13-year-old daughter, is in the hands of the same state that 'disappeared' her son (the little girl is reportedly terrified and asking for her mother). Perhaps somebody thought that Jeyakumari, the mother, can be made to incriminate herself and her fellow campaigners by using the safety of her daughter as a b argaining-chip?

According to latest news reports, Jeyakumari Balachandran's arrest may signal the beginning of a new wave of terror in Northern and Eastern provinces.  Reports from the Eastern district of Trincomalee say that Balaguruparan Tharmila, who is pregnant and mother of a four-year-old boy from Paalai Ootru area, is held in Colombo after been arrested on the 12th of March by Sri Lankan intelligence officers. Meanwhile, a 28-year-old woman, Nitharsana, from Visvamadu in the north eastern Mullaithivu district, is believed to be held by the police Terrorism Investigation Department (TID). She was also arrested on the 12th of March alongside her mother and brother who were released two days later." [ii] Ruki Fernando, a Sinhala human-rights activist, and Father Praveen, a Tamil cleric, have also being detained for questioning, reportedly by the Terrorism Investigation Division in Killinochchi.

A resolution on the human-rights situation in Sri Lanka is scheduled to be taken up before the UNHRC in Geneva later this month. Why has the Mahinda Rajapaksa government commenced a sudden crackdown in the North and the East at this time? Is the government planning to concoct a new LTTE threat, and buttress it with forced 'confessions' from Jeyakumari Balendran and other detainees, in time for the Geneva vote?

Authors Bio:
Political Commentator, Colombo, Sri Lanka