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SRI LANKA – Activist wins justice and peace award in South Korea

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human rights defender from Law and Society Trust, FORUM-ASIA member in
Sri Lanka, won a justice and peace award in South Korea. Here is the
speech of Marius Rukshan Fernando, also known as "Ruki", given at the
award presentation on 21 April 2009.

human rights defender from Law and Society Trust, FORUM-ASIA member in
Sri Lanka, won a justice and peace award in South Korea. Below is the
speech of Marius Rukshan Fernando, also known as "Ruki", given at the
award presentation on 21 April 2009.

It is a great honour
for me to receive the Bishop Tji Hak Soon Justice and Peace award. Especially
because I have been inspired by the life and work of Bishop Tji Hak
Soon, his struggles against injustice and his courage to struggle against
military dictatorship despite imprisonment.  

In Sri Lanka too,
I have encountered and worked with people like Bishop Tji Hak Soon.
As I stand here and speak, some of these people are in detention, some
without charges, some like long time activist and human rights defender
Tissainayagam, detained for writing about killing of civilians, child
soldiers and generally for highlighting human rights violations. Some
have been killed. Some have been abducted, or simply disappeared. Many
have been threatened, intimidated, ridiculed. Several colleagues have
fled the country. I myself have not been spared such problems, and consider
myself fortunate to be alive, and free to a certain extent.  

What have we done
to deserve this? Because we opposed bombing and shelling civilians,
extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, forcible displacement,
restrictions on freedom of movement, restrictions on fishing & farming,
occupation of land, forcible recruitment of children, attacks on freedom
of _expression. Because we believe safety and needs of civilians are
more important than military victories and advocate political and negotiated
settlement to the ethnic conflict, instead of a military solution. Because
we put our faith in non violent actions, rule of law, and that respect
for human rights is the best way to prevent and counter terrorism.  

Amongst those who
have struggled and continue to struggle to change this situation are
victims of abuses, their family members, journalists, lawyers, humanitarian
workers, religious leaders, parliamentarians, some members of the international
community. Three Catholic priests, a Buddhist Monk and several Hindu
priests have been killed and disappeared in NorthEast of the country
since 2006. Many of them were working to help and protect displaced
people, documenting human rights abuses and working to promote ethnic
harmony. Churches and hospitals have been bombed and shelled, and people
taking refuge in these places have been killed and injured.  

I have met family
members of those killed and disappeared, and had met people and families
being detained. I have no words to describe their agony and pain. I
don't know how to describe my own agony, pain, shame and sense of
helplessness when I talk with them. Tamils are an ethnic minority in
Sri Lanka, but the majority of people displaced, killed, disappeared,
arrested and detained without charges are Tamil. Almost all civilians
who have been killed and injured in the ongoing military operations
in the North, to whom, adequate food, water, medicine, shelter etc.
is not been sent, are Tamil. So, despite rhetorical statements, I can't
help wonder that that there is a war against Tamil civilians or at least
they have suffered disproportionately. 

The Sri Lankan government
is either involved in these abuses, or unable and unwilling to prevent
these. And it is also unwilling or unable to take action against those
responsible. It is also not willing to accept international assistance
offered towards this.  

Like the government,
the LTTE clearly has blood on its hands. Sinhalese and Muslims have
suffered terribly, primarily at the hands of the LTTE, who chased away
the Muslim community from the North, massacred Buddhist Monks and Sinhalese
villages, set off bombs in places of religious worship, buses, trains
and other public places. The Tamil community has also suffered under
the LTTE – forcible recruitment, including very young children, travel
restrictions, and threats and killing of Tamils who have dissenting
views from the LTTE.  

However, it is important
to note that the LTTE is about 30 years old, and discrimination and
harassment of the Tamil community is more than 50 years old. There are
still no concrete proposals for resolving these problems. In response
to these problems, Tamil groups struggled peacefully. At that time,
there was no demand for a separate state, only for equality, sharing
of power, within one country. They were brutally repressed by the Sinhalese
dominated governments, and pleas for equal treatment was never taken
seriously. The Tamil struggle evolved into an armed struggle, demanding
a separate state.  

The test of a real
democratic government, I believe, is not how they treat their allies
and the majority community – but how they treat minority communities
and those with dissenting views. Sadly, the Sri Lankan government has
failed miserably in this regard.  

Most members of the
majority Sinhalese community, including my relatives, good friends,
classmates and even some members of the human rights community supports
the war. Some think that disappearances, killing, injuries, displacement
and detention of civilians are "collateral damages" that is acceptable.
And many believe that to highlight these sufferings of civilians, is
equal to being supporting terrorism. Many don't agree that Tamil people
have legitimate grievances, of discrimination and harassment even till

Such views are also
shared by many Buddhist Monks and Christian clergy. Last Christmas day,
the church I went to, prayed for a military victory for the government.
There were no prayers or remembering those displaced, killed, injured,
and disappeared and their family members. That was not an isolated incident. 

In this context, I
have been inspired to have been able to work with people who have come
forward courageously to help affected people and speak out on their
fate. Amongst them are few bishops, priests, religious men and women,
lay people, people without any faith. Several church leaders have opted
to remain amongst the trapped civilian population in the Vanni region,
in northern Sri Lanka, being subjected to merciless shelling and bombing.
As a Sinhalese from Colombo, together with some other likeminded lay
people, priests and religious, most of who are from the South and from
the majority Sinhalese community, we started a group called Christian
Solidarity Movement. We went to visit the war zones, met affected people.
We shared about the suffering caused by war on civilians, prepared appeals
and reports, wrote articles, gave interviews, prepared exhibitions,
organized musical shows, and started a blog. We organized public prayer
services, gave testimonies in churches and also collected financial
assistance for displaced people inside churches and on the streets.  

We also talked to
diplomats, people in UN, and others we thought could help change the
situation. In distant villages and towns, in the streets in Colombo,
in the corridors of power in big cities like Geneva, New York, Washington.
Here today, as well, I appeal to you to help the struggle for justice
and peace in Sri Lanka.  

We were threatened
by a Deputy Minister and prime-time news on state TV was used to brand
us as terrorist supporters. The organisation I work with, Law &
Society Trust, and many other human rights and peace groups, have been
similarly targeted for the reports we put out, abuses we exposed, campaigns
we run.   

This award today,
encourages me to continue, and I hope it will also strengthen others
with whom I'm engaged in this struggle. I remember with appreciation
those who have worked with me, supported me, encouraged me and also
sometimes helped to restrain myself and step back a bit. Many names,
but in a special way, I remember my dear friend and colleague Dulani
who was behind, in front and middle of many of my initiatives and efforts.  

I'm thankful to
the Bishop Tji Hak Soon Foundation for making this award to me, in this
very critical time for us. The money I receive as part of the award
will be used in full to support human rights defenders in Sri Lanka,
who need assistance and protection.  

I end with an earnest
appeal. Please don't stop with this award and by your presence here
today. Please mobilise Korean people, Christians, church leaders, government
leaders, other influential persons and groups, to support Sri Lankan
people, and human rights defenders, as we fight for our rights, our
dignity, our lives.  

Thank you.