The workshop of the Religious and Priests for Human Rights (RPHR) was held at St. John Mary Vianney Retreat House - Buluthota of Ratnapura Diocese from the 03rd to 06th February 2020 with 30 participants present from different parts of the country, even from the dioceses of Mannar and Jaffna despite the distance.
A general introduction to RPHR with reference to its inception, basic characteristics and the rationale was followed by self-introductions. A brief introduction was done of the exposure program of the following day.
The group divided into two went out for the exposure on the first day and visited the houses of the Low Country tea plantation workers. Two sites were selected for the exposures. The living conditions, the labour wage issues, social and educational problems were explained to the groups by the workers during the visit.
At the debriefing by the 02 groups the following points emerged;
Tea industry itself is facing major crisis due to low production, labour issues, increasing competition from other tea producing countries and the demand for coffee both locally and internationally.
Unwilling of the owners of tea estates to pay the stipulated daily wage of one thousand rupees.
The current payment of seven hundred rupees is found to be insufficient for the families of the workers.Housing conditions not being improved for almost a century, found to be very poor.
·Health conditions remains minimal with the hospital being too far away, PHIs’ rarely visiting the area.
·Schooling is rendered difficult with the enormous distance and often the unavailability of public transport & higher education in estate schools.
·Despite all these difficulties, a few students have done well in their studies and have moved to schools in the city with a foot hold in the estate as the parents continue to live and work there.
·It was mentioned that the situation of the tea small holders appears to be better compared to that of the company owned estate workers.
·Our involvement in future will have to be in the area of advocacy in matters of daily wage, improved living conditions an d better education facilities for the children.
Rev. Fr. Reid Shelton Fernando in his presentation explained the efforts made by him to make the modern church understood and appreciated. Further he said as the challenges are many and the church leadership should not give meaningless comments that confuse the members of the believing community. “Church today, following the leadership given by the present Pope must get involved both in the work of safeguarding the environment and human rights which certainly are our challenges”.
Rev. Fr. Jeyabalan Croos, in his presentation emphasized the challenges faced by the people in the north due to divisive policies followed by the government. Case in point was the decision to sing the “National Anthem” in Sinhala language only, which previously sung in both languages Tamil and Sinhala. He said that it is indicative of the discriminatory policies carried out by the present government.
The other point was the over-emphasis given to Buddhism even though in the Constitution of Sri Lanka, equality is to be accorded to all religions while Buddhism is given pride of place. There is a strong feeling that a pro-Buddhist philosophy propagated by the political party and the Buddhist monks, paved the way for the victory of the present President. Hence this has led to a general feeling among the people that it was the Buddhist majority that voted the president to power, and that Buddhism is to be given a prominent place disregarding the other religions. This is found not only to be discriminatory and divisive but also enforces a drive to expand Buddhism into areas where the other religious groups are a majority.
Mr. Ruki Fernando, made a presentation on post presidential election challenges and said that there is already a threat to the 19th amendment to the constitution and if 2/3 majority is secured Rule of Law will be at stake. Further speaking of the transitional Justice process, he signaled the danger of the government’s commitment with the decision to withdraw from the co-sponsorship of the UN resolution. Finally, he requested the participants to help sustain the campaigns of the families of the disappeared and of the plantation worker as many human rights activists have taken up self-censorship, fearing threats.
Bishop Cletus Perera of the diocese of Ratnapura joined the group for an informal discussion before lunch and Fr. Nanndana welcomed the bishop and in the discussion, several questions were raised by the members regarding the present political crisis in the country and the issues of the tea plantation workers.
During the afternoon session Alan Keenan from the international Crisis Group who has had enormous amount of experience in the field of advocacy at the Human Rights Council meetings, explained the strategies to be adopted in the years to come in the context of the efforts by the current government to renegotiate the Geneva resolutions taken at the end of the war.
Time was left open for the participants to share their experiences as they were living in various parts of the country and it was found to be quite enriching.
To thank God for the blessings showered upon Fr. Godfrey Fernando & Fr. Reid Shelton Fernando who completed 50 years in the priestly ministry, a thanksgiving mass was celebrated on the 05th evening.
The next meeting was fixed for 06th to 09th July, 2020 to be held in Kandy
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