Civil rights struggles brought to light


By Brian Guttman

On Wednesday Skantha Skanthakumar, co-founder of the Illinois Tamil Human Rights Group, talked about the allegations of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

Held on the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and just four days before the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham, Ala., bombings, the event’s focus was to shed light on civil rights struggles abroad.

“We have to highlight countries and issues which are not really promoted in the world,” said Rey Ty, training coordinator for the NIU International Training Office.

The Department of philosophy, DeKalb Interfaith Network for Peace and Justice, and Amnesty International NIU sponsored the event to raise awareness of the situation in Sri Lanka.

“I hoped to see people talking, and they are. That’s the most important thing: If you can get people talking, they’ll talk to somebody else,” said Natalie Santiago, co-coordinator for the Amnesty International NIU chapter.

Since 2009, when the country’s 26-year civil war ended, the Sri Lankan government has been accused of having concentration camps, killing civilians and executing prisoners without a trial.

“Not many people have heard of it. Conservative estimates say that 20,000 people have been killed, and others would say 40, depending on what sources you read,” Ty said.

After Skanthakumar spent many years in America, the Sri Lankan civil war ended, but the violence did not. The accusations of genocide, which surfaced in 2009, inspired Skanthakumar to act.

“I felt guilty when I [saw] this many people die, and then I [saw] these kids were in the concentration camps,” he said. “Then I said this is going beyond me, right? So that’s the time I got involved. Till that, I mean I was participating, but not active.”

Skanthakumar was raised in Sri Lanka as part of the Tamil minority; the Sinhalese people account for 75 percent of the island’s populace. He was attacked May 11, 1983, at Peradeniya University by a Sinhalese student. In a similar incident, some of his fellow Tamil students were stripped and beaten in front of a police station.

The overall goal of the event was awareness, and Skanthakumar had a message for the youth of today: “Whenever there is an atrocity that happened, don’t keep silent.”