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27th December 1998

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Right award for the right work

Sunila Abeysekera wins the 1998 UN award for human rights activism

By a Special Correspondent

We call them indi vidualists. Sometimes, they embarrass us, many times they inform us and most often they provoke us to think differently, to challenge the existing order. Sri Lanka has had lamentably few such stubborn thinkers in her recent history. Human rights activist Sunila Abeysekera could be said to be one of the few exceptions.

Her felicitation by the UN on the 10th of December this year, with Secretary General Kofi Annan awarding her the 1998 Human Rights award in recognition of her work in the promotion and protection of human rights, therefore comes as no great surprise. Abeysekera's history of activism reads like a classic tale of the agony and the ecstasy.

Her awareness of social issues has deep roots in theatre and music. Those versed in the graceful arts may remember her from the 60s and 70s when she took the Sinhala theatre by storm in her role as Liza in Dharmasiri Bandaranayake's Makara and in Modara Mola. Makara in particular ran on months on end and Abeysekera's haunting voice and breathtaking performance are still etched in popular memory.

She was hailed then as Sri Lanka's foremost stage actress, praise that came easily to one who had been performing on stage from the age of 14 in Indian classical and Kandyan dance. Among her notable performances on stage in her early twenties were characters in Mother Courage, Janele, Maha Giri Dambha, Angara Ganga Gala Basi, Kelani Palama, the list goes on. In the 70s she lent her voice to film music.

The beautiful melody of Udumbara Hinahenawa in Dharmasena Pathiraja's Bambaru Avith and Hemin Sare Piya Sala in Dharmasiri Bandaranayake's Hansa Vilak are still popular favourites requested time and again on radio and television by a younger audience who have never seen the films but know her voice. She became meanwhile a familiar figure at Premasiri Kemadasa's concerts, singing songs that gave birth to a new era in Sinhala music.

But this vibrant career in film and music gave way to a deep concern for human rights. The 1971 youth insurrection was to leave an indelible mark on her conscience. In her early 20s Abeysekera started visiting young JVP detainees at Welikada prisons. Taking them food and clothes, letters from family she gradually got involved with their legal defence and so commenced her work in human rights. She left the stage and began her life of activism, to reappear on stage only in the mid 70s singing 'Vimukthi Gee'. But now the stage was very different in far flung villages and towns where along with other singers and musicians, she sang songs of struggle, protest and liberation. Expelled from the JVP for daring to dissent and speak for democracy and justice, she then moved into mainstream human rights work which attempted to be autonomous and independent of political formations and parties.

She also began questioning her role as a woman and the status of a woman in society in critical thought that was profoundly influenced by the feminist writings and activism of the 70s. It was the start of a process that was to result in her being a catalyst in women's activism in Sri Lanka. She became in truth a clear thinking activist and strategist who was sought after by many women's groups and activists to assist them in their strategies, work programmes and campaigns where her presence, ideas and thinking shaped many an action small or large in the community of women activists - be they from the peasant movements of the dry zone; workers from the free trade zone or those campaigning against violence against women. She also started to work with women in the media, particularly journalists, writers and poets.

Her literary and film criticisms, written from a feminist perspective were thoughtful and constructive. Above all, she encouraged women - young and old to seek creative and courageous means of self expression, she became the motivator who provided the intellectual support that propelled as well as anchored a number of progressive women writers and poets in the country. By the eighties, she was making links with Tamil women in Jaffna, first among the literary community and gradually among the women's groups.

Post 1983 her concerns centred on the ethnic conflict, its causes and consequences, particularly its impact on women and children.

She began working with the human rights and women's rights community to call for a political solution to the ethnic conflict.

Working closely with her father Charles Abeysekera, a long time companion in her fight for justice, she began to highlight human rights violations perpetrated under the guise of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and later through the promulgation of Emergency rule and the various Emergency regulations that served to further restrict civil and political rights.

Both father and daughter were labelled as traitors to the nation and subsequent to 1987 and the rise of Sinhala extremism, they worked under threat of death.

But neither father nor daughter wavered in their defence of the universality of human rights. Sunila Abeysekera began to lobby for rights protection at the United Nations making representations each year before the Commission on Human Rights, where she was one of the first Sri Lankans to raise the issue of disappearances at the Commission in the period when hundreds of young people, particularly in the South were disappearing at the hands of the State and the JVP.

It was this effort together with the advocacy of the international human rights community that was instrumental in Sri Lanka agreeing to two visits of the UN Working Group on Disappearances in 1991 and 1992. Highlighting human rights violations across class, caste, ethnicity and gender, she worked with other human rights and women's rights activists to protect human rights and re-instate respect for democracy and justice in Sri Lanka. Fundamental to this work was the call for freedom of expression and association and the call for peace with democracy.

With the change of government, she campaigned for Constitutional Reform and a politically negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict, in her capacity as executive director of INFORM, a human rights documentation centre based in Colombo. With the breakdown of the peace process, the return to war and its consequent violations of human and democratic rights Abeysekera continued to campaign for the establishment and respect of human rights standards.

The December 10th UN award is undoubtedly an honour not only to Sunila but to Sri Lanka in general. Her co awardees who rank among some of the best known international activists and workers for peace are President Jimmy Carter, Peace campaigner and former President of the United States of America, Angelina Acheng Atyam of Uganda (Founding member and vice-chair of the Concerned Parents Association, a group of Ugandan parents who came together to demand action when their daughters were abducted. Atyam has worked to bring international attention to the plight of captive children), Jose Gregori of Brazil ( An activist who has been involved in human rights since the 1950s, Gregori worked closely with groups trying to re-establish democracy after the military regime took power in Brazil. He now heads the National Secretariat for Human Rights.) and Anna Sabatova (A Czech civil rights protester, she was sentenced to three years imprisonment for distributing leaflets that reminded Czechoslovakian citizens that to vote in parliamentary elections is a right.

She is one of the founding members of "Charter 77" a centre of civic resistance.

The award recognises Abeysekera's services with regard to the upholding of human rights in Sri Lanka in the past. However, it also throws a spotlight on continuing human rights aberrations in the country. As much as the present government has achieved a better record on human rights after its election to office in 1994, it must also be noted that a war is currently being fought in all earnest with very few human rights safeguards in place.

Many perpetrators of human rights abuse since the period of the last regime and continuing into this regime, are still to be brought to justice. The Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) prefacing an interview with Abeysekera on the 14th of December spoke of 60,000 missing or dead. The government has still to account to the families of the missing, an election promise that has yet to be met.

Censorship curtailing freedom of expression is now in force for all news on the war; Emergency rule is regularly extended each month; identified mass graves such as the one at Suriyakanda in the South and Chemmani in the North have yet to be fully investigated; arbitrary arrests, disappearances and torture at the hands of the armed forces are still reported; violence against women is a daily occurrence - rape, incest, battery and the murder of women both within the home and outside it are reported daily in the press.

Sri Lanka has still a long way to go in the struggle for human rights for her people regardless of class, caste, ethnic or power differences and the glossing over of these troubling issues in attempts to portray human rights abuses as a thing of the past grossly misses the point. Taken in its entirety, Abeysekera's award therefore can rightly be said to serve both as a recognition of past courage as well as a warning for continued alertness in the future.

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