SRI LANKA: New Year and the loss of meaning in personal tragedy

The Sinhala and Tamil New Year used to be a time of recreation and relaxation for all the communities of Sri Lanka, more or less like Christmas time in the west, or Chinese New Year for the Chinese. However, this year the 11th to the 13th April New Year holidays will be accompanied with sad memories and tension for most Sri Lankans both in and out of the country. Among them, for over one million people out of approximately a population of 20 million, these days will be darkened by thoughts and feelings of personal tragedy such as brutal deaths, kidnappings, loss of life due to politically arranged killings, losses due to lawlessness, displacement and feelings of utter helplessness in the face of the loss of any possibility of justice and protection.

What is most tragic in the Sri Lankan situation is the loss of meaning of personal tragedy. For someone to say that I have lost my son or daughter in a senseless killing is no longer a shocking event that draws the sympathy of others. Such events are so common that these are no longer seen as events of significance, they have become part of the normal routine.

A sense of personal tragedy can exist only so long as there is no sense of despair and powerlessness. After 60 years of independence the people of Sri Lanka have not achieved very much by way of the development of their state to be able to protect the lives of people so that they could carry on with their private lives with a normal human devotion of people to their loved ones and with a sense of capacity to be able to prevent tragedy and where tragedies do occur in the normal course of life are able to mourn their loses with also the participation of their communities who share their loss.

Let us take three instances that happened last week to demonstrate this situation. One is the outcome of the case of torture of Gerald Perera, the inquiry into the case of Dr. Manoharan’s son whose was one of the five students who were allegedly killed by state agents for no reason in Trincomalee and the third was a bomb blast which killed many persons who came to participate in a sports event including a nationally celebrated marathon runner, Karu and a minister who came to open the event.

Gerald Perera is now known to be a completely innocent man who was arrested mistakenly by a group of policemen acting as a special team under the control of a superintendent of police. Within a short time of his arrest he was beaten severely which resulted in, among many other injuries, renal failure. After many months of treatment he was cured and the Supreme Court then allowed his fundamental rights application declaring that several police officers who arrested him had also tortured him. Then a special investigating team investigated the matter and found the six-member special team to be responsible for the torture and filed a case in the Negombo High Court. Shortly after Gerald Perera was summoned to give evidence in this case he was assassinated and another inquiry found that the former torturers were the murderers and charged an indictment against one of them making several others state witnesses. Last week the Negombo High Court acquitted all the six members of this special team of the charge of torture stating that there is no direct evidence to prove who tortured the victim inside the police station. The prosecutor’s plea that once a man comes healthily to the police station and goes out injured the officers who were responsible for his custody must be held liable unless these officers can give an explanation consistent with their innocence, which the accused did not do, made no impression on the trial court judge.

For Gerald Perera’s family there are now multiple tragedies of the arrest of their breadwinner and a loving father and husband without any reason at all, the severe torture of this person, his killing to prevent him giving evidence and now the inability to obtain justice. The state and the society cares very little about this tragedy like many tragedies of victims of crime and human rights abuses who do not obtain justice and instead suffer further abuse of their rights by seeking justice.

The same was the plight of Dr. Manoharan and his family whose son, Rajeehar Manoharan, was among the five who were killed in Trincomalee in an execution style shooting, allegedly by state agents for no other reason than to instill fear by such a cruel act. Just within the last few days a reputed human rights organisation named those involved in the shooting and those who had ordered the killing. That brought no response of sympathy either from the state or from society. Dr. Manoharan gave evidence through a video link from an undisclosed destination abroad about this killing. He also revealed that he is himself in hiding now for fear of his life and that the higher-ups in the government are clearly aware of the identity of the killers. A surviving student of the same shooting living also in hiding abroad gave further evidence. But all such efforts, like the efforts of almost everyone who seeks justice was mocked by the state’s reactions of indifference and demands that people should come forward openly to give such evidence despite of the enormously threatening atmosphere prevailing in the country. Again the tragedies of the families of these students are not treated with any meaning by the state or even by society.

The third is the killing of several persons and the wounding of many others in a bomb blast which killed people who had come to participate in a sports event in a bombing believed to be have been carried out by the LTTE. Among the dead was the country’s most celebrated marathon runner, Karu and others where young people who were eager to participate in a sport. The bomb obviously targeted a senior minister in the government and this minister, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, was also killed instantly. Websites have shown the mutilated bodies and body parts spread around the place showing the sheer cruelty of the act and also the cruelty of the present warfare. The pictures also showed the widow and the two children of the minister. They will also now join literally millions of others whose family members have been so brutally removed. Their personal tragedy is also apparently not a matter of concern for anyone.

The test of a viable human society is the solidarity of a community expressed to its individual citizens in moments of tragedy. When this is lost it can be said almost everything is lost. If there is room to prevent more and more people being added to the long list of those who faced such tragic situations that should happen without delay. That can happen only if the state, society and the international community cooperates to deal with this situation.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-089-2008
Countries : Sri Lanka,