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Few human rights defenders begin their professional lives in the theater. Sunila Abeysekera became an actress and singer while still in school, and then a drama critic in her native Sri Lanka.

Few human rights defenders begin their professional lives in the theater. Sunila Abeysekera became an actress and singer while still in school, and then a drama critic in her native Sri Lanka.

 Sunila Abeysekera
Sunila Abeysekera
© 2007 Patricia Williams

The theater gave Abeysekera her first career but Sri Lanka’s internal conflicts quickly pulled her off the stage. A Marxist insurrection in 1971, and the state’s response, prompted her to join a support team for political detainees. Then came civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (“Tamil Tigers”), and she began documenting arbitrary detentions, torture and political killings. Attacks on activists made human rights work dangerous as well as difficult, but Abeysekera has been defending human rights ever since.

After more than two decades of fighting, the government and Tamil Tigers agreed to a ceasefire in 2002. It broke down in 2006 when major military operations resumed, and with that came a dramatic increase in serious human rights violations and massive displacements of the largely Tamil and Muslim populations in the country’s embattled north and east.

“This is the worst it has ever been,” Abeysekera said of the current wave of violence, in which both sides are to blame.

Government forces have been implicated in several massacres of civilians, indiscriminate aerial bombing and shelling, and complicity in the abduction of children for use as soldiers. The Tamil Tigers are responsible for direct attacks on civilians, targeted killing of political opponents, and the continued recruitment of children into their forces. As a result, Abeysekera said, “We have a humanitarian crisis as well as a human rights crisis.”

Abeysekera is one of the few members of the majority Sinhalese community to establish direct contact with Tamils (mostly women) after the outbreak of ethnic conflict in 1983. “As a member of a majority community I have throughout my adult life been involved in collective actions and creative activities to defend minority rights and celebrate minority cultures,” Abeysekera said.

She also reported on human rights violations perpetrated by security forces under the guise of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and emergency rule. Her work has often put her at risk; in 1988, she was forced to flee Sri Lanka and seek refuge for a brief period in the Netherlands.

Much of Abeysekera’s work focuses on the human rights of women. “There is no doubt that we have inherited from the past certain values which need to be protected,” Abeysekera said. “But how can you use religion and culture to justify discrimination against people on the basis of gender, religion and caste?”

Abeysekera’s approach to feminism and human rights is not just theoretical. She seeks to address the basic rights concerns people in their daily lives.

“My job is to document violations, write the stories down, make reports, try and make sure they are heard and read by the people who can act to change the situation, in the country and outside,” Abeysekera said. To her Sri Lanka is “a country in which human rights and freedoms are daily eroded by corrupt practices, impunity and a culture of violence that pervades every nook and cranny of peoples’ lives.”

Abeysekera’s work frequently takes her outside of the capital, Colombo, including to the remote countryside fought over by the government and the Tamil Tigers.

Focusing on women puts Abeysekera at the eye of Sri Lanka’s violent storm. “Women and children are the first victims of any kind of conflict,” she said. “In Sri Lanka thousands of families have been displaced from the north and east due to the violence. Men either join the army or the militant groups. The third option for them is to leave the country. It has been up to the women to keep families together and to take care of the children. There are about 1 million displaced people within Sri Lanka and most of them are women and children.”

Abeysekera hasn’t abandoned her history of involvement with the theater and the arts: she still dips into art and film criticism, writing about the problems with the way women are portrayed in the country’s culture. In fact, Abeysekera uses the arts – in particular music, she is a very good singer – as a form of protest. Her father, Charlie Abeysekera, would approve: he belonged to the previous generation of activists who were responsible for the creation of the non-governmental organization movement in Sri Lanka. In fact, as a student, Abeysekera was herself part of the radical left, though she did not get involved in the Marxist insurrection. Abeysekera’s singing and story-telling skills (her friends call her a “brilliant story-teller”) have always been part of her strength, enabling her to find a way out of the trickiest situations and to charm her way around nasty adversaries, in police stations at night or in homes devastated by invasion at dawn.

If her life sounds hectic, Abeysekera’s schedule reflects it. She is tireless in her human rights work, addressing emergencies as they arise and where they happen. Ultimately, her work is directed at creating a process of peace and reconciliation between all parties in Sri Lanka’s ugly strife.

“There should be an acceptance that all sides have committed horrendous crimes. Then we have to move beyond that,” observed Abeysekera. “If people are going to dwell on the past, then there can be no solution. We have come out of a particularly bad and horrifying period in our history. The older generation from all the communities still remembers how they lived together happily in the past. It is the younger generation which has witnessed war, separation and suffering. If the situation is allowed to drift, then there is no chance for peace in Sri Lanka.”

Related Links
OHCHR on Sri Lanka

Centre for Policy Alternatives

Free Media Movement

Home for Human Rights

Law & Society Trust

Sri Lanka Democracy Forum

University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna)

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