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Sunday, June 16, 2024

‘After terrorism is eradicated’; but people in the North and East still live in terror.- Bishop of Mannar

Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
Bishop of Mannar, Dr. Rayappu Joseph, in an interview with Ceylon Today says he has always been accused of being an LTTE supporter by senior ministers of the government and adds that he thinks Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, who recently accused him of being a spokesperson for the LTTE, is misusing his position as the government spokesperson, using official platforms to utter personal opinions.
Following are excerpts:

Q: You have been called a ‘controversial bishop’. Why are you branded so?
A: There are too many ‘controversial issues’ in Sri Lanka, especially in the North, like people disappearing, some being arrested and detained illegally for a long period of time, about land occupied illegally by the Security Forces, attacks and threats on journalists and human rights activists. Commission after Commission was appointed, most of whose reports are held in secret by the authorities, not shared with the families of victims or the public. The Constitution is being deliberately violated, such as in ignoring the rulings of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal in the case of the impeachment of the Chief Justice and the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. These are just a few of the controversial issues. I talk about these things. Things many don’t like to talk about or deal, maybe due to fear, as others who have talked about such things have been killed, disappeared, arrested and detained, branded as traitors, terrorist supporters and so forth.
Q: How do you describe the life of the people in the North and East, now that terrorism has been eradicated?

A: You say ‘after terrorism is eradicated,’ but people in the North and East still live in terror. Women live in terror of being abused. Others live in fear of their lands being taken away by the military. Those in detention live in fear of them being tortured and at times killed and the uncertainty of how long they will have to be detained. Ordinary people fear being abducted amidst the high level of military presence. Journalists, human rights activists, priests, academics, lawyers who challenge and criticize the government live in fear. Sadly, people are terrorized even when they try to remember family members who have been killed in the war or when they try to search the truth about what happened to their disappeared family members. On a positive note, people in the North and East don’t have to hide in bunkers to avoid shelling and bombing anymore. They don’t have to hide their children to avoid forced recruitment, and many have been able to go back to their own villages after months and years of displacement and detention. Positively also, some of major roads have been done up, some schools, hospitals, government offices have been rebuilt. But physical infrastructure, while important, is no substitute to real healing, and to addressing some of the immediate problems and the underlying political problem that predates the war and the LTTE.
What is the necessity of keeping the armed forces in such large numbers in the North and East? Why civil administration cannot be completely restored in the North and East as it is in the other parts of the country? There is an unwanted interference into the day-to-day lives of the civilians, their freedom, their economy, their lands, their culture, their language, religion and so forth. They promote State-sponsored colonization to stealthily create an electoral imbalance in the regions of the Tamil traditional habitations. Let it not be understood that I am questioning the right of any citizen on his own to come to the Tamil areas, purchase land and go about his/her work and live with the people here in brotherhood with no State-sponsored interference with the traditional inhibitions.
Q: Bishop, you have been accused of being a ‘torchbearer’ or a ‘supporter’ of the LTTE movement. Why is that?
A: I certainly have met the LTTE political leaders prior to 2009, along with the bishops and Buddhist monks, including the Maha Nayaka of the Asgiriya Chapter and have held discussions, where I have also condemned violent and unjust activities of the LTTE and pleaded on behalf of the rights and well-being of civilians. Indeed, even leading government ministers in the present government have met the LTTE. I have stated my position quite clearly that I condemn the violent acts by the LTTE and that I stand for internal right of self-determination for Tamils, and the concept of many nationalities in one country. Indeed, it would be interesting to examine how many critics of the government – opposition politicians, lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, representatives of foreign governments and even top UN officials have been called LTTE supporters! It seems ‘LTTE supporter’ is a label reserved for anyone who speaks the truth and demands justice.
Q: You have said that your life was in danger and that you are alive because you are a Bishop. Do you feel safe now? 
A: I still feel insecure. Similar to the insecurity others who criticize and challenge the government feel. Priests who have challenged and criticized the government have been killed, disappeared, detained, and threatened in Sri Lanka, especially Tamil priests in the North and East in the recent years, just like journalists, human rights activists and opposition politicians.
Q: The government says the LTTE is still ‘active’ in various ways. What is your opinion?
A: I’m not an intelligence officer, and as a religious leader, a Bishop, I don’t have time and resources or expertise to investigate such matters and to give informed comments. What I can say is the inability and the unwillingness to address root causes of the conflict, which led to war and past abuses, as well as continuing repression of the Tamils in the North and East should be brought to end so that the fear of a possible resurgence of violence can also be brought to an end.

Q:Last week, Minister of Mass Media, Keheliya Rambukwella accused you of being a spokesperson for the LTTE; that you have embraced them from the beginning and that he has enough evidence to prove that. How do you respond to him?

A: I think he is misusing his position as government spokesperson, using official platforms to utter personal opinions. It would be good if you and other journalists ask him whether this is his official position or that of the government. I have personally met the President and government ministers many times, and they have not expressed what Rambukwella has said. He speaks about the Miraculous Statue of Our Lady of Madhu being handed over by me to the LTTE for protection and that I had rejected the offer of the Security Forces to protect the same during heavy battle between the parties of the divide in this region. This is Rambukwella’s wild imagination and is totally baseless.
Q: The Media Minister also said the Sri Lanka Catholic Bishops’ Council had tabled its recommendations to the government. What are the recommendations and were you also involved in drafting the proposal?
A: My signature is there. This is a document that all the Bishops, including me, could agree by consensus. In the Catholic Church, each diocese under a Bishop is autonomous, under the Holy Father. Bishops’ conferences are organized and they express collective opinions at Asian level, national level and in big countries such as India, even at State level. Such collective expressions are complimentary to a Bishop expressing individual opinions about specific matters in relation to the joys, aspirations and struggles of the people in their respective diocese, and myself and other Bishops of Sri Lanka are no exception. These recommendations should be deeply studied by all concerned as they form the indispensible dictates towards reconciliation, peace and prosperity. The reality of the political nature of our country is not fully recognized in our Constitution. Our country is multinational, multicultural, multi-linguistic, multi-religious having traditional habitations and different economic systems. This is shadowed in the Constitution, as its framework is unitary. All the religions have power within themselves to change the lives of their adherents and make progress and growth. No religion needs special State-support. All our religions should be considered equal and be treated alike in the Constitution and same with the languages spoken in the country. This is like saying that all religions equal, but one religion is more equal than the others. Similarly, all powerful Executive Presidency should also change. We know how the Presidential candidates had been speaking very vehemently against the Executive Presidential system, but once they win the election, they become completely dumb about it. This constitutional inequality must necessarily change and we need real statesmen for that.
Q: Do you want the North and East to be merged, which the TNA also believes is necessary?
A: It is not that I want the North and East be united, because it is a single unit in itself. The Tamils lived exclusively in this region. It is only with the plan of the British colonizers that the Tamils left this region to other regions of the country. The Tamils living in the Up-country region were brought here by the British from South India as workers. This is 5th standard history and it is a pity and sheer shame that some so-called educated people refuse to accept history.
Q: Some say you are doing politics rather than preaching religion. Are you?
A: Pope Francis has said recently that a good Catholic meddles in politics, giving the best that one can give, in opinions, words, and prayer, for the common good, so that those who govern can govern well. And those citizens cannot be indifferent to politics and say that I have nothing to do with governance and politics. This is also the spirit of Vatican and of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church.
I have given priority to embrace, speak about and address the aspirations and struggles of the people living in my diocese, and more broadly Sri Lanka. It is in this line, and in line with Jesus’ mission to bring good news to the poor, that I talk about the people who have disappeared, who are tortured and killed in custody, those whose lands are being occupied illegally. If you or anyone else calls this as doing politics, so be it. For me, it is my spiritual, religious, humane mission. I do not engage in party politics.
Q: How is your relationship with the TNA and are you on the same wavelength as Northern Chief Minister, C.V. Wigneswaran, with regard to the demand to remove Northern Governor, G.A. Chandrasiri?
A: I have agreements and disagreements with the TNA as an Alliance, and also with individual parties and members of the TNA. I have not joined any political party, but I engage and dialogue with all political parties – the government, the TNA, even the UNP, about problems faced by our people. Irrespective of what Wigneswaran thinks, I’m certainly of the view that all governors, not just in the North, should be civilians and professionals, with needed expertise. I believe Sri Lanka has people who have this expertise and experience. Long years in the military service is not a qualification for a civilian position. Indeed, in the North and East, where the military stands accused of large numbers of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, sexual abuse, torture, land grabbing and so forth, being a military officer is definite a disqualification, something people are uncomfortable with. Such an officer will resort to military approach and certainly will not win the hearts and minds of the people.
Q: You are also being blamed for writing to various other countries about the plight of the Tamils, which has upset the government. Your reaction?
A: I have been writing to the President, various ministers, MPs in the government and have personally taken a lot of effort and time to make submissions to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). I have also personally met the President and other government officials and politicians, and my priests have also done the same. The same way, I also write to others about the problems faced by the people in the North, including to foreign governments, the UN and Church groups.
Q: The international community is exerting pressure on the government to conduct an independent international probe into the war crimes allegations. What is your stance?
A: I have stated before that an international investigation is required, to ascertain the truth about the allegations of war crimes. This will contribute towards reconciliation, as most Tamils in the North and East do not have confidence in a domestic process anymore. They have tried to cooperate with so many domestic institutions and processes, but without any results. And many have been threatened and intimidated for participating in domestic processes such as the LLRC, Commissions of Inquiry, filing Court cases, complaining to the police and the Human Rights Commission. I myself and several of my priests have this same experience. On many occasions, the police and the Human Rights Commission refused to even accept complaints, and the police often force Tamil complainants to make complaints in Sinhala, a language they don’t understand. Thousands of human rights violations, sexual abuses, murders, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, had taken place throughout the war and later. Has any single case been investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice? Except for two or three cases, one of them being the case of rape and murder of Miss. Krishanthy Kumarasami of Jaffna, but none else. What are we left with in a setup, where the perpetrator and the judge happen to be one and the same person?
Q: Do you believe a South African style reconciliation process would work for Sri Lanka? 

A: I’m not an expert on the South African process – but I have been there to study the process, met knowledgeable people and still studying about it. From what I understand, we in Sri Lanka have a lot to learn – in terms of what South Africa has done well, but also not done so well. It is particularly important to understand the very different contexts. For example, in South Africa, the majority was being dominated by the minority, in Sri Lanka it has been and still is, a case of the majority dominating the minority. In South Africa, the ruling Whites, who had been accused of the majority of the violations, including systematic policies of apartheid, were ready to give up power, but here in Sri Lanka, the ruling government, which stands accused of war crimes and massive human rights violations, is still in power. Indeed, the government has been unwilling to engage in a genuine dialogue to come up with a political solution, with various past initiatives, such as proposals during Chandrika’s Presidency even this government’s own APRC appearing to have been dumped into the garbage bin. The government has even been violating its own Constitution for 26 years by not sharing the powers devolved to the Provincial Councils under the 13th Amendment. In South Africa, the transition happened with freeing of political prisoners, here, political prisoners languish in jail for years, some without charges, some who have been charged having their cases dragged on for years. In South Africa, there was violence during the transition, but certainly not killings, injuries, disappearances, destruction and displacement on the scale we saw happen in 2009 in Sri Lanka. I believe the processes and procedures of the TRC was agreed on by the White rulers and leaders of the ANC, but all the initiatives taken so far by the Sri Lankan Government has been unilateral, with no discussion with opposition parties, even though, the Tamil National Alliance won overwhelming victories in the 2010 parliamentary elections in the North, in addition to the overwhelming victory in the last September’s Northern Provincial Council elections. There has been careful consideration by the TRC, about who is to be given amnesty or not – I understand the majority of amnesty applications were turned down, and amnesty was conditional on full disclosure of the truth.


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