Father Mike at Alukalavita in 1986 Pic by michael Meyler
The village of Alukalavita located at the 12th-mile post on the Kataragama Road in Buttala is so small you could drive right past and not notice it. There is no signboard bearing its name or no monument marking its existence. Yet, for a brief time, in the 1980s, Alukalavita was the site of a unique and historic movement for social justice.
The man behind this movement—a Catholic priest named Father Michael Rodrigo—was shot dead on 10 November 1987, while performing evening mass in a thatched-roof chapel. To this day, 32 years after his murder, no one has been held accountable for the crime.
Why was he killed? And why do so few people in Sri Lanka know his story? The answers to both questions are bound together: Father Michael was a revolutionary, whose teachings not only threatened the established economic, religious and political order three decades ago but continue to have a deep resonance and great relevance for the country today.
In 1978, having established himself as a renowned theologian with two doctorates under his belt, Father Mike received a prestigious and lucrative offer to teach at the Institut Catholique in Paris. Some might have jumped at the prospect of professional acclaim and financial security—not so Father Mike.
In the 1960s he had been immersed in the radical revival of the Catholic church known as Vatican II, particularly the indigenization of Christianity and a growing focus on inter-faith dialogue. He also became engaged with liberation theology, a Marxist-leaning religious movement that originated in South America and upheld the rights of oppressed peoples, particularly in the third world, to struggle for emancipation.
Father Mike was keen to go beyond scholarship and academia. He felt increasingly that to effect the real change he must live and work among the poor. This conviction led him, in 1980, to the heartland of the Sinhala Buddhist peasantry in the Uva Province, a region with a long history of social disenfranchisement, rebellion dating back to 1818, and a lingering mistrust of Christians who were viewed as missionaries carrying on the colonial legacy.
At the time, the people of Alukalavita, a farming community that relied on chena cultivation, were struggling against a powerful trifecta: an economic siege imposed by a sugar plantation corporation, environmental devastation caused by deforestation and the introduction of chemical fertilizers, and the political indifference of the ruling class to their plight. Unemployment and illiteracy were rampant: only 22 percent of its population of 500 had finished primary school.
None of these challenges gave Father Mike pause. Together with a handful of companions, including two nuns—Sisters Milberga Fernando and Benedict Fernandopulle, a Sinhalese and a Tamil—he set up a tiny community centre which they christened Suba Seth Gedara or the House of Good Wishes.
For the next seven years, this establishment, which was indistinguishable from the other humble dwellings that dotted the village, became the site of some of the most visionary activism and fellowship saw in Sri Lanka.
Father Mike’s first order of business was to shed his priestly garb, a move that many villagers told me signalled the beginning of their trust in him. Attired in a simple sarong and banyan, he went door to door conducting a kind of “barefoot” survey of the households in the area and recording their most pressing concerns. Soon he had started a small library, begun a program of adult literacy for school drop-outs and set up “clinic days” at Suba Seth Gedara to address the villagers’ health and education needs.
But Father Mike was not just in the business of charitable giving. He had journeyed to Buttala to understand the root causes of destitution among the peasantry, whom he considered the backbone of the national economy. “In Sri Lanka, the rest of the country feeds the ‘mother city’”, he wrote. “Isn’t it a travesty of justice that Colombo increases in size and facilities, expanding like a bull-frog at the expense of the neglected village and villager?”
He named capitalism as the biggest threat to humanity, writing extensively about the exploitation of labourers employed by the Pelwatte Sugar Company. But he went a step further than most Marxists of his time—by immersing himself in rural life, he saw with his own eyes that the ravaging of nature was as essential to the accumulation of profit as the theft of the proletariat’s wages.
Father Mike’s first order of business was to shed his priestly garb, a move that many villagers told me signalled the beginning of their trust in him
Thus he advocated for a peasant-centred transformation of the Sri Lankan economy along ecological lines: not only for a more equitable distribution of wealth but for the creation of an alternative system. He debated these theories with the people, using drama and poetry as a vehicle for creating a shared consciousness within the community. Had he not been a Buddhist scholar, Father Mike would likely have faced insurmountable obstacles. In journal entries, Father Mike recounts encounters with a number of monks and villagers who suggested he abandon his efforts to ‘baptize’ them.
In response, he collaborated with a local poet to create devotional Sinhala songs based on the Ten Perfections, which were subsequently heard by over seven hundred devotees at the nearby temple. In time he became such a respected figure that a monk by the name of Ven. Alutwela Sumanasiri Thera told his devotees:
“I regret having harassed him (Father Mike) at the start…now I tell you, be free to go there (Suba Seth Gedara) to learn the dhamma, for he too can guide you.”
Father Mike was determined to leverage the power of inter-religious unity for the good of the people, a situation that both angered and frightened the authorities. For instance, in 1987 close to 90 farmers in the area lost their crop to drought.
They joined a group of Buddhist monks and representatives from Suba Seth Gedara to present a 34-page petition for relief to the kachcheri. “A puny official accosted us,” wrote Father Mike, “saying, ‘One religion is frightening enough. I get more frightened when two religions come together.’”
Such sentiments shed a darkly illuminating light on what some have termed his “senseless murder”. This, I believe, is a misnomer. Far from being senseless, his assassination appears to have been a calculated move by people who saw his radical ministry as a force capable of mobilizing the masses and overturning decades, if not centuries, of injustice.
Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to travel with Sister Milberga to Alukalavita and its neighbouring villages, where we spoke with a number of families who knew Father Mike. Many of these were female-headed households with some standing in the community. All of them held memories of the second JVP insurrection in which their family members or neighbours were disappeared. They wept as they recalled how Father Mike alone had fought on their behalf, on occasion venturing into the mouth of the beast—the local police station—to demand answers about missing youth or to argue with the authorities about the immorality of torture.
But even more significantly, every woman I met attributed the seeds of her success to Suba Seth Gedara: the place where they first learned English or received their first bicycle or sewing machine; the place where they discovered a love of books and music. Above all, it was the place where they first encountered the notion of liberation: that they were destined for something more than a life of hardship and hunger.
Father Mike’s is what you might call a ‘Living Legacy’, one that merits greater prominence and careful study, particularly in light of the Easter tragedy and the upcoming elections, at a time when the future of this country hangs precariously in the balance. If you would like to join a civil society study group about his life and works, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org