The forgotten side to Sri Lanka

NICOLA BRENNAN-TUPARA- 14/10/2013

CRY FOR HELP: Refugee Pathma can't understand why no one is fighting for the rights of the Tamil people

Amnesty International

Darkness descends and the fighting stops - it's stifling hot down in the bunker. The group huddle together, breathing the same stagnant air for hours, days, weeks on end. The fighting in these final stages of Sri Lanka's bloody civil war is brutal. For Jeyea's sister, it becomes too much. She needs to get out - to give her one-and-a-half-year old baby some fresh air. It's late at night, there's no shelling, so she makes her way to the surface and lies flat on the ground with the baby at her chest breathing in the fresh air. Then there's a noise: the baby hiccups. In the moonlight, she sees something oozing from his neck. It's blood. A stray piece of shrapnel has hit the child right in the throat. She panics and screams for her husband and they rush the child to the nearest hospital. He begs for them to save the baby, but all around him lie the dying and the injured. The medics say there's nothing they can do. So she holds her baby in her arms tight and looks into his eyes as he draws his last breath. Jeyea's eyes say it all as she speaks of that night and of her homeland. She's seen things no one should ever see. People killed right in front of her. But her stories are just some of many from Sri Lanka's civil war, which ended with a final battle in 2009 when government troops defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had fought for an independent Tamil state in the north and east of the country. While the fighting has stopped, many - like Jeyea, a refugee who settled in Wellington only last week are still fighting for answers. Many are still searching for loved ones who went missing during the war. While others - who have criticised the government since - have also been harassed, killed, or just disappeared.

Just last month, United Nations commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay raised concerns about the increasingly authoritarian direction the country is heading in. She said she had found great disquiet "about the degree to which the rule of law and democratic institutions in Sri Lanka are being undermined and eroded" - something Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapasksa strongly rejects. But it's this type of criticism Sri Lanka just can't seem to escape and more is expected to come when the country hosts the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) in November. SHOULD KEY BOYCOTT? It's a meeting Amnesty International NZ executive director Grant Bayldon is calling on New Zealand Prime Minister John Key to boycott, given the country's continual abuse of human rights and its failure to investigate war crimes committed during the armed conflict. Key would not speak to Fairfax directly about why he had chosen to attend the meeting. Instead, one of his staff issued a short statement. "While he agrees there is certainly work to do on [Sri Lanka's] human rights record, we are not going there to have a bilateral meeting. New Zealand is going because Sri Lanka is the location that is hosting Chogm and the Prime Minister thinks it is very important, as a significant player in the Commonwealth, that we are there." Foreign Minister Murray McCully was also not available to comment on whether he plans to attend and what, if any, concerns he has about human rights in the country. NO TIME FOR 'SOFT VOICE' But Bayldon says New Zealand should be leading from the front when it comes to human rights abuses. "Now isn't the time for a soft voice on Sri Lanka - it just hasn't worked. We are saying that making Sri Lanka the chair of the Commonwealth would make a mockery of the Commonwealth charter. "Sri Lanka is not demonstrating the Commonwealth's values, which are human rights, democracy, freedom, rule of law. So they should not be chairing the Commonwealth." In 2011, Chogm was moved from Sri Lanka to Australia due to human rights concerns and Bayldon says little has changed. "In fact, it's gotten worse and there is less freedom to speak out." It's a claim Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, High Commissioner for Sri Lanka to Australia and New Zealand, disputes. He says the country "absolutely" has a good record on human rights and says accusations stating otherwise are "malicious, baseless and unfounded". "We went and rescued the Tamils from the clutches of the terrorists," he said during a trip to New Zealand last week. "Nobody is asking how the human rights of the people was lost by the terrorists. For human rights, you first have to exist - you must eat. Those are fundamental human rights. Then you must have a house, water - that is fundamental. [The Sri Lankan government] has given that in abundance to the people." He says people are free to speak out against the government. He used last month's elections in the north of the country as an example. Sri Lanka's main Tamil party won a landslide victory over the government party in the first semiautonomous council election since the war first began. The Tamils secured 84 per cent of the popular vote. And Admiral Samarasinghe says those who leave by boat bound for refuge in countries like Australia are leaving to get a "western standard of living" - not because they feel persecuted.

'ALL I WANT IS JUSTICE' But that's not the story Vanni Magal (not her real name) tells. She arrived in New Zealand with her husband and two children in March 2013. Originally from Kilinochchi, former LTTE headquarters, they fled Sri Lanka by boat in August 2010, bound for Indonesia For 51 days they huddled together with 96 other people on board. She says the trip was scary. They knew the risks, but took them because their existence in their home country was "impossible due to ongoing torture and harassment". The last straw came when their children (now 11 and 8) asked why the harassment was "only happening to us". "We knew that there were only two outcomes to taking the boat journey: either we'd reach the shores of Indonesia or we'd die. But either way, it would be 100 times better than living in Sri Lanka." Still, living with the physical pain of the war after a bomb hit her house, lodging shrapnel in her leg, Magal at least wants some emotional peace and justice for her people. She tells her story so people will know how those in Sri Lanka have suffered - and are suffering. She wants the international community to take action. "All I want is justice - I haven't done any crime." It's a call echoed by Pathma, who didn't want his surname used. He arrived in New Zealand in 2002 through the UN refugee resettlement programme after he'd spent 11 years in limbo in Malaysia. He bribed officials to get out of Sri Lanka after being branded a terrorist. In 1990, after walking his brother to the train station, Pathma was shot in the head, through his knee and in his lower back, suspected of being a Tamil Tiger. He survived, but the scars made him a target and soon after being released from hospital, he was arrested and tortured. While Pathma is now safe in Auckland, his fight for justice back in his home country continues. Tears well up in his eyes as he asks why no one cares about the Tamil people. He can't understand why New Zealand and the rest of the world are keeping quiet on the issue of Sri Lanka. "I think the world community is saying that they don't consider the Tamils as human beings, that we are dispensable. I can't come to terms with that." Pathma lost many family members during the conflict. In some cases he knows what happened, but in other cases - like that of his brother - he does not. His brother was one of 150 to 200 men forcibly loaded on to an army bus while the family was staying at Batticola's East University, which had been turned into a refugee camp during the war. He has never been seen again. "It was a planned massacre . . . and it has never been addressed." Pathma's sister became so distraught, she began to throw stones at the buses. "So they shot her dead. "I respect this land a lot. New Zealand is a leader in human rights . . . so I want New Zealand to stand up for wherever in the world human rights are being violated."

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