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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.

 

Sri Lanka: The long road home for the exiled

First published at https://samsn.ifj.org/sri-lanka-the-long-road-home-for-the-exiled/ on 13th May 2015

On April 30, 2015, three Sri Lankan journalists and human rights defenders (HRDs) Shantha, Jayampathi and Kumuduni returned home after several years in exile in Nepal and short periods in India and the Maldives[1].

All three had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR in Nepal, but had renounced their refugee status and opportunity for permanent resettlement in a western country. Instead they decided to return home after the former Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was defeated at presidential elections on January 8 this year.

These Sri Lankans had previously faced death threats, arrests and detention and harassments due to their opposition to the authoritarian Rajapaksa, compelling them to flee their homeland. I had been in touch with them during the time they faced threats in Sri Lanka as well as during their exile, and I know they went only as a last resort and longed to return. But they found out that return was more difficult than being relocated. Numerous appeals made by them to Sri Lankan authorities and UNHCR didn’t yield results for more than 100 days. Appeals by Sri Lankan, Nepali and international media organizations also didn’t yield results.

As I tried to assist them in return, I found that there are very few international human rights and media freedom organizations are ready to assist journalists / HRDs to return home and continue their work, although many had come forward to assist those at risk to relocate. Only the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Frontline Defenders responded favourably to my appeals. Some didn’t reply for months and some claimed the nature of assistance required and generally the idea of assisting those in exile to return and continue work was not in their mandate. It literally took an earthquake to change the situation!

After the earthquake in Nepal, the Sri Lankan government rushed emergency assistance to Nepal and committed to bring back all Sri Lankans who were in Nepal. Sri Lankan colleagues, friends and organizations intensified their appeals and pressure on the Sri Lankan government to also get back Shantha, Jayampthi and Kumidini. Finally, they returned last week, during the early hours of April 30.

Exile is something close to my heart. I was also compelled to spend a few months in exile and when I returned, had to take complicated security precautions. I had often wondered about my complicity in assisting some of the most committed and courageous Sri Lankans to go into exile. In most of my overseas visits, I have met and spent time with those in exile and their families. I have also tried to keep in touch with families who had been left behind in Sri Lanka. In recent years, I found myself being called upon to assist exiled Pakistani HRDs coming to Sri Lanka. I often end up feeling frustrated, helpless and powerless to assist them in difficulties they face as exiles / refugees.

Hearing some wanting to return, especially friends and colleagues, has been extremely encouraging and empowering for me. But it is also frustrating to see that there is very little assistance available from the Sri Lankan government and the international community to that end. This should in no way undervalue the care, concern and support of some foreign governments, international media and human rights organizations and even individuals, who had come forward to offer protection and assistance to journalists and HRDs, including me, during very difficult and dangerous times.

Two exiled journalists / HRDs in Europe have also told me they have renounced their refugee status and are going to return to Sri Lanka in the coming months. Others have told me they may come later if the situation is conducive and safe for their return. Amongst those planning to return temporarily in the coming months is Poddala Jayantha, a well known journalist and press freedom activist who fled to India in the face of death threats. He returned to Sri Lanka and was then again compelled to leave for the US after a brutal assault and death threats as he was recovering. Poddala’s wife told me she is still very scared for his safety if he returns.

Many others do not want to return as yet, still unassured of their safety, including pending investigations or arrest warrants against them[2]. Some do not want to return for fear of further persecution or ill-health. Some don’t want to return due to having children who have now learnt languages and settled down in new countries and some want to return once they get permanent residency or citizenship in countries where they have got refugee status[3].

Of course, some may have left even when they didn’t face serious risks, and they are unlikely to return from what they may consider greener pastures. This is article is not about them.

Government invitation to return – going beyond the rhetoric

Immediately after the January 8 elections, the new government invited exiled HRDs and journalists to return.

However, an absolute pre-requisite for HRDs / journalists in exile to return is to ensure there are no continuing harassments and threats to HRDs and journalists. In this regard, some of the recent incidents reported in the media, some of which I mentioned in an article on World Press Freedom day[4], will further discourage exiled journalists and HRDs from returning home. A second factor is to indicate clear progress in ensuring justice and accountability for previous attacks, threats and violence against HRDs and journalists, including against some of those in exile who are considering return.

As I tried to assist Shantha, Jayampathi and Kumudini in their struggle to come home, I felt that bringing home exiled journalists / HRDs home was not a priority to the new government, and that it was more a propaganda statement. However, the return of Shantha, Jayampathi and Kumudini gives me more hope, that there will be government and societal support for others in exile also to return. If the new president, Maithripala Sirisena, and his government are serious and genuine, they should establish a concrete program of action to assist exiled HRDs and journalists to return without further delay. Below are some ideas that could be considered;

  1. Appointment of a focal point in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or an appropriate Ministry. The person should be someone sensitive to the situation of exiled HRDs and journalists and with capacity to deal with complications and challenges that are bound to come up. The person’s name, phone, email, skype should be made available publicly for any exiled HRD, journalist or their family and colleagues to contact, in Sinhalese, Tamil or English.
  2. The focal point should clearly clarify whether there are any pending arrest warrants or investigations against anyone intending to return and, if so, indicate details, including steps that will be taken to guarantee that such process will be carried out strictly in line with due legal process, within a specified time period.
  3. Clear instructions must be given to Sri Lankan embassies and High Commissions overseas to extend all possible assistance, advice and information to exiled HRDs and journalists who want to return.
  4. The government should initiate, support and facilitate “come and see” visits for those who want to return temporarily before making a final decision to come back. This is particularly important for those who will have to make difficult decisions about bringing back school going children and those who still have fears for safety.
  5. Some of those in exile await justice for attacks and threats against them. They need to be given clear and detailed updates on progress made so far and plans on future investigations and prosecutions. Where fresh statements, testimony is needed, and victims are unable to be physically present in Sri Lanka, possibilities such as video / skype testimony, written submissions and legal representations could be considered.
  6. Ways of offering back jobs (especially in state institutions) to those who lost them due to their free expression and activism should be explored and updates provided.
  7. A trust fund could be set up to provide financial support to those who want to come back. A significant portion must come from the Sri Lankan government. Additional funding could be solicited from well wishers, including individuals, organizations and foreign governments. The fund should be handled in a transparent and independent manner, with representation from human rights and media freedom organizations. Costs of returning and interim resettlement allowance could be amongst the needs such a fund could contribute to. The financial situation of the person returning, varying needs and whether return is permanent or temporary could be factors taken into consideration.

International and regional organizations must be proactive and creative. They should review their mandates, if necessary, in order to contribute towards actual needs of HRDs and journalists who want to return home to continue their activism and journalistic profession. Foreign governments which have adopted policies and practices, including formal guidelines on human rights defenders and freedom of expression (such as the European Union, Norway and Switzerland) could consider support for those who want to return within the framework of these guidelines and policies, including financial support and diplomatic initiatives in relation to challenges such as ones faced by Shantha, Jayampathi and Kumudini in Nepal.

Most of HRDs and journalists who had gone into exile have suffered terribly – before they went and after being exiled[5]. Their families have suffered. They had to give up a lot. They deserve respect and understanding for their decisions to stay away or return. If and when they want to return, they should be supported morally, politically and financially, considering specific needs and whether the return is permanent or temporary.

The Sri Lankan government must take the lead role in this. Media institutions, media freedom and human rights organizations (local and international), foreign governments, donors and all others who value human rights and media freedom, especially Sri Lankan people, should support and contribute to such efforts.

Ruki Fernando is a Sri Lankan writer and human rights / press freedom advocate. He has a court order restricting his freedom of expression in relation an ongoing investigation on anti-terror charges. His writings are available at www.rukiiiii.wordpress.com 

[1] For background, see http://groundviews.org/2015/04/29/sri-lankas-emergency-assistance-to-nepal-and-return-of-exiled-journalists/

[2] For example, see copy of arrest notice against writer, activist and academic Ratnajeevan Hoole at https://www.colombotelegraph.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Arrest-Order-Airport.pdf and https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/dilemma-of-those-in-exile-continues-frederica-jansz-speaks-out/

[3] See https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/dilemma-of-those-in-exile-continues-frederica-jansz-speaks-out/ and https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/on-behalf-of-returning-exiles/

[4] See http://groundviews.org/2015/05/03/world-press-freedom-day-2015-and-freedom-of-expression-in-sri-lanka/

[5] For more on reasons that led to exile and life in exile, and names of some journalists in exile (as of May 2013), see  http://www.ceylontoday.lk/59-31472-news-detail-exiled-from-journalism.html

Photo credit: Jayampathi Bulathsinhala for Jayampathi and Kumudu’s photos
http://www.salem-news.com/articles/july152012/shantha-wijesuriya.php for Shantha Wijesooriya’s photo

– See more at: https://samsn.ifj.org/sri-lanka-the-long-road-home-for-the-exiled/#sthash.HKC1JTET.dpuf

UN deferral must be used to make Sri Lanka war crimes report stronger

Article first published at http://www.ucanews.com/news/un-deferral-must-be-used-to-make-sri-lanka-war-crimes-report-stronger/73047 on 23rd February 2015

This month, the UN Human Rights Council announced it would defer publication of a major report that investigates allegations of serious human rights violations and related crimes during the last years of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose office had been entrusted with the task, had asked the council to delay the report’s release, originally scheduled for March, until September, based on a request by Sri Lanka’s new government. According to High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, one of the reasons justifying a deferral was “clear commitments” from the government to cooperate with his office “on a range of important human rights issues”. These commitments were detailed in a letter Sri Lanka’s new foreign minister, Mangala Samaraweera, sent to the high commissioner. But the foreign minister’s letter avoids saying anything directly related to the UN investigation, and thus, it appears that the new Sri Lankan government could follow the previous regime in relation to the UN investigation. First of all, the letter doesn’t state that Sri Lankans are free to cooperate with the UN investigation and gave no assurances that there will be no reprisals for any individuals or groups who do so. Secondly, the letter says nothing about inviting the UN investigation team to Sri Lanka and creating an enabling environment for such a visit. Thirdly, there is nothing contained in the letter about the Sri Lankan government sharing information and cooperating with the investigation. In this context, it will be challenging to realize “the possibility that important new information may emerge which will strengthen the report”, which was the second reason the high commissioner gave for justifying his request to defer the report’s release. The new government likely believes that cooperating with the UN investigation would be suicidal for the parliamentary elections expected to be held in June or July. Another reason for reluctance may be the fact that very senior figures in the present government could also be implicated in serious abuses in the final UN report. The newly elected president, Maithripala Sirisena, has claimed to be the acting defense minister during the final weeks of the war, and the army commander during the last years of the war is now a key political ally of the new government. The new president has declared that he will not cooperate with UN processes for wartime accountability and some of his key ministers have reiterated this. Hence, it doesn’t surprise me that many Sri Lankans whose families have been killed, disappeared and tortured feel accountability will be shelved forever if the UN process is constantly delayed, and a purely domestic process is set up. Another reason for the lack of confidence in a domestic process is “the history of failed or obstructed domestic human rights inquiries in Sri Lanka”, as the UN High Commissioner himself has noted. Granted, the current environment in Sri Lanka feels less repressive than it was under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime. There have been several positive actions such as the passing of the Victim and Witness Protection and Assistance Act, consultations on the Right to Information Act and the appointment of civilian governors in the North and East. But at the same time, a gazette notification has been issued calling on armed forces to maintain law and order throughout the country, as well as extending a controversial law allowing police to arrest and detain people for up to 48 hours without a warrant in cases where serious crimes are suspected. Last week, when I was in Batticaloa with a religious group, a colleague who organized a visit for us was questioned by intelligence agencies and another activist from Batticaloa, who went to visit some ex-detainees, got a call from the army asking about the visit. In Mannar, a Tamil ex-detainee was intimidated through phone calls. Two activists from Jaffna, still in hiding after receiving death threats during the Rajapaksa regime, continue to be hounded. These are just some examples indicating that one should not be so naive as to think that the situation has improved everywhere. In this context, building confidence in domestic processes will take time and effort. Although international involvement in a domestic process has been hinted at, there are no indications how this will be different from previous international involvement, such as the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons and present International Advisors to the Presidential Commission looking into Missing Persons. Both are failures, underscoring why it’s crucial to seek international involvement beyond monitoring and advising. In voting for change in Sri Lanka’s January elections, large numbers of Sinhalese voters rejected the anti-UN and anti-West propaganda of the extremist Sinhalese nationalist and Buddhist fundamentalist groups. Large numbers of Tamils also voted for the new president, despite Sirisena’s categorical rejection of international accountability processes. Rather than being emboldened by this and engaging the Sinhalese and Tamil population in an objective manner, the government appears to be using the rhetoric of defeated extremist Sinhalese-Buddhist groups, and sadly, the Sinhala-Buddhist population as a whole, as an excuse not to cooperate with the UN investigation and engage with it constructively. The UN investigation covers allegations of violations and abuses by both parties — meaning the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — as has been the case with the previous UN report by the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts, related to accountability in Sri Lanka. Also, UN processes in relation to accountability in Sri Lanka have so far been fact-finding and investigative. It’s unlikely that there will be an international tribunal for Sri Lanka or that Sri Lanka will be taken up at the International Criminal Court. The present investigation team’s mandate is not to prosecute, but simply “to establish the facts and circumstances of alleged violations, and of the crimes perpetrated, with a view to avoiding impunity and ensuring accountability”. So a key challenge for all those genuinely interested in accountability in Sri Lanka should address is how the findings of this investigative report can inform any future accountability process — domestic or international — and any truth and reconciliation initiatives. These UN reports could contribute substantially to achieving what Pope Francis said was key to reconciliation in Sri Lanka — ensuring that the tragedies of the war are not forgotten. International involvement alone will never bring reconciliation and democracy to Sri Lanka in the long term. But ruling out any international involvement, particularly in today’s transitional stage, is not wise. Accountability is the responsibility of both Sri Lankans and the international community. We should not let either wash their hands of this. The UN investigation has become an immensely controversial political issue in Sri Lanka and beyond. This has sadly overshadowed the fact that for many Sri Lankans, especially Tamils, this is a deeply personal and emotional issue — searching for truth and acknowledgment about what happened to their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, and even extended families and the entire community. In a recent discussion in Colombo with hundreds of people representing ethnic and religious groups from different parts of the country, a mother stood up and held up the photo of her young son. “I can’t wait 100 days to know where my son is or what happened to him,” she said. “I have already waited for many years.” Many Sri Lankans like her, from within Sri Lanka and overseas, have taken great effort and risk to give testimony to the UN investigation team as well as previous UN efforts like the Panel of Experts. It would be a mistake to ignore their aspirations and contributions, and look at the report purely as one based on the interests of other states, NGOs, the Tamil diaspora, the media or other groups. The investigative report may polarize Sri Lankan society and inflame Tamil and Sinhala nationalists. But the long-term answer to this is not to run away from this reality or postpone it, but to engage objectively with local populations, particularly rural Sinhala-Buddhist communities. Not doing so could push some Tamils toward more extreme measures and demands. As a Sinhalese, I have been involved in discussing the Panel of Experts report and successive Geneva resolutions, with Sinhala-Buddhist communities in rural areas. These have been challenging, yet enlightening, despite the threats it posed at the time. Last year, in the midst of the UN Human Rights Council sessions, I was detained by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) and much of the intense interrogation I was subjected to during those days was in relation to my visits to Geneva and my involvement with the UN processes. But it also gave me an opportunity to explain the nature of UN processes and why some victims and their families, including Sinhalese and Muslims, take their grievances to the UN, and one TID officer even said “there is a point in what you say”. These conversations came during the height of the repressive Rajapaksa regime. Surely there is more space to have such conversations now? The high commissioner appeared to have given serious consideration to the aspirations of victims and their families before his decision to seek a deferral. “I am acutely aware that many victims of human rights violations in Sri Lanka, including those who have bravely come forward to provide information to the inquiry team, might see this is as the first step towards shelving, or diluting, a report they have long feared they would never see,” he said in his statement announcing the report’s deferral. The high commissioner emphasized that the deferral is “for one time only” and gave his “personal, absolute and unshakable commitment that the report will be published by September”. Now that the report has been deferred, victims and their families will have to wait. But during this time, they can try to find ways to further strengthen the report. The high commissioner and member states of the UN’s Human Rights Council, who agreed to the deferral, have an obligation to strengthen the report. This can be partially achieved by ensuring that the human and financial resources needed for the investigation team to continue its work are provided. They should also seek assurances from the Sri Lankan government that it will cooperate with the investigation, that it will facilitate a visit by the investigation team in an enabling environment and offer public guarantees of zero reprisals for Sri Lankans who want to cooperate with the investigation. The UN should make it clear whether they are still open to receiving submissions for the investigation. The Sri Lankan government must also tell us its position on the UN investigation. Politicians, journalists and civil society activists should take advantage of the less repressive environment to engage with the report objectively, including local populations who may oppose it. The debate about whether follow-up steps to the UN investigation should be purely domestic, purely international or both, must be discussed internationally. But this is a debate that should happen primarily in Sri Lanka.

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.

Pope Francis, please don’t come to Sri Lanka in January; Appeal from a Sri Lankan Catholic

On 20th Nov. 2014, the President of Sri Lanka officially proclaimed his intention to hold presidential elections and seek a third term. This was when there was two more years to hold presidential  elections. It was widely believed that the reasons for premature elections was the fading popularity of the President and his strong belief in astrological predictions that his best chance of winning elections is in early January 2015. The premature elections was not at all based on public interest or to further democratic culture in Sri Lanka.
Accordingly, on 22nd Nov. 2014, the Commissioner of Elections announced that presidential elections would be held on 8th Jan. 2015. According to election laws in Sri Lanka, the day of elections should have been between 6th to 20th January 2015 (28-42 days after nominations). The Election Commissioner has implied to media that considering the Papal visit, the date for elections was fixed for 8th Jan, probably based on the widespread belief that a Papal will not happen few days before an election. Thus, Your Holiness’s visit has been used as a justification to fix elections on 8th January 2014, and drastically reduce the election campaign period. This will severely limit  the few opportunities opposition candidates and civil society has to engage in debates about issues around the elections. Your Holiness is implied as blessing the incumbent President’s election campaign, with large bill boards showing President Rajapaksa and his wife meeting you erected in predominately Catholic areas. Some slogans say ‘’With the blessings of the Your Holiness, you (incumbent President) will be our President Again’’.
There is widespread fear of election violence, which has started with a opposition politician being shot within hours of the day of elections being announced. In this first week after nominations, at least 6 incidents of shootings have been reported, with most targeted being those connected with the opposition parties. Widespread abuse of state resources and state officials is expected, as it was in previous elections. There is also uncertainty and fear about large scale violence and retaliation against opposition activists in the days after the elections. The main opposition candidate from the last Presidential Election in 2010 was jailed immediately after the elections. Fears have also been expressed that the incumbent may not hand over power even if an opposition candidate wins the elections.
After years of repression of dissent and minorities and uncertainty about viable opposition candidates to the incumbent President, there appears to be new hope, enthusiasm and courage amongst Sri Lankans to engage in discussions and debates about their future, including democratic governance, rule of law, peace and reconciliation, issues related to minority communities. I also believe that it is the duty of Catholics to be fully conscious and involved in matters that have such serious consequences for future of country, during this period. It is likely that election results would be formally announced on evening of 9th January or morning of 10th January. The days following will be a period that Sri Lankans, including Catholics, should be fully involved in dealing with aftermath of elections, which could most probably be a very violent and tense period. If a new incumbent or the existing incumbent takes office peacefully, the days after the elections will be a period that Sri Lankans will be attempting to take forward a reform agenda, that promotes better governance, rule of law, media freedom, judicial independence, accountability for serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law, reconciliation, political solution for ethnic conflict etc. In this scenario, we as Catholics, and even non Catholic brothers and sisters, may have to make a difficult choice whether we should get ourselves fully involved in preparations for rare and unique occasion of Papal visit and beatification of Blessed Joseph Vaz or an critical presidential elections.
Visiting Sri Lanka 3-4 days after election results will also not give Your Holiness enough time to assess the post election situation in the country and share some reflections about the way Christians should be involved in social-political-economic issues of the country, particularly with the victims of human rights violations and their families.
Like me, most Sri Lankans, Catholics and non Catholics, would be very keen to welcome Your Holiness to Sri Lanka. But 3-4 days after elections is definitely not the time. Your Holiness have already been used to limits the campaign period which will negatively affect opposition candidates, and on the other hand, Your Holiness is implied as supporting the election campaign of the incumbent President.
Presidential elections in Sri Lanka are due only in two years time and there is absolutely no pressing reasons to have it now. It has been fixed in January 2015 in the interest of one individual – incumbent President – and perhaps his family. Likewise, there is no hurry for a Papal visit to Sri Lanka or to beatify Blessed Joseph Vaz. We have waited two decades and hundreds of years respectively for both these and we can wait for few more months or even years. A Papal visit in 2016 (perhaps when you are visiting Asia again for the Eucharistic Congress?) has the potential to be much more meaningful to Catholics and all Sri Lankans. Particular for us to be be able to spiritually prepare and participate in events, taking into consideration socio-political-economic realities.
Life in Sri Lanka today, including “prophetic” roles by sections of the Catholic Church
I take this chance to share some facts and reflections, based on my personal experience. Space and limits of my experience may make these incomplete, but I hope below will help Your Holiness see a glimpse of life in Sri Lanka, that most mainstream media and government and even most Church leaders would not want to share.
In March 2014, I got urgent messages from some Tamils to assist their relatives and large number of other Tamil persons who were allegedly arrested in the war ravaged North. I visited the area with a Catholic Priest, to assess the situation and see whether we should try to offer any assistance. For us, this was a response to our Catholic calling, to visit the detainees (at least their families) and others subjected to injustice. Military / Police followed us, stopped us for long periods at checkpoints, interrupted us when we were chatting with local people in their houses and finally arrested us. I was subjected to intense interrogation, denied access to lawyers despite repeated requests and visits by several teams of lawyers. The reasons given for my arrest in the arrest receipt was that I was supporting the revival of terrorism, sending information abroad to earn money and causing discomfort to the government. I believe both of us were released due to immediate and massive national and international outrage. But both of us are still under investigation, our bank accounts are being scrutinized, and court orders have been obtained to restrict our freedom of expression and travel. One of the ladies we went to inquire about, Ms. Jeyakumari Balendran, still languishes in prison for more than 8 months, without any charges, separated from her teenaged daughter. Another lady we were inquiring into, was detained and released, but stopped from traveling overseas. Her mother in law, who we met during our visit, was also arrested and released, but was also reported to have been prevented from leaving the country. There are many others who have been in prison for long time due to no fault of their own.
In August 2006, many people were killed and others injured inside a Catholic Church in Allaipiddy, Jaffna, which offered sanctuary to terrified Tamil civilians amidst fierce fighting. This is not the first time civilians have been killed, injured while seeking refuge in a Catholic Church. Even hospitals have not been spared in the fighting. Fr. Jim Brown, a young Tamil Catholic Priest, who was the Parish Priest of the Allaipiddy Church, disappeared after he had done his best to protect civilians from being killed and to get medical assistance for those injured. No one has been held accountable for the disappearance of Fr. Jim Brown, and that of the son of Ms. Jeyakumari that I mentioned above or journalists, human rights activists and civilians who had disappeared. Many of their families clamoring for truth and justice are being threatened, intimidated, harassed and restricted. In August this year, I was at a “listening and sharing” meeting with families of disappeared, held in a centre run by Oblate priests. A mob led by Buddhist Monks invaded the place, and when we called the Police, they (Police) compelled the meeting to be cancelled and refused to take action against the invaders.
Government Ministers and Government officials have discredited and intimidated a Tamil Catholic Bishop speaking out on human rights violations and there have been calls for his arrest. He has been subjected to interrogations at least twice. Many other Catholic clergy and lay persons, independent journalists and human rights activists have been killed, disappeared, attacked, threatened, intimidated, harassed, restricted, discredited with false allegations. Christians and Muslims have been under severe attack, by those claiming to be Buddhist groups. Private and  state land have been acquired, often illegally, for military and touristic purposes. A very traditional, Tamil, Catholic village, where the Church also owns land, is now a Navy camp. Military continues to stop or interfere in religious and civil events in the North. Militarization is spreading all over the country, including education, sports, tourist resorts, airlines, boat services, shops, restaurants, farms etc.
Belated efforts by the UN to assist in ascertaining truth of what happened in the last years of the war and ensue accountability has been rejected by the government.
Sri Lanka is a country where even a Catholic Priest can disappear for writing a letter to the Pope. In May 2009, a Tamil Catholic Priest, Fr. Francis Joseph, wrote a letter to Pope Benedict from within the war zone, about conditions that existed and slaughter of thousands. He expressed fear that he maybe killed by the Sri Lankan government for writing and making public such a letter. I’m unaware whether Pope Benedict read that letter or what he did to act on it or protect the writer. What I do know from eyewitnesses is that few days after writing the letter, Fr. Joseph was seen surrendering to the Sri Lankan Army and then he disappeared. A court case has been pending in Sri Lankan courts about the disappearance of Fr. Joseph and the matter was brought before a Commission of Inquiry in Sri Lanka, but we are nowhere near to establishing truth and justice.
I’m aware that there maybe reprisals from the Sri Lankan government or even the Catholic Church leadership, for making this appeal to Your Holiness. Along with concerned Catholics and others, I have been involved in reflections and discussions about Your Holiness visit for a number of months. Now that the day for an premature and unnecessary presidential elections has been formally announced with utter disregard for long pre-planned visit of Your Holiness and shameless use of Your Holiness for political  campaign of the incumbent President, I felt compelled to share my thoughts. I hope Your Holiness will also take into consideration before reaching a decision about visiting Sri Lanka in January 2015.
Ruki Fernando (A Sri Lankan Catholic from Archdiocese of Colombo)
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Spanish translation
Papa Francisco (no venga a Sri Lanka)
El 20 de noviembre 2014, el Presidente de Sri Lanka proclamó oficialmente su intención de celebrar las elecciones presidenciales y buscar un tercer mandato. Quedaban entonces dos años hasta las elecciones presidenciales y se asumió que las razones para anticipar las elecciones eran que la popularidad de la Presidente estaba disminuyendo y que él creía en las predicciones astrológicas que su mejor oportunidad de ganar las elecciones era a principios de enero de 2015. Las elecciones anticipadas no fueron en absoluto basadas en el interés público o en el fomento de la cultura democrática en Sri Lanka.

En consecuencia, el 22 de noviembre 2014, el Comisionado de Elecciones anunció que las elecciones presidenciales se celebrarían el 08 de enero de 2015. De acuerdo con las leyes electorales en Sri Lanka, el día de las elecciones debería haber sido entre enero 06 al 20, 2015 (28 a 42 días después de nominaciones). La Comisión Electoral implicó a los medios que dada la visita papal, la fecha de las elecciones se había fijado para el 08 de enero, basándose en la creencia generalizada de que una visita papal no podía tener lugar unos días antes de una elección. Por lo tanto, la visita de Su Santidad se ha utilizado como justificación para fijar las elecciones del 8 de enero de 2014, y así reducir drásticamente el periodo de campaña electoral. Esto limitará severamente las pocas oportunidades de los candidatos de la oposición así como los debates de la sociedad civil sobre cuestiones en torno a las elecciones. Se implica que la visita de Su Santidad es una bendición a la campaña electoral del presidente titular, con carteleras grandes que muestran el presidente Rajapaksa y su esposa erigidos en zonas predominantemente católicos. Algunas consignas dicen ” Con las bendiciones de la Santidad, usted (el actual presidente) volverá a ser nuestro presidente.

Existe el temor generalizado de la violencia electoral. Comenzó con el asesinato de un político de la oposición pocas horas después del anuncio del día de las elecciones. En la primera semana después de las nominaciones, se han reportado al menos 6 incidentes de tiroteos, la mayoría dirigidos en contra de los partidos de la oposición. Como en las elecciones anteriores, se espera abusos generalizados de los recursos y funcionarios del Estado. Hay incertidumbre y temor por la violencia a gran escala y las represalias contra los activistas de la oposición en los días posteriores a las elecciones. El principal candidato de la oposición de la última elección presidencial en 2010 fue encarcelado inmediatamente después de las elecciones. También se han expresado temores que el titular no entregará el poder, incluso si un candidato de la oposición gana las elecciones.

Después de años de represión contra la disidencia y las minorías y de incertidumbre acerca de la supervivencia de los candidatos de la oposición, parece que hay una nueva esperanza, un nuevo entusiasmo y coraje entre los habitantes de Sri Lanka para participar en las discusiones y debates sobre su futuro, incluyendo la gobernabilidad democrática, el Estado de derecho, la paz, la reconciliación y las cuestiones relacionadas con las comunidades minoritarias. Y creo que los católicos tienen el deber de ser plenamente conscientes e involucrados en esos asuntos ya que tendrán consecuencias graves para el futuro del país. Es probable que los resultados de la elección serán anunciados formalmente en la tarde del 09 de enero o la mañana del 10 de enero. Los habitantes de Sri Lanka, incluso los católicos, deben participar plenamente en las secuelas de las elecciones, que podrían ser un período muy violento y tenso. Si un nuevo titular o el titular existente accede a la oficina en paz, los días después de las elecciones serán un período para que Sri Lanka intente llevar adelante una agenda de reformas para promover una mejor gobernanza, un estado de derecho, la libertad de prensa, la independencia judicial, la rendición de cuentas de graves violaciones de los derechos humanos y del derecho humanitario, la reconciliación, la solución política para el conflicto étnico, etc. En este escenario, nosotros como católicos, y también no católicos, hermanos y hermanas, tendremos que tomar una decisión difícil: si debemos participar plenamente en los preparativos de la visita papal y beatificación del Beato Joseph Vaz o en esas elecciones presidenciales críticas.

Visitar Sri Lanka 3-4 días después de los resultados electorales no dará el tiempo suficiente a Su Santidad para evaluar la situación del país tras las elecciones y compartir algunas reflexiones sobre la forma en la cual los cristianos deberían participar en las cuestiones socio-político-económicas del país, en particular con las víctimas de violaciones de derechos humanos y sus familias.

Como yo, la mayoría de los habitantes de Sri Lanka, católicos y no católicos, tendrán muchas ganas de dar a Su Santidad la bienvenida a Sri Lanka. Pero unos días después de una elección presidencial sin duda no es el momento. Su visita ya se utilizó para limitar el período de campaña y así afectar negativamente a los candidatos de la oposición, y para implicar el apoyo de Su Santidad a la campaña electoral del actual presidente.

Las elecciones presidenciales en Sri Lanka tenían que ser dentro de dos años y no hay ninguna razón urgente para tenerlas ahora. Se han fijado en enero de 2015 en el interés de un individuo – el actual presidente – y tal vez de su familia. Del mismo modo, no hay prisa para una visita papal a Sri Lanka o para beatificar a Beato José Vaz. Hemos esperado respectivamente dos décadas y cientos de años, podemos esperar unos meses más o incluso años. Una visita papal en 2016 (tal vez cuando va a visitar Asia de nuevo para el Congreso Eucarístico) tiene el potencial de ser mucho más significativa para los católicos y todos los ciudadanos de Sri Lanka. Especialmente para que nosotros estemos espiritualmente capaces de preparar y participar en eventos, teniendo en cuenta las realidades socio-político-económicos.

La vida en Sri Lanka hoy, incluso las funciones “proféticas” de sectores de la Iglesia Católica

Aprovecho esta oportunidad para compartir algunos datos y reflexiones, basados en mi experiencia personal. El espacio y los límites de mi experiencia pueden hacer éstos incompletos, no obstante espero que ayudara Su Santidad a tener una visión de la vida en Sri Lanka, que los principales medios de comunicación, el gobierno e incluso la mayoría de los líderes de la Iglesia no quieren compartir.

En marzo de 2014, recibí mensajes urgentes de algunos tamiles para ayudar a sus familiares y gran número de otras personas tamiles que presuntamente fueron detenidos en la guerra que devastó el Norte. Visité la zona con un sacerdote católico, para evaluar la situación y determinar si debemos tratar de ofrecer cualquier tipo de asistencia. Para nosotros, esto fue una respuesta a nuestra vocación católica, para visitar a los detenidos (al menos a sus familias) y otros sometidos a la injusticia. Militares / policía nos siguieron, nos pararon en puestos de control durante largos períodos, nos interrumpieron cuando estábamos charlando con la gente local en sus casas y finalmente nos arrestaron. Fui sometido a un intenso interrogatorio, sin acceso a abogados a pesar de las peticiones y reiteradas visitas de varios equipos de abogados. En el recibo de la detención, las razones dadas para mi detención fueron que yo estaba apoyando el resurgimiento del terrorismo, ganando dinero enviando información al extranjero y causando molestias al gobierno. Seguramente, fuimos puestos en libertad gracias a la indignación nacional e internacional inmediata y masiva. Pero todavía estamos bajo investigación, nuestras cuentas bancarias están siendo objeto de estudio, y las órdenes judiciales se han obtenido para restringir nuestra libertad de expresión y de viajes. Una de las mujeres a quien fuimos a preguntar por la Sra. Jeyakumari Balendran, todavía languidece en prisión, sin cargos, separada de su hija adolescente por ya más de 8 meses. Otra señora, fue detenida y luego puesta en libertad, pero se le prohibió viajar al extranjero. Su suegra, a quien conocimos durante nuestra visita, también fue detenida y puesta en libertad, pero también se le impidió salir del país. Hay muchos otros casos de personas que han estado en la cárcel por mucho tiempo debido a causas ajenas a su propia actuación.

En agosto de 2006, muchas personas murieron y otras resultaron heridas en el interior de una iglesia católica en Allaipiddy, Jaffna, que ofreció refugio a los civiles tamiles aterrorizados en medio de los intensos combates. Esta no es la primera vez que los civiles han sido asesinados o heridos mientras buscaban refugio en una iglesia católica. Incluso los hospitales no se han salvado en los combates. Padre Jim Brown, un joven Tamil sacerdote católico, que era el párroco de la Iglesia Allaipiddy, desapareció después de haber hecho todo lo posible para buscar ayuda médica para los heridos y proteger a los civiles de ser asesinado. Nadie ha rendido cuentas por las desapariciones, ni del P. Jim Brown, ni del hijo de la Sra. Jeyakumari, ni de periodistas, ni de activistas de derechos humanos, ni de civiles. Muchos de sus familias que piden la verdad y la justicia están siendo amenazados, intimidados, hostigados y restringidos. En agosto de este año, yo estaba en una reunión para “escuchar y compartir” con las familias de los desaparecidos, en un centro dirigido por sacerdotes Oblatos. Una turba dirigida por monjes budistas invadió el lugar, y cuando llamamos a la policía, ellos (la Policía) nos obligaron a cancelar la reunión y se negaron a tomar medidas contra los invasores.

Funcionarios y ministros del gobierno han desacreditado e intimidado a un obispo católico Tamil hablando sobre violaciones de derechos humanos y ha habido llamadas de su detención. Ha sido sometido a interrogatorios por lo menos dos veces. Muchos otros clérigos católicos y laicos, periodistas independientes y activistas de derechos humanos han sido asesinados, desaparecidos, atacados, amenazados, intimidados, acosados, restringidos, desacreditados con falsas acusaciones. Cristianos y musulmanes han sido objeto de graves ataques, por los que dicen ser los grupos budistas. Tierras privadas y estatales han sido adquiridas, a menudo de manera ilegal, con fines militares y turísticos. Un pueblo católico muy tradicional Tamil, donde la Iglesia también es propietaria de la tierra, es ahora un campo de la marina de guerra. En el Norte, los militares siguen deteniendo o interfiriendo en eventos religiosos y civiles. La militarización se está extendiendo por todo el país, incluyendo la educación, el deporte, complejos turísticos, líneas aéreas, servicios de barcos, tiendas, restaurantes, parques, etc.

Los esfuerzos tardíos de la ONU para ayudar a determinar la verdad de lo sucedido en los últimos años de la guerra y proceder a una rendición de cuentas han sido rechazados por el gobierno.

Sri Lanka es un país donde incluso un sacerdote católico puede desaparecer por escribir una carta al Papa. En mayo de 2009, un sacerdote católico Tamil, P. Francisco José, escribió una carta al Papa Benedicto desde la zona de guerra, sobre las condiciones que existían y el masacre de miles de civiles. Expresó el temor de que tal vez sería asesinado por el gobierno de Sri Lanka por escribir y hacer pública una carta así. Ignoro si el Papa Benedicto leyó esa carta o lo que hizo para actuar sobre ella o proteger el escritor. Lo que sí sé de testigos es que pocos días después de haber escrito la carta, el P. José fue visto rindiéndose al ejército de Sri Lanka y luego desapareció. Un caso judicial ha estado pendiente en los tribunales de Sri Lanka sobre la desaparición del P. José y el asunto fue llevado a una Comisión de Investigación en Sri Lanka, pero están muy lejos de establecer la verdad y la justicia.

Soy consciente de que podría haber represalias del gobierno de Sri Lanka o incluso de los representantes de la Iglesia Católica, por hacer este llamamiento a Su Santidad. Junto con católicos y otros involucrados, he participado en las reflexiones y discusiones sobre su visita durante varios meses. Ahora que el día de las elecciones presidenciales anticipadas e innecesarias ha sido anunciado formalmente con total desprecio por la visita pre-planificada de Su Santidad y el uso descarado de Su Santidad para la campaña política del Presidente en ejercicio, me sentí obligado a compartir mis pensamientos. Espero que Su Santidad los tendrá en cuenta antes de tomar una decisión acerca de su visita a Sri Lanka en enero de 2015.

Freedom of Expression and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Article in Swisspeace newsletter on Press Freedom and Peacebuilding-Sept2014

On 4th August 2014, a mob led by Buddhist Monks invaded a Church-run institution in Colombo and forcibly stopped a private meeting that was being held where Tamil families of disappeared persons from the North were ‘listening and sharing’ their pain and struggles with civil society representatives, lawyers, religious clergy and diplomats. The police refused to disperse the mob and provide protection to the people attending the meeting. Instead, they stopped the meeting, sent people to the police station and sent families home. Ruki Fernando, a Sri Lankan human rights and press freedom activist, witnessed the mob. He accepted to share information about freedom of expression and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

Although the war ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the Sri Lankan government forces, challenges remain. Freedom of expression was particularly limited during the war with the two conflict parties heavily influencing the level of media coverage. The above case demonstrates

a recent example in which different groups of people in the country find it difficult to see eye to eye and have different views on what reconciliation is. Since the end of the war, families of those killed and disappeared, university students, religious clergy, human rights activists and opposition politicians have faced threats when they tried to publicly and collectively express grief for those lost in the war. In their view, the opportunity to demand truth and justice remains limited. The North of Sri Lanka is the area that was most affected by the war. For decades, people felt constrained in their ability to express themselves due to the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE. Today, people have expressed concern that the military is currently occupying vast swathes of land and that they tend to control many facets of life. There have been cases of many journalists from the North that have disappeared and allegedly killed, with some arguing that the number has increased over the last eight years.

Journalists all over the country feel that there is a lack of freedom of expression, with the highest intensity being in the North. Self-censorship is widespread, as parents, children and spouses often appeal to activists and journalists due to numerous fears. Moreover, reporters often doubt whether editors will publish critical content. Journalists have been confronted with a choice of being independent at their own risk or being subservient to other powers. Due to this challenging environment, many investigative journalists and press freedom activists have gone into exile. Mobs have disrupted meetings of civil society and journalists, raising questions of justice and security for all.

This is the challenging context in which Sri Lankans seek reconciliation, five years after the end of the war. The Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by the Sri Lankan President had stated that it was “deeply disturbed by persistent reports concerning attacks and obstacles placed on journalists and media institutions including news websites and killing of journalists and the fact that these incidents remain to be conclusively investigated and perpetrators brought to justice. […] Any failure to investigate and prosecute offenders would undermine the process of reconciliation and the Rule of Law.” (section 5. 155, Pg. 197). Truth seeking and opportunities for people to share what they went through and still going through, without fear, is essential for genuine reconciliation. The Truth & Reconciliation Commission of South Africa provided a platform for victims and perpetrators to express themselves freely. This also appears to be the case with various other Truth Commissions across the world. But in Sri Lanka, there continues to be a fear of whether both victims and perpetrators have the opportunity to share their experiences and struggles. There has been resistance to allow public remembrances of those dead and disappeared. There are restrictions on fact finding and reporting of issues central to peacebuilding and reconciliation process.

Although prospects for free expression and reconciliation are bleak, there are signs of hope. Some journalists both inside and outside the country are dedicated to supporting free expression and promoting diverse perspectives on the situation. Despite a challenging context, people are courageous to speak out against ongoing difficulties and share their experiences. Social media is emerging as an important space to publish alternative news and views that mainstream media does not carry. However, they too often face challenges such as the blocking of websites and threats. It remains imperative, particularly now, to support journalists that take risks in order to ensure that independent reports and opinions are being published both in the country and externally. A small number of Sri Lankans continue to write and speak what they think and what they see and hear. Support and encouragement from fellow Sri Lankans and across the world will be what will sustain them and promote free expression and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

Disappearances and the struggle for truth and justice

This article was first published by Groundviews on 30th August 2014 http://groundviews.org/2014/08/30/disappearances-and-the-struggle-for-truth-and-justice/

30th August is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. Tens of thousands have disappeared in Sri Lanka in last few decades[1]. On this day, families of disappearances in Sri Lanka will gather in Vavuniya in the North, to once again publicly appeal to find their loved ones, at least know the truth of what happened to them, and hold those accountable to justice.

From the day their loved ones had disappeared, family members have been physically going to various military camps, complaining to the Police, National Human Rights Commission, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and various Commissions of Inquiry appointed by the government. Some have filed habeas corpus cases. Some have sent complaints to the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances. They share their stories with NGOs, lawyers, researchers, journalists, clergy, diplomats, politicians etc. They join protests, seminars and other such events. But to date, vast majority have no answers.

I have got to know some families closely, accompanied some physically in their search and been trying to help their struggles in various ways, especially in helping them to tell their stories to others who we thought may care. I have seen first-hand, their pain, frustration and fear, even as I admired their perseverance and courage to pursue truth and justice. It has also been a frustrating and painful journey even for me, often ending up feeling helpless and powerless and not knowing what to say when confronted with their questions, pain and tears.

Sadly, I have seen very little empathy and support for families of disappeared from the Sri Lankan government and vast majority of Sri Lankan people. Instead, what these families have got is threats, intimidations, obstructions and insults. The few lawyers, clergy, diplomats, human rights defenders, journalists that have been supporting them have also been subjected to threats, intimidation and insults, and I have also not been spared.

Disrupting a “listening and sharing” meeting of families of disappeared (August 2014)

On 4th August, I was at the Centre for Society & Religion (CSR), along with some other human rights defenders, lawyers, clergy and diplomats. CSR is located in the premises of a Catholic church in the heart of Colombo. We had gathered for a “listening and sharing” meeting with some families of Tamil disappeared persons. It was a small, invitation only, private gathering. Just when some families had started to share their pains and struggles, a mob including some Buddhist Monks broke into CSR and tried to enter the meeting room where we were having the meeting[2]. Some of us from Colombo tried to stop the mob from getting inside the meeting room and pleaded with them to leave. I saw the families of disappeared – children – men – women, had left the chairs and were sitting on the ground, cowering in fear, with some crying and some clinging on to diplomats and Catholic sisters who were present. The Police rejected our appeals to provide protection to the meeting and families of disappeared persons and disperse the invaders. Instead, the Police asked the meeting to be stopped and families of disappeared to be sent back home. We insisted that the Police should disperse the mob which had invaded a private property and a private meeting, but the Police was only willing to do that after more than an hour later.

This unfortunately is not an isolated incident, rather, it’s pattern for the last several years, which appear to have intensified since the last International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

Intimidation before the meeting (August 2014)

Before the meeting at CSR, some of the participants from the North had received intimidating calls from persons claiming to be from the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of the Police. One of the North based organisers of the event was asked by an anonymous caller whether he is taking families of disappeared to Colombo. A fax was sent around by a person falsely claiming to be the main organiser with misleading information about the event[3]. The fax falsely claimed the meeting was to discuss how to send information to the UN investigation into allegations of war crimes and asked media to give coverage to the event when it was actually an invitation only, closed door meeting. Police officers had also visited another Christian institution in which the families were to be accommodated on 4th August night and had asked to be informed once the families arrive. Later in the day, after the families of disappeared had left the venue of the meeting, the venue was visited by the Police to check whether any families had remained.

False accusations, discrediting families of disappeared persons and anti-disappearance activists (August 2014)

The day after the CSR incident, one of the leaders of the mob made a series of false accusations against families of disappeared persons and anti-disappearance campaigners in Sri Lanka. My photo was shown and I was falsely accused of having provided shelter to those reviving the LTTE. Rev. Fr. Sathivel, a long time supporter of families of disappeared persons, was accused of having being chased away from the Church and having no place to stay, an accusation his Bishop denied publicly. The Catholic Bishop of Mannar, Rt. Rev. Dr. Rayappu Joseph, who has made a detailed submission on disappearances to the Lessons Learnt & Reconcilliation Commission (LLRC), long time anti disapperances advocates Nimalka Fernando and Brito Fernando were all branded as LTTE supporters and traitors. Families of disappeared persons who had attended the meeting were falsely accused of all being from families of LTTE[4] members who had been killed.

Arrest of mother of disappeared Tamil boy (March 2014)

On 13th March 2014, Ms. Balendran Jeyakumari, was arrested at her house in the Kilinochchi district, Northern Sri Lanka by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) of the Police and is presently being held at the Boosa Detention Centre[5]. She and her daughter has been participating in campaigns to find out truth about disappeared persons, including Jeyakumari’s son, and both the mother and daughter had received much publicity in second half of 2013, due to their participation in an event with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on 30th August 2013 and later in November, when they participated in a public protest with other families of disappeared persons, in Jaffna, when the British Prime Minister visited Jaffna. Jeyakumari claims that her son disappeared after she had surrendered him to the Army in 2009 and that the son’s photo was included in a photo published in media, of a government detention facility. She has filed a fundamental rights petition against the arrest. The government had claimed that she was harbouring and supporting a person alleged to have been reviving the LTTE. Jeyakumari has denied the charges and the government more than five months after the arrest, the government has not charged her. When I and a friend went to see what has happened to her and her daughter, we were arrested and detained by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) for two days. I can’t say much about this beyond what’s reported, as investigations against me are still continuing and the TID has obtained a Court Order prohibiting me from saying anything about this after my release.

Disruption of a human rights festival focusing on disappearances during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo (November 2013)

On 14th November 2013, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a Buddhist extremist group, disrupted a human rights festival organised in parallel to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) by the main opposition party of Sri Lanka, United National Party (UNP) and civil society organisations.[6]

Police gets court order against vigil with families of disappeared persons in Colombo during CHOGM (November 2013)

On 14th November, the police obtained a court order against any type of a protest in the Colombo city on 14th and 15th November 2013, preventing a vigil that was planned with the participation of families of disappeared persons.[7]

Obstructions against families of disappeared traveling to Colombo to participate in a human rights festival during the CHOGM (November 2013)

Before the human rights festival began,[8] on 13th November 2013, family members of the disappeared from the North were prevented from traveling to Colombo to participate in the human rights festival mentioned above.[9]

Obstruction of a protest by family members of the disappeared in Jaffna (November 2013)

Police beat, pushed and insulted families of disappeared persons, Christian clergy, politicians and activists during a peaceful protest held to draw attention to disappearances, during the visit of the British Prime Minister to the Northern city of Jaffna.[10]

Obstruction of a protest on disappearances in the North (June 2014)

A protest was reported to have been held on 5th June 2014 by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) with the participation of families of the disappeared to pressure the government to expedite legal processes[11]. Organisers claimed that people who took part in their protest were threatened by the military and told not to join the protest.[12]

Delays in court cases related to disappearances

There have been numerous delays in habeas corpus cases filed by family members of disappeared persons especially due to: the State not filing objections in time; Police officers and Ministers summoned not appearing before courts; State Counsel not turning up; Magistrate not being present; and more recently, due to a decision by the Judicial Services Commission to appoint a special Magistrate to hear some cases[13].

Misinformation on disappearances and damaging allegations against anti-disappearance campaigners on State Media (February 2014)

When a community based activist in a low income area in Colombo area was abducted and released due to protests by his community, the state owned and controlledIndependent Television Network (ITN) portrayed it as a case where the abductee had routinely returned home, alleging that claims of abduction were attempts to mislead the people by those who are part of an international conspiracy to spread propaganda against Sri Lanka.[14]

Preventing families of disappeared person from attending religious services (May 2014)

Mrs. Ananthi Sasitharan, Northern Provincial Councilor from the Tamil National Alliance and the wife of an L.T.T.E leader who has been missing since his surrender to the Sri Lankan Army on 18th May 2009, has not been allowed by the military to enter the Hindu temple in Keerimalai to conduct rituals and remember relatives killed in the war and her disappeared husband.[15]

Obstructions and harassment of those testifying before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into disappearances

Families of disappeared persons have alleged that the government had obstructed, misled and harassed them during hearings held in Northern towns such as Killinochchi[16] and Mannar[17] by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into disappearances. It has been reported that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) inquiries into disappearances after many years of waiting, had been scheduled at the same date, time and place that the Presidential of Commission of Inquiry into disappearances was being held. Military personnel alleging to represent the Commission had gathered data from family members of disappeared, registered them, and requested them to sign English forms, which they had done, despite not understanding the content of the document. Officials who identified themselves as representatives of the Ministry of Defence had prevented officers of the Legal Aid Commission from observing the process from 19th January 2014 onwards.  Interpretation had been incomplete, inaccurate and not comprehensive. Observers have reported having seen interpreters pre-empt answers to questions and that they even argued with complainants and were often hostile with testifying family members. Transcription of Tamil testimonies to English prevents the families checking the information recorded from them. When the hearings of the Commission was being held in Killinochchi in January 2014, family members of disappeared persons from Kilinochchi district were visited in their homes by officials alleging to represent the Commission. They had requested and recorded the personal information of their disappearances’ cases and later summoned the families to the military run “Harmony Centre”, to meet representatives of the various Ministries and government officials, who informed that they would be offered compensation for disappeared relatives and requested to fill in another form. Human rights defenders who had observed the Commission sittings had reported that only nine families accepted compensation along with a death certificate and that on the same day, they were taken to attend a ceremony officiated by the son of the President, Member of Parliament for the Hambanthota District Namal Rajapakse. More recently, Commission sittings held in a government office very close to a military camp in Puthukkudiyiruppu saw the lowest attendance of families of the disappeared.[18]

2013 August 30th to 2014 August 30th

Last year (2013), on 30th August, hundreds of families were joined by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navi Pillay. She listened to the pain and struggles of families of disappeared persons, and embraced the women. She assured the families of her support, and went on to highlight what she had seen, heard during her visit to Sri Lanka. She echoed the cries of families of disappeared by insisting on the need for truth and accountability on every occasion. In her remarks at the press conference held the next day in Colombo, she quoted one of the women she shared the stage with on 30th August, who had said that “Even when we eat, we keep a portion for him.” Ms. Pillay said that she was extremely moved by the profound trauma and resilience of the relatives of the missing and the dead, and the war survivors. She had also met families of missing military personnel and highlighted their plight. She had recommended the new Commission of Inquiry on Disappearances appointed just before her visit to be more effective than previous ones and for it to cover disappearances all over the country. But this has not happened one year down the line. Neither has the government actually criminalized enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, despite promises to the High Commissioner. Government had also ignored her recommendations to ratify the International Convention on Disappearances and to invite the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances to visit Sri Lanka, a request that has been pending for 8 years. The High Commissioner also reported about harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders – including a good friend of mine, a Priest, who has been supporting families of disappeared persons for a number of years. The High Commissioner herself was not spared of abuse during and after the visit, by various government officials, Ministers and pro-government mobs.

What does the future hold for those disappeared and their families?

It has been physically and emotionally draining for me to have become involved with families of disappeared persons, but I hope to continue to be part of their struggles. I’ve heard other anti-disappearances campaigners say the same. Irrespective of us, I know the families will continue the struggle to find their loved ones, and for truth and justice. But with threats, intimidation, restrictions, obstructions and insults increasing in regularity and intensity, it’s becoming more and more difficult to continue this struggle.

As the UN’s international investigation into allegations of war crimes has commenced, many families of disappeared are keen to give testimony. Like the other families of disappeared who had gone before the UN, the intention of these families is not to go against the country, but to seek truth and justice about their loved ones, as their previous efforts domestically has not yielded positive results. But as the Sri Lankan government and it’s supporters threatens action against those who give testimony to the UN, this might be much more dangerous and difficult. A major accusation (totally false) hurled when a Buddhist Monk led mob disrupted the meeting of families of disappeared at the CSR early this month was that the meeting was to send information to the UN investigation. It will be upto the Sri Lankan government, and the member states of the UN to support and protect those who go before the UN investigation.

Some other interim and short term measures may be of help for the families to continue their long term struggle. Such as the “temporary absence certificate” that that ICRC had proposed, which will not compel them to formally declare their loved ones dead, but will enable them to overcome administrative hurdles in issues such as land, pensions etc. Interim financial help to families of disappeared to continue their struggles and help them, particularly children survive, could also be important. Given that vast majority of those disappeared in recent past are from the North, the Northern Provincial Council could consider setting up a special voluntary fund for this, and follow up on the ICRC proposal of “temporary absence certificates”.

Acknowledgement is something the families of disappeared are desperately seeking, and symbolic events and monuments to remember the disappeared and serve as point of reference for continued struggle would be very valuable. This is more important in the present context where the government and many people in Sri Lanka deny disappearances. But it’s also more dangerous and difficult as the government doesn’t seem to allow any such monument and events for Tamils.

Sri Lanka will never have reconciliation or lasting peace, until and unless we know what’s happened to our disappeared brothers and sisters and those responsible are held accountable. This is not a task that should be left to families of disappeared and few of their supporters. Rather, it’s a task all Sri Lankans and all people who care about Sri Lanka should become involved and support.

Notes

[1] The present Presidential Commission of Inquiry looking into disappearances in Sri Lanka has reported receiving 19,284 complaints from all parts of the country till July 2014. (http://www.ft.lk/2014/07/19/disappearances-commission-receives-19284-complaints/ [accessed August 19, 2014]). The Presidential Commissions of Inquiries which looked at disappearances between 1988 to 1994 looked at 37,662 (http://www.hrw.org/node/62398/section/4#_ftnref13 , footnote 13 [accessed 21st August 21, 2014]). According to Police Head Quarters (quoted in a report in the Thinakkural newspaper of 1stSeptember 2008,) 1000 civilians had been abducted during the first 8 months of 2008, 1229 during 2007 and 1,160 in 2006. The Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) had received complaints of 3,596 disappearances out of which, 1018 were initially arrested by the military and the Chairman of another Presidential Commission to probe abductions, disappearances and killings was reported to have stated that 711 disappearances reported between January 2006 and February 2007, remain unresolved. (http://groundviews.org/2013/08/30/sri-lankas-disappeared-visit-navi-pillay-and-another-commission-of-inquiry/). The ICRC is reported to have addressed 16,000 complaints since 1990, including about 3,000 between 1st January 2008 and May 2009 (http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140302/news/new-law-to-help-families-of-missing-people-87614.html [accessed August 19, 2014]). The UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary disappearances had received 12,536 cases from Sri Lanka with 5,731 remaining outstanding, both of which are the second highest number it has received in its 34 year old history from across the world (Latest report of the Un Working Group, Ref. A/HRC/27/49 dated 4th August 2014, available at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session27/Pages/ListReports.aspx)

[2] http://groundviews.org/2014/08/07/mob-disrupts-meeting-of-families-of-disappeared-police-government-hound-participants/[accessed August 18, 2014]

[3] http://groundviews.org/2014/08/07/mob-disrupts-meeting-of-families-of-disappeared-police-government-hound-participants/[accessed August 18, 2014].

[4] LTTE – Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a group that’s banned as a terrorist organization in Sri Lanka, India, Europe, USA, Canada, Australia etc. The UN, Sri Lankan and international human rights groups have accused the LTTE of serious violations of international humanitarian law. The LTTE used to honour fallen members, calling them “great heroes”

[5] http://srilankabrief.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/repression-of-dissent-in-sri-lanka-jan-march2014-english28apr2014.pdf [accessed August 18, 2014]

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dPIkC-8QjUM [accessed August 18, 2014]

[7] http://groundviews.org/2013/11/14/commonwealth-human-rights-principles-in-sri-lanka-in-the-weeks-before-chogm/ [accessed August 20, 2014

[8] Mentioned above

[9] http://www.rightsnow.net/?p=4028 [accessed August 19, 2014] and http://groundviews.org/2013/11/14/commonwealth-human-rights-principles-in-sri-lanka-in-the-weeks-before-chogm/ [accessed August 20, 2014]

[10] http://groundviews.org/2013/11/16/british-prime-minister-and-tna-leaders-shun-families-of-disappeared-in-jaffna/ [accessed August 19, 2014] & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6A-Yh3QdEj8 [accessed August 19, 2014]

[11] http://newsfirst.lk/english/2014/06/relatives-missing-persons-stage-demonstration-mullaitivu/38670 [accessed August 19, 2014]

[12] http://sundaytimes.lk/news/pro-anti-protests-mullaitivu.html [accessed August 19, 2014].

[13] In the case of the disappearance of Mr. Prageeth Eknaligoda, Anura Shantha Jayasundara, a Police officer failed to appear before the courts 11 times and the former minister of Media, Mr. Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena twice. State Counsel and a Magistrate had not turned up for some case hearings of habeas corpus cases filed by family members of persons who had disappeared after surrendering to the Army at the end of the war in May 2009. These cases were also delayed due to the state not filing objections in time.

[14] http://www.col4neg.net/newspage/itn-news/itn-7-news-15-02-2014.html (from 9.02 to 11.54). Mr. Samaradheera Sunil, also known as “Wanathe Sunil”, had been abducted after he had a confrontation with the Secretary of Ministry of Defense and a brother of the President), regarding the dispute on government’s proposed new housing scheme for residents of Wanathamulla, Colombo (Details available athttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEndUABOcVc [accessed August 18, 2014]& https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JC0zFQIbgk [accessed August 18, 2014])

[15] http://srilankabrief.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Repression-of-Dissent-in-Sri-Lanka-May-2014-English.pdf , p. 15 [accessed 21 August 2014]

[16] http://groundviews.org/2014/02/13/hearings-of-the-commission-to-inquire-into-the-complaints-regarding-missing-persons/ [accessed August 19, 2014]

[17] http://tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=37339 [accessed August 19, 2014]

[18] Based on testimony of an observer who has attended to all the hearings of the commission in the North and the East