Forty two Priests and Religious joined the Human Rights workshop in Lewella Retreat House in Kandy Sri Lanka from the 07th to the 10th July 2014, with the theme of “Promoting a Culture and Reconciliation” to study the pastoral letter of the Catholic Bishops Conference Sri Lanka that was released on the 08th December 2013.
The participants were from different dioceses and religious congregations in the country. Very. Rev. Fr. Rohan Silva, the provincial of the OMI congregation facilitated the sessions on the pastoral letter. The participants studied the pastoral letter in depth and made their comments; this was followed by group discussions and participants came out with practical suggestions to implement the guidelines given in the Pastoral letter. It was noted that the 2013 pastoral letter has still not being studied by the priests and religious and therefore the faithful in parishes have not even heard. Therefore the participants cautioned that what happened to 1984 pastoral letter would eventually happen to 2013 pastoral letter There are positives and as well as negatives in the PL. The theological and biblical section was explained by Dr. Shirley Wijesinghe.
The basis for the Bishops to issues of the country arise from the mandate given by Jesus Christ to be the light of the world and salt of the earth (Mt 5), which is a duty on the part of the Christians to be involved in bringing reconciliation in the post-war area. The PL defends the recommendations of the LLRC comes out openly for a new constitution to save the country indicating that the supreme authority given to the President is harmful. There is a comment on Human Right and a separate section on the open-market economy the dangers attached to it. There is unity in diversity which is essential for the pluralism in Sri Lankan society.
There is a need to strategize and to implement the recommendations given in the PL but is mostly for the Government of SL and not even for the people. There was a comment given in the public launching on the 10th December 2013, by the President of the CBCSL which was in line with government policy regarding the international involvement and inquiry. International involvement is clearly mentioned as harmful to sovereignty of the country in the PL. This point has to be bone of contention and point for future discussion and debate. It was also pointed out that in English very title of the PL seems to be discriminatory of the minorities when the term “Nation” was used to include all people living in Sri Lanka, both Sinhalese and Tamil. It is not clear about the terminology of the Sinhala and Tamil versions.
The first sessions began with introductions and sharing of experiences. Some of the experiences betray the fact that there is still harassment by the military at all corners of the life of the people – such as raping of the innocent, widows, rehabilitated youth who are forced to be conscripted to the forces No registration given to orphanages and all orphanages began by the Religious in the North and the East are forced (directly or indirectly to close down) – they circumvent this by starting boarding schools.
The Militarization is continued to this day – by forcing religious rituals (Buddhist pirith recitals daily) by antagonizing the majority of the minorities. It is asserting one –religion over the other. The armed forces have started farms and controlling the agriculture sector controlling the trading in the market affecting civilians. There is lack of freedom for the civilians in the war-tone areas is another visible element, the civilian population is unable to have meetings and even there is free mobility.
The Commemoration of the Dead forbidden for the Tamils on the 18th of May, while the Majority celebrate victory in the South by GoSL by calling the dead-soldiers as heroes. The Southern people do accept this situation and those of the HR activists who speak of the remembrance of the all the dead in the North and South are called traitors who sympathize with the Northern minorities. This fact is mentioned in the LLRC and the PL of the CBCSL.
The problem of the fishermen in Negombo, Kalpitiya and in the North and in the deep South was also discussed. There was no certainty in guarantee of the fuel subsidy by Government of SL. The co-operative sector in the Fisheris sector was discouraged by the Government of SL while they begin new groups on their own. Illegal fishing and the dispute with the Indian fishermen is continued to the detriment of the local fishermen.
Four exposures were organized to coincide with the program. The first group visited the newly build Dumbara prison in Pallekelle. The group was able to meet with the Superintendent Mr. Tissa Jayasinghe and discussed the major issues that the prisoners are confronted with.
The second group visited the tea plantation workers in Hantanea Estate in Kandy. The comments made by the participants revealed the depth of denial of rights to tea plantation workers despite their major contribution to the economy of the country. Though promises have been made by the successive governments to address land ownership issue, they all remained elusive. It was also mentioned that the numerous trade unions found in the plantations in
addition to rendering lip service to the workers, often obstruct any advocacy work done by outsiders including the churches. The participants also visited the Sinhala school in Hantane and found so many Tamil children being forced indirectly to study in Sinhala stream. The problems with low wages and many of the domestic workers emerge within this population without EPF facilities to these women, It was pointed out that in India that the domestics have an organization and they have proceeded to have a Convention for Domestic workers in ILO. There is no improvement for the housing for this Estate population.
The third group visited the new airport site in Maberitenna. The participants were able to visit some of the families who are supposed to be relocated. It was revealed that more than 200 families will be evicted from their houses. Air port is being built by the Air Force soldiers & the RDA at a place where there was a Government farm owned by the NLDB. The people in the area are not interested in the project as their source of income and the whole environment will suffer and the houses are already damaged due to drilling of rocks from the nearby construction site. People do have some hope that if they are evicted that they will be relocated in an alternate land nearby, within the estate.
Out of 260 families around 115 families are Catholics; however the numbers are not confirmed. The Parish not ready to be involved in the issue, there was a suggestion to send a letter to the Bishop of Kandy and to be discussed at the Presbyteral gathering and there was also a suggestion to call for an investigative journalist which was turned down for the moment.
The forth exposure group that visited the Kalpitiya explained about the Tourist Industry in the Kalpitiya Islands and the future of the Catholic fishermen.
A working committee was appointed to follow up the suggestions and the next meeting was fixed for February 2015 to be held in the north or in the east.
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