A US Congressional Caucus on Ethnic and Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka was launched on Wednesday, at Capitol Hill in Washington DC at 2pm local time.
The Caucus, co-chaired by Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) and Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH), has already seen additional US Members of Congress joining.
Addressing guests at the launch event, Congressman Johnson said he was proud to co-chair this caucus. Pointing to the last stages of the war in Sri Lanka, Congressman Johnson said that the attacks on civilians in the so-called No Fire Zones were a blatant violation of international law. Adding that it was vital to re-establish a strong US-Sri Lanka relationship, he said that he had seen “shocking” videos from the final stages of war, and it was important to ensure that all those responsible for war crimes and human rights violations are held accountable.
Citing reports by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, regarding land grabs and threats to freedom of expression and the media, Congressman Johnson asserted that the Caucus would try to shed light on Sri Lanka as a critical issue of human rights.
Congressman Davis also spoke in equally passionate terms of the need to bring attention to Sri Lanka. Describing his own personal visit to Sri Lanka, Davis said that the person with whom he spent the most time in Sri Lanka was a Tamil Member of Parliament who was subsequently assassinated in church during Christmas. He said when he visited Sri Lanka, there were essentially two governments side-by-side, with two Supreme Courts and two separate justice systems.
Congressman Davis outlined a visit to an orphanage in a part of the North-East then under the control of the LTTE, which was bombed by the Sri Lankan military after he left. The Sri Lankan government had claimed this was a training camp for terrorists, Congressman Davis explained, but added that he had met the “most delightful children I’ve ever seen”.
Congressman Davis described how his entire time in Sri Lanka was under a heavy military guard, always with “soldiers in front of us and behind us.”
Congressman Davis concluded that he now has a better understanding of the struggle, and believes the Caucus will provide an opportunity for more Members of Congress to be engaged in promoting justice and peace in Sri Lanka.
|Left to Right: Dr Nimmi Gowrinathan, Lisa Curtis, Ambassador Ashley Wills, Sadanan Dhume, Congressman Davis (lantern)
Marking the launch, a panel discussion entitled - "What's next for Sri Lanka - progress or backpedaling - and the US-Sri Lanka relationship?" - took place, with Sadanand Dhume from the American Enterprise Institute as moderator, and a panel including Ashley Wills, the former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Lisa Curtis from The Heritage Foundation, and Dr Nimmi Gowrinathan, a policy consultant.
Speaking first, Ambassador Wills criticised the Sri Lankan government’s triumphalism since the end of the armed conflict in 2009. Expressing concerns over the overall human rights situation in the country, he cited examples including media being intimidated, courts not functioning as they should, NGOs harassed, and “neo-colonial settlement in areas…in the North and East.”
Ambassador Wills said,
“President Rajapaksa and his brothers have dispatched quite a large number of Sinhalese in areas that were traditionally Tamil, including Kilinochcih, Mullaitheevu and Jaffna.”
Criticising the Sri Lankan President for "breaking promises", Ambassador Wills said that Rajapaksa had previously pledged to strengthen the 13th Amendment, but was now weakening its scope and powers.
Following on, Lisa Curtis reiterated concerns over land rights, describing it as a “major issue.” She said more than a thousand Tamils have filed cases after the Sri Lankan military reportedly seized their land for “so-called security and development purposes."
Stating that the US is deeply concerned about the overall direction of democracy in Sri Lanka, Curtis said that US-Sri Lanka relations have clearly been in a “downward spiral” for the last 4 years; however it is important that the US remain engaged through a combination of “carrots and sticks” with Sri Lanka.
The final speaker, Dr Gowrinathan focused on the alarming level of militarisation in the North-East, in particular the impact it has on Tamil women. She said that the militarisation is a “calculated institutionalised practice and pervasive ideology which has the ability to deepen the impact of repressive policies", and that militarisation in the North-East has an “active impact on politics and social interactions as a form of state repression.”
Dr Gowrinathan stated that a recent survey in Sri Lanka found that defence forces occupied over one third of the land inhabited by the Tamil population in the Northern Province, and that interviews conducted with members of civil society highlighted militarisation as the biggest problem facing the Tamil people today.
In considering the gendered impact of militarisation, Dr. Gowrinathan outlined five specific areas of concern: prostitution, rape, coercive population control, suicide and domestic violence.
Discussing the prevalence of rape during the last phase of the armed conflict, but also today, Dr Gowrinathan said frankly that prostitution is easily found after 6 pm in Kilinochchi, and constitutes a form of sexual violence.
Highlighting reports of coercive population control, Dr Gowrinathan cited recent cases of birth control being given to Tamil women without their consent and how the husbands of these women were angry when they found out about the coerced birth control. Contextualising the incidents occurring today, with the numerous reports of forced abortions being carried out on Tamil women at the end of the armed conflict, she stated that Tamil women were told abortions were necessary because the foetuses had been exposed to chemical weapons.
Dr Gowrinathan also pointed to the high levels of suicide with young women between 18-24, and the rise in domestic violence, which she said was partially due to increased alcoholism and depression among men.
Outlining the pervasive fear psychosis in the North-East, Dr Gowrinathan said that this fear leaves the average woman “afraid to walk, afraid to talk, afraid even to see something that may be suspicious…you survive by being deaf, mute, and blind.”
She asserted that the population must be mobilised in a way “that is not just inclusive of women, but where women are in fact central to articulating the grievances and demands of a marginalised community.”
|Standing at left: Congressman Johnson