My first encounter with Sunila Sundari Janet Abeysekera was at the Women and Media Collective, a Colombo-based non-governmental organisation. I was present for an interview and was nervous. While the other members of the interview panel questioned me on my curriculum vitae and achievements, Sunila managed to be friendly and calm, immediately relieving me of [...]

Sunday Times 2

Sunila Abeysekera: A woman of substance

At a time when Sri Lanka mourns the passing of human rights activist Sunila Abeysekera, here, from a different perspective, is a biographical feature, celebrating the living Sunila. It was first published in the magazine travelsrilanka, in January 2005

My first encounter with Sunila Sundari Janet Abeysekera was at the Women and Media Collective, a Colombo-based non-governmental organisation. I was present for an interview and was nervous. While the other members of the interview panel questioned me on my curriculum vitae and achievements, Sunila managed to be friendly and calm, immediately relieving me of my tension. I feel this quality is one of the most appealing things about her. I have often witnessed her speaking with ‘kings and paupers’ as though she was one with them. 

Sunila Abeysekera

Sunila was born in 1952 in Piliyandala; her home was located at the edge of a paddy field. When asked about her childhood memories she reminisces going for swims on her mother’s back in a waterhole by the paddy field. Her strong bond with her father, Charles Abeysekera, led her to inherit a love of theatre, film and art. As kids in the 1960s, her brothers and she were taken to many performances of foreign orchestras and theatre companies touring Sri Lanka. Her father was friends with many directors and actors and thus the young Sunila attended a number of cultural events and cast parties. In essence she lived in an environment that was abundant with song and dance.

In 1968, Sunila departed to the United States as an American Field Service Exchange Student. She resided in California with a white, Jewish family. Since she was the first Asian that happened on that area, she was as novel an experience to them as they were to her. The birth of the activist in Sunila is likely to have been influenced by the mother of the family she resided with. Certainly Sunila’s involvement in demonstrations against pollution and war paved the way for the activist and lobbyist to emerge.

Upon her return to Sri Lanka, she recollects being taken by her father to witness the May Day parade. Though at the time she was not a part of the rallies, she was intrigued by them. Her first job in Sri Lanka was as a receptionist and typist at Hansa Publishers. At the same time her family’s attachment to the Civil Rights Movement saw her getting involved with prison welfare. A visit to a prisoner in 1977 saw her first encounter with The People’s Liberation Front (JVP).

Soon afterwards the JVP conducted a recruitment drive and Sunila found herself assisting the party with the translation of various documents. This involvement led to Sunila quitting her job at the publishing house in 1978 and becoming an active follower of the leader of the JVP, Rohana Wijeweera. Her role as a member of the JVP, apart from singing vimukthi gee (freedom songs), included responsibility for the publication of The Red Power, the English newspaper of the party. Her first political involvement with women began with her work for the Women’s Wing of the JVP, The Socialist Women’s Front.

In 1980 Sunila left the JVP and welcomed the arrival of her son Sanjay the following year. She soon found herself immersed in the workers’ issues of the Free Trade Zone near Colombo, which led to a major strike in 1982. Residing in Anuradhapura at this time, she was disturbed by the communal riots of July 1983. She claims she faced a conflict within herself at witnessing the Sinhala people — to whom she belonged — acted at this time.

Sunila made daily train trips to Colombo to be an active member of the Women’s Action Committee. By this time she was making a name for herself as an activist, lobbyist and feminist. A variety of victimised groups ranging from workers to women soon found their way to her believing that she would be able to have their grievances redressed. 

Her daughter Subha was born in 1987. Soon afterwards, with the establishment of INFORM, a non-governmental organisation headed by Sunila, began the documentation of disappearances and killings, a common occurrence at the time. Sunila became recognised in the international arena as a fighter for Human Rights with a special focus on Women’s Rights, Reproductive Rights and Sexual Rights. Indeed, Sunila has long been a campaigner for freedom of choice, sexuality and reproductive rights and was a core member of the Women’s Support Group, the only organisation in Sri Lanka that focused solely on lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights.

Not many people get the opportunity to meet Kofi Annan, perhaps the greatest humanitarian of our age, let alone have the honour of receiving a prestigious UN award from him. Sunila has done just that. Her protests against violence soon brought about death threats, but her efforts to resolve conflict were ultimately recognised when she received the esteemed Human Rights Award from the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, at the UN’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 1999.

Sunila is referred to as “the globe-trotter” as her work in the field of International Human Rights takes her to many an uncommon destination. She returns with many interesting stories and anecdotes, assisting those of us who may not have such travel opportunity to ‘see’ these places through her experiences. I am prompted to ask her what world destination she loves best. She replies that her favourite places are those in the dry zone of Sri Lanka, such as Anuradhapura, where she bathes in the sharpness of the early morning light.

Her favourite food? “Cadju curry of course,” she remarks with a glint in her eye! 

Her survival strategy is her sense of humour, and though she recommends walking away when things get too tough: I have never known her to do so.

One remarkable feature of Sunila is her involvement in a wide range of activity. She is an accomplished singer, a talent which was nurtured in Bishop’s College by the famous Spencer Sheppard. When the Sri Lankan musician Khemadasa was writing the music for the film Bambaru Awith directed by Dharmasena Pathiraja in 1976 he needed someone to sing the melody while he worked out the harmony. Sunila was close at hand, being the daughter of a close family friend, and tolerated as she made good tea. Thus she soon found herself singing the famous Handunagaththoth Oba Maa and winning an award for the best song. She was also an actress and found herself performing in many a theatrical production, including Henry Jayasena’s Janelaya (The Window).

A personality like Sunila’s is rare. Apart from being able to add magic to even the most mundane task in her life, I am amazed at how much time she gives to other people. A chat over a gin and tonic at the Otters Club in Colombo leads me on a journey through time and continents. Her experiences are so vivid and contrasting to that of most other human beings that she gives life to the words of Rudyard Kipling: “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with kings — nor lose the common touch.”

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