SRI LANKA: The Recent Suppression of Tamil Voice at Vavuniya 

A group of hundreds of relatives of the disappeared from Mannar and Vavuniya were to arrive on the 5th night in Colombo by buses to share with the people in the South their pathetic stories about the disappearances of their loved ones during and after the war, and then to present a petition to the UN to request its intervention to trace them.

But, when they were about to leave that night the police and the army in Vavuniya in a joint operation have stepped in and pushed the people inside the Church premises and ordered the drivers to take back their buses.

These are families who have been weeping, crying and going from place to place for years now, searching for information about their sons or daughters or husbands who have disappeared.

‘Stop Disappearances and Abductions’ ~ [International day against disappearances] ~ in Vavuniya – 2012 August 30, Organized by-Committee for Investigation of the Disappeared – pic: courtesy of: VikalpaSL

The disappearance of Fr. Francis Joseph and several others after surrendering to the army in 2009 is just one instance that has not been accounted for. It was reported to the ‘Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission’, by the Bishop of Mannar, quoting government records that 146,679 were missing. Up to now there is nobody found to be accountable for these disappearances. All these facts point to a serious lack of accountability.

There is an entire section in the LLRC report (Chapter 9/43-60) on the question of disappearances. Had the government carried out those recommendations of the LLRC such as appointing an independent commissioner on disappearances, the need to come to Colombo to handover a petition to the UN would not have arisen.

Such being the situation, what could be the purpose of this unjust act of blocking their coming to Colombo? Were these relatives of the disappeared who were mostly elderly women planning to carry out criminal activities? They were only planning to do something which is quite in accordance with the constitution of the country, to find a solution to a problem which is causing innermost pain to them every moment of their lives.

The constitution of Sri Lanka in no 14 has guaranteed the freedom of Speech, assembly, association, movement. It is precisely those actions that this group has been intending to carry out: to speak about and express the sufferings they were subject to by moving to another place in the country and holding a peaceful assembly.

The freedom to engage in such activities have also been guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (No 13) which says, ‘everyone has the right to freedom of movement’ and article 19 says, ‘everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.

Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association (No. 20). In spite of all these assurances still the law enforcing authorities, perhaps in consultation with the political authorities, have decided that such freedoms should not be allowed to the citizens.
The authorities want to instill fear in people and prevent them from raising their voices on issues of human rights. Can this happen in a democratic country? On the 20th December 2006, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which affirmed the rights of the victims’ families to seek reparations, to know about the whereabouts of those victims and to demand the facts regarding the disappearance of their loved ones.

Accordingly, the acts of forced disappearances and abductions have been recognized as ‘crimes’. The victims could have been either forcefully detained or tortured or even killed. According to the UN, such acts have been recognized as ‘crimes against humanity’. Hence, the relatives have a right to know the truth.

Those who carry out such abductions and forced disappearances do so with the specific purpose of denying to the relatives of the disappeared their legitimate rights and of silencing them and preventing any dissent against the powers that be. These illegitimate acts are directed towards every opponent and critic and also create a sense of uncertainty and fear in the wider community.

The suppression of the free movement of citizens in Vavuniya is an instance of a violation of freedom of the citizens of this country amounting to an infringement on fundamental rights to free expression and movement. It has in fact proved again that the government does not care for the rights of the people.

One the one hand, this undemocratic act of the government only contradicts what the President’s special representative told the audience at Geneva. On the other hand, this inhumane act reflects what is being echoed in Geneva by the human rights activists.

The denial of this basic freedom proves that a situation of normalcy does not prevail in the areas of North and East. The freedom to move about and the freedom of expression have been denied. Further this incident well orchestrates the suppression of Tamil people that is going on in the North. Surely one cannot expect an autocrat or the military rule to respect the principles of democracy and human rights.