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‘There is no ray of hope for Sri Lanka’

Jul 29, 2008

Nimalka Fernando, human rights activist from Sri Lanka, has been on the forefront in organising the People’s SAARC. She spoke to OneWorld South Asia on the vision of a people’s union for South Asia and the sense of despondency that prevails in her country due to prolonged ethnic conflict.

Nimalka Fernando is a lawyer and human rights activist of long standing from Sri Lanka. As member of the Democratic People’s Movement in Sri Lanka, she has been invloved in initiating action and dialogue for alternative development paradigms. She is also the president of the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) and the Women’s Forum for Peace in Sri Lanka. Nimalka is also member of the Steering Committee of the South Asian People’s Assembly.

This interview is the second conducted on the sidelines of the People’s SAARC.

OneWorld South Asia: Tell us something about South Asian People’s Assembly?

Nimalka Fernando: The South Asian People’s Assembly or SAPA is nothing new. In 1993 there had been a civil society gathering under the SAPA banner. Taking into consideration the challenges faced by the civil society in Sri Lanka and also the fact that we needed solidarity against the war, some of us thought it was a good idea to have it organised here in Colombo.

OWSA: What is the significance of holding this event every year before the official SAARC summit?

NF: Partly because we try to communicate our issues, the challenges and the changes that we want in South Asia to the respective heads of states from each country in the region. This is also the way to communicate the voices of the people. Even though the official SAARC has not always responded to us in a positive manner, they at least get to know that there is something called People’s SAARC and that people in South Asia are watching the SAARC summit closely.

OWSA: What do you see as the gain for the Sri Lankan civil society from the efforts that have gone into organising this SAPA?

NF: At a time when the Sri Lankan civil society has been facing a lot of threats and is being ridiculed by the media, the fact that people from the region have come and gathered here will strengthen us as a whole.

In the past we have been even called traitors. No matter what, we will continue to yearn for peace in this country, to say no to war. This meeting here in Colombo is an expression of our strength as civil society.

Notwithstanding the differences, I feel we have the ability to work together. We have succeeded in bringing in even the trade union leaders, who were earlier apprehensive about working with NGOs. Though they are still reluctant to be full partners in the initiative, the very fact that they have come with us as representatives of the labour movement is a big achievement in itself. They see this as an anti-imperialist people’s alliance. It is a good expression of solidarity.

We are also going to have the chief of the only tribal community in Sri Lanka amidst us. He has shown his willingness to be part of this process.

[Editor’s note: The tribal community referred to here is Vedda or Wanniyalaeto (forest dwellers), who have preserved a direct lineage from the island’s original Neolithic community dating from at least 14,000 BC. A study carried out in 1978 puts their population at 6,000 in the Anuradhapura district alone, according to a website:].

OWSA: Could you tell us something about the anthem that you have created for the opening ceremony? I thought it was really a wonderful expression of unity in diversity.

NF: A group of very young artists including a political leader who comes from a very artistic background wrote it. We did not create anything new but we have been able to reflect our vision for a borderless South Asia in the anthem. It also says that we want countries that bow their heads to justice and embrace democracy.

OWSA: What is the way forward for SAPA?

NF: We will submit our resolution to the heads of states and we will also give it wide publicity. Whatever we say to the governments will also be relevant to us. The People’s SAARC has always been an event-to-event thing; we don’t intend to perpetuate ourselves by creating another NGO. Our role is confined to advocacy and not beyond. We can’t implement the policies. That is for the governments to do.

OWSA: As a lawyer and human rights activist, could you tell us about your vision for Sri Lanka?

NF: It’s a very painful question to answer. Long time back in 1994 when I was campaigning against [enforced] disappearances and extra judicial killings, I did not expect that I still would have to raise the same slogan; that I would have to undertake this task of documenting the number of disappearances in my own country again.

Sri Lanka is a country that has seen 60,000 disappearances in the 1980s. And today we are seeing the disappearances in the range of 5,000 during the last two years alone. We have not been able to verify all of them due to lack of information and lack of cross checking.

We know that we have to resolve the ethnic conflict. Instead what we see is that we are back to zero in terms of using the Prevention of Terrorism Act and in terms of using brutal repression against the media and civil society activists.

On the other hand, we also see hardening of positions from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). So there is little hope and we are back to square one. We want both parties to come together on the negotiation table.

I feel there is a limit now to which the Sri Lankan civil society can engage itself in conflict resolution. This has now become a conflict where some regional and global super powers are getting involved, like China, India, Pakistan and the US.

What is happening in Sri Lanka is not what you see as fighting between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. The government has positioned itself in the international political game. So these are difficult times for us.

OWSA: Is there a ray of hope?

NF: We have always lived with the ray of hope. But I don’t have any ray of hope at this point of time. I think the conflict itself is generating a lot of tiredness in the minds of the people.

With editoral inputs from Rajender Singh Negi.

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