Talking about human rights in Sri Lanka

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — April 1989, the city of Jaffna in Northern Sri Lanka: My uncle is riding his bicycle to work. A voice from behind calls out his name. He stops and turns around. Armed men begin arguing with him and yell that he is a traitor. He pleads with them, saying that he is a family man. They do not listen and shoot him in the face with a machine gun. His bullet-ridden body and bloodstained bicycle fall to the road.

Later, people said that he had asked for water, but that they had been too afraid to help him. From the camouflage of their gardens, civilians, paralyzed by fear, watched my uncle die. On the day of his funeral, the armed men who killed him came to the house and told my family that what they had done was correct. He was a traitor, and for that, he deserved to be killed. His wife, fearing for the safety of her three children, accepted this version of reality. Her youngest child was just shy of three months old.

I could not attend the funeral. In Jaffna, the Indian Peace-Keeping Forces (IPKF), the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Tamil militant groups were engaged in a ruthless and agonizing battle. In this civilian bloodbath, no one was spared. Schools were shut down and children grew accustomed to the sounds of gunshots and grenades. Principals and the elderly were murdered. Women’s bodies were used and discarded on the road, like empty bullet casings. My family and I mourned silently. I was too afraid to seek the truth and my questions surrounding his death remain unanswered.

No one seemed to know the real story, but more importantly, everyone was too afraid to retell it. Why was he killed? What did he do to be called a traitor? I was eight years old. These were my questions.

Five months later, on Sept. 21, 1989, Rajani Thiranagama — professor of anatomy, mother and co-founder of University Teachers for Human Rights Jaffna (UTHR(J)) — was also shot in the head by a gunman while riding home on her bicycle. In 1990, UTHR(J) published “The Broken Palmyra,” with Rajani listed posthumously as a co-author. The text documents the human rights violations, fear and narrowing space for democracy in Sri Lanka. In particular, the book relates the devolution of civil society experienced by Jaffna civilians during the 1980s. Especially noteworthy is Rajani’s chapter, “No More Tears, Sister,” an account detailing the war-induced sexual violence, disappearances and trauma experienced by women. In 2005, a critically acclaimed documentary by the same title about Rajani’s life and work was released. Though UTHR(J) was forced underground soon after her assassination, the organization continues to document human rights violations, and two of the co-founders were awarded the 2007 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

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.