A life well lived with courage and compassion

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By Groundviews

Sri Lanka has lost a fearless and compassionate human rights defender in Manouri Muttetuwegama, who devoted her life to ease the suffering of those in pain. Born into a political family as the daughter of Colvin R. de Silva, Manouri went on to marry a champion of the left, Sarath Muttetuwegama. Despite the personal tragedies of losing her husband and later her son, Manouri – called Aunty Manouri by people of all generations – continued her passionate fight until the end as a steadfast voice for truth, justice and reconciliation, always with a ready smile and a twinkling eye.

Tributes have been pouring in on social media since the news of her demise. Here are some of them:

“Few individuals from civil society and the political realm in Sri Lanka will be remembered for their unique role in the efforts towards providing victims acknowledgement and treating them with dignity, as party of a larger struggle to build confidence between citizens and state. Her life and career were devoted to ensuring that institutions did not humiliate citizens and citizens did not humiliate each other. She will be sorely missed, endearingly remembered, and honoured by many for her forthrightness, fighting spirit of the oppressed and her abiding compassion.” Former members of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms.

“Manouri Muttetuwegama, a long-time crusader for human rights and justice, who worked on issues spanning different political regimes and ethnicities, passed away on Wednesday. She came from a formidable political legacy, and leaves behind her own.” Meera Srinivasan, Hindu Correspondent.

“We are deeply saddened by the demise of a passionate seeker of justice, Manouri Muttetuwegama, chairperson of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms & head of the presidential commission that probed all-island disappearances.” Journalists for Democracy Sri Lanka.

“Manouri Muttetuwegama, serving on several commissions into #SriLanka’s violence, was witness to thousands of victim testimonies of suffering and injustice. It is less well known that she championed mental health and psychosocial services for survivors. She is deeply mourned.” Ananda Galappatti, social activist.

“A great loss for #humanrights community in #lka. Manouri Muttetuwegama’s work with Commissions on Disappearances, Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms & @HRCSriLanka was instrumental in moving forward conversations on transitional justice & dealing with the past.” Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, UN Resident Coordinator.

“Indomitable.  Fearless.  Compassionate.  Passionate.  Inspiring. Just some of the words that I saw today describing Manouri Muttetuwegama in the outpouring of grief that has been shared on social media since her passing.  Certainly, she was all that and more.  But to many, she was simply ‘Aunty Manouri’. When I participated in a workshop organized by the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation some years ago, I noticed that she was called Aunty Manouri by everyone there – from the youngest to the oldest.  I remember feeling slightly indignant – how did she become ‘aunty’ to all these people I grumbled. She is our Aunty Manouri. But that was just it.  She was Aunty Manouri to thousands. Accessible, available and supportive. She sat on some of the most difficult commissions this country has seen. She must have listened to thousands of stories – of death, disappearances and torture. Long after the commissions ended and the reports forgotten – she never forgot – she fought for justice and she supported all those who fought for justice to the end.  I often wanted to ask her how she coped with all that sadness that she had to carry, that she witnessed. But I was too nervous to ask her – it felt like I would be digging too deep into something I could not possibly understand.   I didn’t see or talk to her much.  But she was a presence. And now there is a big hole in the world. I doubt anyone can fill it.” Harini Amarasuriya, MP.

“Manouri Muttetuwegama will continue to live on in the hearts and minds of the many people she helped and loved: you were always a great source of inspiration for me over the years. Despite our earthly loss, the angels are rejoicing that a truly worthy soul has joined them.” Mangala Samaraweera, former Minister.

“Saddened at the passing away of Mrs. Manouri Muttettuwegama, Senior Attorney-at-Law. Whilst she was the daughter of Dr. Colvin. R. de Silva and wife of Sarath Muttettuwegama M.P., in her own right she was an outstanding character, speaking up for the downtrodden and oppressed. She chaired the Presidential Commission into Disappearances which occurred during the 1987-89 years, was a member of the Human Rights Commission and the Chairperson of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms. No doubt the tragic deaths of her husband and son built in her the capacity to understand the pain and suffering of others, especially of women. She felt deeply about the missing, the plight of their families and their quest for the truth. She was a strong advocate for human rights, the rule of law and of the need to strengthen independent institutions within our country. In 2018 when I was appointed Chair of the Office on Missing Persons she dropped in to see me at home to wish me. One day I told her that my wife was named after her. My father-in-law was a card-carrying member of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and worked for Dr. Colvin R. de Silva. In August 2019 she was the Chief Guest at the OMP commemoration of the International Day of the Disappeared. Despite her frail health, she made an inspiring speech encouraging the families of the missing not to despair. When she heard that I was contesting for the BASL elections in February she called me several times encouraging me and wishing me well. She was always happy to see the Bar take principled positions on issues. Our deepest sympathies to her daughter Ramani Muttettuwegama, who was a member of the HRC and the precedent partner at Neelan Thiruchelvam Associates. May she attain Nirvana.” Saliya Pieris, President Bar Association.

“A feminist to its truest sense, she led the Women Lawyers’ Movement in the 1970s and 1980s. She served as former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission and also chaired the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms established in 2015. She was a relentless advocate for the rights of those who are missing and have disappeared. She chaired the Commissions of Inquiry into the Involuntary Removal or Disappearance of Persons, commonly known as the Muttetuwegama Commission, recognized how the excessive power of the state and the claim that “all dissenters are traitors” contributed to the emergence of violent anti-government movements. She is a trailblazer. An icon of peace and reconciliation. A voice for Sri Lanka’s war widows. She believed in the youth and their power to make a difference in times of adversity. She prioritized the needs of the common person. Today, we remember her, in solidarity with what she wanted Sri Lanka to be — a nation that is inclusive, a place where everyone can live with dignity and in peace, a Sri Lanka that belongs to all of us.” Hashtag Generation.

-Originally featured on groundviews.org

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