Destroying monuments for those killed & disappeared: The Catholic Church and the Sri Lankan Government
On the evening of 26th October 2011, Fr. Srilal Manoj Perera (appointed by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith to be in charge of land issues for Archdiocese of Colombo), Fr. Prasad Perera, Parish Priest of St. Cecelia’s Church, Raddoluwa (in the Colombo Archdiocese), members of the Parish Council and a lawyer representing them, took the unprecedented step of requesting that the Police destroy a nationally and internationally recognized monument for disappeared persons situated in the Raddolugama-Seeduwa junction in the Gampaha district in Sri Lanka.
This was on the eve of the 21st annual commemoration for disappeared persons held annuallyon the 27th of October at the site of the monument, with the participation of families of disappeared persons, religious leaders, political leaders, human rights activists and concerned citizens.
This request to destroy the monument was preceded by several attempts by Fr. Prasad and the Parish Council to disrupt and discourage the use of the monument and the commemoration. These attempts included the construction of a wall that obstructed access between the monument and the church premises. Verbal and written appeals have been made by the leaders of the organization of Families of the Disappeared (FOD) to the Parish Priest and the Parish Council to facilitate the continuance of activities that take place surrounding the monument, including and the annual commemoration, but these have apparently fallen on deaf ears. Church leaders have made complaints regarding the monument to the Police and also threatened legal action against the Families of the Disappeared seeking a Court order to destroy the monument.
The main allegation by the Church is that the monument is situated on land belonging to the Catholic Church. This is the first time such allegations have been made in the past 11 years of the existence of the monument. The Church delegation had gone to the extent of accusing the Families of the Disappeared that they had “secretly built the monument in the night” despite it being built for over a period of two months and construction work taking placein broad daylight in full view of the Church premises and its access roads.
The fact that both the allegations made and the request to destroy the monument come from the Archdiocese’s official representative in charge of land issues together with a lawyer indicates that these allegations and the request to destroy the monument is most likely with the approval of leader of the Archdiocese, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith.
What the monument is about:
The monument has photos of Sinhalese youth disappeared and killed in the late 1980s, during the regime of the United National Party. Families and loved ones still don’t know fate of many of them andprobably never will. These are persons who have no grave, no place to light a candle, no place to lay flowers and no place to say a prayer. It is in this context that the monument became a place for families of those killed and disappeared to gather collectively, together with concerned religious leaders, political leaders and citizens to light candles, lay flowers and conduct religious observances.
The monument has also become an important symbol and record of a tragic part of Sri Lankan history - – a part that the powerful and victors ignore. Even Presidential Commissions which heard tens of thousands of testimonies relating to disappearances refuse to publish their reports.
More importantly, the monument also provided a space to campaign against the heinous crime of disappearances and raise a voice demanding that it should never happen again, anywhere, to anyone.
The history of the October 27th commemoration, the monument and the Catholic Church
The monument is built at the Seeduwa – Raddoluwa junction in the Gampaha district (Western Province), at the place where bodies of two disappeared trade union activists, H.M Ranjith and H. Lional, were found in 1989. During a period of severe repression, in which it was usual to find the bodies of those killed everywhere every morning, 17 people had come together to remember Lionel and Ranjith on 27th October 1991. This continued over the years, drawing more people, including political leaders and activists from all over Sri Lanka and the world, including the present President and Ministers of cabinet. On 10th December 1999, the foundation stone was laid for the monument, adjoining St. Cecelia’s Church by the roadside. It was opened on 4th February 2000.
In the 1980s, some Catholic Priests who had tried to safeguard youth from being disappeared and killed and buried bodies when no one else dared to do so, were killed and threatened. Every year, Catholic Priests had come forward to conduct religious observances on the 27th of October, to console grieving families and support these families’ and other activists’ efforts to struggle against disappearances and impunity. Amongst the Catholic Priests present at this year’s commemoration was Fr. Terence Fernando, who was amongst the 16 people who had gathered in 1991 for the first commemoration.
In the past, St. Cecilia’s Church had been very supportive of the commemoration and the building of the monument. The families and their supporters were invited to use the Church premises for activities related to the commemoration. Particularly significant had been the offering of the Church space for traditional alms giving to Buddhist Monks at the end of the October 27th commemoration. There was a period when the first Sunday service after the 27th of October was dedicated to the disappeared and their families, with family members invited to share their grief and the whole church community going to light candles at the monument. Over the last few years, I have d seen material displayed and distributed, meals served, and discussions held in the Church premises with the support of the Church.
For 20 years, no question or objection had been raised about the commemoration or the monument, nor had any allegation been made that church owned land was being used for this purpose.
Please not to destroy the monument:
During this year’s commemoration, Mrs. Annie Theresa, a Catholic mother whose son had disappeared in 1989 and had been participating in the commemoration for many years, pleaded with Church leaders not to destroy the monument and to allow the commemoration to continue. “My son has no grave, where can I lay flowers and pray?” she asked. The sister of a disappeared person asked “whenever I pass this way, I get down, lay flowers and go – where will I go if this monument is destroyed?” “The Church has been helping us in the past – why are they doing this now?” asked Mrs. Sandya Ekneligoda, wife of cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda, who disappeared in January 2010.
At the end of this year’s commemoration, families and others present held a protest against the request to destroy the monument and signed an appeal to the Cardinal not to destroy the monument.
Monuments, commemorations and Catholic Priests in the North & South
When a Tamil Catholic Priest in the North tried to erect a monument in memory of those killed and gone missing during the war, the military threatened him with death, compelling the Bishop to transfer the priest to ensure his safety.
When Tamil Catholic Priests in the North together with other Christian Clergy and Hindu Kurukkals tried to organize prayer services for those killed and disappeared, they were also threatened by the military and some events had to be cancelled. Military officers had even walked into a Church and stopped a service the Priest was conducting.
In St. Anne’s Church Vankalai (Diocese of Mannar in Northern Sri lanka) where I often visit and stay, is a statue to remember Fr. Mary Bastians, who was, in the presence of witnesses,shot dead by the military and whose body carried away, never to be seen again. His photo is also prominently displayed. Several times, I have participated in the commemorations on the 6th of January, as the whole village gathers with the Bishop and other Priests to remember his killing and his selfless service for which he sacrificed his life.
Here in Colombo however, Sinhalese Catholic Priests appear to take on the role of the military in the North – demanding that Police destroy a monument of 11 years and a commemoration that has been held for 20 years.
Why destroy the monument and obstruct the annual October 27th commemoration?
Amongst the many Sri Lankans killed and disappeared due to their commitment to serve the poor and oppressed and raise a voice against injustice, have been Catholic Priests. With few exceptions, such as the one I mentioned above in relation to St. Anne’s Church Vankalai, they are forgotten and not remembered.
Thus, in a way, it is not surprising that some Priests do not appreciate the importance of remembering tragedies, collective grieving and the inspiration and strength drawn through monuments and commemorations to prevent such occurrences in future.
But still, it is not easy to understand why these Church leaders want to destroy the monument and disrupt the commemoration.
Is it purely due to greed for land?
Or are they objecting now, because it is only in the last few years, that many Tamil families from the North and East, and Tamil Catholic Priests from North have started to attend the commemoration and organizers and speakers have become increasingly critical of the present government’s role in the disappearance and killing of Tamils?
Or is it because they want to follow the policy of the government in the North to destroy memorials for those killed and disappeared, disrupt any efforts to build a monument and organize religious observances for those killed and disappeared and threaten those organizing?
In the recent past, in several instances, such as those given below, the Cardinal and Catholic Church in Archdiocese of Colombo have been perceived to be supportive ofthe government instead of the poor, the oppressed and victims of human rights violations and injustices. The Cardinal and Priests in Colombo,
- supported the government in opposing the linking of human rights to GSP+ and attempts to balance trade privileges with the human dignity of all peoples
- joined the government in labeling the report of the Panel of Experts of the UN Secretary General as a conspiracy even when as Church leaders in the North affirmed the report
- stood by government MP Duminda Silva instead of supporting poor slum dwellers facing imminent evictions
- didn’t join and support the struggles of the fishing community of Negombo against a sea plane project that would have damaged the lagoon and the livelihood of the fishing community
- collaborated with the military in suppressing the public expression of grief and outrage over the brutal killing of Free Trade Zone worker Roshane Chanaka by the Police
Are the efforts of these Church leaders to destroy the monument for the disappeared and disrupt the the annual commemoration simply another example of the practice of defending the government against any allegations of abuses?
What is actually at stake?
What are these Church leaders actually trying to destroy?
It is just not a concrete structure, but the memory of loved ones with no grave and resting place, the space and sprit of collective grieving, consciousness, outrage and spirit and resolve not to let heinous crimes happen to anyone anywhere.
By The Way Side
With no name attached
Is for you
Who have no grave
As the place of earth
Which embraced you
Could not be found,
This wreath was placed by the wayside
For placing a memorial for you
By the roadside
(A poem at the foot of the monument, by Basil Fernando, a key supporter of the monument from its inception)