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‘Everyone deserves to know what happened to their loved ones’ – US Ambassador on 'essential' tour of Jaffna

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Amidst Sri Lanka’s political and economic tumult, US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Julie Chung, made a historic visit to Jaffna where she met with Tamil families of the disappeared, major Tamil political parties, civil society actors, religious groups, and business communities to discuss the impact of the crisis.

“It was essential to me to visit the North early in my tenure as Ambassador,” said Ambassador Chung. “During the visit, I explored the history of the region and heard from people first-hand about their challenges and opportunities.  I gained a much better understanding of the impact of the war and the human rights concerns, as well as the current economic situation in the North.”

Meeting with Tamil families of the Disappeared

Meeting with the families of the disappeared, Chung emphasised the need “for both accountability and reconciliation”. For over five years, Tamil families have been continuing to protest across the North-East to uncover the truth behind the disappearances of their loved ones, many of whom were last seen in the custody of Sri Lanka’s military. The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances reported last year that Sri Lanka continues to have the second-highest number of enforced disappearances in the world, second only to Iraq, with 6,117 outstanding cases submitted to the organisation. These families have faced constant surveillance, intimidation and harassment by Sri Lankan authorities when engaging in peaceful protests.

(Memorial for Subbamma held in Vavuniya - 7 April 2022)

Earlier this year, Kalimuthu Subbamma, a Tamil mother searching for her forcibly disappeared son, passed away having never found the whereabouts of her loved one or received justice for his abduction. Over 100 Tamil parents are reported to have died without knowing the truth about their disappeared children.


Meeting Tamil political leaders

Whilst in Jaffna Chung also met with major Tamil political parties including the TNA, TELO, PLOTE and the TNPA. Earlier this year, Tamil political parties including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Tamil Makkal Thesiya Kootani (TMTK), and Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) urged India to ensure that Sri Lanka abides by its commitments under the 13th Amendment and devolve power to the Tamil provinces as a starting point "towards a federal structure". The Tamil National People's Front (TNPF) has campaigned against the implementation of the 13th Amendment as it would create a setback in the political struggle for Tamil self-determination.

TNPF leader Gajendrakumar Poonambalam has gone further demanding that Sri Lanka be restructured on federal lines emphasising that the current system is exclusivist.

Read more here: ‘It’s time Sinhalese people understand their leaders lied about federalism’ – Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam

She further met with civil society leaders where she emphasised their role in protecting vulnerable communities.


Meeting religious leaders

During her tour, she also visited St Mary's Cathedral and spoke with Rt. Rev. Dr. Justin Gnanapragasam, Bishop of Jaffna, on the issues of accountability, justice and the economic impact of the current crisis.

Chung also visited Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil and met with the leaders of Jaffna's Muslim community. She stressed on Twitter that “the US is committed to religious freedom and an inclusive and prosperous Sri Lanka”.

Last year two damming reports were produced on religious freedom in Sri Lanka by the Cristian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom which has highlighted the degradation of religious freedom on the island.

Responding to these reports former US for religious minorities during both the Obama and Trump administrations, Knox Thames has urged for international pressure and sanctions on Sri Lanka to force a change in the government's policy of religious persecution against Hindus, Christians, and Muslims.

The US report highlights the continued use of Sri Lanka's draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act to target Muslims and jail them for lengthy periods on trumped-up charges. The report further adds that there have been attempts to “reduce the visibility of Islam through the destruction of mosques and restrictive stances on religious clothing". Further measures to reduce visibility include restricting Islamic religious practices, such as a ban on burqas and the closure of Islamic schools.

Read more here: Former US Envoy urges international pressure to end religious persecution in Sri Lanka

Chung also visited the historic Jaffna Public Library, noting that the US has helped to restore its archives. The public library was first set ablaze in 1981 when Sri Lankan security forces and state-sponsored mobs attacked the library. Since then, the library has faced vandalism and attempts by the government to suppress memorialisations of its burning.

Read more here: History in flames: remembering the burning of Jaffna Library

Promoting economic development

The US Ambassador also met with Jaffna business leaders and a youth forum to encourage investments in the region and how best to tackle the issues Sri Lanka faced.

She also met with Governor Jeevan Thiyagaraja to discuss economic development in the region.

When meeting with entrepreneurs from Yarl IT Hub, she applauded them for their "ability to innovate, create and adapt."

She also met with the Ecosteem, a renewable energy company founded in Jaffna. Chung emphasized the US commitment to combatting climate change and encouraged "efforts to utilize sustainable energy sources."

Towards the end of her visit, Chung went to the University of Jaffna and praised the institution for developing a master's degree program in peace and conflict resolution. The program is a joint initiative with the US Agency for International Development.

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