From campaigning against enforced disappearances to standing as Tamil National Alliance’s (TNA) candidate for the Jaffna district, to searching for the whereabouts of disappeared husband, the LTTE political leader Elilan, Ananthy Sasitharan, has become a rising Tamil voice in the North-East.
Tamil Guardian caught up with the activist-turned-politician on the phone, as she made her way home from a day of campaigning. The interview was interrupted briefly when Ananthy – who has already escaped an attack on her vehicle in recent weeks – suspected that her vehicle was being followed.
TAMIL GUARDIAN: How would you describe the present state of the Tamil homeland in the North-East?
"Our homeland is completely occupied by the military, so much so that the military presence seems larger than the actual Tamil population. At any event, the army is there. People are scared by the army presence, they live in a state of fear, too afraid to talk or do anything. All our native lands are in their hands, they have seized everything.
In the Northeast, there are a huge number of relatives of missing people; not just of those that disappeared during the war, because even today people are disappearing.
In the final stages of the war, there was a large-scale surrender, which the government completely denies any knowledge of. But the UN knew about this surrender, American officials knew and even the Indian government knew how many people surrendered – I don’t know why they are all silent.
The issue of missing people, or people unaccounted for after the war, is a really pressing matter for us.
On top of those that are missing, there are Tamil political prisoners that have been in captivity for many years and there have been no meaningful steps taken towards their release. Living [in the UK] you cannot imagine the state of jails in Sri Lanka – if there is something called hell, it is in the Sri Lankan state prisons. I can’t even describe the state of them: people can only be seen through nets – a visitor cannot tell if the person inside is really her husband or child. It is so crowded and all you hear is tears and howling. Something must be done to reform these prisons or at least to bring them to the standard of prisons [in the UK].
So what happens when we have so many missing or imprisoned relatives? It means that today the military can carry out violence against Tamil women. You will have heard about the woman that was gang-raped in Poonagari. Hearing stories of abuse and sexual assault against our women and girls has become a daily occurrence here.
And then there are some women in Jaffna, who seem to have the support of the military and government officials. They bring young girls from war affected regions like Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu to Jaffna to run brothels. Even when they are reported by concerned citizens, the police do not take up the issue. This kind of support for such practices show that these are intentional attacks against the fabric of our society and the spiritual morale of our nation.
The government have marked out over eighty spots as places of archaeological interest. These are our lands yet we do not have the right to even plant a sapling on them.
From Matakal to Kangesanthurai to Kokkuvil, lands are being made ready for Sinhalese settlers. Access to the waters is more and more restricted to us. It’s such a neatly drawn plan to take everything away from the Tamil people."
|"Resettle us on our own lands!"
- Photograph by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai
TAMIL GUARDIAN: What made you stand for the Northern Provincial Council elections and what do you hope to achieve? Why do you think more women in the North-East don’t get involved in politics?
"I came into politics because we hardly have any political or organisational backing with regards to searching for missing people. Entering politics was out of burning necessity. Searching for my husband is something I have to do; I can’t leave it alone out of fear for my life.
That’s what has led me to help other women searching for their loved ones, to settle our questions once and for all.
Although the TNA occasionally release statements, I have not had any concrete help with regards to missing people. Also I believe I was intentionally sidelined during UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay’s visit, as MP Sumanthiran told me they were to have a political meeting and not a human rights meeting. I had been hoping to meet with Ms Pillay and discuss the issues of disappearances and women’s rights which I have been campaigning about but I was not given the chance.
I was personally affected by the war, as were the women I work with; only we know the extent of our pain and suffering. We were disappointed that we could not discuss our grievances directly with Ms Pillay, who instead had to listen to some distant politicians and so-called human rights groups in the South.
During the time of the LTTE women were actively involved in politics and administration. After the war, they are not even guaranteed personal security let alone the ability to think and act politically. Now once again, we are being subjected to the patriarchal, male-chauvinist attitudes of our society. Right now there is no-one to fight for even our basic needs. Hopefully with time more Tamil women will be inspired to take up leading roles, including politics.
I personally intend to be a voice against all these problems that I have discussed today. I have not yet had any opportunities to speak with the international actors but I hope that they will arise so that I can raise awareness about these issues."