Remembering Sunila Abeysekera, singer, fighter, writer, and leader whose commitment to human rights drew her to the centre of all social movements struggling for rights
By Vasanth Kannabiran
Sunila is gone. It is hard to imagine or accept the fact that we will not see her smile again, see her honeyed eyes sparkle as her brilliant smile embraced you. Hard to accept that the humour and warmth she radiated in the movement is gone. She was special and beautiful. A beauty that sprang from the life she had led, the struggles she had led, the passion and compassion that engulfed her.
I met Sunila for the first time in Bangalore with Subha, a suckling child in her arms. Her clarity and keen vision were striking then as later when it was honed over the years. Her interventions, her songs, her presence were such a pleasure to the whole South Asian group meeting there. She was then the younger woman to many of us looking fondly on her. Fresh from doing her Masters in The Hague she said how different it was to be with a small child in this group and how alone she felt at times despite supporting friends abroad. And her thank you included a thank you for welcoming Subha. After that we met time and again and she visited us at New Jersey when she was with the Global Center and my grand daughter Ramya was just born. She always asked about her warmly for years after.
Born in 1952 in Sri Lanka, Sunila was active in the Women’s Human Rights movement. She worked unceasingly for peace, reconciliation, and freedom of the press. She fervently believed that “all human beings are inherently entitled to all human rights” and was an active member of the Free Media Movement. She intervened at multiple levels to protect and ascertain the freedom of the press. As an artist and singer she saw that the freedom of art is indivisibly linked to the freedom of the press.
As an anti war activist she was firmly opposed to military solutions to ethnic issues. She held dialogues with men and women in war afflicted areas at a practical level. Her commitment to human rights drew her to the centre of all social movements struggling for rights. Part of the Women and Media Collective in Sri Lanka, Sunila worked tirelessly to end violence against women and strengthen women politically. She worked with cultural groups to develop ways of expressing new and radical ideas through art.
Sunila was a well-known and active through the South Asian region and internationally. She was an activist who also was a scholar. She reconceptualised the nation state – looking at principles of good governance from a feminist perspective, addressing problems of representation and employing critical cultural theory.
Her contribution was acknowledged by the UN Human Rights Award she received in 1999.
She was an actor, a singer, a fighter, a writer, and a leader. Her struggles made her indispensable on every front. Living in strife torn Sri Lanka and speaking of human rights made her vulnerable and open to attack. But her involvement with the Mother’s committees, her work with feminist and human rights groups, her fearless honesty in appraising the situation in a land torn apart set her apart.
I remember asking her once how she managed so many children in the house. She laughed and said it was easy, “just stock lots of food and don’t get paranoid about a tidy house. Then it’s easy for everyone.” Sunila’s house was home to all her friend’s children, friends who were traveling, had disappeared or were gone.
I remember the last time I spent a day with her in her home in Colombo. We were lounging drinking beer and chatting, the sun slanting in through the window. Several young people walked in and Sunila greeted them with a warm smile. She then told me that the kids who were now scattered across the world would always drop in on Sunday if in Colombo. They were sure to meet any of the siblings who happened to be in Colombo at that time. I remember the large pots of hot rice and curry sitting warmly welcoming the children to the table. It was one of the most heart warming days in my life.
Sunila’s house was as large, warm, generous and welcoming as her heart. They don’t make that model any more. Sunila might live on in all our hearts but she is gone and the poorer we are for bread and roses.
A life well lived, rich with meaning, suffering, joy and sorrow. And with no regrets.
Vsanth Kannabiran is a feminist writer and activist
Featured photo courtesy: www.1000peacewomen.org.