Iranaitheevu; a year of continuous protests to regain Navy-occupied land

First published at http://groundviews.org/2018/04/20/iranaitheevu-a-year-of-continuous-protests-to-regain-navy-occupied-land/ on 20th April 2018

After the election of the new government in 2015, the people of Iranaitheevu, forcibly displaced since 1992, finally thought they would be able to return home. Yet a flurry of letters and high-level meetings with government officials and politicians in 2016 and 2017 didn’t bring any results. In desperation, the community took the difficult decision to begin a continuous roadside protest on 1st May 2017. Almost a year later, they are still fighting.

History

Iranaitheevu is a pair of twin islands situated in the Palk Strait, belonging to the Poonekary Division of the Kilinochchi District in the Northern Province in Sri Lanka. A channel of sea water runs between the Big Island (Perum Theevu) and Small Island (Sirum Theevu).

According to an official survey map of 1982, 143 plots of land were demarcated in the larger island of Perum Theevu and 35 plots in the smaller island of Sirum Theevu. Villagers trace the island’s history to about 200 years, pointing out an old watch tower from 1886. At the time of first displacement, around 125 stone houses, 6 wells for drinking water, a health center, a school and 2 churches were reported to have been on the island.

Fishing was traditionally the main source of income, with men going to sea and women engaging in shore-based fishing practices, such as harvesting sea cucumbers and crabs, with both men and women contributing to the family income. Families also reared livestock, including cows and goats, engaged in cash crop cultivation of onions, chilies and manioc, and cultivated coconut trees. The island waters are rich in limestone, providing a rich breeding ground for a wide variety of fish species and base material to build houses on the islands as well as on the mainland. Islanders had trading and socio-cultural relationships with people in areas in Southern Sri Lanka like Negombo, from where a Catholic Priest had reportedly visited the island for church services.

War and Displacement

The first major displacement occurred in 1992, when there were about 200 families displaced to mainland due to the war. Since then, the Navy had occupied the island, providing sporadic and limited access to the villagers until 2007. Islanders were again displaced multiple times from 2007 throughout the last phase of the war. Those who survived were detained in Menik farm, in Vavuniya district. They were eventually released and allowed to return to where they had lived in displacement in Iranaimathaanagar, near Mulankavil, one of the closest mainland points to their island. But since this last round of displacement in 2007, the Navy has prohibited them from returning or even freely accessing their traditional islands.

Following negotiations with the Navy, the people are now allowed to travel to a restricted coastline of the island for fishing, but they are not allowed to stay overnight. Traveling daily between the island and the mainland has dramatically increased the cost of fishing. Furthermore women from Iranaitheevu who used to engage in coastal fishing are unable to do so now and are without work. Family incomes have suffered, particularly those of women-headed households. The rising cost of fuel and decreasing marine resources caused by illegal fishing from Indian trawlers in Northern waters has also drastically affected incomes of fishing families.

The only time of the year residents have been allowed visit the island since 2007 is for a pilgrimage to the Church during Lent season, usually a day in February or March. One woman narrated a story in which on one such occasion, there was a storm on the sea and the people asked the Navy to allow them to camp on the islands overnight to wait for the storm to pass. But the Navy had refused, and compelled the islanders and their children to take the treacherous journey back home across the rough seas. During this year’s pilgrimage, people’s freedom of movement was restricted and severe inconveniences caused to the people by the Navy, despite the Parish Priest having obtained prior permission for people to stay in the island for three days for the traditional Lenten church services.

The Fisheries Cooperative

The Iranaitheevu Fisher Cooperative had been a thriving institution, functioning on membership contributions when the fish harvest was plentiful. It played a huge role in the well-being of the community and most of the stone houses on the island were built with subsidies from the Cooperative, but today it finds itself struggling to meet its daily expenses.

The Cooperative structure, with its democratically elected leadership, also ensured the island’s resources were sustained and developed for the use of future generations. But recently, individual fishermen from outside the area have been given access by the Navy to fish and profit off of the island’s resources. This has led to a breakdown of community checks against profit driven exploitation of natural resources and has further fostered a strong sense of injustice among the islanders as they’re being deprived of their islands’ resources. The Navy has also been making allegations of drug possession against the original inhabitants of Iranaitheevu. But according to villagers, no one has been arrested nor has any boat been withheld by Courts for possessing illegal substances.

Struggles to return home: the paper trail

Since their return to Iranaimathaanagar in late 2009, the people have made several attempts to reclaim their lands. These intensified after the election of the new government in 2015. But despite continued communication and protests, leading to some vague assurances at different points from high levels of the government that they would be able to return home, they have still not had definitive answers.

Efforts included appeals to the Northern Province Chief Minister, who had appealed on their behalf to the Resettlement Minister; an appeal to a local MP Vijayakala Maheswaran, who had appealed on their behalf to the Prime Minister; and an appeal to the European Union Delegation in Sri Lanka that had also appealed to the Resettlement Minister on their behalf. Finally, they appealed twice in 2017 directly to the President.

Continuous protests from 1st May 2017 and promises broken

On 1st May 2017, in the absence of any clear information about when they could resettle, the people commenced a continuous protest in Iranaimathaanagar. They also took the protests to Poonakari, Kilinochchi and even Colombo. A community leader also attended 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, to highlight their ongoing struggle to resettle in Iranaitheevu and seek international support.

These efforts, especially the protests, led to series of meetings and discussions between the Iranaitheevu community leaders with staff at the Presidential Secretariat, the State Minister of Defense, local MP Vijakala Maheswaran, the District Secretary of Kilinochchi, the Divisional Secretary of Poonakari, Navy officials and also with a Parliamentarian and members of the small Marxist party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

An outcome of these efforts was officials of the Survey Department visiting the island in Sept. – Oct. 2017. But no information has been provided to the people about results or follow up actions. No information has also been provided to the people about response of the Kilinochchi District Secretary to a request by the Resettlement Ministry in March 2016 to “submit detailed report regarding the resettlement of Iranaitheevu Island, including the tentative cost estimate, as early as possible” or a letter from an Additional Secretary to the President to the Defense Ministry in August 2017, asking “to take appropriate action”. Nor has any update been provided about the promise made by the State Minister of Defense to discuss resettlement in Iranaitheevu ith the President and find answers.

Waiting to go home

Currently there are approximately 400 families living on the mainland nearest the islands in Iranaimathanagar. Around 95 are women-headed households.

Despite their displacement for almost 25 years, the people remain deeply attached to their island. The literal translation of ‘Iranaimathanagar’, to which most families were displaced in 2007, means ‘the mother city of Iranai’. The official Grama Niladari Division number is still retained and the Sub Post Office, the government school and the Fisheries Cooperative all carry the name of Iranaitheevu despite their physical structures currently standing in Iranaimathanagar.

The people’s demands are simple. They want unrestricted access to Iranaitheevu, to settle there permanently to engage in fishing, cultivation and maintaining livestock as they did before their forced displacement. They have not asked for the total removal of the Navy, but are seeking the release of people’s lands which have been occupied by the Navy and for action to be taken to prevent island resources from being misused and exploited by people accessing them illegally.

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Crippling civic organising, mobilising and resistance through Draft Amendment to the Act on NGOs

First published on 22nd March 2018 at http://groundviews.org/2018/03/22/crippling-civic-organising-mobilising-and-resistance-through-draft-ngo-act-amendment/

The author gratefully acknowledges insights and input from Attorney-at-law Ermiza Tegal.

On February 20, 2018, the Cabinet decided to publish the repressive Draft Act to Amend the Voluntary Social Service Organizations (Registration and Supervision) Act no. 31 of 1980 (LDO 32/2011) to a gazette and present it to Parliament for approval. As usual, the drafting has been done in secret with no consultations. To the best of my knowledge, the draft Act has not been made publicly available by the Government.[1]

In the face of mounting pressure and questions, today, more than a month after he had presented this draft Act to the Cabinet, Minister Mano Ganesan had belatedly committed to have a consultation with civil society on April 10, 2018 and assured that it won’t be gazettedpending observations at this consultation.[2] This is the same Minister who stated last year that he doesn’t “see any serious reason to regulate NGOs in this country” and that he doesn’t want to use the word, ‘Regulation’.[3]

The draft’s foremost stated purpose is “regulate, supervise & inspect” NGOs through a legalised “National Secretariat for NGOs (Hereafter referred to as the Secretariat)” under an unspecified Ministry. The Secretariat has investigative powers and assumes and duplicates functions of the Police. The extraordinary and excessive powers given to the Secretariat directly infringe on Freedom of Association, Freedom of expression, Freedom of Thought, Conscience & Belief and Right to Privacy. The draft gives the Director General of the Secretariat, the Minister in charge and the Ministry’s Secretary unprecedented control over any grouping defined as a NGO. It comes in the context of reporting and approval requirement currently in place for NGOs, having created a culture and expectations in the districts that NGOs have to be subservient to the local government officials.

Making collectives illegal and crippling independent civic organising and mobilising

The draft tries to capture a broad range of collectives or groups in it’s definition of an NGO[4]and compels them to register and obtain approval from the Secretariat for it’s existence, or become illegal. There are only very few exceptions.[5] This definition and compulsory registration and approval may bring under the Secretariat’s control or render illegal, groups promoting and protecting rights and interests of their members, formal and informal grouping of individuals, groups receiving funding or working voluntarily, movements that may be temporary or permanent and groups involved in initiatives of social entrepreneurship, public-private partnerships etc. It strikes at independent organising and mobilising initiatives and makes very vulnerable those campaigning on repealing or changing unjust laws, such as ones related to gender and sexuality and the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Practically, if this draft is enacted, it may bring under its control or render illegal existing civic groups such as Purawesi Balaya (Citizens Power), National Movement for Just Society (NMJS), Lawyers for Democracy (LfD), Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF), Student Unions, Peoples Alliance for Right to Land (PARL), Peoples Movement against Port City, Women’s Action Network (WAN), movements of Relatives of Disappeared etc. One wonders whether groups such as the “Civil Monitoring Commission” initiated and led by Minister Mano Ganesan and others during the Rajapakse regime and “Mothers Front” led by Minister Mangala Samaraweera and others during Premadasa regime, as well as movements of the past such as Movement to Protect Eppawala Phospate Deposits, Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) and University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) would have been willing to subject themselves to such controls.

Arbitrary registration, suspensions, cancellations and limited possibilities of Appeal

Under this draft Act, registration (and thereby legality) is dependent on whims and fancies of the Director General of the Secretariat and Ministries or Authorities which are “responsible for activities planned to be undertaken by the organization”. If registration is rejected, the appeals have to be made to the Secretary to the Ministry, under which the Secretariat functions, within 30 days.

The registration can be suspended or canceled (and thereby make the organisation illegal) for range of reasons. These includes if the Director General feels the organization is a threat or prejudicial to national security or public interest. An organisation can also be de-registered if the Secretary to the Ministry feels the organisation is operating contrary to the national interests. None of these terms are clearly defined and only possible appeals are to Provincial High Courts, within the very short span of 30 days.

Attack on ideological and physical autonomy of civic groupings

The proposed Act implies civic groups must agree to “common development needs” of the country as defined by or agreeable to the government. This is likely to marginalise groups that are challenging the government’s model of development, which is often pro rich, pro-market and non-participatory. It also infringes on autonomy and internal policies and practices of civic groups, by interfering and retaining the final say in matters such as a change of objectives, a change in the geographical area of work, the establishment of branches, a change of the group constitution, cooperation with other groupings and the government, networking and forming federations, standards of service, financial and policy management, making donations to other groups, fund raising from the public, change of name, change of address, flag, symbol, logo etc. Information on staff and volunteers can be obtained by the Secretariat up to 6 years after they have left the organisation.

Policing powers beyond ordinary Police powers

In ordinary law, the police requires a warrant to enter a premises and search, examine books, registers or records, make copies and extracts. But the draft Act allows the Secretariat a free hand to do this, without even a clearly defined criteria for reasonable suspicion of any illegal activities. The power to “request and obtain information” implies a group from which the Secretariat “requests” information cannot refuse, as the Secretariat has powers to “obtain”, not just to “request”. The Secretariat also has powers to investigate money laundering and terrorist financing, which ought to be by the Police.

Breaching Banking Confidentiality

Under ordinary law, when the Police requires information from banks in the course of investigations of alleged crimes, they have to provide explicit justifications and orders for banks to release information are only made by a judicial authority. But the draft law confers powers to the Secretariat to breach confidentiality of banking information, without reference to any criminal conduct, rendering individuals and entities engaged in non-governmental activity second class citizens. The draft Act compels banks to inform the Secretariat of deposits over Rs. 1 million and electronic funds transfers and all transactions over an amount prescribed by the Minister. Such control over groups defined as NGOs is in contrast to the government’s policy to liberalise capital flow, under which the new foreign exchange law[6] permits undeclared money held abroad up to the value of a million dollars to be brought into the country with no penalty, while amounts in excess could be brought with the payment of a one percent fee. This puts in an additional layer of surveillance over and above what the Central Bank would be doing with regard to fund flows into the country, again singling out those defined as NGOs.

Broad and Vaguely defined “NGO crimes”

The draft Act creates range of “offences under the Act”, some of which are broadly and vaguely defined and leave room for abuse. Offences includes non-registration, which violates Freedom of Association and the principle of “Voluntary Notification”. Even a simple request for information if deemed inadequately responded to may attract a Rs. 250,000 fine or one year imprisonment and thus, is likely to create a fear psychosis. The lack of certainty runs contrary to the basic tenet of rule of law. Yet, again the hypocracy of criminalising acts that may be administratively corrected, is patently obvious when compared to the Foreign Exchange Act (FEA), which replaces the Exchange Control Act (note the change in nomenclature away from the notion of ‘control’), which was described as a new law that “decriminalised exchange control violations and freed citizens from its draconian provisions. The responsibility to implement the new management system has been vested on the authorised dealers who are subject to neither criminal nor civil proceedings under FEA. Instead, they are disciplined through an administrative process”[7].

Blurring the lines between “government” and “non-governmental”

This draft in letter and spirit, appears to convert NGOs into GONGOs – Government controlled Non-Government Organisations. It attempts to make a non-governmental group primarily accountable to the government – instead of primary accountability being to it’s members and to values they espouse, intended beneficiaries and donors – ignoring that the government is often the very body such groups seek a distinction from and often aim to monitor, critique and challenge.

Civic collectives and individuals involved in such groups must not be above the law – given that problems such as financial mismanagement, sexual harassment, gender based discrimination and abuse of worker’s rights, also occur in these entities, just las they do in government agencies and the private sector. But this must be done through ordinary law, which is applicable to all, without resorting to ultra-intrusive laws, discriminatory laws, which has the high potential to facilitate witch-hunts, to blur the line between what is “government” and what is “non-governmental / civic” and cripple independent organising and mobilising that a government may feel challenged by. Legal frameworks to address money laundering and other criminal activity must be uniformly applied instead of targeting NGOs in this disproportionate and unjustified way.

There is no point in trying to reform or engage with this draft law. It must be opposed in its entirety. If at all we need an additional law, it must be a “Freedom of Association Act” that promotes Freedom of Association, with registration based on principle of “Voluntary Notification” and not a restrictive law to make “non-governmental / civic” groupings pawns of the government.


[1] But drafts in three languages has been uploaded by concerned activists, and are available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1HQJTYaXMBzrMFVkABruRnW53WdrwU8ES/view?usp=sharing(English), https://drive.google.com/file/d/1jlZw5mhi5hnHtDZfv-C6nGeeouU7834s/view?usp=sharing (Sinhala) and https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ngRI7i-R-RlglZxsFlykZZRM09lGQp1r/view?usp=sharing (Tamil)

[2] https://twitter.com/ManoGanesan/status/976728773386158080

[3] Statement by Minister Mano Ganesan on 1st July 2017

[4] Includes any association, council, society, trust, foundation, federation, movement, center, consortium, company, guarantee limited companies, private companies receiving foreign funds for non-profit oriented activities, any organization under any written law or incorporated under Standing Orders of the Parliament or any other association of persons, branches of overseas registered organizations,

[5] Examples of exceptions mentioned are places of religious worship, banks, public quoted companies, school development societies, alumni associations, trade unions, political parties and any such organizations

[6] Foreign Exchange Act No 12 of 2017

[7] Statement by Former Central Bank Deputy Governor W A Wijewardene as quoted in article titled ‘Exchange control will become obsolete – Economist’, Sunday Observer found at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2017/12/03/exchange-control-will-become-obsolete-economist

STF brutality against Muslims in Digana: March 5

First published at http://groundviews.org/2018/03/13/stf-brutality-against-muslims-in-digana-march-5/ on 13th March 2018

This story is based on visits to both sites and testimonies of at least 10 survivors and about 5 eyewitnesses present

As Sinhalese – Buddhist mobs were escalating violence against Muslims around Digana on March 5, the Hijrapura mosque in Digana had just finished afternoon prayers around 4 pm that day.

As usual, devotees were talking to each other outside the mosque, after the prayers. A few had continued to pray inside the mosque. Suddenly, a jeep full of uniformed, heavily armed men had arrived in a jeep and a couple of motorbikes and surrounded the mosque. Thanks to the camouflage uniform, the devotees had identified them as being from the Special Task Force (STF) of the Police. The STF had brutally beaten up the devotees and chased them as they started to run away. Numerous eyewitnesses and survivors described the brutalities unleashed by the STF in vivid detail.

When I met them on March 9, one man couldn’t walk at all, and several others were limping. At least one was reported to have been in hospital. Many showed me scars and wounds, on their back, arms and legs. Some had been injured through falls, as they were running to escape the assault and were also being chased by STF men.

The devout Muslims were horrified that the STF had rampaged through the mosque with their weapons and boots. “We can’t describe the filthy and abusive language the STF used,” said one eyewitness.

Two Moulavis were beaten up, even as they shouted identifying themselves as Moulavis. They were forced to hold a knife and iron pole (They later said they believed it was to implicate them in false charges). They were beaten when they refused. The Buddhist Monk in the nearby Temple had seen the incident on the roadside and had intervened to save the two Moulavis from the STF’s grip.

In a separate incident around 5pm also on March 5 in nearby Ambagahalanda, A. F. M. Fazil, a member of the Meda Dumbara Pradeshiya Sabawa (Local Council) was at a friend’s house. Suddenly the STF had entered the house and beaten up Fazil and his friend, and also an 18 year old boy who was there. Children, including two who were 2 and 9 years old, had witnessed the assault and had been terrified. Neighbors who had gathered and saw the incident, heard STF men saying “let’s say he tried throw a petrol bomb at us”. The politician’s friend’s hands had been tied behind his back. His feet and that of the 18-year-old boy had been tied together. They were then taken to a Police station, and the 18 year old boy was released, but the politician and his friend were detained overnight. A Deputy Inspector General (DIG) who had been at the Police station had suggested them to be taken to the hospital, but despite  head wounds, the Sinhalese doctor on duty at the Teldeniya hospital that night had refused treatment, saying those who are responsible for killing “our people” should be in prison and not hospital[1]. Both men had been produced before a Magistrate on the morning of March 6 and released on bail. Four days after the assault, on March 9, scars on their body were clearly visible. Fazil’s head was till in bandages as of March 11 and he complained of headaches and body pains. He said he had 5 cuts on his head and had suffered injuries to one leg, an arm and his back.

Since the death of a Sinhalese person on March 3, after being severely beaten by some Muslim men on  February 22, Fazil was part of a team of Muslim leaders who had been discussing with senior police officers and Buddhist monks about ensuring justice for the Sinhalese man and his family, and defusing potential tensions. Government Ministers also had been updated. According to Fazil, such discussions were held from  February 24, long before the death of the Sinhalese man, and had continued until March 3, the day he had died. Discussions had been held in Digana as well as in the deceased man’s village. Fazil suspects STF may have targeted him for his role in trying (and failing) to prevent violence against Muslims by the Sinhalese – Buddhist mobs.

In both incidents, based on actions and words of the STF, the survivors believe the STF was attempting to frame them on false charges about possession of weapons, and by extension, shift the blame towards Muslims for some of the violence that happened around Digana last week. The words of the STF had also indicated a deeply anti-Muslim, racist mindset. The attack on the Moulavis and desecration of the Mosque by entering with boots and weapons, reminded me of attacks on churches, mosques and Buddhist temples during the war by Sri Lankan military and the LTTE.

It was not clear whether the STF personnel allegedly responsible for both incidents were the same. But some of the survivors claimed they were from Kegalle.

Some of the survivors I spoke to were scared to disclose their identities, have their injuries photographed, make a formal complaint or even seek medical treatment at government hospitals, fearing reprisals. However, many were keen to have the truth exposed and justice for perpetrators in order to prevent such incidents in the future. This note is written at their request, with the hope relevant authorities will take speedy action.

Editor’s Note: A report from Verite Research on restriction to religious freedom of Christians found police were often inactive even when physically present in incidents of violence against Christians, from 1994 to 2014. Groundviews repeatedly tried to contact the police spokesman for an official comment on this story, but did not receive a response.


[1] This appears to be implying the injured to be responsible for beating and subsequent death of a Sinhalese man by some other Muslim men, who had already been arrested

366 days – Roadside Protests in Kilinochchi

First published at http://groundviews.org/2018/02/22/366-days-roadside-protests-in-kilinochchi/ on 22nd Feb. 2018

366 days (as of 20th Feb) is a long time to be at a 24 hour roadside protest. That’s how long Tamil families of disappeared in Kilinochchi have been there. In the coming days and weeks, protests by families of disappeared in Vavuniya, Mullaithivu, Maruthankerny (Jaffna district) and Trincomalee will also reach one year.

Most of the protesters were elderly mothers and fathers and those physically and mentally injured by the war. They have been braving the sun, rain, cold, dust, insects, mosquitos etc. Some had been hospitalised. I was told 7 women had died during the past 366 days. One woman leading the protest in Mullaitivu was assaulted, and received threats to stop. The protestors have been subjected to constant surveillance. While protesting, they had also struggled to take care of their other children at home, engage in livelihoods, find the bus fare to come to the protest site and a range of other practical problems. From the day I first met them one year ago, and through subsequent visits, I have seen them getting sick, hungry, cold, sweating, their spirit and physical strength deteriorating. But they have not given up.

They have told me that their protest is not leveled against the government, military or anyone else. They just want to know whether their disappeared children, grandchildren, husbands, are alive or dead. Many believe their loved ones are alive and want to know where they are being held. They want to see them. If dead, they want to know what happened and to receive their remains. Many protesting families had seen their loved ones surrendering to the Army in front of their own eyes, after which they were never seen again.

The beginning and evolution of the protests  

The protests started with some families of the disappeared in Vavuniya staging a fast unto death in January 2017. One of the leaders, Jeyavanitha, a Tamil mother, has a 2015 election campaign leaflet of President Sirisena and asserts that one of the school girls in uniform next to the President is her daughter.

As health conditions of the elderly women fasting in Vavuniya deteriorated, the State Minister of Defense met the families at the protest site. He promised a meeting with several senior Ministers in Colombo, and families agreed to temporarily suspend the protest. That meeting happened, but was marred by controversy, as the government had invited some Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MPs, who the families didn’t want to attend. The TNA MPs had eventually left, but based on what the State Minister for Defense had told him, the TNA Spokesperson reported to media that the families wanted priority for their own family member’s cases. Several of those actually present at the meeting till the end told me that they never asked for this, and insisted on answers to all families of disappeared. The meeting never yielded anything, and after waiting for two more weeks, the families in Vavuniya recommenced their protests, which will reach one year on 24th February 2018. Around the same time, protests started in four other places in the North and East.

Other forms of struggles and the ethnic factor

Not all Tamil families of disappeared in the North and East are involved in these protests. Several have filed Habeas Corpus cases, which are pending in courts in Jaffna, Mullaithivu, Vavuniya, Mannar and Colombo. Last year, some families of Tamil men who were taken away by the Army in 1996 in Jaffna, filed fresh Habeas Corpus applications. Based on this, an Army officer alleged to have been responsible and now serving as a Major General in Mannar, has been summoned to appear before courts. In different cases filed in Mannar and Colombo in relation to different incidents, Police investigations have revealed the complicity of the Navy in disappearances. Last year, families of the disappeared in Mannar published a book with the stories of their loved ones. There have also been been protests on significant days, such as on International Human Rights day and the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

To me, in a way, the yearlong protests in five places symbolises the hard and long struggles waged by vast majority of families of disappeared.

There is also an ethnic factor in the protests and campaigns. A large number of Sinhalese have also disappeared, mostly in the late 1980s. Their families, through movements such as the Mothers Front and supported by domestic and international rights activists and politicians that included former President Mahinda Rajapakse and present Minister Mangala Samaraweera, campaigned heavily for truth and justice in the 1990s, which was a factor in toppling the repressive UNP government of that time. But in recent years, Sinhalese families have not been campaigning so visibly, with a few exceptions like Sandya Ekneligoda and Mauri Jayasena, whose husbands had disappeared in 2010 and 2013 respectively.

Support for the protests

The last few years, especially in 2017, have also seen many protests in Sri Lanka. The most visible had been a series of sustained protests by students against the privatisation of health & education. There was also a several month-long overnight protest in Colombo against the exploitative manpower system by workers. Communities negatively affected by development projects, such as in Jaffna, Bandarawela and Colombo have also been protesting, while there were also protests against caste-based oppression by communities in Jaffna and campaigns demanding justice and freedom for political prisoners, which included a fast by 3 prisoners.  Month-long day and night protests were also held in the North, demanding back lands occupied by the military. Some of these protests had achieved their aims, while some ended without clear results.

But along with protests to regain military occupied lands in the North, the protests by families of disappeared are the longest running. The protests by families of disappeared has also been internationalised and seem to be protests that had become most controversial and immensely political, despite the deeply personal nature of the problem. This is probably why there have been very few sympathisers and even less number of people who want to actively support the protests.

Although some Northern Tamil politicians and political commentators appear to be ignoring the protests and not recognising their significance, the protests had received significant support and sympathy in the North. Hindu and Christian clergy and institutions, journalists, university students, three wheel taxi drivers and shop owners etc. have extended support, in addition to politicians and activists. However, solidarity and support from rest of the country, especially from Colombo, has been minimal. Despite all the protests being led by women, with the majority of participants also being women, Colombo-based women’s movements both new and old, don’t appear to be actively supporting their sisters at the protests.

A prominent exception has been Sandya Eknaligoda, wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who had been travelling to the North and East to join the protesters regularly. She was also able to mobilise a few other Muslim, Sinhalese and Tamil families of disappeared from around Colombo to join in solidarity.

Considering the unprecedented longevity, widespread nature and intensity of the protests and the desperation of the protesters, there has been minimal media coverage of the protests on mainstream Sinhalese and English media. Other Colombo-centric protests and struggles, such as one against the privatisation of health and education by university students and against the sexual abuse of children in an orphanage in Colombo, received much more mainstream media coverage. I can’t help wondering whether the political controversy about the protests, the ethnic factor and the fact that these were happening in the North and East may have deterred Sinhalese and English media from giving adequate coverage.

Domestic and International dimensions

On the 100th day of the protest in Kilinochchi, the protesters blocked the A9 road for about 5 hours and demanded to meet the President. Since then, the President had met the protesters at least thrice, but he had let them down badly – breaking the promises and also the trust and hope they placed on him. The protesters had also met Ministers and other Government officials. They had also tried to engage with Sinhalese public, with appeals and banners in Sinhalese. But in contrast to this approach of the families, a statement issued in solidarity with the protests by organizations working primarily in the North and East focused their demands on the international community. However, a lack of response, support and sympathy from within Sri Lanka, coupled with a push from some Tamil activists and politicians, appear to have made the families also lean more and more towards foreign diplomats and UN officials to find the answers they are seeking.

The future of the protests

The protests are far from over. And the answers sought by the protesters still seem distant. Their courage and determination has been exceptional, but the cost on protesters has been very heavy. The future of the protests has to be and will be decided by the families. But as the five protests complete one year, I hope they can have the space to assess what has been achieved and plan ahead, perhaps to a transit to a different form of struggle, which may be more sustainable, less costly on themselves and have the potential to bring them closer to the answers they are seeking.  It is also a time for those of us who have been associated or sympathetic towards the protests and the cause, to have self-reflections about roles we have played and could have played, and see how better we can support continuing struggles in the longer term, and mobilise more support.

Fr Tissa Balasuriya: Memories and Challenges for today

Edited English text of Fr. Tissa Balasuriya 5th death anniversary Memorial Oration, delivered on 17th January 2018, in Sinhalese, at the Centre for Society & Religion (CSR), Colombo

Thank you for inviting me to speak today. Even though I had not known or worked closely with Fr Tissa as some others here. I constantly think of and miss two of my mentors in activism. One is Fr. Tissa. And it’s humbling to speak about such a visionary, committed and simple man. Who I called a  Loving and Gentle Rebel.

I had first met him when I was in the Young Christian Students (YCS) Movement. We used to come to CSR, to borrow materials and equipment. Amongst the videos that Fr Tissa lent us, and left a lasting impression, was the video about Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvadore, who was assassinated for his uncompromising positions and harsh criticisms of an authoritarian regime.

Fr. Tissa had been the 1st Asia Pacific Chaplain of the International Movement of Catholic Students (IMCS). Mentored by visionary and committed chaplains like him, many Catholic student leaders in Asia have gone on to become activists. It’s sad that we don’t have many chaplains like him today. I’m not sure whether anyone from Sri Lanka’s Catholic Students movement is interested in Fr Tissa’s life, work and thoughts and whether anyone is here today to reflect about these.

I continued my association with Fr. Tissa after my YCS life. Going with him to slums in Colombo shocked me. Discussions about liberation theology and social analysis was difficult to follow, but exiting. Few years before he died, he cautioned me to be careful knowing imminent threats I was facing. Later he invited me to stay with him with an assurance he will protect me.

There are many more memories, and it’s easy to get carried away and talk about these. But I will try restrain myself from that temptation. And try to approach the much more difficult, and overwhelming task of reflecting about his life, work and about carrying forward his vision in a way that’s relevant today. I will share my reflections under 3 areas.

  1. Fr. Tissa in society, with a vision of a church that was part of society

Fr. Tissa was a Catholic Priest. But in context where many Priests and Catholic leaders were and are distant from society and day to day issues faced by people, Fr Tissa remained firmly rooted in society. His Christian faith and Priesthood appeared to have motivated and pushed him to be a man of and man in society. He had become intimately involved in struggles for social justice and human rights. He initiated, supported and joined social movements. His interests and writings have covered an amazing variety of issues – feminism, women’s rights, worker’s rights, urban poverty, Malaiyaha Tamils (especially those working and living in estates), ethnic conflict and reconciliation, global warming etc. Connecting such issues to Spirituality and Christian faith had come naturally to him and was non-negotiable. He consistently and passionately condemned capitalism and didn’t shy away from asserting that ideals of socialism can identify with Christian faith and his left leanings.

He emphasized the use of social analysis for theology and insisted that “In the absence of a systemic analysis persons of goodwill can be unwittingly used by the powers that be for their benefit. Thus they are persuaded to consider their task as to take care of the victims of the exploitative system, to ensure continuity of the power system, to legitimize the prevailing exploitative order and to prevent or contain dissent leading to revolt. Social workers promoting these causes will be given an honourable place in society, and respected when they do not contest the greed and injustice of the dominant”.

He didn’t fail to identify how religious institutions and traditions, especially the Church, which he remained part of till death, had been part of and promoted oppressive practices and traditions, within Church life and in society.

“Liberation” was a word that he had used often. Three of his well-known books were “Jesus and Human Liberation”, “Mary and Human Liberation” and “Eucharist and Human Liberation”. A series of publications by CSR under Fr. Tissa was named “Vimukthi Prakashana” or “Liberation Publications”. Women’s rights, women’s liberation, feminism and the ethnic conflict related topics were covered regularly by this series of booklets. One was provocatively titled “A political solution or military solution?” The series also dealt with host of other issues, such as multinational corporations and liberation, rural socialist liberation, fisherfolk in Negombo, farmers, white paper on education, free trade zone, tourism, Colombo Municipal Council and housing problem, transport service and Ceylon Transport Board (CTB), Mahaweli development project, challenges in cinema, censorship board and the 1971 constitution.

Contextual Theology – or Theology that was relevant to social – economic – political context at a particular time in a particular place – was key element of liberation theology that Fr. Tissa lived and promoted. One of his lesser known work is on Theology concerning ethnicity. As far back as 1986, he wrote, “A theology related Sri Lanka must relate to life here. Since ethnic relations are dominant factor in Sri Lankan life today, contemporary theology in Sri Lanka must have ethnicity as one of it’s most significant dimensions”.

 

  1. From Contextual Theology to Planetary Theology and Globalization of Solidarity

Fr. Tissa appeared to have tried to go beyond contextual theology in writing about “Planetary Theology” – title of one of his most famous and oldest books published in 1984, the Sinhala translation of which is being launched today. Globalization of Solidarity was one of his latter books, published in 2000.

Although Fr Tissa had grappled with day to day problems facing different communities in Sri Lanka, from slums in Colombo, to free trade zone and ethnic conflict, he also grappled with world problems. His writings regularly and harshly condemned colonization and advocated for recognition and restitution, acknowledging that “even in recent times (2010) it is difficult to even discuss the question of compensation and restitution for long term colonial exploitation of peoples by persons, companies and countries”. To him, world trade was about transferring resources from the poor to the rich. “World Apartheid” was a word that he used regularly to talk about past and ongoing global injustices by western countries towards other parts of the world.

According to him, “in the history of the world the colonial adventure of the European (Christian) peoples constitutes one of the greatest robberies, genocides and abuse of power by a set of human beings and nations. The Church and Christians have been not only involved in this genocide, but have encouraged it and benefited from it”. He had also stated that “the reform of international institutions such as the IMF, World Bank and WTO, the democratization of the UNO and its security Council and the strengthening of the powers of the UN General Assembly are also needed for dealing with these problems. The whole unjust world order, built up by 500 years of Western colonization, must be reformed to have world justice”.

According to Fr. Tissa, local action is not a remedy for global problems and “given the global nature of the present challenges to life, contextual theologies alone, however well developed and essential for the context, are not adequate to inspire liberative action that has also to be global”.

For him, “human solidarity in the context of present day globalization necessitates a radical transformation of the world order and relationships among peoples in the direction of sharing of resources and caring for all. In addition to changes at the national and regional levels, there has to be transformations at the world”.

He argued that “The genuinely universal dimensions of Christian theology may be said to be those elements of theology that have a bearing on all reality, or at least on the whole planet earth and all humanity of all time and space”. He went on to elaborate that such universal dimensions would include:

  • Humanity, the human condition in its universal characteristics
  • Male and female, though different, equal in rights and dignity
  • The cosmos, especially the planet earth available, with its limited resources, for all humanity & the planet’s ecology as common essential source of life and hence of concern for all humans, present and future
  • Recognition that each group of humans has a history and a religio-cultural background of its own, which is a universal factor that makes for particularity and different contexts for theology

 

  1. Reflecting on taking forward Fr. Tissa’s life and work – especially for CSR & Oblates

I realize now that Fr. Tissa was one of first Oblates I had met. He probably didn’t realize how far that relationship will go. We have organized and attended seminars, exhibitions, visited war ravaged areas during and after war, been together at the UN in New York and Geneva, at street protests in Colombo, Kilinochchi and elsewhere.

CSR, founded by Fr. Tissa in 1971, has been an important part of my life and that of many activists. CSR had offered it’s meeting spaces when other centers refused to host us. We faced rampaging monks together in this very hall at CSR. When I couldn’t find anyone else to offer shelter for those in fear of their lives, I turned to CSR. After Fr. Praveen (another Oblate) and I were detained by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID), some activists and friends, including priests, didn’t want to welcome the two of us, so we turned to CSR.

So I hope CSR can play a bigger role in human rights and social justice activism. This will be possible only if it’s backed fully by Oblates, especially it’s leadership. It is heartening that Oblates have taken on themselves to continue the work at CSR. I must also mention Oblates taking forward the work at Suba Seth Gedera in Buttala, initiated by another Oblate, Fr Michel Rodrigo. These two centres, have the potential to become central places for social justice and rights struggles.

I want to highlight three broad areas, which Fr Tissa had dealt with, for consideration by Oblates and CSR, to have deeper involvement:

i. Ethnic conflict and post war issues

Though the war is over, we are still not at peace, and remain polarized along ethnic lines. A political solution to the ethnic conflict, truth and justice in relation to disappeared, political prisoners, land and right to remember war dead are just some of major challenges confronting us. I believe CSR has a fairly strong Sinhalese constituency, and thus well placed to play such a role, but I feel it will have to do more outreach to Tamils and Muslims.

ii. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Today in Sri Lanka, civil society is polarized whether economic, social and cultural rights should be given equal status to civil and political rights and whether they should be recognized as justiciable rights in the constitution. Fr. Tissa’s repeated and ominous warnings about evils of capitalism and neo-liberal economic and development agendas are visible before our eyes and ears today, affecting economic, social and cultural rights. Across the country, there are struggles being waged by workers, fisherfolk, farmers, and students. For land, for free and quality health care and education and against mega development projects such as Port City and Uma Oya. Fr. Tissa’s friend and colleague, Fr. Michale Rodrigo, was killed 30 years ago while he was fighting for rights and dignity of peasant’s in Buttala, and these challenges remain. Fr. Tissa had insisted that “rights of people cannot be ensured and fostered today without a struggle against the evil aspects of capitalistic globalization. A critical analysis of globalization, (within such global apartheid) and a reflection based on the religious and spiritual values of humanity would lead to an option for the genuine development and liberation of the people, especially the poor”.

iii. Feminism, Women’s rights, Gender and Sexuality

The Catholic Church, along with other religious institutions, dominated by male clerics, has often been on the wrong side of rights and dignity of women and people with different gender identities and sexual orientations. Fr. Tissa was one who appeared to be an exception. I’m highlighting this, even though I’m not confident Oblates will want to take up this challenge. According to Fr Tissa, mother of Jesus, Mary, “was not seen as one who was deeply concerned with the rights of others and opposed to exploitation of all types. Marian spirituality had an effect of de-radicalizing the revolutionary message of the gospel.” Today in Sri Lanka, there are debates about abortion and right to life, by some Catholic laity. Debates about legally and socially recognizing equal rights and dignity of Lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Bisexual people. Young Muslim women are battling against Muslim clerics and politicians to get rid of entrenched discriminatory laws against girls and women. And brave women from different parts of the country campaigning for local government election, which has potential to increase women’s political participation. So perhaps it’s time, CSR considers supporting such struggles, or at least facilitate reflections and debates.

Fr. Tissa, if he was here today, would have been in the thick of these battles and debates. On the side of those who had been marginalized, discriminated. Uncompromising, supporting and promoting unpopular positions, within Church, government and society. A meaningful way of paying homage to him would be to reflect deeply how we will get involved in these issues.

I also want to highlight five approaches for CSR and Oblates to consider:

i. Diversify leadership:

Within your own institutions and initiatives, give leadership opportunities for lay persons, young persons, women and persons from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, persons with different gender identities and sexual orientations, persons from different parts of the country. Beyond the rhetoric, symbolism and tokenism. This is probably an area Fr. Tissa was not able to make much progress. It will take a long time. But it’s possible to start today.

ii. Use of modern technology:

Fr. Tissa had noted that “communications revolution can be a resource and an ally” and that “extraordinary development of the means of communication, including T.V., E-mail and Internet can be a means of contact among the peoples of the world”. He had stressed the “need and significance of economics, literacy, computer literacy, use of media so as not to be brainwashed by the systemic forces, and dominant orthodoxies”.

iii. Intensive research and publications:

During time of Fr. Tissa, CSR was known for it’s research and publications. Such as “Logos”, “Quest” and “Liberation Publications (Vimukthi Prakashana)”. The “Sadaranaya (Justice)” has been revived some years back and I was happy to hear the English version “Social Justice” will also be revived soon. But more effort will have to be made to revive the research culture at CSR. Help from competent personnel will have to be sought. Fr. Tissa himself has said that “relevant action requires good information, data, knowledge and analysis These must be made available to action groups” and that “Since we are bombarded daily by the mass media with news and views on the economy and economic policies, it is necessary to be trained to demythologize the claimed orthodoxies of economists, academics, policy makers and media programmes, as it is necessary to be able to demythologize the stories of the scriptures”.

iv. Principled and uncompromising engagement with policy makers:

In order to bring about long term structural, institutional and policy changes, it’s important to dialogue with politicians, bureaucrats and other influential personalities. But challenge is not to be cop-opted, and engage in principled dialogue. Without compromising our fundamental convictions and struggles in favor of money, recognition, safety and other privileges and favors.

v. Stronger involvement in local, national and international social movements:

CSR still is a gathering place for various social movements, NGOs, trade unions, student unions, survivors, victim’s families come to CSR. But the challenge is go beyond offering or renting space, and for CSR itself to become involved in these debates and struggles. I also hope the publishing of Planetary Theology in Sinhalese will contribute towards stronger international networking and “globalization of solidarity”.

 Conclusion

Fr. Tissa had often highlighted the lifestyle of early Christians. “They believed in sharing their resources and caring for one another so that there was no one in need (Acts 4:34)”. He had also said that “former options made decades or centuries earlier may be inadequate to meet present challenges. Some of them may even be counter-productive”. So as much as it’s tempting to remember the dead Fr. Tissa, a real challenge is to make him come alive today, locally and globally. A tough task indeed. But a worthy one.

 

Mary’s Consent for Jesus’s birth: A Christmas reflection

First published on 25th December 2017 at http://groundviews.org/2017/12/25/marys-consent-for-jesuss-birth-a-christmas-reflection/

Christmas is the story of Mary, a young unwedded mother, giving birth to a refugee child, Jesus, in a sheep shed. The central male character in this story is Joseph, Mary’s fiancée / boyfriend, who supports her decision to give birth to a child that he is not the biological father of. This childbirth has become famous and remembered for more than 2000 years. But it is rather unfortunate that some of those who enact this event faithfully and worship Jesus, Mary and Joseph don’t seem to be sensitive to children born in similar circumstances today (refugee children) to parents like Mary and Joseph (unwedded, poor workers).

According to Christian belief, God appears to have consciously chosen an unwedded woman whose fiancée / boyfriend was a carpenter, to give birth to “King / Savior” Jesus, in a sheep shed.

Recent discussions I had with some female colleagues and friends, both Christian and non-Christian, have led me to reflect more on another aspect of the Christmas story. A mother’s consent to give birth.

Christian belief is that Mary conceived Jesus through an intervention of the God / Holy Spirit. According to the biblical narrative of Luke, God had chosen Mary as the woman to give birth to Jesus, and sent a representative, an angel named Gabriel, to discuss the matter with Mary. The biblical text reveals Mary to have been shocked when Gabriel says that she will be conceived with a child. She had asked Gabriel “how can this be when I’m a virgin”? Gabriel appears to have been patient and had given additional information and explanations. After this, Mary had given clear, verbal consent to the conception, pregnancy and birth that was to follow.

The many biblical narratives that slightly differ from each other, seem to concur in indicating that conception was something that was to happen after Mary’s consent, and not something that had already happened before her consent[1]. That Mary was free to accept or not accept the conception. The intermission till Mary responded has been described as a time the “angels await her answer with bated breath”. This is also captured by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting…. The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent.”

The biblical narrative gives central place to woman’s consent (Mary’s) and not to men. God appears to have recognized that it is the women’s life that would be radically affected by having to conceive, bear the child through pregnancy and giving birth. There is no consultation or discussion with High Priests of the time. Or even with Joseph, the main man in the story. In today’s Christmas day homily in my parish, reference was made to Joseph thinking of “dumping” Mary after he came to know of her decision to bear a child that was not his, but that after some reflection, he had decided to continue the relationship and be part of bringing up the child with the mother.

Perhaps of academic interest to the Christmas story, but of much importance for society today, especially women, would be the question what if Mary declined? Would a God of love and justice that Christians believe in, forced Mary to conceive a child against her wishes?

Christian belief is that God has offered much to humankind, including unconditional freedom and choice. Christmas, Jesus’s birth as a human child, is a central event in the Christian story of salvation. Central to this story of Christmas is a loving, respectful and non-patriarchal God recognizing the bodily autonomy of a young unwedded woman to bear a child, and centrality of her unconditional consent.

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[1] None of the biblical versions appear to use the word “you have conceived”, but use instead, words such as you will / shalt conceive, you will become pregnant etc. https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Luke%201:31

Sri Lankans must push the government to fulfill its undertakings

First published at https://international.la-croix.com/news/sri-lankans-must-push-the-government-to-fulfill-its-undertakings/6374 on 18th Nov. 2017

The people of Sri Lanka should be wary of depending too much on international involvement – like UN experts – in ensuring the upholding of rights, dignity, and well-being of its citizens.

Successive Sri Lankan governments have ratified various international human rights’ treaties, but they are still being found wanting on home turf.

These treaties include provisions against torture, discrimination, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention. They protect freedom of expression, assembly, association and religion as well as rights to equality before the law, housing, education, and healthcare.

There are also specific measures set out in these treaties covering women, children, migrant workers and people with disabilities.

However, many Sri Lankans are still denied these rights and justice after violations during the war. The government has received more than 65,000 complaints of disappeared persons and there is no clarity about numbers killed – UN has said it could be about 70,000.

The Sri Lankan government has made a series of commitments to all its citizens, focusing on abuses of the 26-year civil war that ended in 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE which fought for a separate state.

This includes prosecution of human rights violations and establishing an effective “Office of Missing Persons” as well as a mechanism to deal with reparations. Lack of progress on these issues led to series of public protests.

There have been a series of visits by United Nations rights’ experts and officials. Superficially, this looks impressive.

However, an actual implementation of their recommendations — as well as fulfillment of commitments the government has made to Sri Lankans — is far from imposing.

And during a recent visit by UN Special Rapporteur Pablo de Greiff, the government took the unprecedented step of stating it is not bound to implement UN expert recommendations.

Anyway, a democratically elected government should not be waiting for UN findings and recommendations in order to ensure the upholding of rights, dignity, and well-being of its citizens.

As I write this, the Sri Lankan parliament is debating proposed constitutional changes following a public consultation process.

People from all walks of life presented their grievances, aspirations, and suggestions, about a wide range of issues, covering historical and structural injustices related to the war and beyond.

However, many recommendations on issues such as power sharing — as well as gender, economic and social rights — appear unlikely to be implemented.

Some leading Buddhist monks and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, are now questioning even the need for a new constitution. If there is a new constitution, it’s likely to be a political compromise.

But at the minimum, I hope it will include a strong bill of rights and a further devolution of power. And measures to address injustices committed during or arising from the civil war and preventing such occurrences again.

On the ground, despite some positive changes, recurrence of old abuses is part of daily life, especially for Tamils in the war-ravaged north.

For example, restrictions continue on the formal mourning of war dead. The military is still occupying large amounts of public and private lands and intruding into civilian activities.

And although the level of abuses is less than under previous government, even in 2017, there are reports of abductions and torture. There are also fresh arrests under a draconian anti-terror law that the government promised to repeal two years ago, under which I’m still under investigation after nearly 4 years.

De Greiff rightly suggested it was wrong to equate reconciliation and transitional justice only to criminal accountability.

But it is surprising that he did not highlight the government’s backtracking on a commitment it made two years ago to establish a special judicial mechanism.

It envisaged the participation of foreign judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and investigators, in context of a large number of Sri Lankan survivors and victim’s families failed to obtain justice through domestic legal mechanisms.

And it is strange that De Greiff presented the cost of delaying land releases in terms of a disincentive for foreign investors more than as a major problem for ordinary local people. Overall, his comments don’t appear to reflect the desperation, frustration, and anger of victims and their families.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is preparing to present an update on Sri Lanka to the UN Human Rights Council in March next year.

I hope the update will present a realistic assessment and insist on a timetable with clear benchmarks for implementation of commitments the government has already made to its citizens.

I also hope member states of the UN will be wary of heaping premature and disproportionate praise on Sri Lankan government’s empty rhetoric and promises.

International involvement in transitional justice is essential.

However, Sri Lankans should be wary of depending too much on international involvement without pushing our government to fulfill its own undertakings.

“We vehemently refuse to be deceived again”: Protests by families of disappeared, continuing abductions and empty promises

First published on 30th August 2017, at http://groundviews.org/2017/08/30/we-vehemently-refuse-to-be-deceived-again-protests-by-families-of-disappeared-continuing-abductions-and-empty-promises/

Above was the last line in a press release issued on 17th August, by Association for Relatives for Enforced Disappeared in Kilinochchi district, at a press conference in Colombo. It came in context of 6 month long protests by Tamil families of disappeared in the North and East, and empty promises by President Sirisena and much talk about a new Office of Missing Persons.

Today, 30th August, the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances[i]. The above could be a good start to reflect about preventing disappearances and searching for truth, justice and reparations for disappearances that has happened in Sri Lanka. Three trends come to my mind.

Reports of continuing abductions / disappearances and threats to those campaigning

Earlier this month, an activist based in the North was reported to have gone missing[ii]. Last month, there were reports of an attempted abduction of a student activist in Colombo[iii]. Earlier this year, a trade union leader was abducted in Colombo and released after being warned to “mind his own business”. The latter two had happened at the height of protests by students and workers. Based on sworn statements of survivors, the International Truth and Justice Project has reported 21 persons having been abducted / illegally detained and subjected to torture or sexual violence in 2016 and 3 in 2017[iv]. I couldn’t find information about the fate of the first person, but the others have been released, some after warnings and some after paying money. Two weeks ago, the wife of a disappeared man reported having being slapped and warned of “severe consequences” if she didn’t give up the (6 month long) protest she had been part of[v]. And in March 2017, soldiers were reported to have photographed, followed and threatened Northern journalists who were on an assignment to cover a protest by families of disappeared. The soldiers had insisted that the journalists needed to get soldier’s permission[vi]. All of the above, except the trade unionist and student activist, were Tamils.

Lack of answers after six months of protests and meetings with the government

Tamil families of disappeared, largely women, have been engaged in continuous and indefinite protests in five locations in the North and East, for about 6 months. One of their primary demands is that President Sirisena keep a promise he made to them to “release lists of persons who surrendered to the Armed forces in the final phase of the war”[vii] on 12th June 2017. Sinhalese family members of disappeared, like Mauri Jayasena from Anuradhapura also continued their unceasing campaigns to find truth and justice for their disappeared husbands. But despite multiple engagement and dialogues with the government, there have been no answers to them.

Empty promises of institutions and laws

The above trends appear to be largely ignored by the government, and those sympathetic and supportive to it. Instead, they there is optimistic talk about the OMP and a draft bill criminalizing disappearances. Almost as if disappearances in Sri Lanka could be addressed only through these, while ignoring continuing abductions, threats to campaigners, long protests and empty promises.

These three trends indicates a serious disconnect in addressing disappearances in Sri Lanka. But it doesn’t have to be so. The protesting families and many of their supporters are also expecting the law criminalizing disappearances to be enacted sooner than later[viii]. And they are supporting a victim centric, effective, independent OMP to be set up soon and have repeatedly made practical contributions towards this[ix]. They have been engaging with numerous Ministers, Government officials, at the protest sites and also by coming to Colombo. Several families leading the protests and some of their supporters had also served in the Zonal Task Force of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation mechanisms, a government initiative.

But how could families of disappeared have faith in promised institutions and laws when reports of abductions continue to emerge and there are reprisals against campaigners, and when there is no indication of firm, fast and transparent action against those responsible? Other key factors to bridge the disconnect will be if President can keep the promises he made, and if there is more sensitivity and support towards mothers, wives, fathers who have been at roadside protests in the North and East from rest of the country.

Evolution of the protests

The protests started with families of disappeared persons in Vavuniya staging a fast unto death in January this year, demanding information about their family members who had disappeared. Their leader, Jeyavanitha, a Tamil mother, clutches a campaign leaflet of President Sirisena and asserts that one of the school girls in uniform next to the President is her daughter.

As health conditions of elderly women fasting in Vavuniya deteriorated, the State Minister of Defense met the families at the protest site. He promised a meeting with several senior Ministers in Colombo, and families agreed to temporarily suspend the protest. That meeting was marred by controversy, as the government had invited some Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MPs, which the families didn’t want. TNA MPs had eventually left, but based on what the State Minister for Defense had told him, TNA Spokesperson reported to media that the families wanted priority for their own family member’s cases. Several of those actually present at the meeting till the end told me that they never asked for this, and insisted on answers to all families of disappeared. More than 6 months after, the meeting had not yielded anything. But in meantime, the families had waited for two weeks and recommenced their protests, which has now exceeded 6 months in it’s second phase.

The Vavuniya protests appeared to have triggered series of protests by other Tamil families of disappeared, with protests starting in Maruthankerny, Mullaithivu and Killinochchi in the North and Trincomalee in the East. Most at the vigil were women. They had to battle cold nights at the beginning and then the heat, dust and rain. While participating in these protests on behalf of disappeared children, women had to send other children to school and worried about safety of teenaged girls at home. Some went to work and came to the protest site in the night. During my visits to them from January to August, I sensed dejection, desperation and waning of spirit and physical strength. But families have disappeared have held on till now.

On 30th May, after 100 days of protesting, the families in Kilinochchi, convened a larger protest, with families of disappeared from all major districts in North and others from East and few from Colombo joining them. Police tried to obtain a court order to prevent it, but the Magistrate refused. Protesters rejected meetings with the Prime Minister and yet another “Committee”, but after a 5 hour blockade of the major A9 road to north, during which only ambulances were allowed to pass, they obtained a meeting with the President, which happened on 12th June – in which the President made promises that have not been fulfilled todate.

The protesters had tried to reach out to Sinhalese, through appeals, letters and banners in Sinhalese. Despite their desperate situations, and weariness in repeating their stories and being photographed by strangers I took with me everytime I visited, we were always warmly welcomed and even offered meals. Some expressed disappointment about lack of support from activists from Colombo and other parts of the country, and from Tamils in the North itself. Two weeks ago, the families came to Colombo to reach out to Colombo based media.

A few Hindu Temples, Churches, shop owners, journalists and Tamil diaspora groups had extended support by providing food. The protest in Kilinochchi has been held in the premises of the Kandasamy Temple. University students, auto drivers, shop owners, clergy have also extended symbolic support by visiting and in April, a day of hartal was observed across the North. Few Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil families of disappeared, including Sandya Ekneligoda, wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda and an award winning prominent activist, travelled several times from Colombo to extend solidarity and support. 

OMP

The President has been stalling the establishment of the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP), promised in September 2015, and for which legislation was rushed through in August 2016, bypassing promised consultations with families of disappeared and public. Then, after 10 months of silence and apparent loss of interest, an amendment was passed by parliament, removing an article that enabled the OMP to enter into agreements with external parties. Suggestions by families of disappeared were not even considered as amendments. And finally, last month, a gazette notice was issued, assigning the OMP to a ministry held by the president – when the constitution prohibits the President from holding this ministry. The requirement in the OMP Act to gazette a date OMP will come into effect is yet to be fulfilled, and there is no indication when this will be done. If the OMP is established under the present ministry it has been assigned to, it’s legal standing is questionable. And so, nearly 2 years after the promise, there is still no OMP, there is no time line for its establishment, leave alone when it will give answers to families who have been waiting for decades.

The OMP is latest of number of Commissions of Inquiries appointed by successive Sri Lankan governments, to address disappearances. According to the government, more than 65,000 complaints have been received by these Commissions since 1994[x]. Despite promises made nearly two years ago, the government has failed to publish key reports of previous Commissions, such as the Mahanama Tillekeratne and Paranagama Commission, the latter having functioned under both the previous and present government.

The government has made legislative provisions have been made to issue Certificates of Absence, but it’s not clear what procedures have been put in place to actually issue these.  Earlier this month, I met government officials across the Killinochchi district who told me they had not heard anything about this.

The government ratified the International Convention against Enforced Disappearances, but without accepting article 31 that will allow families of disappeared and other Sri Lankans to complain to the UN Committee monitoring the implementation of the convention.  The government has also promised to criminalize enforced disappearances,  but that too has not happened for nearly two years. A draft bill was expected to have been debated in parliament, but was postponed indefinitely. And at the same time, the government has failed to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and counter terrorism laws are being drafted without any public consultations, containing draconian provisions that can serve as license for enforced disappearances.

Economic justice

Despite widespread poverty amongst families of disappeared, there are no systematic initiatives to ensure economic justice for families. For many families, poverty is linked to the disappearance of the main breadwinner of the family. The right of the families to reparations has been relegated to an Office for Reparations, an entity that is likely to take even longer than the OMP to be established. There has been no response from the government to appeals for interim relief. But, even amongst supporters of families of disappeared, and amongst families themselves, there appears to be reluctance to talk about this important aspect. This is probably due to fear that it may undermine demands for truth and criminal justice, including through offers of minimalistic, temporary and unsustainable financial and material assistance. “We want our children, not chicken or certificates” thus became a slogan at protests and during hearings of Commissions of Inquiries. Administrative measures such as certificates of justice, interim relief measures or sustainable livelihoods, must be seen as a right by itself that compliments and not substitutes rights to truth and criminal justice. Protests, court cases, international campaigns etc. are likely to be more stronger, sustainable and independent if families of disappeared, especially mothers and wives, have stable livelihoods and are able to feed, educate, house, provide healthcare for one’s children who are still with them.

Moving forward

It’s important for the OMP to be operational as soon as possible, firmly rooted within constitutional provisions, with no ambiguity about its legal standing. At least at this stage, the recommendations of the families of disappeared should be taken seriously, including having families of disappeared and individuals of integrity and competence, who have confidence of many families of disappeared, women, ethnic and religious minorities in leadership positions. Independent international involvement is a must. And the government should criminalize enforced disappearances, upholding the spirit and letter of the International Convention, before the OMP begins its operations.

But the OMP should not be the only focus. The families of disappeared await response of the President to promises he made to release lists of detainees, surrendees and detention centres and publishing of Commission of Inquiry reports that many of them gave testimony to. In context of broken promises in the past, they don’t have much faith in the President’s promises. Hence, they have decided to continue the protests while awaiting a response. But there appears to be little support for these 6 month long protests and urgent demands of the families from the mainstream media and most activists in North & East, Colombo and rest of the country.

This is also a time for families of disappeared to assess their long struggles, recognize some achievements and plan next steps and phases of what is likely to be an even long and continuing struggle. This could include thinking of effective, long term and sustainable alternative strategies to present form of continuous protests. It would be important to think about strengthening alliances in Colombo and across Sri Lanka as well as internationally – with families of disappeared across the country and beyond, and potential allies such as activists, artists, academics, clergy, trade unions and mainstream Sinhalese and English media. The disastrous memorandum emanating from protest in Vavuniya in June, literary saying “we only believe in USA, only USA can help us, USA come and save us”, could serve as a wakeup call for all Sri Lankans. To be conscious of various political influences  on the protests, but not to dismiss what’s fundamentally a struggle by desperate families to find their loved ones who had disappeared. And 30th August can also be a day to reflect why our elderly mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, had to resort to such desperate and drastic calls, undertaking roadside protests for more than 6 months to find disappeared family members.


[i] http://www.un.org/en/events/disappearancesday/

[ii] https://twitter.com/garikaalan/status/900005138412191744

[iii] http://www.hirunews.lk/166456/two-ministers-accuse-police-for-their-attempt-to-abduct-convener-medical-faculty-student-activists

[iv] http://www.itjpsl.com/assets/ITJP_unstopped_report_final.pdf (page 8, section 1 – B)

[v] http://www.jdslanka.org/index.php/news-features/human-rights/702-tamil-woman-activist-campaigning-for-disappeared-threatened-with-death

[vi] http://www.tamilguardian.com/content/tamil-journalists-threatened-sri-lankan-soldiers

[vii] https://english.dgi.gov.lk/news/latest-news/1265-president-meets-family-members-of-missing-persons

[viii] https://www.slguardian.org/2017/07/sri-lanka-womens-call/

[ix] Press Release by Association for Relatives of the Disappeared, 17th August 2017

[x] http://www.mfa.gov.lk/index.php/en/media/media-releases/6502-cabinet-certificates-of-absence

World Refugees Day and refugees from and to Sri Lanka

First published on 21st June 2017, at http://groundviews.org/2017/06/21/world-refugees-day-and-refugees-from-and-to-sri-lanka/

20th June is World Refugee Day. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 65.6 million people have been forcibly displaced globally. I have heard that close to one million Sri Lankans have fled the country to escape violence, war and persecution. I had met few of them in different countries and been struck by their differences in their experiences, challenges, fears and aspirations.

It was alarming to hear that some had fled the country since 2015, including this year. Acording to the International Truth and Justice Project – Sri Lanka (ITJP)[1], they have taken testimonies from 57 Sri Lankan Tamils who had sought asylum in European countries after having faced abduction, illegal detention, torture and/or sexual violence at the hands of intelligence and security officers under the Sirisena government in 2015-2017. There have been many more who had sought asylum during previous governments.

Early this year, in Thailand, I met a Sri Lankan family who had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR. They were barely surviving, with no possibility to be employed legally, struggling to pay for a room to stay in, find food to eat and unable to send children to school. But they were still scared to return home. In 2016, a Tamil journalist / human rights activist who had decided to return to Sri Lanka after going into exile, was detained at the airport and questioned about his activism for more than 24 hours, before being produced before a magistrate and released on bail. His family members were subjected to questioning afterwards.

I also know a few Sinhalese and Tamil journalists and activists who had sought refuge abroad under Rajapakse regime, but had returned to Sri Lanka since 2015. Some had come permanently and some have been visiting regularly. Some had given up benefits of refugee status and possibility to obtain citizenship in a European country which had offered them refugee status. They had not faced any harassments at the airport or afterwards.

Despite rhetoric of inviting those who went into exile to return, the new Sri Lankan government has done very little to guarantee security and assist those who had requested for assistance to return home after being recognized by UNHCR as refugees. In 2015, it literarily took an earthquake for the government to take action to ensure the return of two Sri Lankans from Nepal, who had been granted refugee status by UNHCR.[2]  For around a year, the Sri Lankan government had not assisted two other activists also in Nepal who have been recognized as refugees by UNHCR, and had made repeated requests for the government to intervene to bring them home.

Returning Refugees from India

A significant number of Sri Lankans, mostly Tamils from North and East, had fled to India during decades of war, living as refugees. More than 11,000 are estimated to have returned to Sri Lanka. Despite some limited support from the Sri Lankan government, those who want to return face multiple challenges and the majority of refugees remain in camps in India, uncertain of their future. Like some of those mentioned above, they also fear intrusive visits and questioning from Sri Lankan authorities.

A major challenge they face is lack of legal documents, such as birth, marriage, and death certificates and the National Identity Cards (NIC). The lack of supportive documents[3] of parents has been a major hurdle for children to obtain consular birth certificates and subsequently Sri Lankan citizenship. Many returnees face difficulties in obtaining their citizenship, including heavy penalties and complex documentation requirements. A waiver of penalties is available only to those who possess a return letter from UNHCR, but not to those who return spontaneously of their own accord. Difficulties in obtaining consular documents increase the risk of refugees falling into the category of stateless persons. The inability of refugees born in camps to obtain citizenship (through the Sri Lankan consular process) before return causes delays in their ability to obtain other documents in Sri Lanka after return, such as the NIC, passports, and driving licences. This results in further delays in returnees claiming rights and reintegration benefits, including social welfare schemes, opening bank accounts, finding employment, and enrolling in educational institutions.

Many returnees have ended up being homeless and landless. Some of the refugee’s lands and houses have been occupied by others and refugees have been compelled to live with friends and relatives, in welfare centres or spend their meagre resources on rent. Loss of land documents, land disputes over boundaries and the inability to locate and demarcate land have also been challenges. Some returnees who are able to recover their land are unable to use it for resettlement due to the land being overgrown by jungle growth and wild animals. There are no governmental programmes to provide temporary or transitional shelter.

Deprivation of agricultural land, inability to get fishing licences, and requirement of compulsory guarantors for loans makes it difficult to restart livelihoods. They also face difficulties in finding employment opportunities in both the private and public sector, with limited support schemes available. There are no special employment schemes.

Non-recognition of educational qualifications, including high school / secondary school, degrees and diplomas, obtained overseas while living as refugees, has posed challenges for pursuing higher education and career opportunities. Obtaining equivalent certificates (to recognise certificates from foreign institutions) places an additional financial and procedural burden on returning refugees who are already struggling with very limited resources.[4]

Refugees and Asylum seekers coming to Si Lanka

Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. There are no national procedures for the granting of refugee status. Refugees who come to Sri Lanka are left to the care and protection of UNHCR, which, in agreement with the Government of Sri Lanka, registers asylum seekers and carries out refugee status determination.

About 75% of asylum seekers and refugees in Sri Lanka are from Pakistan and about 15% from Afghanistan. Visa restrictions for these nationals to enter Sri Lanka remain in place and some asylum seekers are turned away at the airport and sent back to the conditions they sought to flee, without an opportunity to present their case or right of appeal, violating the customary law principle of non-refoulement. As of end of 2016, there were 604 refugees who had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR and 576 whose applications were pending at UNHCR in Sri Lanka. In addition to Pakistanis and Afghans, others were from countries such as Bangladesh, Iran, Maldives, Myanmar, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Ukraine and Yemen. Asylum seekers and refugees live in fear of random and unannounced intrusion into their lives by the police and immigration authorities, and the threat of deportation.

UNHCR provides those recognized as refugees with an allowance of about Rs. 10,000 per person or Rs. 22,000 for family with two or more children, which is not enough to cover even accommodation and food and live in dignity in Sri Lanka. Asylum seekers don’t get any allowance and are left to fend for themselves. Few religious groups (Muslim and Christian) and NGOs have been supporting them with education, accommodation, food, healthcare etc. But these have been very minimal, often adhoc and only few have benefited.

The Sri Lankan government doesn’t ensure rights of housing, food, education, healthcare or legal employment to asylum seekers and refugees. No permanent or even transitional shelter is provided by the government. Due to hostility, mistrust, and negative stereotyping from the local community, and threats from police and immigration officers, landlords have been reluctant to rent houses and are known to take advantage of their vulnerable situation and charge unreasonable rental rates and advance payments.

They are not included in government programs for food and nutrition security or social security programs such as Samurdhi, even though this could be done fairly easily and at little extra cost. The treatment and services available to asylum seekers and refugees at public hospitals and clinics is often lacking in terms of care and compassion. In some cases, the provision of treatment is at the discretion of authorities and asylum seekers and refugees who seek medical care are made to feel like they are seeking a privilege, rather than exercising a basic right. Despite having had to flee after experiencing and witnessing atrocities, violence and discrimination, anxieties about family and friends they had left behind and finding themselves in unfamiliar and unwelcoming environment, there is no psychiatric and psychosocial care made available to asylum seekers and refugees.

Although Sri Lankan constitution guarantees “assurance to all persons of the right to universal and equal access to education at all levels”, this is not extended to refugee and asylum children. As of March 2017, there were 106 children of primary school age, of whom 46 were asylum-seekers and 60 are refugees. The refugee children between 6 – 10 years have access to schooling through UNHCR’s support, but a further 167 children of secondary school age, of whom 71 are asylum-seekers and 96 are refugees, do not have any access to formal schooling. Asylum seekers and refugees are also not absorbed into the many government technical education and vocational training systems, which has the potential to help them to learn and develop vocational skills that they could utilise in seeking employment and living independently in their countries of resettlement.

Long way to go

After the end of the war in 2009 and change of government in 2015, some Sri Lankan refugees try to return back, amidst security concerns and minimal assistance from the government. At the same time, other Sri Lankans continue to flee from persecution. And Sri Lanka is failing to provide humane care to asylum seekers coming from other countries, in line with international standards.  Our government and as people, we still have a long way to go towards being a compassionate society where it’s citizens don’t have to flee from persecution and fear and welcome those fleeing from persecution in their countries and coming to us for care and refuge.

[1] http://www.itjpsl.com/

[2] https://samsn.ifj.org/sri-lanka-the-long-road-home-for-the-exiled/

[3] Such as birth certificates of parents, marriage certificates, grandparents’ birth certificates, parents’ consular birth certificates

[4] The expenses include travelling to and from Colombo and the fees for conversions, such as Rs 35,000 for National Apprentice and Industrial Training certificates and Rs 2,500 for university degrees.

In support of religious minorities, rule of law and Lakshan Dias

First published on 18th June 2017, at http://groundviews.org/2017/06/18/in-support-of-religious-minorities-rule-of-law-and-lakshan-dias/

Religious minorities in Sri Lanka – particularly Muslims and Evangelical Christians – faced serious persecution under the Rajapakse Government, which has continued even under the Sirisena-Ranil Government. The Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, who has been hostile towards Evangelical Christians (a numerical minority amongst Christians), now appears to be assisting this Government’s approach of denying the actual problem and attacking those who are attempting to highlight the gravity of the problem. The latest victim is well known human rights lawyer and my good friend, Lakshan Dias.

Given the latest statements from the President and the Minister of Justice, and the general lack of focus on violations of religious rights of Evangelical Christians, I will focus on violence directed towards them (Evangelical Christian) in this article. Some of the systematic violence directed towards the Muslim community has been already well documented.[1]

On 27 May 2017, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) issued a press release, expressing concern about increasing attacks on religious minorities in Sri Lanka.[2] They cited over 20 incidents of violence and intimidation against Christian places of worship across the country in 2017 and over 190 incidents of religious violence against churches, clergy and Christians since 2015. Many of these incidents have been documented on the NCEASL website.[3] The NCEASL press release also highlighted the “alarming increase in the number of incidents led against Muslims”.

On 31 May 2017, the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka wrote to the President, drawing his attention to the “spate of attacks on places of Christian religious worship in the recent past” and expressing grave concern about acts of violence and aggression targeting the Muslim community.[4] The Commission requested the President to “give urgent directions to Ministry of Law and Order and the Inspector General of Police to take all necessary action against the instigators and perpetrators of violence and hate speech targeting the Muslim community as well as other religious minorities.” This clearly doesn’t seem to have happened.

Lakshan’s brave expose and reprisals from President and Minister

On 14 June 2017, during a the TV talk show titled “Aluth Parlimenthuwa (new parliament)”, Lakshan highlighted that Muslim and Christian places of worship are under attack and that 195 attacks against Christians have been reported since 8 January 2015.[5] Lakshan has been a determined and long standing campaigner and advocate on the rights of religious minorities. He often travels far to rural areas, interacts with victimized communities, publicizes their plight, and appears in courts across the country on numerous cases, during this Government and under the previous Government. Although he was referring to the NCEASL report, he is personally aware of many such incidents.

His comments on the TV talk show, especially his candid assertion that Buddhist Monks are behind some of these attacks, drew immediate and angry reactions from a hostile anchor and two other panelists. And within days, it also drew negative reactions from President Sirisena and Minister of Justice and Buddhasasana, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, both of whom were quoted on primetime news of government TV station, ITN on 17 June 2017.[6] President Sirisena said that he had called the Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, and asked from him about attacks on Catholics/Christians (although Lakshan never mentioned attacks on Catholics in the TV talk show). According to President Sirisena, the Cardinal had said that there had been no such attacks. Minister Wijeyadasa misquotes Lakshan as having said 166 attacks against Christians in recent days of this year (what Lakshan actually said is that there have been 195 attacks between 8th January 2015 till todate[7]). The Minister then goes on to say that the Cardinal had claimed no such incidents have happened in Sri Lanka.

Complicity of the Cardinal

The Cardinal on his part has accepted that he doesn’t know that Churches have been attacked to this extent and claims he doesn’t know where this data comes from.[8] This is despite NCEASL incident reports being available publicly for many years, their 27th May 2017 press release and the open letter from the Human Rights Commission etc. The Cardinal’s claim that he is not aware of such large numbers of attacks against Evangelical Christians is difficult to believe, and is likely to be an attempt to sweep these incidents under the carpet, or justify them, given his hostility towards Evangelical Christians. If he is actually ignorant, that shows an extraordinary degree of insensitivity to the rights of religious minorities in Sri Lanka and towards a minority group amongst Christians. His hostility towards some non Catholic Christians is apparent as he refers to them as “fundamentalist Christian groups”. He acknowledges that these Christians may have faced persecution, and that he doesn’t know whether such persecution has been in context of them (fundamentalist Christian groups) building “things like new churches” or trying to “recruit members in areas they had no members”. Cardinal appears to have conveniently forgotten that that for centuries, in Sri Lanka and beyond, thousands of Catholics have been recruited from areas there were never Catholics and that “things like churches” have been built across Sri Lanka by Catholics, including in areas where there had never been Catholics historically.

The President and the Minister appear to be ignorant of the fact that there are many Christian churches in Sri Lanka, and that the Cardinal is only one of the leaders of one of these Churches, the Catholic Church. It’s noteworthy that the Cardinal himself acknowledges that he is only in charge of Catholics in the Western Province (Colombo Archdiocese).[9] There 11 other Catholic dioceses in Sri Lanka led by different Bishops in the other 8 provinces in the country, and there are many other non-Catholic, vibrant Christian communities across the country. Given his limited mandate even within the Catholic Church, his open hostility towards other Christians and his stated ignorance, Cardinal is indeed a very poor choice to consult on matters affecting Christians in Sri Lanka. Indeed, while recognizing Christians as being a numerical religious minority in Sri Lanka, we also need to recognize Evangelicals Christians as a marginalized numerical minority within the Christian community in Sri Lanka, persecuted also by some Catholics, who are the majority Christian community in Sri Lanka.

It appears that both the President and the Minister had not made any effort to contact the NCEASL, even though Lakshan had cited the NCEASL as the institution which had documented the 195 attacks. If the President and the Minister had looked at the NCEASL press statement and incident reports on their website over the years, they would have got a wealth of information about attacks on Evangelical Christians under their watch as well as under the Rajapakse Government. Furthermore, the comments by the President and Minister make no mention of whether they made inquiries with other institutions – such as the Human Rights Commission and the Police – about complaints made to them.

State and Police complicity and refusal to act

An examination of documented incident reports by the NCEASL[10] indicates a range of incidents such as arson, demolition of churches, damage to property, physical assault of clergy and church members causing serious injury, death threats, intimidation, discrimination, forced displacement, and forced closure of churches. Amongst the perpetrators are Buddhist Monks, State officials and Police officers. Police officers have been known to compel Protestant Christian pastors to discontinue religious worship activities.[11] A Police officer, a Hindu religious leader and other community members had also denied burial rites to an Evangelical Christian in a public cemetery.[12]

A common theme in incidents is the seeming reluctance of the Police to act against suspects infringing on the rights of religious minorities. This reluctance appears to be due to influence and pressure exerted by local Buddhist monks, government officials, and politicians. For example, there has been much said and written about the arrest warrants and non-arrest of errant Buddhist Monk, Gnanasara Thero of the BBS, so I will not comment further on it.

Although Sri Lankan law does not require the registration of religious places of worship for any religious body, a circular in October 2008 issued by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs demanded that all “new constructions” of places of worship should obtain approval from the said Ministry. This has not been withdrawn by the current Government. Since the introduction of the circular, Christian Evangelical churches have faced routine harassment, including forced closures by local government authorities who claim such places of worship as not ‘recognized’ or ‘registered’ with the government. Refusal of ‘recognition’ by the state has deprived thousands of Christians of their right to practice their religion. THE NCEASL incident reports indicate that after this Government came into power, more than 50 incidents involving local government and law enforcement officials involved the use of the October 2008 circular to infringe on the rights of Evangelical Christians. The October 2008 circular appears to be used to target the numerically smaller Christian churches in Sri Lanka and not the Catholic and other numerically larger and politically influential churches.[13]

Threat to remove Lakshan from legal profession

Perhaps the most outrageous parts of this drama is the public threat by the Minister of Justice and Buddhasasana to take legal action to remove Lakshan from the legal profession, unless Lakshan apologizes for his comments within 24 hours.[14] Given that a Minister has no role to play in a process of the dismissal of a lawyer, this is clearly a political threat from the Minister.

I am amongst the many victims of injustice on whose behalf Lakshan has advocated in and out of courts. It is left to be seen if some of the many Christians and others Lakshan has defended, campaigned, and advocated for, will stand by Lakshan. And whether and to what extent the Bar Association in Sri Lanka, religious groups, media organizations and others concerned will respond to this threat, which appears to be a threat not just to Lakshan, but to the legal profession as a whole as well as to free expression, religious freedom and the rule of law.

Ruki Fernando is a member of the Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation Commission of the (Catholic) Conference of Major Religious Superiors (JPIC-CMRS) and the Ecumenical group, Christian Solidarity Movement (CSM).

[1] http://groundviews.org/2017/05/22/escalating-violence-renewed-assaults-on-the-muslim-community/

[2] http://mailchi.mp/0f02c4911569/press-release-increase-in-attacks-on-religious-minorities-in-sri-lanka-1208153

[3] http://nceasl.org/category/incident-reports/

[4] http://hrcsl.lk/english/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Letter-to-H.E.-re-Religious-Intolerance-E.pdf

[5] http://www.derana.lk/Aluth-Parlimenthuwa-TV-Derana&vid=18325&page=1 (1.16.17 – 1.16.50)

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMHziODI3yQ&feature=youtu.be (5.47 – 7.33)

[7] http://www.derana.lk/Aluth-Parlimenthuwa-TV-Derana&vid=18325&page=1 (1.16.17 – 1.16.50)

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0s3hdvEKe4s&feature=youtu.be (1.33-2.07)

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0s3hdvEKe4s&feature=youtu.be (2.23-2.33)

[10] http://nceasl.org/category/incident-reports/

[11] http://nceasl.org/pastor-demanded-to-discontinue-religious-activities/

[12] http://nceasl.org/burial-rites-denied-pastor-harassed-at-christian-funeral-2/

[13] The majority of Christians in Sri Lanka are Catholics. The Catholic Bishops are generally recognized as their leaders and have access to powerful politicians. Catholics and Christians in the Churches who are members of the National Christian Council (NCC) are also generally recognized by the government as legitimate and “de-facto” Christians / Churches. But Christians belonging to numerically smaller Churches, many of whom are members of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, are often not recognized by the government and not given opportunities in representative bodies and consultations, even though several of these churches are legal bodies incorporated by acts of parliament.

[14] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMHziODI3yQ&feature=youtu.be (6.37 – 6.57)