A Campaigner Against Disappearances in Sri Lanka Wins Prestigious Kwangju Human Rights Award

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

Since 2000, the Kwangju Human Rights Award is presented yearly in honor of the 1980 Kwangju Uprising, where the Kwangju people fought against the military take over of their country and 240 Kwangju citizens were martyred for the cause.  The award  ris presented to a person who embodies the Kwangju spirit, and this year’s 2003 recipient is DANDENIYA GAMAGE JAYANTHI.  Since 1988, Jayanthi has devoted herself to fight for the cause of disappeared persons in Sri Lanka and has become a symbol of that struggle. She is also a trade unionist and prominent woman activist.

The Declaration of award states, “The judging committee of The May 18 Memorial Foundation determines to award Dandeniya Gamage Jayanthi (Sri Lanka) who is a representative of ‘The Family Members of the Disappeared’ as a winner of The 4th Gwangju Prize for Human Rights in 2003.”

Over 30,000 persons disappeared in southern Sri Lanka between 1988-1992, in addition to the large the number of disappearances in the northern and eastern part of the country due to Tamils who struggled to win their rights.  While the latter is somewhat known in the outside world, the former is very little known.

Jayanthi lost both her fiancé and a brother during the Southern disappearances; neither were connected in any way with rebel activity. In fact, Jayanthi’s fiancé Ranjith was associated with the existing Legal Aid Center for workers in the Free Trade Zone.  Ranjith, who was employed at FLORAL GRES, intervened with the Commissioner of Labour to find redress for the employees who had lost their fingers during work. Needless to say, the employer was quite displeased about his interventions.

In October 1989 Ranjith faced dismissal. He was scheduled to meet the disciplinary committee at four in the afternoon on 27 October. The disciplinary officer was to be the then member of the Opposition Party, and now Member of Parliament, Mr. Jeyaraj Fernandopulle.  Incidentally, for the first time in the life of the Free Trade Zone (FTZ) permission was received to invite a representative for the workers. Mr. Lionel from the Legal Aid Center was to represent Ranjith. On 27 October Jayanthi went to work after seeing Ranjith for the last time. Ranjith and Lionel were on their way by a motorbike to attend the disciplinary hearing.  Ranjith, however, did not return home that night. Their bodies, burned, were found at a road junction.  The employer has instigated with a senior police officer to have them killed.  Jayathi’s search for justice began with that incident.  After having made a complaint about the disappearance of Ranjith, Jayanthi herself became a target of the police and was forced into hiding.  She was hunted to the places where she was hiding and many people feared that they would not be able to save her. However, after a strong trade unionist came to take up her case it was possible to foil the attempts of assassination. Their organization Kalapaye Api, meaning WE of the ZONE, fights for the rights of workers in the Free Trade Zone in Sri Lanka, where extreme forms of abuse of worker rights exist.

Even in the difficult days known in Sri Lanka as the Period of Terror, she gathered a small group of persons to fight for the cause of the disappeared and demand justice. In 2000 she was able to erect a public monument for the disappeared at the Raddoluwa junction, where the bodies of Ranjith and Lionel were found.  This monument was able to draw the attention of many other relatives of disappeared persons, who now gather often and try to pursue justice and improvements for the conditions of the families of the disappeared.  Behind the monument stands the Wall of Tears, where on it about 400 pictures of the disappeared from the Gampaha area are exhibited.  This is the location of the annual 27 October ceremony, which gathers a large number of relatives and sympathizers of disappeared persons to remember the disappeared. This work was done in collaboration with Asian Human Rights Commission.

Though the United Nations Working Group on Enforced Disappearances have made many recommendations for the prosecution of perpetrators of disappearances, hardly any action of implementation by the Sri Lankan government has been taken.  In fact, state authorities have connived to hush the issue: large number of mass graves that exist had not been excavated.  Justice has been denied by the state’s refusal to investigate into the grave crime of mass disappearances.  It has been established that disappearances in Sri Lanka were in fact killings after arrest. Most killings took place in detention centres, which were widespread in different parts of the country. Even the recommendations of the UN Working Group to make disappearances a crime in Sri Lanka have been ignored.

The recognition of DANDENIYA GAMAGE JAYANTHI’s work must bring to the fore that justice continues to be denied to the tens of thousands of persons who have disappeared in Sri Lanka.

Jayanthi will receive her award on 18 May at Kwangju, South Korea, at a ceremony in which prominent citizens of Kwangju will participate.

Asian Human Rights Commission – AHRC, Hong Kong

Asian Human Rights Commission – AHRC
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Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-13-2003
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Enforced disappearances and abductions,