Bishop in northern Sri Lanka, Tamil alliance protest postponement of war report

Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar on Tuesday (Feb 24) joined a demonstration led by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) against the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) decision to delay the release of a report on issues of accountability during the Tamil separatist war and the post-conflict period.

However, Bishop Thomas Savundranayagam of Jaffna where the protests were held refrained from joining the protest due to the participation of politicians in the event, Sri Lankan online newspaper, The Island, reported on Thursday. 

TNA (Tamil: தமிழ்த் தேசியக் கூட்டமைப்பு) is a political alliance in Sri Lanka composed of moderate Tamil parties as well as number of former rebel groups that has participated in elections since 2001.

Bishop Joseph meanwhile reportedly called the deferment of the report’s release as UNHRC’s deception of the Tamil people who have no faith in a domestic investigation of war crimes under any government. 

Read The Island’s full report

On the day of the protest, the Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF) and the Welfare Organisation for the Forcibly Disappeared Persons also jointly decided in Jaffna not to appear and give evidence before the Presidential Commission to Investigate Complaints Regarding Missing Persons (PCICMP).

In their statement released Feb. 27 the forum convened by Bishop Joseph listed reasons why it is convinced that a credible inquiry is possible only through international means.

It noted that while the government has promised to create a credible domestic mechanism for probing alleged atrocities it “seems to continue with the approach adopted by the previous regime towards truth, justice and accountability of which your commission’s continuance is a prominent example.”

“We cannot afford to continue to appear before this commission giving it a stamp of legitimacy,” Task Force leaders wrote.

The UNHCR investigated allegations of war crimes following a resolution adopted last March, and planned to present its report during next month’s session. However the UN body announced it would issue its report in September instead after newly installed Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena assured that government would conduct an impartial and transparent domestic probe into allegations of atrocities. 

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister had reportedly asked the UN body to give the administration installed in January more time to establish a new judicial mechanism to deal with the fallout of the investigation.

Alleged war crimes include attacks on civilians and civilian buildings, and executions of combatants and prisoners by both the Sri Lankan military and Tamil Tigers  – the guerrilla organization established in 1976 that sought to establish an independent Tamil state of Eelam in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. 

Sri Lankan military and paramilitary groups backed by them were also accused in enforced disappearances and acute shortages of food, medicine, and clean water for civilians trapped in the war zone. Tamil Tigers were allegedly recruiting children as fighters.

The group gained control of Jaffna Peninsula by 1985, two years after escalation of violence between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lanka military. It lost control of Jaffna in October 1987 to an Indian peacekeeping force that had been sent to Sri Lanka to assist in the implementation of a complete ceasefire.

However, following the withdrawal of the IPKF in March 1990, the Tigers grew in strength and conducted several successful guerrilla operations and attacks around the country and in India.

Earlier in 1981, Pope John Paul II created Mannar diocese from territories formerly under the pastoral care of the Jaffna diocese.


Sri Lanka election over but political war awaits – Hector Welgampola

Sri Lanka's new President Maithripala Sirisena screenshot Sri Lanka Mirror Facebook

Sri Lanka’s new President Maithripala Sirisena screenshot Sri Lanka Mirror Facebook

Commentary: Lanka’s new president won the electoral battle, but the political war awaits

By: Hector Welgampola

With political alacrity, Sri Lankans have voted in a new president thwarting an incumbent’s plan for an unprecedented third term seen as a move to further entrench dynastic power. The cosmic speed of behind-the-scene events before and after the Jan. 8 election took many by surprise.

Was President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision to quit midway through vote-counting a final act of magnanimity or a crafty move to ensure his political future? Where does it leave the kitchen cabinet of siblings and son, who continue to hold office? Before returning to his native village, Rajapaksa had a final tete-a-tete with soon-to-be prime minster Ranil Wickremesinghe, a longtime friend, though vintage political antagonist. What transpired remains unknown. Only history or future political memoirs will divulge the mystery of the Rajapaksa exit.

Some insights may be discerned from newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena’s speedy decision to be sworn-in within hours of his victory. The ceremony was simple but rich in symbolism. In order to counter witness to the lavish presidential lifestyle of the past, the Gandhian new president had instructed his staff to restrict his inauguration expenses to fifty dollars. He took the oath of office in the presence of a Tamil judge of the Supreme Court, not in the presence of the country’s chief justice, Mohan Pieris, the Catholic appointee promoted by Rajapaksa after impeaching Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike.

Reportedly, the installation was unduly speeded up partly to relieve the public regarding fears of an alleged military intervention. Two days before the Jan. 8 election, a Muslim citizen wrote a 13-point open letter to the army commander deploring politicization of the military. All armed forces are under the defense secretary, Rajapaksa sibling Gotabhaya. Social media too reported that even before President Sirisena swore him in as prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe had private discussions with military leaders to assuage army fears of counter politicization, as well as to allay public fears.

Social peace and stability will be essential if the new president is to implement his 100-day program of constitutional reform and return to a just and equitable system of governance. He heads a rather loose coalition of disparate political elements, some of whose retinue may be nursing hopes of political perks and rewards. But the new president’s greatest asset is public confidence and hope for a return to an era of peace and social justice based on the equality of all citizens irrespective of race, religion or political persuasion. He received the unprecedented support of all ethnic groups. His highest percentage of votes came from the Tamil-speaking northern and eastern regions.

After a decade of discrimination, partisan politics, nepotism and corruption, the ethnically and economically fractured nation of 21 million will have thousands of grievances. The religious sector has the unenviable role of soothing their anxieties and championing their just causes. Religious leaders must heed the chiding by the nation and recommit themselves to guiding rulers with diligence and not pandering to their weaknesses. Much fallout of this period of transition could be contained if Church leaders act as Romeros, not as Richelieus.

In a statement to Fides news agency, Bishop Vianney Fernando of Kandy, has already welcomed the election of Sirisena. The country’s senior bishop expressed hope that the new president would implement the program of anti-corruption, good governance, commitment to development and reconciliation he placed before the country’s bishops.

Hector Welgampola

Hector Welgampola

Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka has retired as Executive Editor of the former Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) based in Hong Kong, then Bangkok. Before UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita. He authored the resource book Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook.

Ruki Fernando out of detention – is he free?

Ruki Fernando photo on Facebook page of FORUM-ASIA which signed the Joint Statement with Amnesty International, International Commission of Jurists, International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch calling Sri Lanka government to "Free Prominent Rights Defenders" and asserting that " Arrests of Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen are Attempts to Silence Critics"

Ruki Fernando photo on Facebook page of FORUM-ASIA which signed the Joint Statement with Amnesty International, International Commission of Jurists, International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch calling Sri Lanka government to “Free Prominent Rights Defenders” and asserting that ” Arrests of Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen are Attempts to Silence Critics”

Human rights defenders Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen Mahesan are out of detention in Sri Lanka’s Terrorist Investigation Department (TID), but Fernando, in conversation over the phone from his home in Colombo told me hours after their release, he does not feel completely free.

Two days after their release, a Sri Lanka journalist reported  that authorities continued to “harass” Fernando and Mahesan

Police arrested Mahesan and Fernando on March 16 evening from Kilinochchi in northern Sri Lanka while the two were on a fact-finding mission in the area. They were taken in Tharmapuram near the home of Jeyakumari Belndra  who was arrested a week earlier for allegedly harboring an absconding Tiger. After being interrogated “harshly” in Kilinochchi and nearby Vavuniya, the two were finally detained at the TID headquarters in Colombo.

A few hours after Fernando’s release, he shared his sadness over continued “unjust” incarceration and maltreatment of other detainees mostly from north and northeast Sri Lanka. Rebels based there fought the government for a separate state until they were violently defeated in 2009.

The U.N. Human Rights Council in session in Geneva prepared to tackle a draft resolution sponsored by the United States and other countries calling for an international investigation into “past abuses and to examine more recent attacks on journalists, human rights defenders and religious minorities.”

Fernando expressed his and Fr. Mahesan’s gratitude to local and international NGOs, religious groupings, human rights bodies and governments around the world for throwing their support behind them and for demanding their release. The detainees freed last March 19 give credit to the pressure exerted by this movement for their release and safety in the hands of the police and interrogators.

Soon after this interview, the Sri Lanka government barred Fernando from giving interviews to foreign media.

Following is the full text of my conversation with Fernando:

” We left behind the many people who have been detained in the very place we were detained…unjustly…”

N.J. Viehland : Exactly when were you released?

Ruki Fernando : It was about 1:30 this morning in Sri Lanka.

What happened?

We were trying to do some fact finding about the human rights situation from war affected areas of the Kilinochchi district. When we were there on Sunday it was very very tense. During the whole Saturday and Sunday we were there. We encountered many many checkpoints which was not very usual because we had traveled in that area before.

We were stopped in several places. We were detained for 15 minutes, 20 minutes in certain places, our identity card numbers were taken.

When we went to visit someone in a house the army came and questioned us. That’s quite unusual that when we visit a person the army would come into the house and question you – a person in uniform and someone in civilian clothes.

When we went on to visit another lady, that lady was already being questioned by intelligence officials so we could not enter in her house. So throughout the one-and-a-half days we were intimidated. We faced restrictions and surveillance, and it was a very very tense situation. Then finally, it was around 10 pm on Sunday that were arrested.

Initially we were told that it was in relation to a shooting incident. Then we were told later that we were arrested in relation to supporting terrorism. We were questioned very very intensely. It was very harsh. We were not given access to our lawyers while on detention, although I made several requests.

When we were first arrested I made a request. Later I requested to get a senior official of the terrorist investigation department … that I want to talk with my lawyers. But throughout detention I was not given the opportunity. Many lawyers came to meet me, but the police did not allow any of them to meet me.

I learned I got lots of attention to this in Sri Lanka and also internationally and because of the many requests for the Sri Lanka government to release us from Sri Lankan organizations, individuals and also organizations and people around the world, and I believe because of that our safety while in detention was ensured. We were not physically harmed and eventually our release is also due to the work and the pressure exerted by so many people in Sri Lanka and all over the world.

Any faith-based group that demanded your release? 

Yes, one of the northern dioceses, the Jaffna diocese issued a statement from Catholics calling for our release. There are many individual priests who were also lobbying for us. But I don’t know if the archbishop of my diocese, (Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith) Colombo, has done something that I don’t know about. I know that it was brought to his attention and that there were requests from some people that he would make some intervention because he is very influential with the government.

Fact finding mission – who were you with and what were you investigating, exactly?

We were investigating the very tense situation. We wanted to know why it was so tense. We were looking into allegations of arbitrary arrests of several women in the north and the east during the week. That time we had heard of the allegations so wanted to do a fact-finding and also to get a sense of what the situation was on the ground.

Kilinochchi was the center of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), but we were not only in Kilinochchi town but also in the interior areas because we wanted to check them out. People in that area and also from outside had been telling me there was this situation of tension and arrests and so we wanted to go and look.

Apparently two women who were connected in some way to this person annexed to the key leader for the revival of the LTTE, one was his wife and another was also known to him were under surveillance or arrested. Then the third person is also a woman. We got reports of their arrest.

The government is very edgy – the police and the army. I don’t know if it is justified or not because I don’t have information, but according to what the police and army told me they are treating it as a very serious threat.

You think this reported revival of LTTE has something to do with your arrest? 

No. I think the government does not want the true situation in the northern part to be known to the rest of Sri Lanka and the rest of the world. The government does not want any different story than their own version to get out, and the government is particularly clear that no information should be provided to the UN Human Rights Council currently in session in Geneva.

During questioning they were even asking me who are you sending this information to. In fact one of the three leaders who came to arrest me, he was saying I am sending information to earn money. That was one of their acusation. Another is that I am causing discomfort to the government. This is in writing. So I told them I don’t understand how these can be a crime.

What were conditions in detention?

We were kept in an office the whole day. We were separate. There were few occasions that Father and I could talk to each other but they kept us separate. When we would start to talk about something, we would be separated again. We were kept in the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID).

Why and how were you released? 

They arrested and brought us to the station. Then the police finally decided that they had nothing to show to the court. So they wrote the court that they had nothing against us and they requested for our release. So the magistrate released us accordingly. They signed the request from the police.

Where are you now and how are you and your family feeling about all this?

I’m with my parents now in Colombo. It’s nice to be back. My parents and my sister were very very worried. Starting now they are already relieved, but still quite worried about my safety in the future.

What are next moves for you and Father Mahesan? 

It’s too early to say. Father and I have to still discuss with our lawyers and the people who worked very hard to get us released. We will discuss together and decide on next steps. But one thing that is clear for me and for Father is that we remain very committed to the work we are doing. We were doing what we believe in, that we are doing the right thing. Both of us are Catholic, he as a priest and I a lay person, both of us essentially living our Christian faith so I think we will take these as part of our Lenten pilgrimage, these two days, and we will not be deterred by what has passed, and we will continue to work for human rights.

Any message to people who lobbied for your release?

First, my very great appreciation on behalf of me and on behalf of Father Praveen as well. I’m very very sure that our safety while in detention and our release is because of the work that all of our friends in Sri Lanka did, as well as the media, human rights organizations and even some foreign governments speaking on our behalf.

It shows that if ordinary people, organizations and governments want to, they can actually make a difference in terms of providing safety to people who are in danger, ensuring that people who are detained unjustly are released. It is a very good example of what can be achieved if people are committed.

Very sadly, when I and Father Praaveen walked out to be free men, we left behind the many people who have been detained in the very place we were detained, and those men and women have been detained for much longer than us. Those people do not get even one percent of the attention that Fr. Praveen and I got. So I wish there will be more people who will join Father Praveen and I to ensure the safety and freedom of many other people who are unjustly detained.