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
A workshop for 30 Human Rights activists of 05 different organizations were held at Lewella Kandy from the 16th November - 18th November 20015.The workshop was facilitated by Mr. Basil Fernando and Sanjeewa Weerawickrama of the Asian Human Rights Commission Hong Kong. The focus of the workshop was on "Law enforcement and the improvement of Human Rights" Group discussions were centered around:
1. The Policing system
2. The Prosecution system
3. The Judicial system
4. The Penal system
A Torture case was also taken up for study which happened two days before the sessions in Katugastota Kandy road where a civilian was severely tortured, when stopped by the Katugastota police to check the license of the driver. The victim was then still at the hospital with chains and therefore, a letter of request was drafted to the National Human Rights Commission by the group and legal process of the case was in depth studied and steps were taken and taught by the facilitator in activating the newly formed Police and Human Rights Commissions.
The Role Of the prison offers in Rehabilitating and Integrating the Prisoners to the Society
A workshop for the prison officers of Pallekele open prison, Bogambara -Dumbara Prison, Wariyapola Prison was held on the 19th November 2015 for 30 prison officers. After an initial in put by Mr Basil Fernando of AHRC a lively discussion continued in protecting prisoners and providing basic basic facilities to the prisoners, adhering the UN document in following the basic , minimal standards in prisons.The prison officials openly spoke of the failure of the government to take into consideration the lack of space provided to the prisoners who are sentenced to long term sentences. The undue delay of judicial system was notee as one of the main causes for the over crowdedness in prisons. It was lso pointed out that there is no systematic method of rehabilitating the prisoners.Shifting of the Bogambara prison to Dumbara without basic facilities and the reason for the sudden shift was also discussed.
Mr Sanjeewa further reminded the prison officers of their duties in documenting according the legal requirements.
"Crisis of the rule of law in Sri Lanka and how it affects the Judiciary and the Lawyers”
A seminar was held with the above theme facilitated by Mr Basil Fernando on the 19th November 2015 at the Kandyn Art Residency for lawyers. With an input by Mr Basil Fernando the discussion continued in restoring the Judiciary and the role of the lawyers.The present court system where conses take priority to trial and the delay in filing indictments by the Attorney General's department due to the lack of staff was noted as a matter that discourages victims to seek justice and the justice system further being allowed to be defective.
The faith of the people in court system has completely being forced to loose as criminal cases are being heard for more than 12- 15 years. The lawyers appealed to the AHRC to intervene in the campaign to restore the judiciary.
A media conference was held at the Kandyn Art Residency on the 19th November by Mr Basil Fernando culminating the discussions that he had with the activists, Lawyers and Prison officers. Mr Basil Fernando pointed out the need for a constitutional reforms to restore the Rule of Law with adequate reforms in the policing system and the Judiciary. He spoke at length about the proposals to do away with the executive presidency citing the 1987 constitution that brought in the powers of the executive president.
Fr Nandana too joined the media conference to explain about the Torture case of Niroshan Rupasinghe as the police officers have given a different version of the incident.
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.