Goodbye Sunila Abeysekara

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Sri Lanka’s top UN Human Rights award winner Sunila Abeysekara died at a private hospital in Colombo on Monday afternoon after a long battle with cancer.

A founder of Sri Lanka’s feminist movement, Ms. Abeysekara was a leading socialist activist for minority rights, women’s, workers and peasants rights. Recently she was prominent on Lankan human rights issues at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. She was also a noted Sinhala folk and opera singer. Ms. Abeysekera, daughter of the late Charles Abeysekara, a noted human rights and social activist, founded Inform, a rights-based NGO. – Ends-

(Sunday Times ,Sri Lanka,  Monday, 09 September 2013 19:02)

It was late 2002 when Delhi witnessed a public meeting of a different kind at Rajendra Bhavan. Hundreds of people from different walks of life – activists, writers, political workers, young students – had gathered there to witness the unveiling of an interim report prepared by an international panel of feminist activists which had visited Gujarat between 14th and 17th December, investigated the violence – particularly the physical and sexual – inflicted upon women since 27th February 2002.

The interim report prepared by the ‘International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat’ unequivocally stated : “this violence, which reflects a longer and larger genocidal project, in our view constitutes a crime against humanity and satisfies the legal definition of genocide, both of which are crimes of the most serious dimension under international law.” (http://www.onlinevolunteers.org/gujarat/reports/iijg/interimreport.htm)

The panelists included leading feminist scholars and activists from different parts of the world.

It was the first time that one had a chance to listen to Sunila Abeysekara. Like other panelists she shared her experience of her visit to Gujarat and tried to relate it to the situation in Sri Lanka which was witness to terrible violence and bloodshed because of identify based politics then.The evidence of the impunity for perpetrators, the silence, the denial, the continuing discrimination against those who suffered most also reminded her of the situation in her country.

It was quite a coincidence that one had a chance to interact with her again for a longer period when a leading women’s group in north India organised a workshop on gender which was attended by activists working in different parts of South Asia. Sunila was there as a resource person.( March 2005) There were occasions when she use to open up about her  involvement with left politics in seventies and the armed challenge presented by the left militants to the then Sri Lankan regime. One particular incident which she shared with us is still etched in my mind wherein she mentioned raid on her house by security forces to search for arms. She narrated how she kept sitting on the box which had few arms kept there and kept caressing to her little baby. She did not forget to mention that the security people went back empty handed.

Last year one came across an online petition wherein it was mentioned how there has been ‘an alarming escalation in hostile rhetoric and barely concealed threats of reprisals that have been made against some of the country’s leading journalists and human rights defenders by representatives of the Sri Lankan government and by state-owned media outlets’ who ‘have argued the cause of national reconciliation and accountability for human rights abuses since the end of the civil war.’ Apart from P. Saravanamuttu, Nimalka Fernando it prominently mentioned Sunila Abeysekara’s name as well.

It duly mentioned how on March 23, 2012 Sri Lanka’s Minister for Public Relations, Mervyn Silva addressed a public demonstration against the UNHRC resolution, threatening to “break the limbs” of any of the exiled journalists if they dared set foot in the country again. It need be mentioned here that a day before U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) had censured the Sri Lankan government ‘for rampant human rights violations during the last phases of the country’s long civil war and urged to initiate urgent measures of reconciliation to ensure a durable peace between the country’s main ethnic groups.’

Sunila’s demise has been mourned by all those people and formations who have known her unflinching committment towards defending human rights.

In his ‘Celebratory Memoirs of the Life of Comrade Sunila Abeysekera’  her erstwhile Comrade Lionel Bopage had also shared a little known aspect of Sunila’s life. He tells how she had a very ‘vibrant artistic career in film and music’ and had ‘taken the Sinhala theatre by storm in the late 60s and 70s with her haunting voice and breathtaking performances. She had been conducting notable performances on stage in her early twenties, in Indian classical and Kandyan dance. In the seventies, she had commenced lending her voice to film music. ‘ and how she later turned to human rights activism. (http://groundviews.org/2013/09/10/celebratory-memoirs-of-the-life-of-comrade-sunila-abeysekera/)

One particular obituary touched me the most which was by ‘Global Tamil Forum’ :

On the first day of the 24th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, we have lost one of the most ardent human rights activist, Sunila Abeyasekara, in Sri Lanka. Sunila represented a unique voice from within the majority Sinhalese community. She fought repression of all forms, be it against Sinhalese, Tamils, women, Muslims and youth.

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