THIS is a new feature we have introduced with this issue. Voice of the Grassroots is aimed at interviewing activists based in each country to create a space for to shed light on their activities. We spoke to Prasanga Fernando, a human rights defender for NGO, Right 2 Life in Sri Lanka.
Following are experts of the interview:
Torture Magazine (TM): Many mass graves have been found in Sri Lanka within a short space of time. Many human rights organizations assisted in finding them and making the discoveries known both inside and outside the country. You are a human rights defender working on this relevant and crucial issue. How do you become involved?
Prasanga Fernando (PF): No one can deny the bitter history we passed through in the last few decades. The governments we “elected” engaged in mass disappearances and extrajudicial killings since early 70s. Therefore, a large number of mass graves
have been found around the country. Those who were killed by the government deserve justice. At least the cause of their deaths should be discovered. These dead souls are asking for justice. We, as the people have a prime responsibility to stand up on their behalf before we too become victims of these atrocities.
We saw a slightly difference [sic] policy implemented during the government of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike. The government was urged to conduct proper investigations on the mass grave found in Suriyakanda, Ratnapura district, where number [sic] of School children were killed and buried. However, very much like other governments do, they decided to remain idle when the same issues arose in other areas, especially in the north and east of Sri Lanka. So again, the culture of silence was established and no one dared to bring the perpetrators to justice.
I, as a member of Right 2 Life, a human rights group based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, have not only personal but professional responsibilities to stand up to lack [sic] of justice. That is how I started working on the mass grave issue. At the moment I am focusing more on the mass grave found in the hospital yard in Matale. We worked to bring awareness among the relatives of the victims of the area whose remains may well be found in this grave. The court cases are processing and we hope we can have the justice for this.
TM: Many skeletons were founds in the excavation, how are the relatives of the victims in these mass graves helping in the process?
PF: Unfortunately most of parents of those victims in this mass grave have passed away themselves, so other relatives are helping in the court procedures. There are a few parents still alive, and they are extending their serious concern to find justice for their lost children.
I can relate here the story of one father who has been searching for his son since 1989. He told me that he spent everything he earned to search his son and many members of the family became psychotic.
TM: Have you met any relatives who believe those victims belong to their family? Please tell us something of your meetings with them.
PF: This country is so called [sic] Buddhist country, where the majority of the people claim to be followers of the great Lord Buddha. But no one can even imagine crimes of this nature occurring in this country.
There is no secret perhaps, as it is now in public domain, of the number of people who were been killed during the last phase of the war between the state forces and Tamil Tiger rebels known as the LTTE, where hundred thousands [sic] of unarmed innocents perished.
There are many experiences I can related here on those who are victims of mass killings in Sri Lanka. There was a father whose son was believed to be a one of victims in Matale Mass grave. He was a school principle by profession, and he is a father of four. One of his sons, Sanjeewa Kumarasiri, was taken to army custody when he was heading to school on the morning of November 8, 1989. One Army officer called Jayatissa who was responsible for his custody informed the schools that he needed Sanjeewa for taking [sic] a short deposition and that he would bring him back to school before 12 noon. Until now no one knows what happened to him.
Sanjeewa’s mother passed away after suffering severe depression.
There was another narrative in which one retired government official lost his brother. This case directly involved Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (the president’s brother and Secretary of the Ministry of Defense), who was then one of the army officers who led a team in Matale. As such, he was responsible for mass killings. As one of most powerful key players in the government he was able to have many of the police record books in the area destroyed.
TM: There was a political debate after the revelation of these mass graves in the country. Apparently those who work on these issues are under covert surveillance of the government. Tell us about the political situation in the country due to these excavations?
PF: There is no rule of law in Sri Lanka; in fact, the system has been distorted by the political elite to escape from justice.
However, as a human rights defender I have a primary responsible to raise my voice against this. If we raise our voices, then people will start to think about this. Activism is nothing but to raise awareness among the people that no one can believe or trust in a government that systematically engages in mass killings and other form of atrocities. So we have to think and strategize our way of working, which is the most challenging task today.
TM: It was reported that the government is planning to send the skeletons found in the excavations of the mass graves to China for further investigation. What do the relatives of the victims say about this decision?
PF: It has been questioned before the court after the government decided to send those remains to China for investigation. The government did not inform the relatives of the victims. However, now the government is keeping the remains and not allowing any investigation.
TM: What are the obstacles in finding justice for victims when the country’s criminal justice system is paralysed?
PF: People have their own responsibilities to play when the ruling government does not follow the basic authentic rule which protect [sic] the basic rights of every citizen in this country. So I believe the majority of the people must responsible for the deterioration of the system in this country as well. So we are in an abyss and have to find a way out. What is need [sic] is creative and independent thinking that can address the hearts and minds of all the citizens in this country.
TM: Tell us what you need to continue your activism on this issue?
PF: I have no personal desires, although I am facing tremendous difficulties in many ways. We all have to play our role, even with the minimum space that remains here. If you do not stand up when your neighbor is getting hurt by unjust and awful atrocities, either by the state or non-state actors, then you may assume that the next target will be you. We have passed through our bitter history where we saw fellow humans being killed for nothing. Now we have to say enough is enough.
Let us continue our fight for justice, let us be stronger that we were yesterday.