Harrowing testimonies from Sri Lanka

Mike Phipps reviews Twelve Cries from Home: In Search of Sri Lanka’s Disappeared, by Minoli Salgado, published by Repeater, in the context of recent events in the country

Minoli Salgado is a Sri Lankan writer and academic who has written extensively on migrant studies and diasporic literature, as well as an acclaimed novel. She is currently Director of the Centre for Migration and Postcolonial Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University.

After the civil war in Sri Lanka, she travelled to the country and collected testimony from some of the survivors – mothers, fathers, wives and siblings – whose relatives were disappeared, or killed, or tortured to death. Her book focuses on twelve cases and is written with a compelling immediacy and directness. It is the first book to collect testimonies of this kind from across the entire island.

The war erupted in 1983 when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam began their armed insurgency for an independent homeland. It was a response to the state-sponsored persecution of Tamils by the island’s Sinhalese majority, which included violent pogroms from the 1950s onwards.

Over 100,000 civilians were killed in the war. The Sri Lankan state was accused of abductions and massacres and the Tamil Tigers of assassinations and suicide bombings. All wars license the worst crimes, often committed with impunity and investigated with indifference. But the scale of the abuses in Sri Lanka is shocking. The country has the world’s second highest number of cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances. The testimony gathered here recounts atrocities that demand to be exposed and held accountable.

Beyond the scope of this book, but of considerable interest nonetheless, is the UK’s involvement in the conflict. According to a recent report, in the past twenty years, the UK “licenced €141m worth of weapons under standard licences, just under half of which was for small arms, alongside 718 open licences. The UK government has downplayed its military support for the Sri Lankan armed forces in public debate, but there is a history of both formal and covert support since independence, including private military contractors acting at arm’s length from the state but with the knowledge and support of parts of the state, which had a decisive impact on the course of the war.”

The 2002 ceasefire in the conflict was interpreted by the UK’s licensing body to mean there was no clear risk of the misuse of weapons exported to Sri Lanka. Hence the British government continued to allow exports of a whole range of weaponry to the Sri Lankan armed forces, which effectively restocked its deadly arsenal.

Even after the official termination of the ceasefire in 2008, the UK government rejected all calls for an arms embargo and downplayed the role of its equipment in intensifying the conflict, which was entering one of its deadliest phases.

Salgado’s most chilling observation comes in the book’s Afterword. The period of relative calm, during which she collected these testimonies has since disappeared. “The current intimidation of journalists and those who have raised questions on the missing and disappeared means that the stories gathered in Twelve Cries from Home would be nearly impossible to find, hear and write today.”

In October 2018, a constitutional crisis erupted with chairs and punches thrown in the parliamentary chamber. Then on Easter Sunday 2019, a coordinated suicide bomb attack by ISIL-affiliated Sri Lankans killed over 250 people. There followed loud calls for a ‘strong leader’ – a “Hitler” in the words of one senior Buddhist monk.

After the general election of 2020, the country “was back in control of what many – certainly in the wider human rights community – saw as elected criminals.” The Rajapaksa brothers – President and Prime Minister – held a landslide majority. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former wartime Defence chief, was accused during the conflict of corruption, bombing hospitals and of ordering the shooting of any LTTE leaders who might try to surrender under flags of truce. Since assuming power, he has presided over agricultural and economic collapse, the latter caused by huge, unsustainable tax cuts, which depleted state coffers in the middle of the Covid pandemic. Meanwhile the UN reports a rise in the harassment and arbitrary detention of Tamils.

Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act still remains in force after over 40 years. Rushed through Parliament in 1979 in a single day as a temporary measure, it continues to enable prolonged arbitrary detention, the extraction of false confessions through torture and the targeting of minority communities and civil society groups. Since 2019, its use has been extended to persecute the government’s political opponents.

A 2020 report by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found that 84% of PTA prisoners were tortured after arrest and they are regularly held for between five and 10 years without trial. The European Parliament recently declared that the act “breaches human rights, democracy and the rule of law”.

After years of domestic and international criticism of the law, the Sri Lankan government amended it in March, which still leave the most often abused provisions of the Act intact. Even with these modifications, the law still does not meet any of the five “necessary prerequisites” outlined by seven United Nations special rapporteurs in December 2021 to comply with international human rights standards.

Then at the start of the April this year, the government imposed a state of emergency after hundreds of people stormed the president’s home in response to the worst cost of living crisis in recent memory, exacerbated by lengthy power cuts and food shortages. Even for an authoritarian government, the state of emergency came as a shock. It allows the police and military to arrest and detain people without warrants and severely curtail basic freedoms.

In a recent interview, Minoli observed that justice in Sri Lanka is “an unfinished endeavour, an ongoing process that is aspirational.” But she concludes that “the fear is coming back” and her book could not be written today. “It stands testament to a time when memory was free to speak and will speak again.”

Yet despite the state of emergency, protests have intensified. According to the Observer: “There are the power cuts darkening homes and shop fronts for up to eight hours daily and forcing people to cook on scavenged wood while miles-long queues form outside petrol stations. School exams and newspapers have had to be cancelled because the government and media houses can’t afford the paper to print them on. Doctors have declared a medical crisis as pharmacies and hospitals are empty of crucial drugs, and warnings have been issued that starvation could be imminent for the country’s 22 million residents as food supplies dwindle… In recent weeks, protests unlike anything seen in Sri Lanka’s history have taken place across the country, driven not by an organised movement but fuelled instead by a collective rage at the politicians they blame for driving their country into the ground.”

The entire Cabinet resigned and 40 MPs defected from the ruling coalition to become independent. Demonstrations have exhibited an unusual diversity, with national flags, rainbow LGBT banners and trade union placards, emphasising their non-partisan and pluralist nature. Things may be changing.

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018. His new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

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