On Sunday night (March 16) Ruki Fernando and Fr Praveen, prominent Sri Lankan human rights defenders, were taken into detention in Kilinochchi under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. This followed the arrest of Jeyakumari Balendran and her young daughter on March 14; Balendran, the mother of a disappeared former LTTE cadre, has been outspoken about political disappearances in Sri Lanka, and at the forefront of a campaign to demand knowledge of the whereabouts of persons who went missing after surrendering to the Sri Lankan Armed Forces at the end of the civil war in 2009. Both Ruki Fernando and Fr Praveen have been instrumental in documenting disappearances and other human rights violations in formerly LTTE-controlled areas, during the war, but especially since the military defeat of the LTTE.
I don’t know Jeyakumari Balendran personally. I don’t know Father Praveen personally. I never met them, but I know of them. I know of the kind of things they have done, the kind of risks they have taken, the kind of dangers they have placed themselves in, in order to demand justice, some idea of ‘justice’ — sometimes just to ensure the most basic rights of the members of their community. I read about Jeyakumari leading the protest of grieving mothers of the disappeared, who held up pictures to the car-window when David Cameron’s convoy drove past them last year. I do know Ruki Fernando. I have always counted it my privilege entirely to know him in what limited capacity I do — I am not a close friend, I am not family, I am not colleague — to have learned so much from him, both as a person and an activist, and it pains me to think of him in a detention centre somewhere, being interrogated. He is a gentle man, a kind, compassionate man, with a deep understanding of Sri Lanka’s conflict-related issues and a single-minded determination to engage with these issues in an honest and integral way. He is a sensible, sensitive man who often looks at things in ways I had not thought possible. He is an optimistic man, despite all the human cruelty he knows exists better than most, and all the despair he witnesses in his work. He is a dedicated, committed man, one who does not sleep or eat or ever stop even for a second — unless he feels he has done enough for the moment, and he almost always never thinks he has done enough for the moment. He is not a scared man, I have never known him to be, and I hope he is not, now.
I do not believe in prayer. I rarely believe in karma. So what am I asking? I am asking that we all, in the least, stop to think about this — to consider what this means, to stop pretending like it’s not about us, or like it doesn’t affect us. Three people who are not just entirely innocent, but heroic in more ways than many of us could ever dream of being, have been arbitrarily arrested and are being held under a frightening Act that allows the Security Forces to act with impunity and without accountability, under the guise that they are acting to protect the nation from acts of terrorism. This move to silence these activists and others like them is also a move to crush the spirit of the people for whom they speak; it is a cowardly act of a paranoid regime whose fear and insecurity knows no bounds. It is because of this fear — that adage of the oppressor who fears the oppressed is is an adage for a reason — that they have created this precarious house of cards, this web of lies, a web of lies we must at least try and believe, could collapse the moment we say ‘Enough’.
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