In 2023 two workshops for the Religious and Priests for Human Rights (RPHR) were held in Thalawila and in Kandy with several participants gaining knowledge and experiences.
The first workshop was held St. Anne’s Church, Thalawila Retreat house of Chilaw Diocese from 13th - 16th February 2023 with 37 participants from different parts of the country. The workshop included an exposure, inputs of resource persons, discussions and sharing. The focus of the workshop was on workers’ rights and hence the theme was “Ensure Dignity of Workers and empower the voiceless”
The exposure was to the sea fishing community, lagoon fishing community and to a farming community. With the findings of the exposure the participants continued their discussions and deliberations as they identified the hardships in their work and rough living conditions and social & economical challenges they face.
Rev. Fr. Nishantha Cooray TOR made a scriptural in put on the dignity of the workers and our call to ensure that while the Political & Economic crisis and the aspirations of Northern society was highlighted by Fr. Jeyabalan Croos and Fr. Nehru Croos.
The second workshop was held at Montefano Ampitiya Kandy from the 28th- 30th May 2023 Taking into consideration the 200 years struggle of the Tea plantation community in Sri Lanka, the workshop focused on the workers of the tea plantation community with the theme "Let us uphold the dignity of the tea plantation workers".
From several parts of the country 28 participants joined the workshop. An exposure to the Tea plantation community was made to the Knuckles Estate in Panvila Parish. The participants had a first-hand experience seeing the plight, the reality of the tea plantations workers, the Upcountry Tamil people who migrated from India and lived in central, province who contributed to the national economy in various ways for 200 years. Their contribution is about a third of the total income of the plantation sector. Bishop Kumara Illangasinghe elaborated on this with a presentation on ''The bitter brew of the plantation workers in Sri Lanka while Rev. Fr. Arosh made a scriptural, input on " Prophetic role and our calling".
The participants identified the issues faced by the tea plantation workers such as discrimination, minimum wages, Labour right violations, inequality, unemployment, power-sharing, and many more. Hence it was discussed that reflections of those main issues for a common person to live par with another community equally makes difficulties and it creates a huge disparity between them and other communities.
Further the participants identified the exploitation of women in the plantation sector as the most marginalized group of workers in Sri Lanka. Although the Plantation women are contributing a lot to their families as income earners and taking care of the entire family makes them more exploited in their strength-wise & labour wise. The rights of plantation people & legal remedies “were presented by Mr. Suren D. Perera AAL and Mr. Madawa Eriyagama while Mr. Kamaladasan AAL shared his experiences growing up in the plantation community, the challenges that he had to face specially when he had to continue his highest studies in the university. The need for the church to treat, respect and ensure the “Rights” of the tea plantation workers was expressed by the participants and to develop a strategy to ensure equality as citizens of Sri Lanka.
“Proposed security law and the Prevention of Terrorism Act“ was also discussed as an immerging issue with the facilitation of Mr. Ruki Fernando.
While Sri Lanka was facing an unprecedented turmoil with the deepening economic crisis triggers raging street demonstrations, when groups of people, mostly young, stand in clusters chanting slogans, singing songs, making speeches, 27 Religious, Priests and HR Activists came together to Fatima Retreat House, Lewella Kandy from the 07th - 09th July 2022 to analyze and discern their mission. It was organized by the Human Rights Office Kandy with the theme “Protecting the Rights of the Voiceless”.
The July meeting included religious leaders of other mainline churches and prominent Human Rights activists. There was an urgency to meet and discuss about the latest developments in the country with the deepening political & economic crisis. Hence recognizing the role as religious leaders and Human Rights activists was crucial when the youth continued the struggle of the people in the country for a new political culture. Most of the participants were already involved in the struggle for long term reforms both Political & Judicial in response to the crisis.
Suren D. Perera AAL initiating the discussion of the workshop, raised some basic questions regarding the Economic crisis & the youth struggle. He paused 03 main questions:
It was an individual and a group activity for which all the participants actively joined.
The discussion on “Women & Economic crisis” was facilitated by Sarah Arumugam AAL. She briefly explained and questioned the life of women during the crisis and the participation and the leadership of women in the struggle. Further she raised the question regarding the response of the society to women's activism and the barriers to women's political participation in Sri Lanka.
The perspective of the people in the north in relation to the economic crisis and the youth struggle was explained by Rev. Fr. Jeyabalan Croos that was followed by a lively discussion. He reminded that the people in the north & east suffered for more than 25 years without basics such as food, medicine, fuel etc. and therefore he said that the people are quite used to live in a crisis situation and political leaders even if changed would not pay attention to the rights of the people in the north & east. However, he said he supports the youth in Struggle for a “System change”.
The responsibility of the Media was explained by Mr. Sampath Samarakoon the Chief Editor of Vikalpa, enumerating the Ethics and guidelines that has to be followed when reporting in Public Media and also in Social Media. He spelt out the process in identifying fake media, stories that contain elements of truth but are broadly inaccurate. However, he said that the “trusted new sources will correct errors in their stories and be transparent with readers when they’ve got things wrong”. Further he spoke about the Rights of the Digital Media.
Human Rights that are to be safeguarded, especially the Right to Food and Medicine that are not guaranteed in our constitution was explained by Rukshan Fernando. Human Rights & UDHR endorsed by nearly all governments, including the debt collectors. “The UDHR prioritizes access to education and health care. In welfare-states, when a family goes bankrupt no child is expected to lose access to basic education and health care in order for debts to first be repaid; this principle apply for people everywhere”. He further said that the ideas of human rights and basic human needs are closely connected and “Human Rights” - rights that apply to every person because they are human, can be seen as rights to the fulfilment of, or ability to fulfil, basic human needs.
With a biblical background Bishop Kumara brought in hope that has to be shared with the people who have lost hope. “Being hopeful relies partly on having a sense of control - it’s the idea that you can exert an influence on the world around you and that the actions you take can have positive consequences in your life”. He further said “obviously there are some situations that are truly out of your control, taking some control could include elements of your self-care routine that you’re already doing. For instance, many people find that simple, small acts of compassion that help build that sense of control even in a chaotic situation"
Since many of the participants were to join the protest on the 09th July, the meeting was concluded on the 08th with a thanksgiving service for Jeyabalan who celebrated his Birthday followed by a fellowship meal
With COVID 19 health restrictions and guidelines, the workshop of the Religious and Priests for Human Rights (RPHR) was held at Fatima Retreat House, Lewella Kandy from the 14th - 17th February 2022 with 28 participants from different parts of the country.
The participants had an exposure to the Katugastota - Thekkawatte garbage dumpsite and dolomite mining site at Digana on 15th February. Following the exposure there were discussions in small groups and several recommendations were made by the participants in protecting the environment especially with regard to the disposal of garbage.
With the exposure, the participants had a firsthand experience and therefore were able to reflect on the massive destruction of the environmental due to the negligence of the people and short-term political ambitions of politicians. Rev. Fr. Sagara Jayamanne SSS made a scriptural in put on the theme “Prophetic call” while the present situation of the North and the East was highlighted by Rev. Fr. Jeyabalan Croos. The unexpected critical economic crisis in the country and the causes in relation to women were discussed with the facilitation of Mrs. Vishaka Dharmadasa. Bishop Kumara Illagasinghe explained the challenges faced by the plantation people followed by a lively discussion. In spite of various challenges and obstacles, possible initiatives within a limited democratic space were pointed out by Mr. Rukshan Fernando and some legal initiatives on the amendment to the PTA (Prevention of Terrorism ACT) were introduced by Mr. Suren D. Perera AAL for which the participants consented to become petitioners. Therefore, the petition to be filed in the Supreme Court was explained.
The Director of CSR Rev. Fr. Rohan Silva OMI facilitated a discussion about the aftermath of the Easter Sunday Attack and requested the participants to study the recommendations made by the commission and invited the participants to work in solidarity to bring about Justice to the victims of Easter Sunday Attack. The 03-day workshop was concluded with a thanksgiving mass on the 17th February.
Focusing on the theme "When Women lead, others follow” the Human Rights Office Kandy organized the International Women's day on the 12th March 2022 at the Parish hall of Fatima Shrine Padiwatte Kandy Sri Lanka.
More than 100 participants from the families of the disappeared, families of the prisoners, the survivors of torture, rape, sexual and gender based violence and their families, the members of the support group and the staff of the Human Rights Office participated in the day’s programme.
The guest speaker Ms. Geeva Nilmalgoda, Attorney at Law highlighted the theme and provided examples how women lead not only the families, but in many other spheres taking up responsibilities with determination. "Women as leaders have the capacity to lead others while they suffer silently but still have the courage to endure challenges”.
The women who participated lit lamps in honour of all the suffering women, mothers who give new life to this earth, widows, daughters, child victims of sexual abuses, unborn babies, women labourers, women displaced by the war.
Fr. Nandana Manatunga the Director of the HRO explained the purpose of gathering women to celebrate the Women’s day with the theme "When Women lead, others follow". He said it is because the women sustain initiatives until completion that there are so many women’s organizations and therefore he invited the participants who were present to face the challenges that are before them due to the economic downfall of the country. The participants were then divided in to groups and were asked to discuss their own experiences and the initiatives that they have taken to meet the unexpected challenges with the economic crisis, which resulted a severe inflation experienced during the last few weeks and which may continue in the coming months.
The Human Rights Office prepared a meaningful way of the cross for the season of lent in 2022 as in previous years with visuals, based on the suffering and death of Christ comparing to the sufferings of the people in Sri Lanka and also in many other countries specially of the suffering people of Ukraine. The visual way of the cross, helped the faithful to reflect on our own lives, the crosses that we carry and the society in which we live and into enter in to the paschal mystery of Christ. The programmes were held in 30 different venues: in parishes, seminaries, houses of formation and in schools.
Along with the way of the cross, based on Human Dignity Legal clinics were also held in some parishes with awareness programmes on Torture, Domestic violence, gender-based violence, Right to Information Act and Child Right
The Human Rights Office joined the suffering people to protest against the present regime. Silent peaceful protests were held in Kandy on the 30th March and in Matale on the 02nd of April 2022. Several priests, nuns, professionals and civil society activists came together to express their dissatisfaction towards the political leaders who have shown a deaf ear to the cries of the people who are suffering without the most basics, such as power, fuel, gas, milk foods and even other essentials items. Although people wanted to make their voices and cries heard, they were afraid of the ruthless militarized regime. However, with our initiative to make our voices heard in public, the ordinary citizens, religious, professionals, university students have started protesting in public and so much so that the President declared a state of emergency and imposed curfew on the 03rd April 2022 fearing the public outrage against him and his cabinet of ministers.
With COVID 19 health restrictions and guidelines, the workshop of the Religious and Priests for Human Rights (RPHR) was held at Fatima Retreat House, Lewella – Kandy from the 09th - 12th February 2021 with 28 participants from different parts of the country.
Usually the February workshop is held outside Kandy, however due to COVID 19 pandemic, the workshop was held at Lewella - Kandy.
2021 Human Rights workshop for Religious & Priests was inaugurated with a short memorial service for the late Sr. Alexander Molligoda (sisters of charity) who was an active member of RPHR. As an appreciation to her dedicated services, a visual presentation was made about her life and ministry, illustrating her work with prisoners both in Galle & Boossa.
Rev. Fr. Sathgunaraj, the Parish Priest of Hewaheta explained the difficulties and challenges in the field of education the children are faced with. He further said that he goes out of his way to encourage the children of the plantation community to somehow aim for higher education.
On the 11th February Fr. Jeyabalan Croos made a presentation during the first session on “Challenges for the people in the North” and he explained about the 10 key demands that were made in the “P2P” Walk for Justice which was organized by the North and East Civil Society Organizations to draw attention to the key issues faced by the Tamil community, Tea Plantation workers and Muslim Communities.
Mr. Ruki Fernando made a presentation on the 20th Amendment and its consequences. He explained the differences of the amendments made in the constitution regarding the executive powers and checks and balances. This was followed by a discussion and the participants said that the religious leaders and the civil society members should be made aware of the present situation. Further he raised awareness on the ongoing issues and campaigns: such as the protest launched by the farmers in Hambanthota, Forced Cremations, struggle for daily wages of the tea plantation workers, denial of memorialization in the North and the P2P Walk for Justice.
Fr. Nishantha Cooray TOR, made a very challenging scriptural presentation on the theme “Our mission for the voiceless with shrinking democratic space" He explained how the people of God had to struggle for freedom, equality and democracy. “Pilate was carried away by the public opinion when he had to decide on Jesus and often we too are carried away by the public opinion”. He stressed the need for the priests and religious to be prophetic. “Sri Lanka needs convinced, caring and creative people”.
Mr. Charaka Dharmasiri & Mr. Suren D. Perera, the legal counselors of HRO explained what contempt of court means, sighting examples of recent incidents. Further, they explained how the Sri Lankan Government has limited the democratic space of the people by using the ICPPR Act to curtail the freedom of expression. There were several questions raised by the participants that led to a lively discussion.
The workshop was concluded with a thanksgiving mass on the evening of the 11th February. 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 despite of the current COVID 19 situation. Further, it was proposed that the next workshop also to be held in Kandy in July 2021.
"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.