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“AIM WAS TO BUILD BRIDGES BETWEEN VICTIMISED FAMILIES OF NORTH AND SOUTH”

21 August 2014 07:33 pm - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Says people have lost faith in govt’s ability to deliver justice

By Lakna Paranamanna

There are many versions of the events that took place at the meeting held for families of the disappeared. As someone who was at the event, tell us what really happened that day?  

The event was held for the families of the disappeared to voice their grievances and share their experiences. We selected 20 families from the Northern Province to participate in the meeting. |Although we wished to include a bigger number various constraints including finances and accommodation facilities did not permit anymore.

The meeting began about 1.30 pm and an official from the organizing committee was posted outside the entrance of the CSR hall to obtain details of everyone who participated at the event. It was not because we expected any clash or any suspicious activity to take place- we simply wished to maintain a record of all those who participated in the event.  

At around 3.30 pm we heard an uproar outside - when I went outside with another priest to inquire into what the commotion was, I saw a group of Buddhist monks behaving aggressively. Being fluent in Sinhala, I approached them and inquired as to why they had stormed into the meeting.

I have two criticisms of the actions of those who stormed into the meeting. Firstly, as religious leaders, it was not ethical to storm into holy grounds in that manner, because the CSR hall is located in the Fatima Church premises. Therefore, if the group had an issue with our meeting, they should have first raised it with Parish Priest of that Church and obtained prior permission to enter the premises. Secondly, they should have also sought permission from the officials of the CSR hall without simply storming into the building. It is only if the responses from those two points were unsatisfactory, should they have approached the organizers of the event. We did not give into their demand of allowing them into the meeting because we had no idea who they were and participation in the event was only on invitation.

I believe religious leaders should not behave in such a manner – some discipline and moral values should be maintained. Not only did they violate civil law but they also downgraded the code of behaviour that is expected of a religious leader.


Q : On what basis were the families selected to participate in the event?  

The families represented various areas in the North including Mannar, Kilinochchi  and Mullaithivu.



Q : What was the purpose of the event?

The aim was to build bridges between victimized families of the North and the South; to create a platform through which the families of the North and the South should share their grief on losing their loved ones.  We wished to create a dialogue between the two parts of the country and it is even encouraged in the recommendations of the LLRC.

Reconciliation cannot be achieved if constant challenges are being posed to efforts to heal the rift between the two parts of the country. Development alone is not enough to heal the wounds of war – the people’s needs, their lives should be understood and it is only then that LLRC recommendations can be implemented effectively.  



Q : Criticisms have been levelled at the way in which the Police responded to the commotion. What are your comments?

Police arrived at the scene several minutes after the mob stormed into the meeting. They said they were informed of the incident on 119. Unfortunately, instead of removing the unruly crowd from the Church premises, the Police personnel asked us to stop the meeting without even having a Court order.  

The task at hand for them was simple – the group committed a clear violation of the law and relevant action should have been taken against them. Sadly the line between the law enforcement authorities and the group blurred that afternoon because they both demanded for the meeting to be dissolved.



Q : The group that disrupted the meeting identified  themselves as the ‘Dead and Missing Persons’ Parents’ Front.’ They accused you of being an imposter and posing as a Christian priest? 
I have been a priest for the past 26 years and  I have served in various parts of this country including my present station in Veyangoda where I am the Vicar of St. Mary’s Church.  The group however, showed a picture of me and said that I have been ousted from the Church and I am roaming on the streets of Dematagoda.
Moreover, they labelled those who attended the meeting as traitors and LTTE supporters. They claimed the families at the meeting were Mahaveer families but in reality they were all ordinary, innocent families and a majority of them were mothers. We were accused of paying Rs. 200,000 to each family to participate in the event. These accusations are all unfounded and we challenge them to prove their claims.

During the commotion, the group screamed at us and said we should be got rid of and that we should be hung. It was an open warrant for the public to harm our lives. But their claims have made it evident that despite the upheaval they created, they do not have a clue as to what is going on – they are clearly being manipulated by another party.

So I feel nothing but regret for them and I pardon them because they are not fully aware of their actions. But on the other hand, I strongly believe that as robed individuals, they have an obligation to behave in a manner that does not tarnish Buddhism.



Q : Who do you think is manipulating them and to what end?

I hold the government responsible for manipulating this group to gain political mileage. These incidents are all part of a series of actions to win votes.  
The government is well aware of the fact that it will lose the votes of both Northern and Eastern residents. After the Aluthgama violence, Muslims votes too are doubtful. So the government must thinking that such actions will help it garner Sinhala, Buddhist votes. The group labelled us as traitors – these phrases are part of the common parlance of politicians so it is obvious that the incident was a result of a politically motivated agenda.

It is strongly linked to the government’s agenda of militarizing the country - into numbing the public into accepting the establishment of military camps in every city and town by raising the spectre of the LTTE. That is why robed individuals are allowed to freely violate laws and take the law into their hands in the name of protecting Sinhala Buddhist interests. The ultimate message that the government is propagating by remaining inactive before such blatant violations of law is that it will be further deepening the rift between the North and South instead of attempting to mend it.



Q : There are charges that your meeting meeting was held to gather evidence to be submitted before the investigation on Sri Lanka carried out by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Were there any such plans?

Yes I am aware that such accusations were made. Some had even said that we were using satellite technology to contact OHCHR officials. A majority of the group who stormed our meeting had brought cameras with them and they clicked a plethora of pictures of everyone at the meeting. So their images should be able to reveal the truth on whether or not there was such an attempt.

So I reiterate – the monks should speak the truth. These false claims make it evident that the robed individuals who stormed into the meeting that day were not actual monks.  



Q :  Why was the event not open to the media?

It was not open to the media because there was no need for media presence. It was the group that brought in the media with their arrival.



Q : The meeting, and diplomats who attended the meeting, have been criticized by the government as being orchestrated by NGOs attempting to tarnish the image of the country. What were the reasons behind not involving the government?
It was our right to invite whomever we believed should be part of the gathering that day. People have lost faith in the ability of the government to deliver justice for their concerns. People in the North are feeling psychologically oppressed despite the area being liberated from the LTTE.  Even the priests in the area say they are very restrained and careful in the sermons they make. What is the meaning of freedom if a priest is not free to say what is in the Bible? There is no freedom or equality in the North. Even Bishop Rayappu Joseph recently stated that the Commission on Missing Persons is a farce. So under such circumstances, we are compelled to expose the truth to the public.



Q : Have the families who participated in the meeting expressed any concerns about their safety upon returning home?
So far they have not but that does not mean they are out of danger.



Q : What about you? Do you have any safety concerns?
Yes, I am concerned about the safety of my life because presently I remain unable to return to my Church in Veyangoda. My superiors have advised me to refrain from visiting the Veyangoda church as they have received information to believe that attempts are being made to harm my life. So for the moment I am staying elsewhere, deprived of my right to engage in religious activities.



Q : What is the plan to move forward?
At the moment I am silent. Those who stormed the meeting that day have succeeded because they have achieved their aim of silencing us. Furthermore, my religious rights have been violated but to whom should I express my concerns? If the local authorities are not genuinely concerned about us, we have no choice but to reach out to international bodies such as the UN. It is the government and its supporters that push people towards resorting to external groups to solve domestic issues.
Today, even the international community knows about what happened at the meeting in CSR on August 5. It is the government and these robed individuals that create havoc and tarnish the good name of the country, violating the very crux of Buddhism and not any NGOs or  other external powers.

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