Nirmala Rajasingam: Sri Lanka's silenced dissenters still speak volumes

Monday 18 May 2009 00:00

"What has happened to this country? Will the rivers of blood stop? Will not the long shadow of the guns leave us? Life is much more worth than to be snuffed out like a candle."

My sister, Dr Rajani Thiranagama, a prominent human rights activist in Sri Lanka, wrote this. A year later, in September 1989, she was gunned down by an LTTE assassin. This year is the 20th anniversary of her death.

For that reason, the news of the demise of the LTTE's top leadership – which ordered her killing and the killings of many other Tamil dissenters – brings overwhelming relief. The war and carnage has at last stopped and the insistent bloodletting of Tamil dissent is now over.

Rajani's questions trigger many others in the minds of those who have campaigned for peace, democracy, and justice for the minorities in Sri Lanka, as Colombo begins its victory celebrations. It is not enough for the guns to fall silent. The question looms large whether the Colombo government will seize this watershed moment to heal wounds, to bring together polarised communities. Will they be prepared to share power? Will they institute meaningful constitutional reforms of democratisation and demilitarisation? Will the Colombo government show true political leadership to kick-start a national debate on ethnic relations and political power sharing, and will this process be inclusive and transparent?

The government, despite being overwhelmed by the humanitarian crisis, has not accepted the full assistance of the international community. The "Internally Displaced Persons" have a new home surrounded by armed guards, barbed-wire fences and squalor: such conditions are going to deepen and prolong their trauma.

The continued refusal of full access to humanitarian agencies does not allay suspicions about the government's intentions toward the refugees and the LTTE cadres who have surrendered. The last three years have seen a large number of abductions, extrajudicial killings and disappearances, almost exclusively targeting the Tamil community as the government of Sri Lanka relentlessly pursued its military campaign. The militarisation of state and society has been able to suppress dissent in the south, even mounting attacks on journalists. We wait to see whether the government will reverse this downward spiral in democratic governance.

At this moment I remember Rajani, and a long line of courageous dissenters who fell victim to the LTTE and government assassins alike. Now their courage and vision speak to us, the people of Sri Lanka, once more.

Nirmala Rajasingam is a former LTTE member in exile in London. She and her sister were the subject of a film, No More Tears Sister

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