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What Colombo says about human rights ain’t necessarily so

KANDY (SE): Although official reports coming out of Colombo give accounts of a reasonably pristine Sri Lanka four years after the official cessation of hostilities between the military and the Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers), a group of 35 people involved with Justice and Peace work with the Church from 16 countries across Asia discovered it ain’t necessarily so.

The Ninth Networking Meeting of the Asia Pacific Forum of Justice and Peace Workers gathered at the Fatima Retreat House in Kandy from September 3 to 9.

They spent four days meeting and talking with the families of people who have either been tortured or disappeared, continue to be detained without being charged with any crime, as well as people who have been displaced from their homes, because the military has taken over their village.

The coordinator of the Hong Kong-based Asian Centre for the Progress of Peoples, Terence Osorio, who coordinated the gathering, said that she was struck by the consistent way in which reports from both the predominately Sinhalese area around Colombo and the predominately Tamil areas in the northern part of the country of the country dovetail.

Both groups reported similar abuses and described them as widespread.

She explained that the Kandy Human Rights Office introduced them to local people in a wide variety of situations.

However, she explained that some of the gathering was particularly struck by a visit to the Mullativu district, where the last phase of the war was fought.

“There is little improvement,” she said. “There is still little in the way of livelihood opportunities and the fear is tangible.”

She added, “Mourning and grieving for loved ones killed is still going on, as the killings are not being acknowledged, so no memorial services or monuments are allowed by the government.”

But what is riveted in her memory is the look in the eyes of those whose husbands or friends have been taken away by the military.

“They told me that they do not know where they are and to the best of their knowledge they have never been charged with any crime. They do not know if they are  alive or dead,” she explained.

Osorio related how she believes that the encounters give a face to the oft alleged militarisation, Sinhalisation and the blatant disregard of the government for basic human rights in Sri Lanka, especially in the north.

She described the challenge to the participants in the networking meeting as asking themselves and each other how to build solidarity with this kind of situation.

Bishop Rayappu Joseph, from Mannar, told the group that the plight of the people more than four years on from the official end of the 30-year civil war is truly a heavy cross that they are forced to bear.

Father Jeyabalan Croos then spoke of the military as being the biggest block to building a peaceful and harmonious society, especially  in the northern part of the country.

He said that the recent visit of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, was a significant step forward for the people, even though the government is trying to discredit her findings.

Osorio said that the keynote speaker at the gathering, Father Sheldon Reid Fernando, used Vatican II and Church teaching on human rights to show that concrete commitment to rights work in the Church does serve to strengthen the role that the Church can play in addressing situations of injustice, such as what is happening in Sri Lanka today.

The gathering was officially opened by Bishop Vianny Fernando, from Kandy, who is also the chairperson of the Commission for Justice and Peace and Human Development of the bishops’ conference of Sri Lanka.

He quoted from the Book of Exodus, saying that God always heard the cries of his people and that he had sent Moses to deliver them.

He interpreted this as a call to Christians of every age to question oppressive structures in the face of discrimination.

Osorio reported that at the end of the nine-day experience, the group isolated militarisation and migration, as well as human trafficking as being the big hurdles in Sri Lanka, and indeed many places in Asia, in the building of a just and peaceful society.

At the end of the day, Osorio said that she believes the experience taught her that being aware of the problems of people in other places and making their plight known in the wider community is an important step in supporting local people who are involved in struggling against oppressive governments and situations of abuse and injustice.

As a collective action, the group is sending its report to the archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, with the request to share it with other Asian bishops at their next meeting.


“It was a deeply moving experience,” Osorio reflected. “I believe it is being part of the communion of saints in our world.”

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