Sunila - A Tribute to an indefatigable defender of human dignity

"What does it mean to call a country democratic when government critics are exiled and branded terrorists? Who decides what is patriotic and what is not? Whose voices are actually being heard? Whose rights are really being protected?"

-- Sunila Abeysekera, interviewed by Kiri Westby, Huff Post World, 10/22/2012

The last time I saw Sunila was on October 2, 2012, when she visited the Norwegian University of Life Sciences to speak on Women’s situation and human rights under militarisation of society: the case of Sri Lanka and personal experience as a ‘Scholar at Risk (SAT)’. She had sent me a mail about her visit to Norway although I already knew about it from university sources, and was looking forward to seeing her on the campus at Aas. She was a guest of the ‘Norway Section of SAT’, which is a network of several universities and university colleges in Norway. At the time, Sunila was based at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, of which she was an alumna. We had not met for some years and it was nice to see Sunila in her cheerful self during a chat before her talk. After the talk, while having lunch in the university’s main cafeteria, she did tell me and a couple of colleagues about her illness. We had hoped it was treatable.

Sunila gave an excellent talk which was followed by a lively discussion. Among the audience were many Norwegian and international graduate students and university teachers. She focused on the continuing militarization and violations of human rights and on the vulnerabilities of women in post-war Sri Lanka. She was critical of both the government and the LTTE. She highlighted the regime’s persecution of journalists and defenders of human rights and democratic freedoms. She also recalled the days when Mahinda Rajapakse, as an opposition politician, worked closely with activists like her to campaign against the UNP government’s abuse of human rights in the 1980s. Sunila was analytical, convincing and passionate in her defence of the Lankan people’s democratic rights against the repressive regime led by the same Mahinda Rajapakse, now as the all-powerful executive president of the country.

I first met Sunila in the 1970s, when she was already famous as a versatile artist. She was young and urbane. I knew her father Charles, the renowned human rights activist and refined intellectual, as the head of the institution I worked for in the 1970s and, more importantly, as a close friend. Sunila was getting more involved in politics as a feminist and an active supporter of the JVP. She was a star singer in JVP’s ‘Vimukthi Gee’ shows. But soon she left the JVP and turned into an ardent campaigner for human rights since the 1980s. Sunila chose to be a human rights activist at a time when the country’s political landscape was being redrawn by ethnic polarisation, armed conflict, neoliberal economic policies, suppression of workers’ rights, and rising authoritarianism. The left movement was badly splintered and weak. Civil society was under continuous assault and local human rights groups were being subjected to various forms of harassment.

On the other hand, internationally, the emerging human rights discourse was being challenged by feminists and other radical critics. Feminists in the West criticised international human rights law for its patriarchal bias against women. Third world feminists criticised the human rights discourse including the law for its neglect of the problems faced by women in the global South. These interventions led to a broadening of the scope and interpretations of human rights. On international issues of human rights, the radical left has, at times, found itself in a dilemma best captured by Slavoj Zizek’s phrase ‘double blackmail’, for example, ‘if you are against NATO strikes, you are for Milosevic's proto-Fascist regime of ethnic cleansing, and if you are against Milosevic, you support the global capitalist New World Order’ (Zizek, New Left Review, March-April 1999). However, for a leftist the struggle for human rights is a part of the larger and longer struggle for social equality and democracy. Leftists support struggles for human rights while being aware of the limitations of liberal international human rights discourse and activism, and with a commitment to build a radical democratic political culture. Indeed, the human rights discourse today is not monolithic but multi-stranded. Perhaps, it would be more correct to say that there are competing human rights discourses. I am not sure where Sunila stood on the debates on human rights but her speeches and activism showed that she subscribed to a gender-sensitive and more inclusive view of human rights.

Sunila was labelled a traitor by the state-controlled media for supporting the UNHRC resolution calling for reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka in 2012. She was vilified by her detractors. But Sunila was a person of courage and conviction. She condemned the violations committed not only by the state’s armed forces and its paramilitary allies but also by the LTTE. She was able to rise above ethnic and religious divides in a deeply communalised society because of her universal values of human rights and human dignity.   She was sensitive to the injustices perpetrated by the majoritarian ethnocratic regime in Lanka. She was unafraid to raise her voice against chauvinism and authoritarianism, although the personal consequences of sticking to democratic principles were obvious. 

Most tragically for the peoples of Lanka, the end of the war did not signal the beginning of a democratic revival or restoration of human rights. What followed was an upsurge of majoritarian triumphalism, more militarisation, undiminished impunity and a witch hunt against human rights activists and independent journalists. Sunila had to leave the country for reasons of personal security. She continued to play her role while fighting cancer. She moved back to Lanka and spent her last days with her loved ones. Sunila lost her fight against cancer but she did not give up her fight for human rights and human dignity.  As we mourn her death let us celebrate her undying spirit of struggle. 


N. Shanmugaratnam is emeritus Professor of Development Studies, in the Department of International Environment & Development Studies, at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB). Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


More articles by N.Shanmugaratnam:

Reflections on land and the national question in Sri Lanka