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Only the lowly can confront corruption

GWANGJU (SE): Father Nandana Manatunga thanked the people of South Korea for their continuous support of those struggling against repression and state violence throughout Asia as he was presented with the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights at the Culture Centre in Seogu on May 18 this year.
The trustees describe the prize as promoting “the spirit of the May 18 Democratisation Movement (in Korea) in which the people of Gwangju resisted the brutal military forces for the sake of Democracy and Human Rights in 1980,” which they claim “historically, brought democracy to Korea.”
The 58-year-old Sri Lankan priest told the Korean Times that he had been inspired by the young people who rose up against the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee in 1980 when he himself was later actively seeking to protect people in his home city of Kandy against the excesses of the government of J. R. Jayewardene.
The Gwangju Prize for Human Rights is an acknowledgment of the support the people of South Korea received from other countries in examining the truth of the events that led up to the revolt of 18 May 1980, which contributed to the development of a true democracy. It is also a way of giving something back to those who continue to suffer oppression.
First awarded to the Timor Leste independence leader, Xanana Gusmão, in 2000, followed by Hong Kong-based Sri Lankan, Basil Fernando, from the Asian Human Rights Commission, each year the prestigious prize honours people from Asia (except one from Argentina) judged to have made a significant impact on the human rights situation of their country over long years of dedicated struggle.
Early life experiences can have a profound influence on the way the future pans out and an experience as a young priest had a deep impact on the manner in which Father Manatunga’s vocation unfolded.
In 1989, the young priest from Kandy was hailed down on a lonely road during the zenith of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna Youth Insurrection by a man looking for a lift to a bus stop.
Father Manatunga describes him as being somewhat agitated, as he kept encouraging him to drive faster, but it was only when he was getting out of the car that the mystery hitchhiker told him he had been abducted and taken to a nearby cemetery to be shot. However, he had slipped the gaze of his captors and escaped.
The resurrected Communist-inspired insurrection had initially been a movement to defend both the oppressed Sinhala and Tamil populations, but by 1989 it had morphed into a tightly-knit push for the Tamil cause to the exclusion of the Sinhala people and was characterised by abductions and assassinations, as well as credible accusations of human rights abuses and illegal arrests, mostly of young people, against the government.
The chance hitchhiker sparked Father Manatunga’s concern and he began to visit police stations and army camps to negotiate for the release of prisoners, as well as provide shelter for those who were on the run from the marauding agents of the law.
Over the years, the magnitude of his work increased and, while initially he had worked through his position as director of Caritas and later director of the Diocesan Media Centre, eventually the Human Rights Office Kandy was established in 2008.
Father Manatunga prides the organisation that he was instrumental in founding as one of the few in Sri Lanka that takes what he calls a holistic approach to victims. He describes it as a multi-pronged approach providing security, protection, legal assistance and medical care, as well as psychological support, together with educational and social assistance.
He insists on what he calls an approach of Victim-Centred Activity, saying, “It was at the request of the victims for such a holistic approach that we embarked on the Human Rights Office Kandy. Hence the issue was basically focused on providing security and protection, as well as legal, medical and psychological assistance.”
While the office does employ social workers and a small administration team, its strength lies in the bevy of some 40 volunteers from the legal, medical and educational fields that provides much of the expertise that makes the office a safe haven and a place of healing and struggle against corruption.
In his belief that the corrupt judicial system would never improve unless it was challenged by the lowly, over the years Father Manatunga, together with the volunteers he has gathered around him, has patiently trod the path to court rooms around Sri Lanka, enduring the sneers of onlookers, as well as court officials from police to ushers, prosecution lawyers and even the bench.
In 2016, Father Manatunga proudly presented what he dubbed a Reward for Courage certificate to rape victim, Rita Jesudasan, whose case dragged from 2001 to the end of 2015, and torture victim, Rohitha Liyanage. He thanked them for their courage and persistence in seeing their cases to a successful conclusion in an environment where rape and torture are virtually legalised by a protective curtain of impunity.
He also believes that persistence has produced more far reaching results, as the ongoing publicity, community education and healing of victims who are now able to speak for themselves has seen public attitudes begin to turn away from smug disbelief towards growing demand for tougher punishment for the mostly ignored crimes of rape and torture.
In addition, Father Manatunga hopes that the social rejection and ostracisation by peers and fellow villagers the likes of Jesudasan have had to endure will fade over time if more and more people can be healed and muster the courage to stand up, resist and speak publicly about their ordeals.
Father Manatunga is a busy parish priest, celebrating Masses in Sinhalese, Tamil and English each weekend, but Vietnamese rights advocate, Sen Nguyen, sees him as much more than that, describing the pugnacious priest in an article published in the Gwangju News as a courageous hero who inspires humanity by committing himself to building a harmonious society.
Nguyen, who images herself as one who has sipped the lessons of Father Manatunga into her own consciousness, says, “He does not speak to us from an ivory tower, but rather keeps it real, confronting the predicaments in the trenches by supporting thousands of victims of torture and rape, and by educating a myriad human rights activists.”

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