Kopalasingham Sritharan is a Tamil Human Rights defender and co-founder of the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) at Jaffna University in 1988.
Sritharan, along with UTHR co-founder Rajan Hoole, founded the UTHR in order to document human rights violations committed since the Sri Lankan civil war began in 1983 – a conflict often falsely perceived as a struggle between the minority Tamils of the north and majority Sinhalese of the south.
Both Sritharan and Hoole have spent more than two decades documenting human rights violations committed in Sri Lanka, albeit from abroad since 1990, after coming under attack by both the Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Sri Lankan government, soon after publishing their first reports.
One of Sritharan’s first reports, written alongside with Hoole and another colleague, Daya Somasundaram, The Broken Palmyra, is a seminal narrative documenting human rights violations committed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lankan government forces and the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF).
After the report got into the hands of the LTTE, members of the UTHR quickly came under threat and the attacks soon became serious – culminating in the assassination of UTHR’s founder, Dr. Rajani Thirangama in 1989.
A year later, Sritharan found himself hiding in a truck carrying onions, on his way out of Jaffna. He has never returned.
Sritharan, along with Hoole, continued to document human rights violations in Sri Lanka albeit from underground and abroad. The total number of killings as a part of the Sri Lankan conflict between 1983 and 2009 is estimated to be between 80000 and 100,000.
Sritharan maintains that the problems exist mainly on a political level.
“There is no hatred between these two communities,” he says, “the reality is that the Tamil simply do not trust the Sri Lanka political establishment, and the Sinhalese do not trust the Tamil political establishment.
Otherwise, “Tamils and Sinhalese live together, they marry each other. [There is] no hatred,” he says.
Despite decades living in the shadow of death threats, Sritharan’s “critical voice” has not be silenced.
“Human rights is not a tactical weapon as a law,” believes Sritharan, “it’s about human dignity.”
Sritharan’s decades-long sacrifices and unrelenting efforts earned him the 2007 Martin Ennals Award along with his colleague Rajan Hoole.
Sritharan now lives in Toronto, Canada – a somewhat quiet existence compared to the years in the underground. The struggle has now become the return to ‘normality’.
Nonetheless, Sritharan continues to strategize to help empower the Tamil community, and has not stopped writing reports urging the LTTE and the government to be accountable for their actions.
The first steps towards reconciliation can only come, according to Sritharan, once “the Tamils can work with, and criticize, the government, if they want to, without being killed.”