Our Sisters

Remembering Sunila Abeysekera….article which appeared in the Law and Society Trust, Volume 24 Issue 313,314. Novermber & December 2013

Vaasam……. remembering you

Suriya Women’s Development Centre – Batticaloa

This is a collective effort to remember Sunila. This article is a compilation of informal discussions among women who have been part of Suriya and Poorani Women’s Centres since 1991. We talked about her support for human rights work, peace work, women’s rights work, capacity building of women activists, fund raising for local women’s groups, her love, her strength and her warmth.

Sunila’s involvement with the Poorani women…..

Sunila used to come to Jaffna in the early 1980s, she used to come with Charles Abeysekera, her father, and the Movement for Inter racial Justice and Equality. Sunila also came for the funeral of Rajani Thiranagama. She came with her son, Sanjaya, in 1989.

At that time the women who were involved in the Poorani Centre got to know Sunila. Poorani was a safe space and training centre for women who were affected by the war. In 1991, Poorani was taken over by the LTTE. The LTTE women were pressuring them to give the Poorani funds for their work. The Poorani women decided to return the money to the donors, so they closed the centre and moved to Colombo.

As one former member of Suriya noted when she spoke at an event organised in Canada this year “During the 1990s, I was forced to leave Jaffna because of the unsafe situation there. Registration with the Police was difficult in Colombo. Sunila would come with me to the Police and it would make things much easier for me. At this time, large numbers of Tamils and Muslims were displaced from the North-East of Sri Lanka to Colombo. I remember the time I was arrested in 1992 and she came to the Police station to help get my release. These things happened often in Colombo and Sunila was always there to help us”.

Others also recalled this time – “during this time four Poorani women and some of their family members were arrested by the Dehiwala Police and kept in the jail there for 3 weeks. We were trying to set up a group of people to organise food. We organised a mixed group – foreigners, Muslims, Tamils, Sinhalese men and women. So the Police were aware that many people knew about this case and were interested in what was happening to them. We had heard that women were raped in the Police stations and were very worried for the protection of these women. Sunila was very active in getting these women released”.

There were many discussions among women activists who had been displaced from the North and activists based in Colombo like Sunila. As one founder member of Suriya recalled “we took an auto and went around to various camps where displaced people from the North and East stayed. We had long discussions about what we could do. At that time EPDP was in charge of the camps. We started negotiating with them about food rations and other basic services for women. We didn’t have an office. We got a small space at the back of the Women and Media Collective office where we started working”.

Sunila at the cultural programme of the displaced held at Ramakrishna Mission Hall – Colombo 1992

Sunila lived what she stood for. Her life reflected her values of democracy. Her life was her message. Among Tamils and Muslims of this country she was never seen as an outsider. She had many friends among different communities. She made frequent visits to the North and East even during the hardest times for travel. She had traveled to the remote villages to collect stories of those affected. This gave a human dimension to her documentation of human rights violations. She maintained a view that the cause for ethnic conflict is the denial of equal rights and dignity to one ethnic group. She had dreamt about Sri Lanka as a country where rights of all citisens are respected and democratic practices are upheld. She had viewed the ethnic issue from a democratic perspective. She never accepted the concepts of majority, minority. For her, all individuals should have freedom and rights. In Sunila’s politics she highlighted the rights abuses committed by the State under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency regulations. She also denounced violations by Tamil armed groups including the LTTE. Sunila had to pay the price for her unwavering defense for the rights of Tamils.  She was branded as a traitor of the country and had to face threats to her life. She had always talked about a political solution to the ethnic issue. She denounced violence and militarism. She brought a feminist perspective into peace building.

Journeys – some glimpses of her human rights work…..

She was involved in documenting disappearances in the East from 1987 onwards. She didn’t just come to the town areas. She made many visits into rural villages. In 2008, when people were sent back to their villages after being displaced for many months, there were rumours about women being raped, especially women living alone. There were rumours of women being sexually harassed during round ups and house to house checks in the nights. Sunila visited during this time. She stood as the frontline voice and face and negotiated with the military to gain access to these areas in internal Batticaloa. She provided protection and cover for local women activists.

Another woman recalled “I remember her work post tsunami. She was the one who pushed for citizens’ committees for people to give testimonies after the tsunami disaster. She brought a rights-focus into post tsunami reconstruction. She would sit the whole day on people’s tribunals listening to person after person, never stopping them until they finished what they had come to say.”

Discussions on women’s rights issues in the Post Tsunami context – Batticaloa 2005

In one of her last visits to Batticaloa in 2011, she wanted to visit the Kathiraveli school where displaced families had stayed and was damaged by shelling in 2006.  She was ill by this time. But still she travelled.

She always took care of people……

When someone was sick she bought them food and kept them in her house. It wasn’t just work for her, she embodied those things she wrote and talked about. She really lived it. She gave her time and had very strong personal connections and gave personal care. When some of the women from Suriya went to international forums for the first time, she always took care of them. Discussed their presentations and gave guidance on how to be careful and what issues to raise. She always gave confidence for local women to speak at international events. She took women shopping, to the night markets, site seeing, to experience new food.

From bus stops to police stations…..she was the one to call….

Once when the cultural group went to Colombo for a performance at the SLFI, the girls had gone outside for sightseeing and had taken some photographs of the public library. This was 1997. The police came and arrested the woman leader of the cultural group. Sunila immediately took steps to negotiate with the police and calm down the other members of the cultural group who had gone for the first time to Colombo to perform.

As another woman activist recalled “I used to be a person who didn’t travel much. In 1996 I just joined Suriya as a board member. I was invited to make a presentation on women’s health in Induruwa. I was from Jaffna, living in Batticaloa. 13 check points to pass to reach Colombo. Sunila promised to pick me up in Colombo. I arrived at 10.30 in the night. I was inside a small Tamil tea shop in Petta. I was waiting for her. I had a cup of tea. I was really panicking. Then suddenly she arrived in a van full of women. She had already picked up many other women. She was leaning out of the window asking if there is a Tamil women waiting in the shop. Her voice when I heard it gave me the confidence. The shop people didn’t want to let me go with a bunch of women, without a man! She got down from the van and talked with them. She taught me how to break barriers within myself – about the fear of darkness, and about fear of mobility.

Mentoring women and local women’s organisations….

She always gave new ideas. Even when she was quite seriously ill she sent her comments for the Suriya AGM or wanted to skype in. She was actively involved in whatever way she could. She brought international debates and feminist ideas into our discussions, so we could guide our own work with what was happening internationally. She also pushed women to participate and speak in international forums. She always found a way to bring together people with different perspectives and different backgrounds. Sunila has trained many generations of women at Suriya and in the East through the SANGAT South Asian Gender Training Programme. She has also supported local women’s organisations through fund raising and endorsing for proposals. For example, when the women’s crisis centre in Batticaloa, had run out of funds and was desperately looking for funds to not close down, Sunila mobilised international funds and recommended the centre to be supported.

Discussions and debates – Chitra Maunaguru and Sunila
Celebrating Sunila’s Human Rights Defender Award in Batticaloa – 2008

For all these memories, and many untold ones, we dedicate this poem to Sunila and to deep friendship…

It was a sharing
Wholesome and truthful
Being you and I,
under the glassy sky……………..

You laughed
recalling the magical moment
when your nest was brimful
spilling with honey……

As we drink endlessly
the night
thirsty of the two
drifts away
having tasted
the unsurpassed wonder.

Then, you and I
under the endless glassy sky.

Anar, “Two Women”, Let the Poems Speak, SWDC 2010