Month: January 2015

Will there be “Maithree” and “Yahapalanaya” for Navy occupied Mullikulam?

Article first published at on 22nd January 2015

Last week, I went to Mullikulam, a beautiful and resourceful village in the Mannar district, which has been illegally occupied by the Navy for more than 7 years. It was my first visit for more than a year. The people didn’t seem to have any fresh hopes of reuniting as one community, regaining their lost lands, houses, fishing and agricultural activities and being close to the school and historical church they are devoted to.

Access to the Catholic Church in Mullikulam is still restricted and appears to be getting worse. When two of my friends (one a Catholic Priest) tried to go to the Church on 21st January, they were refused entry by the Navy. The Navy had initially used the excuse to say that the national identity card of one of my friend was issued recently, to which my friends had replied that date of issue of the identity card is irrelevant. Later, they had tried to say that the Priest in charge of the church was not in the church, thus, other Priests and lay Catholics will not be allowed to go. This was after the visiting Priest had made it clear that they were going to visit the historical Church and pray, and not to meet the Priest in charge. The Navy had then insisted that the Church was in their compound, but my Priest friend had retorted that the Navy was trespassing on Church and people’s land, which indeed is the correct legal position. After waiting for around 45 minutes, they still were not allowed to go to the Church.

Last week, I went to Mullikulam with a Catholic priest. Our motorbike was stopped at the sentry point to the village, which is now a Navy camp. We told the Navy we were going to the Catholic Church inside the village. The young Navy officers struggled to contact their superiors. They made us wait for almost half an hour. We were told repeatedly that it would have been better and easier if we had informed that we were coming beforehand. My priest friend ignored and waited. “Why should we get permission or inform early to go to a Church, in church owned land?” was his thinking. Finally we got clearance and went to the Church. We saw Navy families, including children, in houses that have been built by humanitarian agencies for the people of Mullikulam. We also saw a volleyball / basketball court. The Navy appears to be consolidating their hold and presence.

Then we went to the jungle area adjoining Mullikulam village, where some of the original inhabitants of Mullikulam have been compelled to stay due to the Navy occupation. They were living in makeshift houses made of cadjan and tin sheet, which seemed falling apart. We also visited the 27 brick houses which had been built by the Navy and handed over to 27 families. One woman showed us where the roof was leaking. No improvement to their lives and no prospects for an improvement.

Amongst the worst tragedies of the illegal occupation was the division of the once close-knit community, which is now scattered, divided and lives in at least 3 separate areas.

Some significant things had happened in 2014. In January 2015, villagers and the Catholic Bishop of Mannar had reminded the then Governor of the Northern Province about commitments made by the then Defense Secretary, during former President Rajapakse’s visit to Mannar for the election campaign. Land permits for a half acre of land in the cleared jungle area had been given to the displaced. Some had received them in mid 2014 from the President and others had received them in November 2014. At least in one case, authorities had tried to exchange this new document for old permit a family had held for land in Mullikulam, but the family had resisted. In mid 2014, those living in cadjan and tin sheet houses were given 12 tin sheets and 8 cement bags by the Divisional Secretariat. A Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Provincial Councilor had also given approximately Rs. 50,000 to some families, in installments, but parts of it has not been received yet. These were to build new temporary shelters. People we met told us that this was not enough even for a basic 16 feet x 12 feet temporary house.

These people still can’t go fishing in most fertile part of the sea due to Navy occupation. They still don’t appear to have access to all the lands and tanks for cultivation.

The newly repaired, smooth “carpet” road from Mannar was an absolute contrast to the state of housing of the people whose lands and houses have been taken over by the Navy.

There was also another contradiction we experienced. On our way to Mullikulam, we saw lots of newly built houses. It appeared to be part of a special housing project. The roof of these houses had the sign “Jassim” implying that donor was “Jassim”. The area was named “Sh. Jassim City”, and according to the billboard, it is a 279 house project with two small Mosques and one Grand Mosque. Except few houses, vast majority of these houses appeared to be empty. The reasons for new permanent houses without people and people without even temporary houses in the same area is perhaps a question that needs to be addressed by the Divisional Secretariat or other relevant authorities.

I knew the Mullikulam community as a courageous and high spirited community, which had struggled hard to go home to their village. But now, they appeared to be have given up any prospect of going home to their beloved village. But one elderly person from Mullikulam did tell us that they still had some hope. I hope it will remain. I hope it will inspire them to renew their struggle to go home under the new government. I hope it will inspire others who care to support them.

Will the new era of “yahapalanaya (good governance) and rule of law, review the legality of the occupation and deal with those responsible? And what has “Maithree Palanaya” (compassionate rule) have in store for people of Mullikulam, who had lost their houses, agricultural lands, access to best fishing areas, constant and direct access to their historical church, and most importantly, their sense of community?

Jassim-City Jassim-House Mullikulam-Cadjan-shed2 Mullikulam-Cadjan-shed3

Pope Francis and struggle for human rights in Sri Lanka

Article first published at on 13th January 2015

Pope Francis is set to arrive in Sri Lanka, on 13th January, despite several appeals by Catholics including me, to postpone the visit. He will arrive few days days after we Sri Lankans used our ballot to put a stop to growing dictatorship, despite a dirty election campaign that saw deliberate attacks on opposition, massive abuse of state media and other state resources and variety of harassment sand threats. Top aides of the new President has claimed that former President Rajapakse had even attempted to hold on to power through a military coup when he had seen that he was losing.

It would be important for the Pope not to be carried away too much with election celebrations, which is predominantly Sinhalese feeling. I hope the Pope will be able to address key issues related Tamils and Muslims, which have not been addressed by the President Sirisena’s manifesto. This will include processes towards power sharing and addressing serious violations of human rights and humanitarian laws. President Sirisena’s past conduct and that of some of his allies, which have been very nationalist and pro-war, anti-minority, doesn’t give Tamils and Muslims much confidence and hope even in the new government. Clearly, it was their desperate need to get rid of Rajapakse family rule that led them to vote for Sirisena.

But despite these, it is a moment of Hope in Sri Lanka. It is to this moment of Hope that Pope Francis will come in. All these dark years, it was difficult to find hope in Sri Lanka, but it’s also one thing many of us didn’t let go of.

Hopes of mothers and families of disappeared persons that their loved ones will return home. Hopes of political prisoners and their families, that they will be freed soon. Hopes of communities whose lands have been taken away, that they would be restored. Hopes of independent minded human rights activists, journalists, artists, lawyers, students, academics, that they can express themselves freely without reprisals. Hopes of those who had fled into exile, that they could come back and live and work in safety and reunite with children, wives and parents. Hopes of those tortured, sexually abused for healing and justice. Hopes of asylum seekers who have sort temporary refuge in Sri Lanka, that they will not be deported and arrested and that they will find love and support. Hopes that truth will be acknowledged for the massive human rights violations and that justice and reparation will be ensured.

Hopes for end of family rule, and instead, democratic and participatory governance with independent institutions, rule of law, independence of judiciary, media freedom, academic freedom, artistic freedom. Hopes for Right to Information and end to an abusive laws like the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Hope of ending impunity, corruption. Hopes for an end to militarization. Hopes for more just and non exploitative economic policies. Hopes for more equitable, just, compassionate (maithree) future.

The Pope could renew and strengthen these hopes by his deeds and his words. In Christian terms, he could bring good news to the poor and renew hopes that all could have life in all it’s fullness. He could be a strength and source of inspiration for those struggling for human rights and keeping alive flames of hope against heavy odds.

The Pope is also an international figure with high moral and political influence. He will come on the heels of the new President promising more cordial relationships with international community. It would be an golden opportunity for the Pope to encourage the Sri Lankan government and the Colombo Church leaders to welcome and cooperate with the UN’s ongoing inquiry towards accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Tamil clergy in North and East of Sri Lanka have actively supported this process, despite threats and intimidations. The government’s lack of cooperation and hostile attitude has had hindered the effectiveness of the inquiry. The Pope could encourage the Sri Lankan government to work with the UN Human Rights Council members to extend the mandate of the inquiry, invite the team to come to Sri Lanka and ensure a conducive atmosphere for all Sri Lankans who wish to cooperate with it, to do so without fear of reprisals.

For the Colombo Catholics, the highlight of the visit appears to be the Holy Mass at Galle Face Green, where the canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz is to take place. It is my hope that this will not be reduced to a ritual and historic event for Catholics, but an occasion to reflect on social-political-economic realities all Sri Lankans are confronted with and related struggles. Reports that Pope Francis has “unblocked” the process towards canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed for his outspoken criticism of human rights violations by the then dictatorship in El Salvadore, sends us a positive signal and hope that canonization could be linked to struggles for human rights. This is particularly relevant, given the number of Sri Lankan Catholic Priests and lay Catholics who had been killed or disappeared, detained, threatened, harassed, discredited, as they struggled for human rights and social justice in Sri Lanka in recent years. Canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz will be a good occasion for Sri Lankan Catholics to reflect on their efforts and it would be important for the Pope to pay attention to this prophetic dimension of Catholic faith in Sri Lanka.

For Tamils in the North and East, the highlight is likely to be the Pope’s one hour visit to Madhu. A shrine that has for decades given Tamils shelter and refuge from shelling and bombing, from recruitment of children and as a base to receive humanitarian assistance. The shrine itself was shelled and bombed several times and in the final military offensive of the Army, the miraculous statue of Our Lady of Madhu herself was displaced, joining those displaced she had sheltered. Thousands of people affected by war are expected to join the service in Madhu and I was happy to hear that time has been allocated for the Pope to mingle with these people. There is also possibilities for extension of his stay in Madhu, as his program there is scheduled to finish at 4.30pm and there are no other appointments for the day as per the official schedule.

Except for this one hour stop in Madhu, the Pope is scheduled to spend all of his 48 hour trip in the Archdiocese of Colombo. Other events as per official schedule are welcoming ceremony at the airport, meeting with Catholic Bishops, meeting with the President, an inter-religious meeting and a visit to a new a theological college. There appears to be time in between for few other things.

Pope Francis has been a Pope of positive surprises for the poor and oppressed, whom he had spoken to, embraced, and invited to be with him. He undoubtedly has a heavy pre-arranged schedule in Sri Lanka. But if he will be able to free himself for some time from the ceremonial, diplomatic and ritualistic niceties, below are some possible places he could consider visiting, and people he can consider meeting, calling, remembering and asking about. And offering special Papal prayers and blessings. The list is non exhaustive, and randomly chosen, to give an indicator of people who are looking for hope and some of them have been signs of hope themselves.

Ms. Balendran Jeyakumari – a Tamil woman who has been detained without charges for 10 months, separated from her teenaged daughter. Her son had also disappeared after surrendering to the Army and she had been a prominent campaigner amongst families of disappeared for truth and justice.

Ms. Sandya Ekneligoda – Sinhalese wife of a disappeared cartoonist and journalist from Colombo. She had been campaigning for nearly 5 years with her two teenaged sons, seeking truth and justice. She has also been discredited and intimidated.

Ms. Mauri Inoka – Sinhalese wife of a disappeared person from Anuradhapura, who has been campaigning for truth and justice. Her 14 month old twin children were born after the abduction of their father. She herself has been facing number of threats and has been compelled to be in hiding.

Ms. Rajeswari – Tamil mother of Ganesan Nimalaruban, who was tortured and murdered in custody. She waged a brave legal battle to bring home the body of her son to her simple cadjan and tin sheet house, and also campaigned in courts for truth and justice for her son’s murder.

Dr. Manoharan – a Tamil doctor from Eastern Sri Lanka, who despite threats and financial and material benefits offered, has not given up the quest for truth and justice for his son, who was one of the 5 young students killed on the beach in January 2006.

Ven. Watarekke Vijitha Thero – a Buddhist Monk who has been detained, physically attacked, threatened and discredited and forced into hiding, for defending rights of religious minorities and promoting inter-religious harmony.

Mr. Sunil Jayasekera – Convener of the Free Media Movement, who has been campaigning for media freedoms for decades, and has been threatened number of times. Last year, he took lead role in organizing a press conference to condemn obstruction of a journalists training, braving death threats that he received.

Mr. Rizkan Mohamed – son of Mr. Pattani Razeek, a leader of a NGO based in Puttalam, who was abducted 5 years ago, and body found subsequently. Together with the local Mosque Committee, he had been campaigning for justice for the killing of his father.

Mr. Jayathilaka Bandara – a Sinhalese anti-war singer for several decades, who was beaten up twice as he was engaged in a pro-democracy street campaigns in the lead up to the elections in January 2015.

The “Uthayan” – a Tamil newspaper based on Jaffna, which has been attacked number of times, had employees killed and injured, but which has consistently dared to publish news and opinions critical of the military and the government.

The traditional and resource rich village of Mullikulam, in the diocese of Mannar, which has been occupied by the Navy.

Evangelical Christian churches and Mosques attacked in last couple of years.

Pakistani and other asylum seekers in Sri Lanka, who had faced arrest and deportation and have been denied due process to have their asylum applications processed.

Rev. Fr. Francis Joseph – the Tamil Priest from the diocese of Jaffna, who disappeared after writing a letter to Pope Benedict in May 2009, pleading for help on behalf of civilians being massacred. He expressed fear he would be killed by the Sri Lankan government for writing such a letter. On 18th May 2009, at the end of the war, hundreds of eye witnesses saw him surrender to the Sri Lankan Army. He disappeared afterwards. Along with him, several LTTE leaders also surrendered and disappeared.

Fr. Jim Brown and Mr. Vimalathas – a Tamil Priest and a lay Tamil Catholic from the diocese of Jaffna. Fr. Jim Brown had tried his best to protect civilians from fighting in August 2006, by providing them shelter inside the church. But the church was attacked with many civilians being killed and injured. Fr. Jim Brown had pleaded with the Navy to take the injured to hospital. He was threatened by a Navy officer and disappeared on 20th August 2006, having entered a Navy controlled area with Vimalathas.

Fr. Paikiaranjith – a Tamil Catholic Priest from the Diocese of Mannar. He had been working to assist and protect internally displaced persons (IDPs) in and around Mannar, as the District Coordinator of the well known international church agency Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). He was killed in a claymore blast in the Mallavi area on 26 September 2007 when he was carrying humanitarian aid for displaced persons.

Fr. Karunaratnam – a Tamil Catholic Priest from the diocese of Jaffna who had been serving as the Chairman of the North East Secretariat for Human Rights (NESOHR), based in the formerly LTTE controlled area of Killinochchi. He was killed in a claymore attack.

Fr. Sarathjeevan – a Tamil Catholic Priest from the Diocese of Jaffna. From 2008 he was continuously displaced with his people. According to eyewitnesses, when he approached soldiers for help at the end of the war, he was verbally abused, threatened, pushed and fell. Eventually he managed to get help to transport his orphaned children and other people to safety, but on his way he suffered a heart failure that ended his life.

Fr. Vasanthaseelan – a Tamil Catholic Priest from the diocese of Jaffna. He was the Director of Caritas in Sri Lanka’s war-torn Vanni region in 2009. He injured both of his legs after shells hit the Church in Valaignarmadam in April 2009. One of his legs was amputated. Even in hospital and afterwards, he and those who visited him were subjected to surveillance.

Priests and Sisters who had taken a conscious decision to stay with the people during the bloodiest phase of the war, at grave risk to themselves and were subsequently detained illegally.

Bishop Rayappu Joseph – the Bishop of Mannar, who had played a leading role in highlighting human rights abuses of Tamil people, often becoming a public voice, intervening with government and international community. There have been several calls for his arrest by Government Ministers, he was interrogated twice, often threatened and discredited by Government politicians and state media and stopped from visiting political prisoners.

Fr. Yogeswaran – a Tamil Jesuit Priest heading a human rights centre in Eastern Sri Lanka, who was questioned and intimidated for speaking to the visiting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Fr. C. G Jeyakumar – a Tamil Catholic Priest from the Jaffna Diocese who was subjected to a chili powder attack after he spoke about grievances of Tamils to a visiting inter-religious delegation that included Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo.

Fr. Nehru & Fr. Sebamalei – two young Tamil Catholic Priests from the diocese of Mannar who were summoned for questioning by the Northern Army Commander, due to their work organizing and supporting families of disappeared persons.

Fr. Praveen Mahesan, OMI – a Tamil Catholic Priest, who had been threatened number of times, detained and still subjected to an ongoing investigation, and slapped with indefinite speaking and travel restrictions, due to which he is unable to take up a position as missionary in Kenya.

Fr. Stephen – a Tamil Catholic Priest from the Diocese of Jaffna, who was interrogated and intimidated by the military, for writing a poetry book about his experiences while living amidst and serving the people caught up in the last stage of the war.

Tamil Priests threatened, intimidated and questioned for trying to organize Holy Mass, and other Catholic and inter-religious services for those killed during the war.

Can Pope Francis bring a message of peace to a violent land?

Op-ed for UCANews

A little more than a month ago, I made an appeal to Pope Francis not to visit Sri Lanka on a planned Apostolic visit that will begin on January 13 — principally on the grounds that a presidential election was not a suitable moment for such a trip.

Election-related violence has intensified since I made that written appeal. On Wednesday, I heard that a person who was shot while erecting a stage for an opposition party rally succumbed to his injuries. Also that day, three colleagues received death threats over the phone.

Earlier this week, someone deposited the severed heads of dogs in front of two of these colleagues’ homes. The wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda received threats of violence if she did not cancel a vigil to remember his disappearance.

These are just the most recent acts and threats of violence.

Let’s go back three decades. Wednesday marked the 30-year anniversary of the killing of Fr Mary Bastian inside the Vankalei Church premises in front of witnesses. Like many other such victims, his body was never found and nobody has been held accountable for his death.

It is in this present and past context that Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, has asked Catholics to have faith in the promises of the two main presidential candidates in Thursday’s election that their supporters will not engage in any violence before or after the elections.

These assurances of a peaceful poll sound hollow to friends and colleagues who are even now suffering intimidation and violence. Indeed, they fear the incumbent, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, will refuse to step down in the event that he loses the election, leading to reprisals against the supporters of his rivals.

Cardinal Ranjith has not condemned this week’s violence and threats, nor has he reached out to any of the victims. And yet, he has been quoted in the local media as saying, “If there is a possible threat of violence or if the existing circumstances at the time point to a violent environment for the papal visit, then we will have to take the necessary steps”.

With all due respect, Cardinal Ranjith, the threats are more than possible. They are real. The environment is already violent.

It is my hope that even at this late hour Pope Francis will forego his visit to Sri Lanka, regardless of who wins the election. Furthermore, it is the hope of many that the dignity and sanctity of life of the Sri Lankan people — central to any post-democratization agenda — will be given at least some consideration alongside the financial and logistical arrangements of those who take credit for inviting the pope to visit Sri Lanka.

Let us assume that the pope will not cancel his visit. How will it be meaningful to Sri Lanka?

Its main focus appears to be the canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz. I must say that more than 300 years after his death and 20 years after his beatification, I see no reason why we can’t wait a few more months or years.

But if we cannot wait, then it would be worth noting the deeper significance of Vaz’s canonization. First, he was courageous in the face of adversity. Second, he used creativity to overcome the many obstacles put in front of him. Finally, he was profoundly humble.

Sri Lankan Catholics would do well to emulate these three attributes in the midst of violence that has occurred and violence that is imminent. They are essential for bearing Christian witness in the country and particularly in working towards justice and human rights.

Last year, Pope Francis gave us a fresh perspective on canonizations. He was reported to have said that he wanted theologians to study whether those who were killed because of their actions doing God’s work could also be considered martyrs.

“What I would like is that they clarify when there’s a martyrdom for doing the work for the other that Jesus commands”. This was said in the context of Pope Francis “unblocking” and expediting the process for beatification and eventual canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvadore, who had been killed for his outspoken condemnation of the dictatorship and it’s supporters.

“For me Romero is a man of God. There are no doctrinal problems and it is very important that [the beatification] is done quickly,” Pope Francis is reported to have said.

These Papal words are relevant to Sri Lanka, a country where a Catholic priest disappeared in May 2009 for writing an appeal to the then Pope Benedict XVI to save innocent civilians from being massacred. Fr Francis, an elderly Tamil priest who had opted to remain in the war zone with his people, wrote that letter amidst falling shells and bombs, and told Pope Benedict that the government could kill him for writing such a letter.

Sadly, his fear seems to have been fulfilled. Fr Francis was seen by hundreds of people surrendering to the army but was never seen afterwards. Submissions in courts and to commissions of inquiries have yielded nothing. Will Pope Francis remember Fr Francis during his visit to Sri Lanka?

I hope the canonization will be an opportunity to reflect on modern-day Catholic martyrs in Sri Lanka. Another Tamil priest, Fr Jim Brown, disappeared after having been threatened by a naval officer. This was days after he had taken the lead to save many lives and get medical treatment for civilians injured during the fighting in 2006.

Two other Tamil Catholic priests involved in human rights and humanitarian work, Fr Karunaratnam (Fr Killi) and Fr Pakiaranjith, were also killed in 2008 and 2007, respectively. From the 1980s, Sinhalese and Tamil priests who have been at the forefront of raising their voices on behalf of the oppressed and supporting struggles for justice have been killed or disappeared in Sri Lanka.

Government officials have discredited and intimidated Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar for speaking out on human rights violations, and there have been calls for his arrest. He has been subjected to interrogations on at least two occasions. Along with other Catholic clergy and lay persons, many independent journalists and human rights activists have been killed, disappeared, attacked, threatened, intimidated, harassed, restricted and discredited with false allegations.

I have experienced this type of repression personally on many occasions. Last year, a Tamil Catholic priest and I were arrested and detained under terrorism charges when we tried to meet families of those detained, which we consider our Christian duty. We are still subjected to investigations, travel and speaking restrictions, and our phones and bank accounts are being scrutinized.

Christians and Muslims have been under severe attack by those claiming to be Buddhist groups. A Buddhist monk who has publicly stood for freedom of religious minorities and inter-religious harmony has been attacked several times, jailed and forced into hiding. Private and state land has been acquired, often illegally, for military and touristic purposes. A traditional Tamil Catholic village, where the Church also owns land, is now a naval camp.

The military continues to stop or interfere in religious and civil events in the North. Militarization is spreading all over the country, including in education, sports, tourist resorts, airlines, boat services, shops, restaurants and farms.

A major challenge for Pope Francis will be to overcome bureaucratic and ceremonial niceties to reach out to the oppressed, such as families of those disappeared or killed, and to visit political prisoners, those who have been evicted from their lands, tortured and subjected to sexual abuse.

But reaching out to the oppressed does not seem to be the focus for the Colombo Catholic hierarchy organizing the papal visit. Perhaps such matters are considered “political” and not matters that are central to Catholic teachings? Or perhaps what Jesus did during his ministry, and what Pope Francis seeks to emulate — namely, serving the poor and downtrodden — has been forgotten?

The preparation for the visit appears to be spirituality disconnected from socio-political-economic realities and concerns of the poor and the oppressed. The newly opened Catholic Bookshop in Colombo is selling Pope Francis souvenirs, but when I asked to purchase some booklets containing what Pope Francis has been doing and saying, including his encyclicals, I was told that none were available.

On a more hopeful note, during a recent visit to the North I heard about special efforts to ensure the pope has at least some time to interact with people affected by the civil war when he visits the Madhu shrine. However, he will have only one hour in the 48 hours he will spend in the country to see them.

If Pope Francis does arrive as expected on January 13, I wonder what he will say and do. What will he pray for and what will he say to our government officials? How will he show his solidarity with the poor and oppressed? How will he instill hope in a more democratic, just and loving Sri Lanka?

Ruki Fernando as an adviser with the Inform Human Rights Documentation Center.