Peace for the World

Peace for the World
First democratic leader of Justice the Godfather of the Sri Lankan Tamil Struggle: Honourable Samuel James Veluppillai Chelvanayakam

Sunday, July 31, 2016

On Rights and Justice: Some Perspective from Colombo

Taylor Dibbert - 07/28/2016
The Huffington PostRuki Fernando is a human rights activist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. In this interview, Mr. Fernando shares his thoughts on a range of salient issues.

Sri Lanka’s former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, took the country in an ever more authoritarian direction. How much has changed since Maithripala Sirisena became president in January 2015?

Authoritarianism has lessened and there is more space across the country for free expression, free assembly and free association. This was visible when Tamil people in the country’s North and East came out for the first time on May 18, 2015 — to grieve collectively and publicly for their loved ones who had died during the civil war. There was more space and less restrictions and less intimidation for this in 2016 compared to 2015. However, there have been regular incidents of surveillance, intimidation, harassment and threats on journalists and activists — particularly in the North and East, even though the intensity and regularity of these incidents appears to be less than it was during the Rajapaksa era.

I feel more safe and free, and now travel to the interior of the Vanni (in the country’s Northern Province). I also go home late at night on my own, using public transport — something I never did when the Rajapaksas were in power. But even after 18 months of “good governance,” I’m still under investigation by the Terrorist Investigation Department and my freedom of expression is restricted through a court order.

As a human rights activist, what issues are taking up most of your time? What projects are you currently working on?

There are too many things than I could mention! I have been trying to assist a few families of disappeared persons in their continuing struggles. I have been trying to engage critically with the proposed Office of Missing Persons (OMP). I have been monitoring and documenting recent abductions and arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). I’m continuing to work with a few communities whose lands have been expropriated by the military. I am trying to critique militarized and large, business-oriented tourism, and to promote a more community-centered, reconciliation-oriented form of tourism. I’m also spending time discussing transitional justice issues with rural Sinhalese communities, and participating in radio and TV discussions in Sinhalese. In addition, I have been trying to support exiled Sri Lankan journalists and activists to return to Sri Lanka, and to support Pakistanis and Bangladeshis fleeing their countries and seeking refuge in Sri Lanka. Lastly, I have been giving talks and interviews, and have been writing about these issues.

In terms of the government’s wide-ranging transitional justice agenda, how much has been accomplished thus far?

Some political prisoners have been released, mostly conditionally. Some lands occupied for decades by the military have been released. Last year, there were significant judgements convicting soldiers for the rape of a Tamil woman in 2010 and a massacre of Tamil civilians in 2000.

There have been arrests of military and senior police personnel in some important and high-profile cases of killings and disappearances. The new leadership of the Human Rights Commission has asserted their independence and challenged the government, though an overhaul of the institution to be fully independent and effective will take much longer.

On the other hand, the military’s involvement in civilian activities in the North — such as hotels, shops, preschools, farms and airlines, among other activities, continues. Buddhist domination with the help of the military, in the predominantly non-Buddhist (mostly Tamil) North also continues. There has been an alarming rise of abductions and arrests under the PTA in the North and East during the last few months. Impunity reigns and accountability seems far away for tens of thousands of incidents, despite the availability of compelling evidence in some cases.

The positive progress is politically symbolic and matters a lot to ordinary people in their daily lives. But overall, progress has been too little and painfully slow. And there have been too many backward steps for the few forward steps.

How have public consultations (for the country’s transitional justice mechanisms) been going? What, if anything could be done to improve the consultative process?

Six months after the appointment of the Consultation Task Force (CTF), the consultations on transitional justice have commenced. But it seems the government has not thrown its political weight behind it, championing and promoting the process amongst Sri Lankans, using its vast infrastructure and extensive outreach through the mainstream and new media. The government doesn’t appear to be supporting the process financially, and it seems dependent on foreign funding from the United Nations (UN), which has resulted in delays.

In addition, the government had initiated a parallel process of drafting in secret, legislature in relation to transitional justice institutions, even before the consultation process started. There needs to be a convergence of expert drafting processes and popular consultations with ordinary people.

As it is, despite the best efforts of the CTF and subsidiary bodies, politically, the popular consultations appear to be an eyewash, designed to placate foreign governments and UN officials, and tick the box.

Do you believe that it’s important for Sri Lanka’s transitional justice process to include international participation? If so, why?

The reality in Sri Lanka is that most Tamils, who are a numerical minority, who have suffered the most, and who have historical grievances that led to the civil war, don’t trust a purely domestic process. Sinhalese who are the majority community, don’t trust international involvement. So if the transitional justice process is about all communities, we need to negotiate a middle way, acceptable to most communities and people. But there’s also a danger that the aspirations of the majority may prevail. Then there is also the issue of whether competency and experience to the extent needed is fully available in Sri Lanka.

Regarding the accountability mechanism to address alleged wartime abuses, what role (if any) would you like to see international actors play?

Personally, I believe it’s important to have the participation of international judges, prosecutors, investigators and defense lawyers. Their participation should go beyond monitoring, advising and training. But being international alone will not guarantee independence and credibility. It’s crucial to ensure that accountability mechanisms have the acceptance of all communities and thus, the government must play the major role in reaching out to all Sri Lankans — in particular to the Sinhalese-Buddhist community, to stress the importance of doing what’s right and principled, instead of bowing down to populist slogans. Tamil political and civil society leaders too must not get carried away with populist slogans and work towards solutions for affected people, considering the existing domestic and international political realities.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

International Adjudicators – Why Not ?

Colombo Telegraph
By ANI Ekanayaka –July 30, 2016
Prof. A.N.I. Ekanayaka
Prof. A.N.I. Ekanayaka
There seems to be much unnecessary anxiety, muddled thinking and something fundamentally irrational about the prevailing revulsion in various quarters to foreign participation in any independent inquiry into allegations ofwar crimes in Sri Lanka. We must remember that at the 32nd sessions of the UNHRC last month its Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussain seemed adamant about the need for such participation stating “I remain convinced that international participation in the accountability mechanisms, as stipulated in the Human Rights Council’s resolution, would be a necessary guarantee for the credibility, independence and impartiality of the process in the eyes of victims given the magnitude and complexity of the alleged international crimes, which the OHCHR investigation found could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
The OHCHR investigation to which the Commissioner referred was the 261 page report that was presented at the 30th sessions of the Commission which stated inter alia that “The patterns of commission of gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law, the indications of their systematic nature, combined with the widespread character of the attacks all point to the possible perpetration of international crimes” (1267). The report also said that “for an accountability mechanism to succeed in Sri Lanka, it will require more than a domestic mechanism”(1278).
Accordingly in any dispassionate analysis of this issue the place to start is the joint resolution which Sri Lanka actively co-sponsored at the 30th sessions of the UNHRC in response to the OHCHR findings. The resolution agreed “to establish a Judicial Mechanism with a Special Counsel to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law, as applicable”. This joint resolution carried with it the inescapable implication that Sri Lanka was in agreement with the international community that the allegations did indeed merit inquiry. Therefore the bottom line is that Sri Lanka has concurred with the need for an independent inquiry into allegations of war crimes. It has effectively admitted that there is a case to answer.
That is the definitive Sri Lankan position and having conceded that an inquiry was justified it is logically committed to an investigation that will reveal “the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. Indeed as a general principle for anybody to agree to an inquiry about any kind of allegation while backing away from the kind of inquiry that will reveal the truth, would be a contradiction that is both disingenuous and immoral. Obviously Sri Lanka would not wish to court an international reputation for such duplicity. Accordingly by the inexorable logic of the situation where Sri Lanka has agreed to an inquiry, it is now bound to set up a mechanism of inquiry where the probability of discovering the truth will be maximised, where the nature of the tribunal and its composition would make it more rather than less likely that the truth will be revealed. It would be foolish and presumptuous to speculate on what that truth might be. Whether the allegations are baseless or have some substance is not our concern here. But there is no question that any genuine inquiry must give primacy to finding out.
This logically leads to the next question, namely whether the inclusion of a minority of distinguished foreign adjudicators in such a panel would or would not increase the chances of finding out the truth. One thing is clear. It certainly would not diminish the chances of finding out the truth. Indeed it cannot. There is no doubt that the inclusion of say two or three eminent and highly respected judges from abroad in a tribunal where Sri Lankan adjudicators were in a majority would if at all help rather than hinder the process of seeking out the truth. The emotive suggestion that they might be influenced by a biased Tamil diaspora is tendentious because in that case it could be equally alleged that the majority Sinhala judges might be influenced by local Sinhala Buddhist sentiment. Indeed by no stretch of imagination can it be argued that the inclusion of foreign judges would be inimical to the process of truth seeking in such an investigation. That is if the focus is on seeking the plain truth and not some other nationalist agenda. Accordingly approached negatively it has to be concluded that the inclusion of foreign judges can do no harm. Approached positively it might conceivably do some good for two reasons.
Sri Lanka cannot investigate itself - speakers at Black July event

30 July 2016

Remembering the pogrom of over 3000 Tamils by Sri Lankan state sponsored mobs in 1983 British Tamils, academics, journalists and activists at a Black July remembrance event in London on Monday reiterated the need for international judges in any accountability mechanism in Sri Lanka. 

Speaking at the event organised by the British Tamils Forum (BTF), entitled 'Black July 1983 - Not the beginning but a continuation of Tamil Genocide', the director of 'No Fire Zone' documentary, Callum Macrae, the human rights activist, Ruki Fernando and a barrister at Mansfield Chambers, Shivani Jegarajah, highlighted Sri Lanka's long history of impunity for crimes against the Tamil people.

Stressing the need to ensure Sri Lanka fulfills its pledge to implement the UN Human Rights Council resolution, the speakers reiterated that the Sri Lankan state could not be allowed to investigate itself and that the inclusion of foreign judges was essential. 



By Committee For Protecting Rights Of Prisoners.-31/07/2016
    Sri Lanka Brief
  1. Introduction & summary
In November 2012, 27 inmates at the Welikada Prison, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, were reported as killed by the Army and the Special Task Force (STF) following what was reported as a search operation leading to a riot. 43 persons have also been reported as injured. Based on testimony of eyewitnesses, the Commissioner General of Prisons was seen inside the prison in the morning of 10th November (after midnight on 9th November) and thus, it is believed that he is aware of names of the Army officers present inside the prison during the massacre.

According to two available Inquirer’s Certificates of Deaths, cause of death is due to shooting. However, one indicated that shooting was from afar, while eyewitnesses affirmed that all victims were shot at close range. There were various investigations announced by the present and previous governments as well as the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. But none of the reports have been published. Todate, no individual has been indicted.

After the new government came into power on 8th January 2015, families of those killed witnesses and concerned lawyers and activists raised the profile of the campaign, with protests and press conferences demanding the publication of reports, relief for victim’s families and justice. Witnesses and campaigners gave interviews to media and made fresh police complaints and appeals to the President and the Prime Minister. This resulted in a fresh wave of threats, surveillance, intimidation and discrediting. Despite complaints and appeals seeking protection and bring those responsible to justice, nothing has happened.

Vali North IDPs angered as Sri Lankan army plays cricket on occupied land
30 July 2016
Residents of Valikaamam North, many of whom have been displaced for over two decades, complained this week that the Sri Lankan army not only continues to occupy their land, but is using it to play cricket.

The 1 acre of land has been converted into a sports ground and is situated adjacent to Kankesanthurai Nateswara College which was recently released by the president, Maithripala Sirisena.

"Do they require our own lands to play cricket?" one displaced Tamil, who wished to remain anonymous said. 

"Despite having land of our own, we are leading a life in huts in the refugee camps, and the army is playing cricket in our lands. Is this what they call good governance?"

Despite several calls on the military to release land, the army continues to run a military canteen and checkpoints by the college.

Advocating a sensible strategy for the OMP Bill

The Sunday Times Sri LankaSunday, July 31, 2016

Even from a fairly prosaic standpoint, the Unity Government’s proposed Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Bill has all the explosive potential of a double edged sword. This is the first prong of the Government’s promised package of transitional justice reforms originating from the 2015 United Nations Human Rights Council resolution.

Undermining from within

Unlike Commissions of Inquiry established under Act No. 17 of 1948 (as amended), the OMP will be a permanent body tasked with searching for and tracing missing persons, identifying appropriate mechanisms for the same and clarifying the circumstances in which such persons went missing.

The permanency of the mechanism constitutes a significant departure from familiar traditions of Heads of State establishing Commissions to ward off pressure and then unceremoniously dissolving these bodies as a matter of political expediency. The most recent illustration in this respect was the Udalagama Commission, headed by an otherwise well regarded judicial officer, which became embedded in the ugly thicket of high political controversy.

The undermining of the Commission from within was so blatant as to invite palpable derision. Astoundingly the Commission accepted the ‘assistance of a Deputy Solicitor General as Primary Counsel despite the fact that this same state law officer had been advising and instructing the police and state agents on the August 2006 executions of Action Contra L’Faim (ACF) aid workers in Mutur, which case was itself being investigated by the Commission in the wake of serious prosecutorial and investigative lapses.

Recognizing past negative patterns

The immediate conflict of interest arising therein could have been identified by a child. Indeed, handing down a legal opinion on this issue at the time, two esteemed retired Sri Lankan Supreme Court Justices warned against the bias inherent therein and pointed out that the involvement of state law officers in such a manner violated professional legal ethics.

Probably if this Commission had been allowed to function properly and conclude its investigations, the outcry for an international war crimes inquiry may have had less resonance. But bloated by the arrogance of those who colluded with the Rajapaksa deep security state, the process was doomed literally from the start. Its interim reports were contemptuously tossed aside and were made public only last year.

But the point here was that the Commissioners were quite unable to free themselves from the iron grip of the establishment. This has been the constant negative pattern of those sitting on Sri Lanka’s accountability bodies. 

And the most telling lesson that this teaches us is that while systems and institutions may be experimented with either way, the absence of individuals possessed of sufficient moral fibre will inevitably cripple the proper working of whatever institutions that are in place, flawed or otherwise.

Wide powers of the OMP

What we have seen under this Government does not inspire much confidence either. An instructive example thereof is the Victim and Witness Protection Authority which has been singularly incapable of making any positive impact with its very functioning attended by confusion worse confounded.

The government’s ratification this year of the United Nations Convention on Disappearances also means little if this is not reflected in national law. Enforced disappearances must be criminalized with the Attorney General being put on notice to demonstrate a change in prosecutorial policy. These are the ‘hard’ decisions as opposed to relatively ‘soft’ processes of ‘tracing and identifying’ missing persons.

But dismissing the hysteria of its detractors, there is nothing alarmist in the fact that the Bill allows the OMP to admit, notwithstanding the Evidence Ordinance, statements or material which might be inadmissible in civil or criminal proceedings. Commissions of Inquiry established under the 1948 law had these very same powers. It is the height of ignorance if not folly to suggest that this is a new and dangerous precedent. Sri Lanka’s legal system has not been turned on its head as it were, simply by this provision.

Worrying exclusion of RTI

In other respects however, the proposed OMP is more empowered than COIs. One notable new feature is the power to apply for a court order in order to carry out and observe excavations and/or exhumation of suspected grave sites. Its officers have been empowered moreover to enter without a warrant and investigate suspected places of detention for the purpose of procuring evidence that is necessary for any investigations.

The OMP’s scope is creditably wide, extending to those found to have been ‘missing’ beyond the North and East and without a limiting time frame. Its functioning is subject to the fundamental rights jurisdiction of the Supreme Court as well as a conferred writ jurisdiction on that Court.

However the Bill’s shutting out the Right to Information (RTI) law in its entirety is extremely troubling. Ironically, this comes hard on the heels of the ink not even drying on the RTI Bill itself. If the confidentiality of cases being investigated was a concern, it may have been better to have stipulated protection re information on a case by case basis rather than under this broad generalized exception that we see now. This is unacceptable. That said, protests by the Rajapaksa joint opposition regarding the shutting of RTI from the OMP Bill only demonstrates its collective hypocrisy. After preventing RTI with all might and main during the Rajapaksa Presidency, this outcry must be treated with the profound disdain that it deserves.

Strategic planning for public acceptance

On a more serious note, this is a manifestly difficult line that must be finely balanced. Given that the Bill stipulates that the findings of the OMP will not lead to criminal or civil liability, the fear is that this will end up as a glorified Commission of Inquiry. And its usefulness for Rajapaksa rhetoric leading to a particularly vicious circle of racism and counter-racism must not be underestimated.

Thus, it makes eminent sense for the Government to take this Bill fully before the Sri Lankan people. The matter of enforced disappearances is, after all, not a subject that the South is a stranger to. This discussion must not be limited to Colombo’s elite circles or the ‘twitter’ generation as it were.

In the alternative, the resultant ominous backlash may well destroy whatever good intentions propelling the bringing forward of this draft law in the first instance.
Enough is enough: Mangala responds to MR


Responding to Former President and Kurunegala District MP Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement on the Office on Missing Persons, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mangala Samaraweera today said MP Rajapaksa is trying to score political points at the expense of the grieving mothers and the future generations.

 Following is the full statement of Minister Samaraweera.

 Presidential commissions, including those appointed by Mahinda Rajapaksa such as the LLRC and Paranagama Commissions, have received complaints from the tens thousands of family members of those who have gone missing due to conflicts in the North and South.

 Even today, years after the guns have gone silent, on a daily basis, mothers - bearing hardship and financial burden - go from government office to office, from police station to army camp, in the desperate search for their sons. The mothers’ backgrounds are different but their grief is the same: for example, there are those whose sons were forcibly conscripted by the LTTE, those whose sons participated in the 1987 insurrection and those mothers whose sons joined the army, but for whom all that is left are three letters, MIA.

 In fact, even today in my constituency of Matara, there are mothers who come to me searching for their long disappeared sons. These mothers hope against hope that their children are alive and at the very least, to put the past behind, they need to know how, where and why they died. During the meetings that we had with families of the missing from across the country over the last few months, there were mothers of soldiers who came to us asking us to at least find a small bone fragment of their missing sons so that they can find closure. 

As the LLRC notes, this anguish is something that we as Government have an urgent responsibility to address. We need to provide the families of the missing and disappeared with the truth and we need to provide them with relief.

 During former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime all that was done was window-dressing to dupe the international community. But now, in his opportunistic fashion, my former friend Mahinda is trying to score political points at the expense of the grieving mothers and at the expense of future generations. 

But before I expose the list of factual inaccuracies and lies that constitutes his statement on the Office of Missing Persons, it is important to know the background of his statement, especially on this topic.

 As all those who have read my Open Letter to Mahinda are aware, in the early 1990s, no one’s voice was louder than his in articulating the tears of the mothers of the missing in Parliament, in the Courts and even at the UNHRC in Geneva. 

In fact, speaking in Parliament after a visit to Geneva on 25th October 1990, he boldly proclaimed, “if the government is going to deny human rights, we should go not only to Geneva, but to any place in the world, or to hell if necessary, and act against the government. The lamentation of this country’s innocents should be raised anywhere.” On the same day, he said, “I took the wailings of this country’s mothers. Do I not have the freedom to speak about them?”. At another point he was arrested at the airport for trying to take 533 documents to Geneva containing information on thousands of disappearances and his fundamental rights case was heard at the Supreme Court.
 Not only did Mahinda voice their sorrow, he also succeeded in getting the world to act. 

Soon after his visit, the international community imposed conditions on aid. In the same Parliamentary debate quoted above, he boasted, “We asked the donors countries as to why conditions cannot be imposed when giving aid. That was the request we made. It is what has been fulfilled today.” These words speak for themselves and there is no need therefore for me to recount Mahinda’s words and action after he became President, to demonstrate what a hypocrite he has become.

  - See more>>>

Missing links in the Missing Persons’ Bill

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka
Sunday, July 31, 2016

The move by the Government to establish an Office for Missing Persons (OMP) is clearly one of the outcomes of the UNHRC Resolution that requires Sri Lanka to hold an investigation into allegations of violations of International Humanitarian Law during the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) back in 2009.

Not that the search for ‘Missing Persons’, is in itself something to be taken lightly. So many went ‘missing’ over a period of three decades not just due to one insurgency in the North, but also due to one in the South. Many took advantage of the situation in the country to settle personal grudges.

The controversial aspect of the Bill, however, is whether it is an opening of the door to foreign participation in a process that the Government insists is a “domestic mechanism”; and whether this foreign involvement is an instance of caving in to external elements wanting to continue meddling in the internal affairs of this country from afar. There is a sweeping array of powers sought to be given to the proposed OMP including the ability to enter into ‘agreements with any person or organisation, whether local or foreign’ for a wide range of purposes.

Ironically, the earlier Maxwell Paranagama Commission on Missing Persons which was prematurely wound up to make way for the OMP, partly on the insistence of the UNHRC, put itself in controversy last year when it appeared to recommend that foreign judges sit on a war crimes panel; charges which it hotly refuted.
While foreign technical and expert advice may be obtained, accountability mechanisms must be in conformity with the spirit as well as the letter of Sri Lanka’s Constitution, thus effectively barring foreign judges from adjudicating on highly sensitive local matters.

In principle, there are positive features in the Bill. The primary mandate is that of searching for and tracing missing persons and identifying appropriate mechanisms for the same, and of clarifying the circumstances in which such persons went missing.

The OMP mandate includes making recommendations to relevant authorities to address the incidence of missing persons, protecting the interests of missing persons and their relatives, identifying avenues of redress available to missing persons and their relatives and informing them of same, and collating data related to missing persons from previous processes carried out by other entities and establishing a centralised database.

Unlike Commissions of Inquiry, the OMP is a permanent body not subjected to the political risk of premature termination. Its mandate applies to all missing persons regardless of the time period. It covers not only the Wanni war-affected but also members of the armed forces or police identified as “Missing in Action” (MIA), those missing due to “political unrest or civil disturbances” and those subjected to an enforced disappearance as defined in the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. This broad mandate is praiseworthy.

The OMP is subject to judicial review of the Supreme Court. There is judicial supervision in other respects as well. The OMP is empowered to apply to a Magistrate’s Court in order to carry out an excavation and/or exhumation of suspected grave sites and to act as an observer at such proceedings. The OMP findings will not lead to criminal or civil liability leading some to speculate that this would merely be another glorified Commission of Inquiry.

But extraordinarily, the Bill provides that ‘the still to be signed by the Speaker’ Right to Information Act will not apply to the OMP. Concerns of confidentiality regarding information on missing persons may be legitimate in some cases. But that must be dealt with on a case by case exclusion, not by a blanket exclusion which the OMP Bill contains. Proposing this broad exclusion soon after the RTI Bill was unanimously passed by Parliament calls into question the Government’s commitment to RTI. What really is there to hide?

At the heart of the matter, the enforced ‘disappearances’ of Sri Lankan citizens, now covered under the convenient euphemism of ‘missing persons’ call for a measured, coordinated and – above all, effective State response. The Government is under an obligation to correct system flaws in its investigative, prosecutorial and judicial bodies. Restoring public confidence in the efficacy of the law, which remains at an all-time low, will do much to satisfy the expectations of citizens that the State will act as their protector rather than as their abuser.
The 2011 report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) recommended that “a comprehensive approach to address the issue of missing persons should be found as a matter of urgency as it would otherwise present a serious obstacle to any inclusive and long-term process of reconciliation”.

But will the OMP redress this deficit of public trust or aggravate it? Will it encourage divisive debates on ‘foreign vs. local’ which we see already even while the crucial but quite unglamorously laborious task of reforming the country’s criminal justice systems in regard to alleged war brutalities as well as ‘ordinary’ grave crimes is pushed to a side? These are important questions that the Bill’s enthusiastic proponents should be called upon to answer.
And lest we forget, those ‘missing’ includes not only the war victims of the North and East but also Muslim citizens targeted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and thousands of Sinhalese who ‘disappeared’ during the 1980s and whose relatives still await justice.

The proposed law states that priority should be given to cases where there is already some substantive evidence to begin an inquiry. What better prima facie evidence is there to conduct an inquiry than the case of the 600 policemen who were killed in 1990 in one sweep in the Eastern Province when they were told to surrender to the LTTE on the orders of the then Government of Sri Lanka?

The case of the 600 policemen officially classified as ‘MIA’ (Missing in Action) is one of the sad chapters of this country’s war on terror, and how let down they were by the politicians of the day, the political leaders to follow, and the police top brass right along since that fateful day. Compare for a moment how the US President broke journey in Spain and flew down to Texas for the memorial of five policemen who were gunned down recently.

There is an argument that these policemen are not ‘missing persons’, but that they were brutally murdered and that their mass graves are identifiable. Thus, this case clearly falls into the category of a ‘war crime’ and it must be investigated as the perpetrators of this heinous deed – the cold blooded mass murder of uniformed men waving white flags – are still in the land of the living. Priority must be given, either way – under the OMP or whatever future tribunal is to be set up under the Geneva Resolution. This terrible episode must not be buried with the bones of those unfortunate policemen.
Brecht within a Tamil Chalk Circle

My first introduction to Bertolt Brecht was through the Sinhala adaptation of his play “Caucasian Chalk Circle” by renowned, respected and award winning Sinhala playwright and producer, late Henry Jayasena.
That was way back in 1970. I was once again invited to sit in the audience to watch the same play when “Janakaraliya” a very versatile, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural young group of performing artistes led by reputed, award winning creative artiste Parakrama Niriella, reproduced “Caucasian Chalk Circle” in Sinhala. That was late December, in 2013 before they left for the international drama festival in Kerala. This novel Sinhala version by Janakaraliya was based on Jayasena’s translation of the “Caucasian Chalk Circle”, but given a bit more political flavour.
On 22 July, the Janakaraliya mobile theatre ensemble performed its new version of the “Caucasian Chalk Circle” at the Veerasingham Hall, Jaffna to an exclusively Tamil audience. This time it was a Tamil adaptation of Brecht’s play titled “Venkatti Vattam” co-directed by Niriella and K. Rathidaran.
This was the first Sri Lankan Tamil adaptation of Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle”. It was performed for the second time at the Visual and Performing Arts University in Colombo, on 25 July evening. It was a mixed audience. It was very much wonderfully youthful. It was also attended by the Colombo Tamil middle class. After two hours and 25 minutes of pin-drop silence in the audience, there broke out a loud and rhythmic clapping with the lights coming on.
Then came cheerful whistling and applause. Louder with every member of the caste coming on stage to greet the audience. It was an aura of delight and pleasure all around and I have not seen such exuberance in a theatre audience for many decades.
What prompted such spontaneous applause, is what I am trying to understand here, in my own way.
The tree productions, spanning a period of 46 years certainly have their contextual differences in understanding an “armed conflict”, a war.
In 1967 when Henry Jayasena set his hands on Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle”, none in then “Ceylon” had any idea of what an armed conflict is and how life in such armed conflict would be. None had experienced “anarchy” where the State goes under new authority that cannot command total power over every part of the land. Where the rulers, legitimate or not, cannot enforce law and order.
Ceylon was merely getting dragged with day to day issues; cost of living and unemployment, the biggest issues. Politically, the only conflict was in how the Tamil people could be allowed to share power as equal citizens and that was not what the majority of the people were grieving about.
This left Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle as pure fiction, Jayasena could retell on stage as an entertaining folklore. The language thus used was very soft and literary, very musical and nuanced to keep the audience “entertained”. The audience was not taken through travails of a society that demanded justice outside a corrupt and thieving Governor in “Grusinia” appointed by the Persians.
That wasn’t Jayasena’s dramatic intention. His whole adaptation of Caucasian Chalk Circle, as with his own interpretation of the Sinhala folk story “Kuveni” in 1963 that brought her to a modern Court of Justice, revolved around the issue of social justice to the child (Prince Michael) and the “rightful” mother (Grusha). The disputed ownership of the child in a “chalk circle” and the maverick Azdak as a “people’s judge” was what Jayasena loved most to be dramatisedon stage. It wasn’t therefore what Bertolt Brecht had written as Caucasian Chalk Circle. It did not carry that human tragedy under a usurping ruler against whom the people revolted.
After over 400 stage performances of the original Sinhala adaptation, when Niriella re-produced Jayasena’s Chalk Circle, Niriella had lived through the ‘71 and 1988 – 90 JVP insurgencies and the brutal ethnic war that drastically changed Sinhala perceptions on human rights, democracy, civil liberties and in turn brutalised human decency and social life.
He was thus prompted to stitch those experiences into Jayasena’s script of Chalk Circle, he wasn’t going to change. Therefore, Niriella’s version of the Sinhala Chalk Circle had its war effects, the heavily brutalised life in anarchy, mostly brought out with stage effects and in few changes to dialogue. On stage it was more heavy and robust than Jayasena’s. It was also loud and harsh in language with music that added weight to what unfolded on stage.
Yet, it wasn’t near enough to Brecht’s version of the Caucasian Chalk Circle. Obviously, Niriella like those sensitive minds in Sinhala South, was only a serious observer of what unfolded as war and the brutalising of society as seen from the South of the barricade and not one who actually lived through pain of war. Therein lies the difference in this Tamil version that comes after the savage conclusion of the war on the banks of Mullivaikkal in 2009 May after over 26 years of armed conflict.
This Tamil translation of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle is by Jaffna based veteran Tamil dramatist M. Shanmugalingam. I came to know Shanmugalingam more popularly known as “Kuzhanthai” through translation of three of his plays into English by poet Sopa Pathmanathan.
Dramatist Shanmugalingam, I found had the knack to read through ordinary life in conflict, as captured in his play, “Enthayum Thayum” written after the Vadamaraachchi attack and its displacements. In fact, Jaffna lived through armed conflict for more than 26 years with the first political murder of its Mayor Duraiyappa in July 1975. For Shanmugalingam therefore, reading the original version of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle would have been as agonising and revealing as reading the events of the last few years of the Vanni war. He thus stood more sensitive than any Sinhala playwright to handle the translation of Brecht’s Chalk Circle and he proves it in every line that comes on stage.
With my very little understanding of spoken Tamil, what stood out strong for me was the political reading that the Tamil production brings out on stage. Unlike the two Sinhala stage versions, this Tamil version is “conflict” driven. It gives the audience the bitterness of human tragedy in a conflict.
The displacement of human life and the utter desperate haste to find refuge and safety. Scarcity of human decency, in terms of economic life, rule of law and failing morals.
The uncertainty in life the absence of authority in society allows to rule the day. And then human bondage that struggles to find respect with people, who dream of a peaceful future.
All of it in this Tamil version, was what any Sri Lankan Tamil could feel and be emotionally moved, having lived through a bloody and brutal war.
With Shanmugalingam’s very honest translation of Brecht’s Chalk Circle, this production co-directed by Niriella and Rathidaran, has thus done more justice to Brecht than what the two previous Sinhala productions could do.
The added strength of this production was the hard and powerful portrayal of characters like Azdak, Grusha, Simon Chachava and the lead singer to whom everyone else on and off stage add their worth.
All that said and done, what I missed in this Tamil production too is the political link that Bertolt Brecht makes with clear rationality between “ownership” and “right to ownership”. The link he forges on “right” to ownership and actual “possession”.
This issue is raised by Brecht in introducing the play on stage and in concluding the play on stage. Yet in all three productions, two earlier Sinhala and this Tamil production, what comes out is the right to possession as articulated through the child and not through land. In fact, my reading of Brecht’s Chalk Circle tells me, his Chalk Circle and the child within it is so formulated to establish the fact that land belongs to the ancestral people, who cared for the land, the issue he presents to begin his play.
I would thus conclude this short essay by quoting direct from the old English translation of Bertolt Brecht’s script (1944) that argues the case for rightful possession of land.
This dialogue in Scene I, is set in a war torn Caucasian village. Members of two “Kolkhoz”, collective farms from two valleys keep arguing about who should own the land and what should be farmed there.
An “Expert” from the State reconstruction commission from the “capital” moderates the discussion, using his authority as an official from the ruling regime.
The old peasant seated on the right – “It is not perfect. It’s barely middling. The new pasture is no good, whatever the young folks may say. I say we can’t live there. It doesn’t even smell like morning, in the morning.”
The Expert – “Let them laugh. They know what you mean. Comrades, why does a man love his home country? Because the bread tastes better, the sky is higher, the air is spicier, voices ring out more clearly, the ground is softer to walk on. Am I right?”
The old peasant seated on the right – “The valley has always belonged to us”.
It’s on that same logic that Azdak decides possession of Prince Michael. He had belonged to Grusha right through the hardest period of life and Grusha is who cared for him with affection.
This connection, this political argument still goes missing even in “Venkatti Vattam” If my little Tamil allowed me enough understanding of the play that the Janakaraliya team, Niriella, Shanmugalingam and Rathidaran teams up to bring on stage. A play even non-Tamils should sit through watching.
Easily, an evening of rich entertainment.