Photograph courtesy Api Sri Lankan
On 20th Nov. 2014, the President of Sri Lanka officially proclaimed his intention to hold presidential elections and seek a third term. This was when there was two more years to hold presidential elections. It was widely believed that the reasons for premature elections was the fading popularity of the President and his strong belief in astrological predictions that his best chance of winning elections is in early January 2015. The premature elections was not at all based on public interest or to further democratic culture in Sri Lanka.
Accordingly, on 22nd Nov. 2014, the Commissioner of Elections announced that presidential elections would be held on 8th Jan. 2015. According to election laws in Sri Lanka, the day of elections should have been between 6th to 20th January 2015 (28-42 days after nominations). The Election Commissioner has implied to media that considering the Papal visit, the date for elections was fixed for 8th Jan, probably based on the widespread belief that a Papal will not happen few days before an election. Thus, Your Holiness’s visit has been used as a justification to fix elections on 8th January 2014, and drastically reduce the election campaign period. This will severely limit the few opportunities opposition candidates and civil society has to engage in debates about issues around the elections. Your Holiness is implied as blessing the incumbent President’s election campaign, with large bill boards showing President Rajapaksa and his wife meeting you erected in predominately Catholic areas. Some slogans say ‘’With the blessings of the Your Holiness, you (incumbent President) will be our President Again’’.
There is widespread fear of election violence, which has started with a opposition politician being shot within hours of the day of elections being announced. In this first week after nominations, at least 6 incidents of shootings have been reported, with most targeted being those connected with the opposition parties. Widespread abuse of state resources and state officials is expected, as it was in previous elections. There is also uncertainty and fear about large scale violence and retaliation against opposition activists in the days after the elections. The main opposition candidate from the last Presidential Election in 2010 was jailed immediately after the elections. Fears have also been expressed that the incumbent may not hand over power even if an opposition candidate wins the elections.
After years of repression of dissent and minorities and uncertainty about viable opposition candidates to the incumbent President, there appears to be new hope, enthusiasm and courage amongst Sri Lankans to engage in discussions and debates about their future, including democratic governance, rule of law, peace and reconciliation, issues related to minority communities. I also believe that it is the duty of Catholics to be fully conscious and involved in matters that have such serious consequences for future of country, during this period. It is likely that election results would be formally announced on evening of 9th January or morning of 10th January. The days following will be a period that Sri Lankans, including Catholics, should be fully involved in dealing with aftermath of elections, which could most probably be a very violent and tense period. If a new incumbent or the existing incumbent takes office peacefully, the days after the elections will be a period that Sri Lankans will be attempting to take forward a reform agenda, that promotes better governance, rule of law, media freedom, judicial independence, accountability for serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law, reconciliation, political solution for ethnic conflict etc. In this scenario, we as Catholics, and even non Catholic brothers and sisters, may have to make a difficult choice whether we should get ourselves fully involved in preparations for rare and unique occasion of Papal visit and beatification of Blessed Joseph Vaz or an critical presidential elections.
Visiting Sri Lanka 3-4 days after election results will also not give Your Holiness enough time to assess the post election situation in the country and share some reflections about the way Christians should be involved in social-political-economic issues of the country, particularly with the victims of human rights violations and their families.
Like me, most Sri Lankans, Catholics and non Catholics, would be very keen to welcome Your Holiness to Sri Lanka. But a few days after a presidential election is definitely not the time. Your Holiness have already been used to limits the campaign period which will negatively affect opposition candidates, and on the other hand, Your Holiness is implied as supporting the election campaign of the incumbent President.
Presidential elections in Sri Lanka are due only in two years time and there is absolutely no pressing reasons to have it now. It has been fixed in January 2015 in the interest of one individual – incumbent President – and perhaps his family. Likewise, there is no hurry for a Papal visit to Sri Lanka or to beatify Blessed Joseph Vaz. We have waited two decades and hundreds of years respectively for both these and we can wait for few more months or even years. A Papal visit in 2016 (perhaps when you are visiting Asia again for the Eucharistic Congress?) has the potential to be much more meaningful to Catholics and all Sri Lankans. Particular for us to be be able to spiritually prepare and participate in events, taking into consideration socio-political-economic realities.
Life in Sri Lanka today, including “prophetic” roles by sections of the Catholic Church
I take this chance to share some facts and reflections, based on my personal experience. Space and limits of my experience may make these incomplete, but I hope below will help Your Holiness see a glimpse of life in Sri Lanka, that most mainstream media and government and even most Church leaders would not want to share.
In March 2014, I got urgent messages from some Tamils to assist their relatives and large number of other Tamil persons who were allegedly arrested in the war ravaged North. I visited the area with a Catholic Priest, to assess the situation and see whether we should try to offer any assistance. For us, this was a response to our Catholic calling, to visit the detainees (at least their families) and others subjected to injustice. Military / Police followed us, stopped us for long periods at checkpoints, interrupted us when we were chatting with local people in their houses and finally arrested us. I was subjected to intense interrogation, denied access to lawyers despite repeated requests and visits by several teams of lawyers. The reasons given for my arrest in the arrest receipt was that I was supporting the revival of terrorism, sending information abroad to earn money and causing discomfort to the government. I believe both of us were released due to immediate and massive national and international outrage. But both of us are still under investigation, our bank accounts are being scrutinized, and court orders have been obtained to restrict our freedom of expression and travel. One of the ladies we went to inquire about, Ms. Jeyakumari Balendran, still languishes in prison for more than 8 months, without any charges, separated from her teenaged daughter. Another lady we were inquiring into, was detained and released, but stopped from traveling overseas. Her mother in law, who we met during our visit, was also arrested and released, but was also reported to have been prevented from leaving the country. There are many others who have been in prison for long time due to no fault of their own.
In August 2006, many people were killed and others injured inside a Catholic Church in Allaipiddy, Jaffna, which offered sanctuary to terrified Tamil civilians amidst fierce fighting. This is not the first time civilians have been killed, injured while seeking refuge in a Catholic Church. Even hospitals have not been spared in the fighting. Fr. Jim Brown, a young Tamil Catholic Priest, who was the Parish Priest of the Allaipiddy Church, disappeared after he had done his best to protect civilians from being killed and to get medical assistance for those injured. No one has been held accountable for the disappearance of Fr. Jim Brown, and that of the son of Ms. Jeyakumari that I mentioned above or journalists, human rights activists and civilians who had disappeared. Many of their families clamoring for truth and justice are being threatened, intimidated, harassed and restricted. In August this year, I was at a “listening and sharing” meeting with families of disappeared, held in a centre run by Oblate priests. A mob led by Buddhist Monks invaded the place, and when we called the Police, they (Police) compelled the meeting to be cancelled and refused to take action against the invaders.
Government Ministers and Government officials have discredited and intimidated a Tamil Catholic Bishop speaking out on human rights violations and there have been calls for his arrest. He has been subjected to interrogations at least twice. Many other Catholic clergy and lay persons, independent journalists and human rights activists have been killed, disappeared, attacked, threatened, intimidated, harassed, restricted, discredited with false allegations. Christians and Muslims have been under severe attack, by those claiming to be Buddhist groups. Private and state land have been acquired, often illegally, for military and touristic purposes. A very traditional, Tamil, Catholic village, where the Church also owns land, is now a Navy camp. Military continues to stop or interfere in religious and civil events in the North. Militarization is spreading all over the country, including education, sports, tourist resorts, airlines, boat services, shops, restaurants, farms etc.
Belated efforts by the UN to assist in ascertaining truth of what happened in the last years of the war and ensue accountability has been rejected by the government.
Sri Lanka is a country where even a Catholic Priest can disappear for writing a letter to the Pope. In May 2009, a Tamil Catholic Priest, Fr. Francis Joseph, wrote a letter to Pope Benedict from within the war zone, about conditions that existed and slaughter of thousands. He expressed fear that he maybe killed by the Sri Lankan government for writing and making public such a letter. I’m unaware whether Pope Benedict read that letter or what he did to act on it or protect the writer. What I do know from eyewitnesses is that few days after writing the letter, Fr. Joseph was seen surrendering to the Sri Lankan Army and then he disappeared. A court case has been pending in Sri Lankan courts about the disappearance of Fr. Joseph and the matter was brought before a Commission of Inquiry in Sri Lanka, but we are nowhere near to establishing truth and justice.
I’m aware that there maybe reprisals from the Sri Lankan government or even the Catholic Church leadership, for making this appeal to Your Holiness. Along with concerned Catholics and others, I have been involved in reflections and discussions about Your Holiness visit for a number of months. Now that the day for an premature and unnecessary presidential elections has been formally announced with utter disregard for long pre-planned visit of Your Holiness and shameless use of Your Holiness for political campaign of the incumbent President, I felt compelled to share my thoughts. I hope Your Holiness will also take into consideration before reaching a decision about visiting Sri Lanka in January 2015.