"Sulugune" an isolated village surrounded by Knuckles mountains, situated in the Wilgamuwa Divisional Secretariat, in Matale District, Central Province. About 76 families live there, mostly farming. 06 men work in the military. There are about 30 school aged children, 14 children go to the village primary school while others go to a school about 8 km away. Only four had passed the GCE Advance Level so far, and two entered university". The villagers have to walk 05km to get to the main road as there is no transport available.
An exposure to the village "Sulugune” was organized as a part of the Human Rights Workshop for Religious and Priests held from the 09th - 11th September 2020 organized by the Human Rights Office Kandy Sri Lanka. On the 10th September 36 participants visited the village and had a firsthand experience of what the villagers go through. Wild elephants are a major concern villagers face, and they feel projects outside the village, such as Moragahakanda and Kaluganga projects, have made the wild elephant issue worse for them. One woman described how her father had been killed by a wild elephant while he had been at the paddy field. Others showed and talked about damages to their houses and cultivation. Rs. 5.2 million had been spent on elephant fence, but it had broken down after few months and we saw some pieces. The villagers also told that the issue of wild elephant cannot be resolved by a mere elephant fence, but through a national policy.
The participants who arrived at the Fatima Retreat House in Lewella, Kandy on the 09th September were given a brief introduction to the exposure after the self-introduction each of them made along with their experiences being shared during the lockdown period with COVID 19. Many participants said that they shared whatever they had with the poor during this period while they also had experienced love and affection from their own communities, being together, working together in home gardens, planting vegetables, trees and flowers etc. COVID 19 lockdown has also given time they said to reflect about themselves as well as to pray for others, especially for the victims of COVID 19.
A thanksgiving mass was offered on the 10th evening on Rukshan’s Birthday and the participants joined in prayer and thanked the Lord for the person of Ruki who is a gift to the Sri Lankan society and the church who is recognized internationally as a committed Human Rights activist and a resource person.
On the 11th September, during the first session, participants made their comments, remarks and findings of the exposure. The courage and the leadership of the villagers, specially of women were very much highlighted and the participants thanked the organizers for selecting “Sulugune” village for the exposure as it broadened their knowledge about the struggles, that the villagers go through not only with wild elephants but with the poor attention paid by the state authorities.
Mr. Ruki Fernando and Fr. Jeyabalan Croos made presentations during the second session on “Emerging trends” in the country and the situation in the north after parliamentary elections. This was followed by a discussion and the participants expressed that the Sinhala Buddhist voters expect the leaders to safeguard them and hence the minorities in the country are challenged in all spheres. Further it was noted that the human rights activists will have to take additional risks as the democratic spare is gradually sinking and the activists will have to find new ways and means to voice for Justice on behalf of the victims of injustice.
Taking forward the discussion of February 2020 RPHR, it was noted that the increase of the daily wages to thousand rupees for the tea plantation workers, in spite of promises made during presidential and parliamentary elections were not fulfilled. Further it was noted that, the Militarization in the north continues with a new face as “security measures” since Easter attack & COVID 19 pandemic. However, the families of the disappeared in the north still struggle with their campaign for justice.
Sr. Nillanthi Ranasinghe FMM spoke about the need to protect the children in the face of growing number of child abuse cases in Sri Lanka.
2020 has recorded the highest number of child abuse cases with 5242 cases being reported until June 2020. Regarding unreported cases of child abuse, university students Shehan Kodituwakku & Supupi Medamarandawela, shared their findings and experiences on the research.
Fr. Nishantha Cooray TOR, made a very challenging scriptural presentation on the theme “Future challenges with emerging trends" inviting the participants to commit themselves totally to be prophetic voices. He said that we have to give the Lord the best, the only thing and the things that we are not able to give up.
Reflections sent by Fr. Ried Shelton Fernando & Dr. Philip Setunga were also read and explained by Fr. Nandana Manatunga and the participants were given the opportunity to react and comment. Dr. Philip Setunga explained about the False sense of nationalism that is experienced in Sri Lanka, Hong Kong and elsewhere as a new wave of Nationalism discarding human right or ethical standards. Therefore, he remarks “the question of validity of social movements around human rights issues or their relevance in the present day context is something that needs our deliberations. If they are found to be relevant, what are the new forms and methods that can be employed?”.
Fr. Reid in his reflection, explained the main question that vexes mind of the Christian leaders and the faithful: how would the majority leaders would react to the promotion of any social activism and unable to provide progressive models of pastoral approaches for the welfare of the country. Further he suggests that the Catholic Church has to learn from the past events that all Catholic experienced since the Easter Carnage & the COVID 19 pandemic to seek the Divine promptings to listen and to act positively in a new normality by giving importance to the welfare of the people. “The structural-based approach is not the solution, instead of going back to the old systemic approach there is need to put on new thinking caps on with the support of the Holy Spirit guided by the Word of God and act supporting the people”.
With the identified emerging trends in the country, it was suggested that the activists should campaign as a group and assist and collaborate with each other and use the google group to keep in touch with one another and further update on the emerging trends.
The workshop was concluded with a thanksgiving mass on the evening of the 11th September. On behalf of the organizing committee, Fr. Nandana thanked all the participants who joined the workshop from different parts of the country, making an extra effort, spending long hours of travel. Further It was proposed that the next workshop scheduled in February 2021 to be held in the north, either in Mannar or in Jaffna.
Priests and Religious from all parts of the country, serving in all major prisons in Sri Lanka : Bogambara - Dumbara in Kandy, Welikada & Magazine in Colombo, Mahara prison at Ragama, Galle & Boossa in Galle, Anuradhapura, Jaffna, Badulla, Wariyapola, Trincomalle, Batticoloa, Kuruvita in Ratnapura and Kegalle came together to learn and share their experiences.
There were few well experienced participants, with more than 25 years working in different prisons in the country. Hence at the outset participants were given the opportunity to introduce themselves and share their valuable experiences. Rev. Sr. Alexander Milligoda of Charity Sisters and Rev. Sr. Barbra AC were the most experienced prison servants among the 24 participants present. Participants shared their work “done for & with” the prisoners and also for the families of the prisoners. There were several Priests and Religious with recent appointments as prison chaplains who were eager to learn from others.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners” - Luke 4 ; 18
A powerful scriptural presentation was made by Rev. Fr Nishantha Cooray TOR, laying a firm foundation to the entire workshop, explaining the Mission of Jesus and our Mission, spelling out the importance of the Prison Ministry. It was followed by the film “Jail” a movie that described the life of a prisoner who was detained with fabricated charges and was tortured severely in prison but finally released having proved his innocence.
The participants were then exposed to the realities as they listened to the testimonies of the ex-prisoners on the second day. Some of the ex-prisoner’s present, had served in prisons for more than 10 years due to miscarriage of Justice and released without charges. Their testimonies made very clear, that there are so many innocent persons made victims of miscarriage of Justice, detained without fair trial due to the defective Justice System in Sri Lanka. Several questions by the participants were directed to the male & female ex-prisoners, mainly regarding the incidents of arrest, prison conditions and the life in prisons.
Mr. Tissa Jayasinghe, a Former Commissioner of Prisons and former Superintendent of Bogambara - Dumbara Prison, shared his long years of experiences in several major prisons in Sri Lanka. He brought out practical issues that the prison authorities face due to the over crowdedness in prisons and efforts made by the officers to rehabilitate the prisoners. He also admitted the malpractices of some prison officers and the absences of a well formulated rehabilitation programme for the prisoners.
Human Rights and Rights of the Prisoners were introduced by Mr. Rukshan Fernando, a Human Rights Activist. In his presentation, he cited several examples of prisoners detained as suspects who were already punished even before they were tried in court and therefore he emphasized the need for a fair trial. Further he recalled the incidents where several prisoners were massacred while in State custody for which perpetrators were not brought to Justice. This was followed by a presentation by Mr. Suren D. Perera, Human Rights Lawyer and the legal officer of HRO. His presentation explained “Who are in Prisons?” and “for What” dealing with the legal process that finally result, suspects being imprisoned and the few opportunities they have to prove their innocence at the Court of Appeal.
Fr. Nandana Manatunga, with the use of the power point, explained in details, the "Nelson Mandela Rules" comprising 122 set of rules which was developed by the “Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners” (SMR) adopted by the United Nations in 1955. “No Prisoner should be subjected to Torture or inhuman degrading treatment or punishment”. He added that the conditions in Sri Lankan prisons due to the over crowdedness result in physical & Mental Torture as well as inhuman degrading treatment and punishment and therefore monitoring of prisons is also a duty of the prison chaplains. “It is not only prisoners but even those who visit them go through in human treatment” he said.
The participants were then divided into 04 groups and given the opportunity to engage in a group discussion to explore ways of expanding their mission in prisons. Rich and new learnings were presented during the plenary gathering.
Rev. Fr. Sanjeewa Mendis, National Director of the Commission for Prisons and Migrants, highlighted the importance of the Prison Ministry and thanked Fr. Nandana and his team at HRO for organizing this educative workshop.
Further, the participants decided to print a poster for the Prison Week scheduled for September and also requested for further workshops to enhance their knowledge and learn from the experiences of each other. Fr. Nandana thanked the bishops conference for bringing in, the Prison Ministry under a National Commission and also thanked Bishop Raymond Wickramasinghe, President of the Commission for Prisons and Migrants and Rev. Fr. Sanjeewa Mendis for their collaboration in organizing the workshop.
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
22 Priests and Religious joined the Human Rights Workshop at OMI Scholasticate, Ampitiya - Kandy, Sri Lanka from the 16th -19th July 2019 organized by the Human Rights Office, Kandy with the theme “To ensure ethnic and religious harmony, Let us promote Human Rights”.
At the outset Dr. Philip Setunga made a brief introduction to the workshop, presenting the purpose and the process, while recalling the discussions and the issues that were raised during the previous workshop held in Galle in February 2019. Since there were few new participants, a brief introduction was given by each participant explaining the areas of work they are engaged in.
Since this was the first gathering of RPHR after the Easter attack on churches, the discussions were focused on the aftermath of the Easter attack and the psychological effects on the victims and the society as a whole (secondary victims), following a presentation made by Dr. Ravindra Ranasinghe. He cited many stories of victims and explained the coordinated effort made at Katuwapitiya with a team of counsellors to address the issues faced by the families of the victims.
Mr. Vasantha Premaratne of ICES - Kandy, highlighted the threats coming from religious extremists supported by political leaders and the involvement of the international terrorist groups. Fr. Jeevantha Pieiris further emphasized the geo-political scenario of which the effects are experienced by the civil society of Sri Lanka and what the response of the church has been.
Transformative efforts since 2009 were discussed by the participants highlighting the socio-political situation that has changed Sri Lankan society after the Easter-Sunday attacks while reflecting upon our responsibility, both short and long term in promoting both ethnic and religious harmony and peaceful co-existence. The discussions were led by Mr. Ruki Fernando & Fr. Jeyabalan Croos with their presentations on government’s responsibility as regards Transitional Justice, Peace-building and Conflict Transformation. Ruki clearly pointed out the lethargic attitude of the political leaders in spite of their commitment to the UN resolution by co-sponsoring it in 2015. Fr. Jeyabalan explained the frustration of the people in the north and East, hoping for a permanent solution to the Ethnic problem with the change of regime in 2015.
Fr. Alvin Peter Fernando presented the biblical perspective of the present situation in Sri Lanka in relation to the Easter attacks on Churches followed a by a discussion and several questions were raised about the faith of the faithful who were made victims with the 4/21 attack.
Dr. Philip Setunga, Fr. Jeyabalan and Fr. Nandana Manatunga shared the best practices and lessons learned from the post-war initiatives such as the multiple income generative activities of the women headed families in the north. One important practice that was highlighted was relating to the birth and the continuation of the RPHR with the participation of the religious members from both communities with a few lay persons. The emerging democracy movement and the struggle of the youth in Hong Kong was explained by Dr. Philip Setunga and a short video was screened.
Emerged issues for action
The meeting was wound up with a vote of thanks for all those that participated and an invitation to get more participants from the other dioceses Chilaw, Kurunegala, Galle and Anuradhapura.
The venue and the dates of our next meeting is to be notified by Fr. Nandana in the months to come.
Exactly after a decade of the civil war- since the declaration of cessation of the military intervention by the State, the need for an evaluation of our own initiatives was felt essential in the present context. Hence the Human Rights Workshop for Religious and Priests focused to make a personal assessment of one’s own initiatives for justice and reconciliation with theme “Let us reflect on our own involvements to envision future commitments”. Thus, the meeting was to create an occasion for each other who have been meeting since 2003.
The workshop was held from the 04th - 07th February 2019 at the Pastoral Centre, Halpathota, in Galle Diocese with 31 participants.
As the first activity of the workshop the participants were an exposure to the efforts in the promotion of justice and reconciliation by Caritas Galle. The Director Rev. Fr. Herman Fernando made a presentation of various initiatives on Peace & reconciliation by his team. He spoke of the challenges faced as the Galle Diocesan Caritas being located in an area perceived to be of hard-core Sinhalese with the least inclination for reconciliation. However, in the presentation and in the subsequent discussion it transpired that, our perception was not real as small number of groups some of whom with the backing of the members of the Buddhist clergy have established links with a few groups and Catholic organizations in the north. It was however felt, that these initiatives should further be developed to challenge the current resistance for any political solution to the problems faced by the minorities could be mitigated or minimized.
During the discussion that followed the same evening at the Pastoral Centre, Halpathota, Rev. Fr. Charles Hewawasam the Vicar General of the diocese briefed the participants on similar efforts made by a number of groups with the objective of building bridges between the two communities.
Campaign for wages by the plantation workers
The members who had been involved in the campaign for “a wage increase for the plantation workers”, urged that solidarity action should be taken by the group so that more pressure is exerted on the church leaders to intervene on behalf of the plantation workers. It was revealed that the plantation workers continue to make their contributions on a monthly basis to the church despite their meager income. Thus, a church that benefits from the poor plantation workers has the bounden duty to defend their right for a just income.
It was agreed that the Statement issued by Bishop Raymond be further expanded and sent to all the Bishops with copies to the members of the international community drawing their attention to this just cause.
An update on the present situation by Fr. Jeyabalan Croos
On the second day of the workshop, a presentation was prefaced by Fr. Jeyabalan Croos with a briefing on an event that took place in the town of Vavuniya on 30th of January 2019 with the participation of a few members (Fr. Jeyabalan, Fr. Nandana , Dr. Philip Setunga & Ms. Logesh) of RPHR. The members of the families of the disappeared/missing from the various quarters in the North, East and the North-West had converged in Vavuniya to lay a public claim to justice to the missing persons and their kith and kin. The promises made by respective governments have been empty and that the creation of the Office of the Missing Persons, has not meant anything significant. Therefore, Fr. Jeayabalan urged the members of the need to provide solidarity to groups and organizations that continue to clamor for justice to the loved ones, without which no reconciliation can be envisaged. He added that in some instances the struggle by the people have had limited success as in the case of Iranathivu, the others are compelled to campaign for their rights for land, employment, etc. The initiatives by small groups in the south may have had limited success, yet the attitudes of the majority as regards ‘reconciliation’ remains quite negative, with chances of any significant changes remaining quite elusive and distant. Hence the challenge to the churches for vigorous effort for attitudinal changes.
Update on Mullikkulam
This occasioned the presence of Fr. Lawrence Leon, who has been appointed the parish priest of Mullikkulam. It was the first time that we had with us a priest in charge for the area, who could explain the present situation. The people that came and settled down in the church premises around June 2018, he said are all given 7 perches of church land to build their houses and settle down, while counting on the Sri Lankan navy to vacate the houses of the villagers that have been occupied since 2007.
A matter of great concern
Fr. Jeevantha Peiris of Ratnapura Diocese, drew the attention of the group to the campaign of the members of the Tamil community in the Mulaithivu District against the colonization on of the Section “L” of the Mahaveli scheme. The traditional Tamil lands are offered to the families of the Sinhalese brought from the south of the country perhaps in a bid to create a mixed community, thus preventing the formation of a north eastern unit as has been demanded by the Tamil community. Besides, the Tamil people that fled the area in shambles during the war, cannot trace their deeds to claim ownership of the land. This is paving the way for the State to distribute the land among the Sinhalese peasants who eventually might find stranded as the river is no longer capable of providing water to the newly opened areas. Fr. Jeevantha was requested to keep us updated on its developments for further action.
The formal workshop & the meeting closed with the Eucharist celebration on the 06th evening.
Fr. Nandana after thanking all for their active participation, announced that the next meeting is scheduled to be held in Kandy in July 2019 and the dates would be informed.
Human Rights Workshop for Religious and Priests was held from the 05th to 08th February 2018 in Bishops House - Badulla with 30 participants with the theme of "Live and Let Live". Bishop Winston Fernando, the Bishop of Badulla & the Chairman of the Sri Lankan Catholic Bishops Conference addressed the participants while welcoming them to Badulla and highlighted the Human Rights issues that we are faced with. It was followed by a lively discussion on Right to life.
On the 06th February the participants travelled to Buttala "Subaseth Gedara" where Fr. Michel Rodrigo immersed in the rough and tough life of the poor and down-trodden and finally sacrificed his life 11th November 1987.
Fr. Rohan Silva OMI and Sr. Milburga Fernando helped the participants to understand the life of Fr. Michael at Buttala, the challenges he encountered, the transformation he brought in within the people of Buttala and the theology that emerged with his life and ministry.
There were two close associates of Fr. Michael Mr. Dhambegoda Jinadasa and Ms. Nandawathi present at Subaseth Gedara who described the challenges that Fr. Michael encountered as he worked for the development of the people's community through a lived-experience of dialogue with the villages, and monks of the area while conscientising the people at the grass-root. His entry point was said to be through a health programme and education of school drop-outs.
"Somehow I found Christ. I went to the village and was converted, because he was present. His favour called Grace made me detect his face" Poem of Fr Michel.
The participants reflected on the life & mission of Fr. Michael after returning from the exposure during the Eucharist and on the following day as Fr. Rohan & Sr. Milburga further illustrated the history of Subasth Gedara in relation to the theological reflection of Bishop Leo Nanayakkara.
Ruki Fernando made a powerful presentation on “Justice: What’s it about, opportunities & Challenges”.
He made the participants to explore Justice in the Bible which were shared by the groups and different type of Justice found in the Bible were highlighted. Ex; Distributive justice, Restorative justice, Retributive justice etc
He also explained the Human Rights situation and of the disappeared families in the north and said that 366 days (as of 20th Feb) is a long time for a 24 hour roadside protest. The protestors have been subjected to constant surveillance and while protesting, they had also struggled to take care of their children and engage in livelihoods, and range of other practical problems. Ruki further explained how he has seen protesters getting sick, hungry, cold, sweating, their spirit and physical strength deteriorating but they have not given up he said, they want to know “whether their disappeared children, husbands, are alive or dead”. Finally Ruki invited the participants to join the protesters in solidarity.
The meeting came to a close with the evaluation and it was pointed out that inputs from various resource persons would be useful. The need to have more members from the other dioceses and congregations, with the possibility of having sessions for a few lay persons is to be explored.
The next meeting was fixed for 09th - 12th July 2018 at Fatima Retreat House in Lewella Kandy.
36 Priests and Religious joined the Human Rights workshop at the Oblate Scholasticate - Ampitiya in Kandy, Sri Lanka from the 17th to 20th July 2017 with the theme of “To seek enlightenment and spiritual enrichment”. It was the first time that we have had a meeting at the Oblate Scholasticate in Kandy, where the atmosphere was quite conducive for a meeting of this nature with its seclusion, pleasant climate and the undisturbed surroundings. There were more than 15 lay persons for the first two days, following up the session of Professor Sunil Wijesinghe who made a presentation last year in 2016.
The workshop was planned to combine four dimensions: a) educational, b) collective response to the challenges posed by St. Joseph Vaz in the present day context, c) spiritual reflections. d) Personal reflections.
Professor Sunil Wijesinghe from a Buddhist background further developed the theoretical frameworks for reconciliation between various communities in the country that was first introduced a year ago. He enlightened the group with certain Buddhist concepts, which are very supportive of reconciliation, particularly the concept of “equality” and the “dignity” of human persons. He took the trouble to explain the inter-connectivity among various personal, social, political and the natural where when one component of any of the systems is disrupted, how the entire system is disturbed and everyone is made to suffer. Therefore the need to respect and safeguard the system while promoting creative changes to the benefit of everyone.
The education part also included the new Act on Right to Information, presented by Fr. Nandana Manatunga.
b) Collective Response to the Challenges posed by St. Joseph Vaz in the present day context.
The discussion was preceded by a vivid presentation by Fr. Aanada Fernando that touched on some of the highlights of the life and the work of St. Joseph Vaz mostly with the communities in the south of the country. Fr. Ananda pointed out the challenges posed for us by the saint for our times which touches on every aspect of life as food, clothing, travelling, and dealing with various communities, the ruling elite and the governing officials including the king. He said, the approaches he had adopted in dealing with the common persons and the officials are good for us to emulate.
This sharing was followed by a presentation by Ruki Fernando, where he also drew the lessons for us from the life and work of St. Joseph Vaz for instance his approaches in dealing with the members of non-Christian communities. Dialogue has been found to be the hallmark of his approach to other religious communities, which he said is quite relevant for us living in the context of antipathies and prejudices even attacks on persons and places of worship of other faith denominations.
These two presentations were followed by a lengthy discussion. The relevance of St. Joseph Vaz’s mission for reconciliation, our attitudes towards other religions, were some of the points around which the discussion was held.
) Spiritual Refractions
Scripture Reflection was led by Fr. Jeyabalan Croos taking the scripture passage Luke 15/1 The Parable of the Lost Sheep, where Jesus associates with the poor, the blind, the lame, the hungry, the miserable, sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors,. The reference was a well-defined and unmistakable section of the population. Analyzing this Fr. Jeyabalan said that todays some might refer to this section of the population as the lower class or the oppressed. Further he challenged the participants with the question whether we are willing to associate the so called poor, that category that includes what Luke speaks of.
d) Personal Reflections
Since the inception of this meeting of the members of the clergy from both communities, it has been the standard practice to share with each other their own involvements, particularly in the field of human rights, as well as their own experience in the given context. This matter has largely been neglected due to other pressing issues and activities. Thus it was decided to revive this custom of sharing of experience in the act of “Renewing the Face of the Earth” with the Spirit of Risen Christ.
So the time of taken by most of the participants for the sharing, which was found to be quite enriching.
NEXT MEETING: 05th to 08th February 2018 at BANDARAWELA. An exposure visit to Subaseth Gedera in Buttala of Fr. Michael Rodrigo is proposed as part of the meeting.
In view making a joint submission for the 03rd Cycle of the Universal Periodical Review (UPR) on Sri Lanka scheduled to take place in November 2017 during the 28th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, a special meeting took place on the 01st & 02nd February 2017 at Madhu Retreat House in Mannar with the participation of Human Rights activists, Priests & Religious. This was followed by the RPHR meeting on the 03rd & 04th February with the theme “Together, Let us protect our Rights”.
Since the participants who gathered were actively involved in most important issues of the country and were experts of different fields the discussions were rich, lively and practical. The discussions were further enriched by Budi (Franciscans International, Geneva), Sr. Yolanda (Good Shepard Sisters, Geneva), Fr. Mike Deeb (Domincan, Rome / Geneva)
The present Human rights situation of the country was discussed with the Panelists:
Ruki Fernando then made a presentation on Domestic & International trends in relation to Human Rights in Sri Lanka and Introduced the UN system, UN & Human Rights in Sri Lanka, with a focus on March UNHRC session. It was followed by sharing of experiences and additional comments by Yamini (NCEASL) and others with experience of UPR general discussion.
UPR experiences from other countries, successes, challenges, tips for Sri Lanka were presented by Budi Tjahjono, Sr. Yolanda Sanchez and Fr. Mike Deeb OP. This was followed by the Prioritizing the focus areas for UPR submissions and lobbying.
After several discussions, it was decided to assign one person from each group to prepare the draft for the submission and sent to Ruki & Fr. Nandana. Further the committee agreed to meet along with the coordinators to review the drafts and finalize the submission. Philip Setunga, Budi, Fr. Rohan Dominic and Fr. Nandana Manatunga were appointed as Coordinators while responsibility of preparing the drafts were assigned.
· Tea Plantation - Fr. Camillus Janz
· Women - Sarah Arumugam
· Children - Sr. Niluka Perera
· Cultural Rights, especially Religious freedom - Yamini Ravinpran
· Prisoners, detainees, former combatants - Fr. Nandana Saparamadu
· IDPs & Land - Fr. Dilan SSS
· Disappeared - Sr. Nichola Emmanuel
· Transitional Justice, Criminal accountability - Ruki Fernando
· Sustainable Development & Environment - Port city etc. - Fr. Manoj
The RPHR meeting which followed began with a Scripture Reflection on “The parable of Good Samaritan” led by Fr. Jeyabalan. Participants then shared their experiences in the light of the parable. Program for the women headed families were shared by Philip Setunga, Sr. Vijaya and Fr. Jeyabalan.
Bishop Kingsley Swampillai the Apostolic administrator, bishop of Mannar, joined the RPHR meeting on the 03rd evening and shared his views while listening to the sharing of the participants from different parts of the country. The delay of ensuring rights of the Tamil people in the North & East by the present government was highlighted. Releasing of land occupied by the military was pointed out as an urgent issue that requires attention. The Bishop condoned with the people as hopes on the present regime is gradually diminishing.
A presentation was made by Fr. Nandana Manatunga on campaigning for Prison reforms against inhuman degrading treatment. The congestion of the prisoners with death sentence and life imprisonment at Kandy Bogambara - Dumbara prison was explained by Fr. Nandana and said that during his recent visit to the Kandy Bogambara - Dumbara prison ward - D where prisoners serve the death sentence, “we found 74 prisoners detained in one cell ( 70x 30 ) and as many as 55-60 prisoners detained in one single cell and, both prisoners with life imprisonment and death sentence mixed in same prison cell due to lack of space.
He further stated that “the undue delay imbedded in the system of adjudication have come to a point where suspects are held indefinitely in prisons and families of suspects have to pay the lawyers for many years selling out all what they have without any recourse. Prolonged litigation creates a culture that encourages many forms of manipulation, which in turn favor the wealthy and the powerful”.
With the assurance of continuing the discussion, the meeting was terminated with dinner. The next meeting of the RPHR was fixed for 17-20 July 2017.
39 Priests and Religious joined the Human Rights workshop in Fatima Retreat House, Lewella – Kandy Sri Lanka from the 25th – 28th July 2016 with the theme of “Reconciliation among us and Communities”.
The workshop had two phases: the first was for the members who attended the workshop in 2015 organized by Dr. Shirley Wijesinghe and Professor Brewer from Ireland and the second phase was for the members of RPHR.
27th and 28th July was devoted more for a discussion of the Proposals for a New Constitution for Sri Lanka while the last part of the discussion was focused for an evaluation and future direction of the RPHR.
Professor Sunil Wijesinghe from a Buddhist background, explained a few theoretical frameworks for reconciliation between various communities in the country. He enlightened the group with certain Buddhist concepts, which are very supportive of reconciliation, particularly the concept of “equality” and the “dignity” of human persons. He, like many other persons in the country, found it hard to explain the non-emergence of movements for reconciliation from among the Buddhist community.
The second session commenced with an input from Mr. Lal Wijenayake, the President of the Committee appointed by the parliament to conduct island wide consultation and come up with the proposals for the new constitution, which they did the previous months. Now the New Proposals are submitted to the parliament for their study and eventual deliberations.
Two responses for the input were made by Fr. Ananda – a perspective of the Sinhala clergy, and by Fr. Jeyabalan, the perspective of some of the members of the Tamil community. Discussions continued following the presentations by the three speakers. Fr. Ananda lamented the lack of interest among the members of the Sinhala catholic clergy on matters that affect the nation, even a subject as the Constitution for the country, which he said prevented any active participation in the life of the community. Lay people, he said, showed more interest than the clergy surprisingly in matters that are national.
Fr. Jeyabalan, commenting on the Proposals made to the new constitution, remarked that it fell far short of the expectation of the Tamil community. Prominence given to Buddhism and the recognition given to interest of the Sinhala majority prevented any form of equality of races, religions and other things as the judiciary. Domination of one community of the others will prevent any form of reconciliation and cooperation among communities, he said. In that respect the new constitution will be a failure.
It was agreed that we all need to continue to work to press for equality among all communities as a way forward for the country.
Statement by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith.
The attention was drawn to a statement that the Cardinal is supposed to have made in a temple in the presence of a number of leading Buddhist monks. The papers reporting the statement said that the Cardinal, apparently supported the view that Buddhism must be given a pride of place in the country. This comes at a time when a large section of the people, particularly the members of the non-Sinhala community and a good majority of the Catholics are openly speaking of a “Secular State” without any special place for any of the religions though in the past Buddhism received a prominent place in the constitution. Even though it was not recognized as the State Religion, nevertheless the emphasis was to give a special privileged place for Buddhism. A good section of the people of other creeds expected a change and when Cardinal reaffirmed the traditional stance, most of us were stunned. So following a short discussion the group decided to send letter to the Cardinal with copies to the press, expressing our disagreement and insisting on the need for a Secular State. This eventually took the form of a statement that was released to the papers later.
The meeting came to a close with the evaluation where the need to have inputs from various resource persons was highlighted. The need to have more members from the other dioceses and congregations, with the possibility of having sessions for a few lay persons is to be explored.
The next meeting was fixed for 1 - 4 February 2017 in Madhu (Mannar), Northern Province, Sri Lanka.
29 Priests and Religious joined the Human Rights workshop in Padaththarippu Retreat House Jaffna Sri Lanka from the 01st - 04th February 2016 with the theme of “Reconciliation among us and Communities” with 02 exposures held in two different locations: Mulaithivu and Kilinochchi on the 01st February. Prior to the workshop, there were 02 exposures for the participants of the workshop.
The first group that went to Mulaithivu who had an overview of the situation of the women-headed families of the area, were given a brief description by the coordinator of the various initiatives taken by some of them to alleviate their economic plight.
After lunch the group proceeded to Keppapaulu to visit a village that has been occupies by the navy. The entire village of nearly 200 families has been occupied by the navy, depriving the villagers not only access to their lands, coconut cultivation but also to their paddy lands as well as fishing in the sea.
On our way back from the village, the participants visited the location of the bunkers where Frs Neru & Mariadas spent their last days, caught between life and death, before they eventually surrendered to the forces on 19th May 2009. A painful reminder of what the people went through in the final stages of the war.
The group led by Fathers Jeyabalan and Nandana met the women-headed families, the victims of war, the expulsion and riots in the south of the country. Most of these ladies that had fled plantation areas in the hill-country during the riots starting from 1980, had settled down in the vicinity of Kilinochchi, only to be chased away successively from the lands they had cultivated. One lady, it was mentioned, has been relocated seven times and with the war, moved up to Mulaithivu from where they were housed in camps. Now back in lands, with no entitlements, managing to eke out a meager existence.
Small income generating projects have been introduced to them by the Church but are less optimistic as economic and employment openings are scarce and limited for their husbands and children, which applies equally to the other areas in Jaffna.
The meeting begun in the afternoon of 02nd commenced with the presentation of the reports by the two groups followed by a lengthy discussion. The discussion included the various initiatives taken by some of the members and the Encounter of the widows held in Kandy facilitated by Ms. Monica, a trained counselor. While 46 members attended the “Encounter”, from both communities, Tamil and Sinhalese, suffered the same trauma of the country. The ladies from the south were the wives and or mothers of the disappeared. The encounter was a step in the direction of “Reconciliation” and supporting each other in their effort to start life anew.
Day three was completely devoted for a discussion of the proposals for a new constitution to be submitted to the Constitutional Council before the end of March. The most important issues were discussed by the members. Father Jeyabalan and Ruki made a number of useful suggestions while leading the discussion. Father Nandana briefed the members of the submission that was already made by the Human Rights Office to the Constitutional Council in Kandy.
The Vicar General of the Jaffna diocese, Rev Fr Jebartnam joined the group, representing the Bishop and briefed the participants of the initiatives taken by the diocese for reconciliation.
On the final day, the discussion was centred around presentations of Ruki on the status of the recommendations made by the Human Rights Council and the response, so far, by the Sri Lankan government.
This was followed by a presentation by Fr. Jeyabalan on the new developments, an alternative approach to the national question, by some members of the Tamil community.
Both these presentations were followed by discussions. Father Nandana, updated the group on various legal interventions on behalf of a number of victims, including Rita a rape victim, whose case was dragged on for 14 years, and the acquittal of some illegally arrested persons. The last item being the ‘future structure and the form of the RPHR It was agreed that the present form be continued with the participation of laypersons in one of the meetings.
The days for the next meeting are: 25-28 July 2016 at Fatima Retreat House, Lewella – Kandy