Winchester High School senior fights for human rights in Sri Lanka
By Brad Petrishen/Staff Writer
Sat Sep 05, 2009, 10:30 AM EDT
Winchester, MA – At first glance, Priya Suntharalingam, a slender, polite, 17-year-old Winchester High School senior, is not a particularly physically imposing figure.
Politically, however, she is becoming a major force in the movement of numerous human rights organizations to publicize what they believe to be gross atrocities taking place on the war-torn island nation of Sri Lanka.
A member of the People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL), Suntharalingam was one of eight Americans who went on a 12-day hunger strike to bring awareness to what she believes is genocide taking place in the country.
“There are 300,000 people interned in camps, innocent civilians, and they need to be freed immediately,” Suntharalingam told a group of Tamils who gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston last Saturday to discuss the issue. “Thousands are dying every day.”
According to an event handout, since the British left Sri Lanka in 1948, conflict has abounded on the island between the two main peoples, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, who differ in language, religion and customs.
The Sinhalese constitute the majority, and since independence have gradually enacted legislation that restricted the freedoms and quality of life for Tamils, Suntharalingam said.
Since 1983, she said Tamils, whom the government deemed terrorists (“Tamil Tigers”), have been fighting for independence from the Sinhalese.
Suntharalingam’s connection to the issue runs deep. Though her mother, a Tamil, came to America after getting married, Suntharalingam said she feels responsibility to all her relatives who have suffered and are still suffering.
“My uncle was abducted when he was 12, and taken to a camp and tortured because they said he was a Tamil Tiger,” she said. “In order to get him to talk, they tied him upside down, put his head in a can of gasoline and beat him.”
Suntharalingam said her uncle managed to escape his captors and the country, but says she can’t sit by and let the same thing happen to other Tamils without taking action.
Faces in the crowd
Audience member Thaya Paramanathan has experienced firsthand too much of what Suntharalingam, who was born in the United States, has only seen and heard.
Like many Americans, Paramanathan recently graduated from Northeastern University on a scholarship.
The similarities end there.
“When I was 10 years old, my whole house was burned to ashes,” he said. “When I grew up in Jaffna, which isn’t even in the war zone, I didn’t have much. I didn’t even have Coke or chocolate. It wasn’t allowed.”
Paramanathan said he was lucky to get a scholarship and come to the United States.
“When I got here, I drank a lot of Coke and ate a lot of chocolate,” he said, adding that he feels guilty when he thinks of his parents, whom he said are still stuck in a country in which they cannot enjoy the same freedoms.
“My parents are in Jaffna, which is much safer than the war zone,” he said. “But still, when I visited the capitol last year for a wedding, I could not see them because travel to the north is prohibited.
“I feel very guilty, because they are suffering there, and I have freedom here. But, for my own sake, they said they never want me to come back.”
A different perspective
Also in attendance at the meeting was Thusith Mahanama, who said he was probably the only Sinhalese Sri Lankan in the room.
Mahanama, now the CEO of a Boston-based software company, grew up in Sri Lanka without many of the hardships faced by those surrounding him, and said he is trying to do all he can to help.
“What happened, happened,” he said after the event. “It’s in the past, almost like slavery in America, and … we need to cut through that and meet as humans.”
To that end, Mahanama has started a Web site, srilankansforunity.org, through which he hopes to bring members of the two groups together.
“I have many Tamil friends and coworkers, and I don’t even think of them as Tamil,” he said. “I think what’s happened is a broad socio-economic problem. It’s time to go beyond anger and disunity so that citizens of Sri Lanka can move forward as one voice.”
Mahanama said he believes the country can survive without splitting in two — a sentiment not shared by Paramanathan.
“I think only a two-state solution is viable,” said Paramanathan. “We’ve seen what’s happened over the past 50 years. It hasn’t worked out.”
Mahanama admitted much in the country must change before trust can be built.
“I agree that the problem of the [internment camps] needs to be solved,” he said, adding that he did not believe, however, that any form of genocide was occurring.
“For the 300,000 people who are in camps, there are 1.7 million who are not,” he said, adding that the United States government would not be providing aid to the Sri Lankan government if it suspected it of slaughtering the IDPs (internally displaced persons) for whom the money is intended.
According to an Aug. 19 press release from the U.S. embassy in Sri Lanka, the government has given $8 million in aid this year to Sri Lanka to “support the welfare and safety of IDPs until they can return to their homes.”
Human rights groups, however, believe that IDPs are being treated inhumanely, and the debate has been sparked further on the heels of a crudely shot video that depicts savage beatings and executions of Tamils supposedly carried out by the Sri Lankan government.
“It’s genocide,” Suntharalingam insisted, adding that the atrocities she believes are being committed are what sustained her during the hunger strike — so much so that she had to be force-fed by her mother, who feared for her health, putting an end to the strike.
“Most people say hunger strikes are useless,” she said. “But this one had results.”
Indeed, media accounts of the strike prompted Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) to invite her to Washington, D.C. over the summer, as his personal guest while the senate discussed the issues in Sri Lanka.
She vowed to continue to fight for what she believes is right, and plans on holding a number of events at Winchester High this year to raise awareness among classmates.
“That could be me over there,” she said earnestly. “I feel it’s my obligation to use my luxury of freedom to speak out against such atrocities.”
She urged other similarly minded people to visit www.pearlaction.org.