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Letter to His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, President, Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka

The 9th Networking meeting of Asia Pacific Justice and Peace Workers was held in Kandy and Mannar from 3rd to 9th September 2013. We spent a significant amount of time to learn about human rights situation in Sri Lanka and your peoples’ struggles for justice.

One week was not enough for us to understand all issues related to human rights, justice and peace in Sri Lanka, their complexities, and interact with large number of Sri Lankans within and outside the Church. But our interactions with two Catholic Bishops, several Catholic priests, sisters, lay persons
,as well as those affected by injustices and their families in the North enabled us to get some glimpses and form some impressions about the human rights and justice and peace situation in Sri Lanka today.

What we saw and heard:

During our time in Sri Lanka, we were able to listen to a presentation about human rights situation in Sri Lanka and a video, listen to the Bishop Vianney Fernando, Chairman the Commission for Justice, Peace and Human Development, Bishop of Mannar, Priests from Colombo, Kandy and Mannar dioceses etc. We were particularly pained by the interactions we had with families of disappeared persons and political prisoners, the people of Mullikulam whose village is occupied by the Navy and people of Mullativu where the last phase of the war was fought. Below are some of our realizations:

- Families of disappeared people have made numerous efforts to find out the truth about their loved ones, by personally visiting Army camps, police stations, hospitals, complaining to Police, National Human Rights Commission, various Presidential Commissions of Inquiry, letters to President, Ministers and politicians etc. But to date, all they have had from the government is denials and intimidation of their efforts. These families also face serious economic hardships as most of those disappeared have been the primary income earner for the family.

- There are many detainees under the Prevention of Terrorism Act who have not been charged for years and cases of those charged are dragging on for years. Political prisoners are routinely subjected to torture and several have been killed in custody. Prisoners are also transferred to detention facilities far away from their hometowns, making it difficult for family members to visit. Family members, particularly young females, are vulnerable to abuse and families also face severe economic hardships, as most of those detained had also been the primary income earner for the family.

- People of Mullikulam still yearn to go back to their own village  - including those who had been provided with houses in an adjoining area. Cultivation and fishing is less productive as the Navy occupies the most productive areas. We could not go the traditional Church as we had visited Churches in Kandy, Colombo, Mannar. The people also expressed disappointment that Your Eminence had not visited the Church to pray together with them and didn't speak on their behalf after you visited them, but they still expect Your Eminence to intervene on their behalf.

- In the Mullativu district, where the last phase of the war was fought, there is very little improvement to houses of people, and very little livelihood opportunities. Most people are mourning and grieving for family members killed. Their grief has been made worse and healing become more difficult, as these killings are not officially acknowledged and no memorials and monuments are allowed by the government and cemeteries of Tamil militants have been bulldozed by the government. On the other hand, vast amounts of money have been spent to build monuments, housing and other infrastructure for the military.

- We were alarmed also at the level of militarization of the Northern province. Military seems to dominate the civil administration, interfering in some Church and civil society activities and education sector, takes away economic opportunities of local people by running farms, shops, restaurants, tourist resorts, boat rides for tourists etc.

- We were also alarmed to see a large number of Buddhist statues and temples, and hear about the dominance of Sinhalese language and the government's plans to settle Sinhalese and Muslims in the largely Tamil Northern province

- We were also surprised that the government and overall Sinhalese population don’t seem to be interested and willing to recognize the need for a political solution to address Tamil national question within the framework of one Sri Lanka which acknowledges Tamils as a distinct nation.

- Governance seems to be dominated by the family of President Rajapakse, with independence of judiciary and media severely curtailed, and appointments to independent institutions being driven by the President.

- Dissenting and critical voices have been silenced through killings, abductions, threats, intimidations, offering of privileges and co-optation. We were shocked to learn of the Army shooting and killing three civilians and injuring many more during a protest demanding clean water. Catholic Priests and Sisters have been amongst those killed, disappeared, detained, threatened and discredited in the past and even the Bishop of Mannar had been questioned twice and been threatened with arrest and discredited through state media. We were particularly alarmed at the questioning of Catholic Priest, Rev. Fr. V. Yogeswaran, S.J. , in the week prior to our arrival, due to his meeting with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We also learnt that no one has been held accountable for these.

Our reflections:

Daily Eucharisticcelebrations and prayers, together with inputs about Vatican II and Catholic Social Teachings by a well known Sri Lankan priest, enriched our reflections about how Jesus would respond to situations and to reflect on our own calling and broader Church's calling. Below are
some of our reflections:
- We were inspired by the struggles of those victimized by injustices and their families, for their dignity, rights, truth and justice despite threats, financial limitations etc.
- We were also inspired and encouraged by the commitment of individuals, both clergy and lay, and Church based groups in the Church in Sri Lanka, who have been and continue to be at the forefront of accompanying, serving and advocating on behalf of individuals and communities subjected to injustice and their families.
- The Church itself contributes to the frustration and disappointment of victims of injustices and their families when, on top of very limited support, prominent Church leaders and institutions are also seen to praise and support alleged perpetrators and block accountability initiatives.

Our commitments:

Based on what we saw, heard and our faith reflections, we committed ourselves to:
- Communicate and share our findings and reflections with Churches and peoples in our countries, promote more media coverage about the situation in Sri Lanka, organize events related to human rights in Sri Lanka, raise funds for victims, their families and those working for support them
- Dialogue with the Catholic Bishops Conference and those we met during our stay in Sri Lanka, and support their struggles for justice in whatever way we can
We welcome Your Eminence's and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference’s own feedback to enrich our findings, reflections and commitments, and we also hope and pray that all the Bishops, church leaders and institutions will be able to go beyond what they are doing at present to accompany, serve and advocate on behalf of those subjected to injustices.