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Dr.Rajani Thiranagama
M.B.B.S(Colombo), Ph.D(Liverpool)
Head Dept of Anatomy, University of Jaffna

[Dr.Rajani Thiranagama, a mother of two and a courageous activist and a live wire of UTHR(J) was killed by a gunman on 21st September 1989]

Mission and statement of purpose

The University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) (UTHR(J)) was formed in 1988 at the University of Jaffna, as part of the national organisation University Teachers for Human Rights. Its public activities as a constituent part of university life came to a standstill following the murder of Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, a key founding member, on 21st September 1989. During the course of 1990 the others who identified openly with the UTHR(J) were forced to leave Jaffna. It continues to function as an organisation upholding the founding spirit of the UTHR(J) with it original aims: to challenge the external and internal terror engulfing the Tamil community as a whole through making the perpetrators accountable, and to create space for humanising the social & political spheres relating to the life of our community. The UTHR(J) is not at present functioning in the University of Jaffna in the manner it did in its early life for reasons well understood. (See Preface to Report No 1, Foreward to Special Report No 10)

Our reports deal with several aspects pertaining to violations and are very unorthodox as human rights documents. In order to clarify our position, we once more reiterate the purposes for which these reports are written:

  1. To document human rights violations by all forces in order to bring about general awareness and to make violators accountable.
  2. To bring out the human background to these violations through a portrayal of individual characters together with an analysis of social pressures and external circumstances governing their behaviour. We try to show that the characters involved, even in the worst violations, are often human, whose actions are governed by mislaid human potential, past choices and oppressive circumstances.Its an endevour to capture a narrative space for the people who were trapped in the conflict and in their name only many atrocities were justified by the protagonists
  3. To leave behind a historical record of this crucial part of our history. Since there is no space in our community to discuss and choose between different options,and the young especially are giving their life even without knowing our recent history, we feel it is necessary to leave a record. Moreover, in this country, we seem to suffer from historical amnesia combined with a moral vacuum, forcing us to re-live an unpleasant history again and again. We trust these records will also help benign minds who in the future would like to make a re- evaluation.
  4. As responsible members of an academic institution and citizens of our community, we would like to express our opinions and make room for free expression and an edifying debate. We also seek to highlight the untapped human potential in all communities in our country, for both internal regeneration and to make a success of living in one plural nation.

Sri Lanka, once a role model for third world democracies, is now for the last 20 years, a scene of obdurate violence and war ( See Broken Palmyra, The Tamil Secessionist Movement in Sri Lanka (Ceylon):A Case of Secession by Default? , Sri Lanka:The Arrogance of Power: Myths, Decadence & Murder on this site). The long simmering ethnic crisis, which metamorphosed into a full-scale war, has now gone through several phases. From 1956, the Tamil community was at the receiving end of several bouts of ethnically motivated violence that had the connivance of the State. This compounded the increasingly blatant discriminatory policies of the Sri Lankan State. Ethnicisation of the political landscape has resulted in a polarization that now appears difficult to disentangle.

The intransigence and opportunism of the Sinhalese polity in its turn gave boost to an insensitive Tamil nationalist politics that was high on rhetoric. The chauvinist camp among the Sinhalese capitalized on this, playing on the fears of the Sinhalese. Though a majority in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese are in relation to the Tamils a minority in the region. Both communities had launched into a confrontational political course and for both internal and external reasons, the rights of the Tamils and their quality of life suffered progressive degradation.

The armed struggle of Tamil youth to achieve a separate state, which commenced in the 1970s, attracted an unprecedented number of Tamil youth to its banner following the government sponsored pogrom of July 1983 which left about 2000 Tamils dead. India, fearing the Sri Lankan government's canvassing of Western military assistance, provided arms and training to the Tamil militants. Various militant formations sprang up. The internal and internecine killings by the militant groups, introduced a new horrifying dynamism that altogether changed the character of the struggle.

The continuing war thus resulted in the dehumanization of our society resulting in a violent political culture Human rights violations are carried out by all parties without any accountability ie. the state, armed militant groups and paramilitary forces with the connivance of the State ( See some thoughts on armed oppostional groups).

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) achieved its dominance in 1986 after decimating other militant groups. In the meantime the Sri Lankan Army gaining upper hand in consequence was on the verge of capturing Jaffna (in the North).The first half of 1987 was a period of intense hostilities between the Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE. Jaffna was continually subject to bombing and shelling. The arrival of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in August 1987 led to a brief peace.

The ordinary Tamil people had reposed hope in the direct Indian intervention of 1987. That hope gave way to shock and bewilderment, when the intervention failed, giving way to full-scale war. The feeling of powerlessness and nakedness among the civilian community was overwhelming. At the University, a number of us took the initiative to mobilize the university community to work for democratic alternatives to the violent snare that was consuming us. The first internal effort resulted in the book, The Broken Palmyra, describing the plight of the people. It touched various aspects of the conflict, describing the roles of all actors and was based on information we were able to collect through students, colleagues and others. We published the book openly putting our names to it.

In the meantime unprecedented human rights violations were also occurring in the South of the country in connection with the JVP uprising and the UTHR(J) was born in mid-1988 as the local chapter of a countrywide organization launched to address these issues.

The UTHR(J) began publishing reports on human rights violations in 1988 from the University of Jaffna. Although it started as a branch of the national organisation, it is still continuing to function against several odds, long after the national organisation ceased to function.

During this period the LTTE was at war, not only with the IPKF, but with all alternative voices in the Tamil community as well. In time the war displaced almost two thirds of the community in the Jaffna peninsula. The LTTE engaged in brutal acts of torture and assassination in its struggle for hegemony within the Tamil community. The Indian army, in turn, was responsible for its own brand of terror, with widespread violations and killings of civilians. The few independent institutions in civil society that could have given voice to the concerns of the common people were paralysed by fear.

The University of Jaffna faced the challenging task of maintaining its independence in the face of external and internal terror. We initiated a novel action committee with support from colleagues - including academic and non-academic staff, as well as students. The traditional university fora -- faculties, senate and council - still functioned, but focussed narrowly on academic and administrative matters. The action committee became the primary forum for addressing the day-to-day problems of living with the war. It succeeded to some extent in rebuilding the community spirit, at least within the university community.

It also sent a signal to the IPKF and the LTTE, demonstrating that the community still retained a measure of dignity and courage. But while it had some effect on the IPKF, the LTTE was intent on disrupting the life of the Tamil community and rupturing its civil society. They came head on to suppress the University's hard earned independence, in their effort to shut down all educational institutions. The students, with their newly regained sense of responsibility, articulated the need to keep the University open in the common interest of the community. The University thus succeeded in asserting itself as an institution in which alternatives could be aired openly.

The new Indian government of V.P.Singh announced the withdrawal of the IPKF on September 20, 1989. The very next day, we were given the most grim indicator of what was to follow: The LTTE assassinated Dr.Rajani Thiranagama, a founder activist of the UTHR(J), the head of the Anatomy Department and one of the four who co-authored 'The Broken Palmyra'. After the withdrawal of the Indian forces in 1990, the LTTE became the de-facto state in the Northern Province. It secured its control of Jaffna through concerted suppression of internal dissent through detention, torture and executions [see Report 10].

The war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan forces resumed full scale in June 1990 and with it the LTTE crackdown on dissent intensified. Many of those associated with the UTHR(J) fled Jaffna - including the other founding members of the UTHR(J) -- or ceased from open political activity. The last person to remain and be openly engaged in monitoring had to leave in September 1990, when there was an attempt to arrest him. All those who helped him to escape were later arrested by the LTTE and imprisoned for several months.

With the UTHR[J] moving operations to the South, Jaffna lost its last organisation for open political dissent. There was a continuance of individual acts of resistance that persevered against severe odds; but the LTTE succeeded in crushing all organized collective effort.

In August 1991, two students, Manoharan and Selvy (Selvanithi alias Chelvi) who had been close to the UTHR(J) were detained by the LTTE and have since disappeared. Chelvy was a poet and recipient of awards from International Pen and Poetry International. Her disappearance attracted considerable international attention, but there has been no official confirmation of what happened to her.

By combination of internal terror and narrow nationalist ideology the LTTE succeeded in atomizing the community. It took away not only the right to oppose but even the right to evaluate, as a community, the course they were taking. This gives a semblance of illusion that the whole society is behind the LTTE. Since the UTHR(J) was part of the initiative in trying to open up space in the University, many sharing its aims associated with it openly in the early days. This was until Rajani Thiranagama was killed. Abandoning and winding up the UTHR(J) now would mean capitulating of the oppressor. We therefore felt that it is essential to continue with the reports under the same name, although we had been forced to leave the University of Jaffna [See Report 11, Appendix].

Accusations that no one in the University of Jaffna is at present associated with the UTHR(J), only highlights the stark reality of a terrorized political environment. Its says volumes about the internal terror which paralysed the community rather than diminishing the legitimacy of the UTHR(J). After years of terror and paralysis in the mis-1980s, the University re-established its role during the short period following the Indo-Lanka Accord and functioned as a vibrant institution with the students and staff regaining their dignity. The killing of Rajani Thiranagama was the first step in pushing the University back to the dark days of 1985-86. Acquiescing in that terror and disbanding the UTHR(J) would have nullified the sacrifices made by many. We continue to use the name as guardians of the legacy and values born through the sacrifice of several others directly and indirectly associated with us.

The work of UTHR(J) received over the years support from friends, colleagues, and various International NGOs, including the European Human Rights Foundation.




January, 2000

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Copyright © UTHR 2001