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Fighting for human rights

by Martha Ann Overland

Colombo, Sri Lanka - The two weary academics have been in hiding here for more than a decade. The men have no phone and no fixed address. Relatives say they haven't spoken to them in years. When they move, they leave no trace of where they have been and no hint of where they are going.

The University of Jaffna, where they once taught mathematics, has cut them off and denies any association with them. Some people wonder if they even exist. The only concrete thing that proves the two men are still alive is their work.

Rajan Hoole and K. Sritharan are the founders of the Jaffna branch of the University Teachers for Human Rights, or UTHR. When the branch was founded in 1988, it had the support of half of the faculty members at the University of Jaffna.

Its detailed reports in the last 15 years have laid bare atrocities committed by both sides during Sri Lanka's brutal civil war between government troops and Tamil separatists, which has left an estimated 64,000 people dead and forced more than a million to flee the fighting.

The Jaffna branch of the human rights group has published 31 bulletins, 15 special reports, and two books - all chronicling the human rights abuses against civilians living in the Tamil-majority areas. "Serious human-rights activists who have worked on Sri Lanka for the last decade all rely on the UTHR directly or indirectly," says Peter Rosenblum of Harvard Law School's Human Rights Program. "There is intensity, intimate knowledge, and commitment to ideals. Their reports convey the intimacy and the unwillingness to simplify stories."

Two math professors

Hoole and Sritharan didn't always have to fear for their lives. They used to be just a couple of professors of mathematics. Mr. Sritharan, who is balding with a scraggly beard, received his Ph..D. from the University of Edinburgh. Hoole, thin and haggard looking, completed his doctorate in math at the University of Oxford. He is also a classical pianist, though he has not played in the 10 years since he left his piano behind in Jaffna.

The two graduates returned to Sri Lanka, after their studies in the mid-1970s, a time when other Tamils were fleeing persecution at the hands of the country's Sinhala majority. Though Hoole and Sritharan could have stayed abroad, they chose to return and teach at the University of Jaffna, which is home to many of the country's Tamils, in the far north of the country.

The two professors did not take sides, but it wasn't long before Jaffna, the cultural capital of the Tamils, became a war zone. The government wanted to keep control of Jaffna for psychological and strategic reasons. The university itself was often on the front lines and still bears scars from the fighting.

The 1980s were tumultuous years across Sri Lanka, and not just in the North. While fighting a war with the Tamils, the Sri Lankan Army was simultaneously putting down a violent struggle by left-wing Sinhalese nationalists in the South. The movement, which had its roots in the universities there, was ruthlessly suppressed. Thousands of people, many of them students, were tortured and killed by government security forces.

Shocked at the incidents of savagery, in 1988 professors of every discipline and at nearly every university came together to form the University Teachers for Human Rights. The group gave academics a voice, and it gave them courage.

With students and professors doing much of the research and the legal work, the group began documenting human rights violations, including the government's indiscriminate bombing and the rape and torture of civilians, conduct repeatedly denounced by the U.S. State Department. The group's reports carefully detailed names, dates, places, and the circumstances of every killing and every abduction.

Though the group's members are tight-lipped about their sources, they acknowledge that even today they have a large network of contacts in the north and east, many of them within the university.

Hoole says the Tamil Tigers were initially happy with the reports because they were critical of the Sri Lankan Army. But after the human rights group published reports citing the Tigers' executions of Tamil civilians and criticizing their practice of using children as soldiers, "we were told by those sympathetic to the LTTE that our work was unwelcome."

Eventually they published one critical report too many. On September 21, 1989, an assassin followed Dr. Thiranagama as she rode her bicycle home after giving exams to students at the medical school. Before she reached her house, he pulled out a gun and shot her several times in the head. Hoole and Sritharan say they are certain the Tamil Tigers were behind her assassination - a charge the Tigers deny.

Mr. Hoole was already abroad when Tiger soldiers came looking for the group's remaining leaders. Sritharan went underground, and eventually escaped past checkpoints with the help of a truck driver. Two students who had helped members of the Jaffna branch document war crimes, but who had chosen not to leave, were seized. Years later the families of the students learned they were dead.

The Prophets, disowned

Even today, in what is supposed to be a time of peace, nobody much likes talking about the Jaffna branch of University Teachers for Human Rights. Criticizing the Tigers only earns you enemies in a place like Jaffna, where the Tigers now move about openly. On a visit to the Jaffna Campus, it is difficult to get anyone to admit they have even heard of the human rights organization. Some suggest it is a ghost group. Others say it is a government front aimed at bashing the Tamil's independence aspirations.

A man who is a former colleague of the math professors first denies he knows them. Later he says he hasn't spoken to them in many years. When he becomes more comfortable, he disappears into the back of his house and brings out a copy of the UTHR's recent book, Sri Lanka: The Arrogance of Power. Possessing the book could mean a possible death sentence, so he has hidden its contents by wrapping the thick black book in a white cover.

Officials at the University of Jaffna emphatically disown the human rights group. "They are not part of the university," says Ponnudurai Balasundarampillai, Vice Chancellor of the university. "Originally the group was four or five teachers here in the late 1980s. They were very independent. They left for Colombo: They were not happy. Since they didn't report for work for two or three years, they were terminated."

Mr. Balasundarampillai concedes he has "taken a glance" at some of their reports. He has no comment on what they write, saying only that the men display good English and write well, which must be why people read their work.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a think tank in Colombo, says it is still too dangerous for most academics to speak out.

"The university as an institution reflects the prevailing hegemony," says Saravanamuttu. "But I have never heard a refutation of the information in their reports. The question is, are their reports accurate? Yes, they are."

Despite the risks of retaliation, one former English professor living in Jaffna openly praises the members of the local branch of the human rights group. "Their views make people in authority uncomfortable," says Aloysius J. Canagaratna. He says the university should have taken a firm stand against the murder of Dr. Thiranagama. "But these intellectuals are supine and craven," he adds. "They don't want to cause trouble."

Instead of throwing a ring of support around the human rights group, Canagaratna says, the university abandoned it and the professors had to flee. "Outside this place they have great respect," he says. "But like all prophets they are not honoured. Here they are considered traitors."

Sunila Abeysekera, the executive director of Inform, a human rights documentation center in Colombo, says that the right of dissent is not recognized at the University of Jaffna. "Students have been kidnapped and killed," she says, "Teachers have been killed. But at the University of Jaffna, there is no room for discourse."

Hoole and Sritharan also believe that the University of Jaffna's continued silence is dangerous. "They don't want to get involved, and the LTTE will use this for their own benefit," says Sritharan. "The universities in Sri Lanka have become dead institutions."

The Vice Chancellor responds that his priority now is returning the campus to normal and helping students get their degrees. "We need the depoliticizing of the university," says Balasundarampillai. "We need a genuine academic atmosphere."

Tiger headquarters

Hoole and Sritharan may be hard to find, but the Tamil Tigers' headquarters is not. Even though the Sri Lankan Army still has 35,000 troops posted in Jaffna, the Tigers now operate in the open as part of the peace agreement. Their headquarters is a large two-storeyed house in the middle of town, and anyone can push open a gate in the eight-foot-high corrugated metal fence and enter.

Ilamparithy, who like many Sri Lankans is known by one name, is the political officer in charge of the Jaffna region for the Tigers. He is a personable man, offering tea and squeezing in interviews as people from his district wait outside to talk with him late at night. He is annoyed, however, when the discussion turns to the teachers group. He is still angry after a report named him as being behind the assault on the principal of Hartley College, near Jaffna, last year. "They are giving totally falsified misinterpretation of the freedom struggle of the LTTE in their writings," says Ilamparithy. "It has a lot of lies and contradiction to the facts."

With peace breaking out, do the professors have reason to remain in hiding? Ilamparithy scoffs at the suggestion that anyone would want to kill them. "There is nothing to fear from the LTTE," he says. "I won't take their life. The reason they stay away is that they can't face the public of Jaffna."

Though Hoole and Sritharan are reluctant to talk about their own hardships, it is obvious that a dozen years in hiding have not been easy. The European Human Rights Commission and a few Sri Lankan philanthropic organizations help finance their research, but they do not earn a salary.

Friends pay their rent and food bills. Colleagues help publish their reports. They live a meager existence compared with the lives they once had, and could have now.

Mostly they worry about their families. Hoole is single, but two of his brothers in Sri Lanka are professors with high profiles. Sritharan is married with two young children. To give him and his family a respite from living in hiding, Sritharan spent last year as a scholar at Harvard Law School's Human Rights Program, which sometimes seeks to give human rights activists already working in the field additional training.

But even then, colleagues say, he could not relax. Not only did he feel that his presence could endanger other Tamils he met in the United States, but he also was not comfortable living in the relative luxury of Boston while so many in Sri Lanka were suffering.

The two men admit they are tired. "We lasted much longer than we thought we would," Hoole says gratefully. They both would like to be able to return to teaching but not until their human rights work is finished. "If peace is restored and a democratic environment is created where you can have open dialogue, then we would go back," he says.

Despite the much-celebrated ceasefire agreement, the two men say the Tamil Tiger campaign of terror continues. In fact, the ceasefire has allowed the Tigers unfettered access to areas once under government control.

The Tigers recently abducted nine politicians, who were openly critical of the Tigers, the two men say. Only one politician's body has been found, and it showed signs of extreme torture.

Hoole and Sritharan say the rebels still use extortion to raise money: It has simply been euphemistically renamed as "tax collection." The Tigers deny using torture or extortion.

"The Tigers are still targeting people," says Sritharan. "The ground-level reality is that they are using fear to keep control."

As the Norwegians help hammer out a regional autonomy plan with the Government, the professors are dismayed to see the Tigers portraying themselves as the Tamils' legitimate political representatives. The Tamil people are being handed over to fascist rule, the professors say, right under the noses of well-meaning international adjudicators.

(Courtesy: The Chronicle of Higher Education from the issue dated February 28,2003 http://chronicle.com/weekly/v49/i25/25a04101.htm)





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