On March 8, 2019, in recognition of her two decade struggle for peace in Sri Lanka, as well as her own personal loss in the war, Visaka Dharmadasa, the Founder and Chair of the Association of War Affected Women (AWAW) was invited to speak at Buckingham Palace on the topic of women, peace and security in the presence of HRH the Countess of Wessex, and other dignitaries.
On March 25, the International Center for Prevention and Prosecution Genocide (ICPPG), a London-based human rights NGO led by Ambihai Seevaratnam published an open letter in the Colombo Telegraph, attacking Ms. Dharmadasa and making false and unwarranted allegations and accusations against her, that amount to defamation. In an interview with ICAN’s Rana Allam, Ms. Dharmadasa offered her response to the ICPPG.
ICPPG claims “the choice at this time of a Sinhalese mother of soldier who went missing 21 years ago to be so heavily promoted by the UK Government is controversial in the light of ongoing protests by thousands of Tamil mothers” What was your reaction to the letter?
I would first like to say that such personal attacks, rhetoric and these positions impede the work of peacebuilders. It is exactly this kind of false claims, baseless allegations, and wild assumptions that render peace unattainable and unsustainable.
ICPPG also states “we understand Mrs. Dharmadasa’s eldest son is still in the army and was present at the frontline in 2009 receiving captured or surrendered Tamil fighters”
I lost one son in 1998. His disappearance prompted me to go in search of him. I went with other mothers into the jungle to meet the LTTE. Our discussions helped broker the ceasefire in September 2001. I never claimed to have mediated the peace talks. Everyone knows that Norway did facilitate that.
There are many other false assumptions in Seevaratnam’s letter, particularly about my older son. Unlike what she claims, in 2009 he was serving in Diyathalawa in the central hills at the Army training school. Stating that “he’d likely be barred from a UN peacekeeping job” amounts to defamation. Human rights activists should not be in the business of making false accusations and maligning people.
It also seems strange to attack me and my work because my son is in the army.
ICCPG states that “Inviting a Sinhalese mother to speak is controversial in the light of ongoing protests by thousands of Tamil mothers in NE Sri Lanka some of whose children disappeared in army custody more recently”. What do you say about this?
I feel the pain of those mothers. When I read the attack I wondered if Ms. Seevaratnam knew that my work and support for Tamil mothers dates back to 2001.
On Mother’s Day, 2001, AWAW launched its Mobilizing Mothers for Peace signature campaign from the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy. This campaign called for the Government and the LTTE to “Stop the war immediately and secure the right to life of our children.”
On June 19, 2002, thousands of members of AWAW along with nearly 200 members of the Mothers Front of Jaffna gathered in Colombo to demonstrate and request that the government and the LTTE stop the war immediately and secure their children’s right to life as well that the Government and the LTTE will address the issue of the Missing in Action/Missing.
In 2003 I organized and brought Tamil mothers from Jaffna and from South to Trincomalee to meet the mothers of East. The list of this type of work we did, is quite long and available if Ms. Seevaratnam would like belatedly do some research on myself and on AWAW. We have brought mothers from both sides of the conflict to share and learn from and help each other. This is our work of, calling on both sides of the conflict to stop the war.
In my submission to the Sri Lanka Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Commission in 2010, I spoke for both sides of the conflict. I suggest Seevaratnam read it before she makes such wild assumptions.
The LTTE themselves were supportive of AWAW’s work. They invited us to attend the release of prisoners of war (POW). They met with mothers in support of AWAW, and they invited us to engage in children’s health and welfare work in LTTE controlled areas. To now be attacked by a Tamil woman, is quite shocking. Had Ms. Seevaratnam in her letter suggested that a Tamil woman speak instead of me, a Sinhalese one, I would have understood, but she did not need to attack my person or my work, or question my loyalties and my principles of peace.
Are you surprised by this attack? Is it the first time?
Sadly no. Throughout years of work, I have come under attack from both sides, the Tamil and the Sinhalese. Being accused by both of siding with the other. I recall being attacked on stage during my speech at a peace rally in Colombo by Sinhalese extremists because I was talking about peace with the Tamil. In peacebuilding, this seems to be the case.
ICCPG claims “We understand Mrs Dharmadasa’s position has been that sexual violence by the military is just the work of a few rotten apples rather than “systematic crimes” implying that you do not care about sexual violence committed during the conflict.
My work for women in Sri Lanka speaks for itself. Again if Ms. Seevaratnam had looked into the facts, she would have known that one of my organization’s main missions is to protect women and girls. AWAW have done many fact-finding missions on sexual violence. It was AWAW that informed the authorities about the need for women officers in police stations. AWAW has also conducted workshops to all the 431 police stations including the 7 districts of North and East mainly on protection of Tamil women and girls.
Ms. Seevaratnam also says that “We understand Mrs Dharmadasa’s position has been that sexual violence by the military is just the work of a few rotten apples rather than systematic crimes.” I am not sure why she would “understand” such a thing, and what led her to this assumption. Again, my work with women and on the protection of women and girls, speaks for itself.
Seevaratnam needs to understand what peace building means. It is working with all sides and helping everyone no matter who they are, and this has been my work for decades. She says that I was not involved in the ceasefire agreement in 2002, the fact is, I was. My efforts brokered the ceasefire in September 2001 which was a unilateral ceasefire declared by the LTTE. The GOSL followed suit and the Norwegians came a little later and made it official by facilitating the drafting of the ceasefire agreement.
She also says Shavendra Silva, endorsed my organization in a speech to the UNGA. I would like to remind her that Silva was Deputy permanent representative of Sri Lanka for the UN and in that capacity he may have spoken of the Sri Lankan NGOs and mentioned AWAW but we had nothing to do with that.
I have dedicated my life to build peace in my country. I have worked with our Tamil communities for years. The late Mr.Varadhakumar who was heading the Tamil Information Center in London, invited me to speak during the war, in recognition of my work for both sides, where I addressed a 300 strong gathering of women at the Kingston upon Thames conference center.
Ms. Seevaratnam’s letter is unacceptable, particularly because it is based on false assumptions and judgments. For many years now I have tried to bring peace between my countrymen and women. I have been working with Tamil as well as Sinhalese mothers for years, looking for their missing family members, and supporting them. I am them and they are me. We all lost our children. She needs to understand that the “Us” and “Them” mentality is what will keep the fire of the conflict ablaze.