Connect to share and comment

Talking about human rights in Sri Lanka

A lecture commemorates the life of human rights activist Rajani Thiranagama.

Last month, a lecture was held in Colombo to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Rajani’s death and her contributions to dialogues of democracy and human rights. Family, friends, activists and intellectuals spoke about what Rajani’s legacy means to them and to Sri Lanka’s postwar future. The event was solemn, yet energized with creative reflection on Rajani’s work toward reinvigorating a silenced civil society.

Sitting in the audience, I recalled my first reading of “The Broken Palmyra” 11 years ago. I remembered the overwhelming sense of heaviness I felt reading stories upon stories of abductions, killings, rapes and civilian tactics of survival. I could not stop reading it. I had spent my youth craving answers as to why Sri Lanka had become what it was, and here they were. I even found an anecdote about another relative and, upon reading it, surprised myself by bursting into tears. Wars are often waged without witnesses. But Rajani and her colleagues had managed to find my family’s story and make it known to the world.

Sri Lankan armed forces have defeated the LTTE, but the militarization of civil society and the politics of fear continue to suffocate the possibility of securing democracy and human rights for all. Rajani foresaw this and her own end in a letter she wrote six days before her death, on Sept. 15, 1989:

“One day some gun will silence me. And it will not be held by an outsider — but by a son — born in the womb of this very society — from a woman with whom my history is shared.”

Rajani was killed because she was critical of those armed with power and emboldened by the gun. Today in Sri Lanka, norms of fear continue to sanction forced consent, and labels of patriotism and treason challenge our pursuit of the truth. Twenty years later, the questions surrounding my uncle's murder have never been completely answered. He is an anonymous casualty of the war for everyone but my family.

Despite this prevailing climate of fear, I will never give up on my right to question or dissent. And for this lesson, I have Rajani to thank.

The author has chosen to remain anonymous for her own security.