By Jehan Perera –
Sri Lanka is facing diplomatic difficulties on many fronts. The latest is that Saudi Arabia has recalled its ambassador from Sri Lanka for consultations. This follows Sri Lanka’s own recalling of its ambassador to Saudi Arabia after the beheading of a young Sri Lankan housemaid. While the severity of Saudi justice has come into question, weakening of diplomatic ties between the two countries can work to the detriment of Sri Lanka. Saudi Arabia is the spiritual home of Muslims worldwide, including Sri Lanka. It also provides jobs to a large number of Sri Lankan migrant workers whose remittances now form the backbone of the country’s economy.
On the other hand, Sri Lanka’s international relationships are also at a low ebb where human rights standards are concerned. The forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council threatens to be a contentious one for the Sri Lankan government. There are reports of a resolution that will be passed at the next session which will demand that an international monitoring mechanism be established to overlook the implementation of the UNHRC resolution that was approved by majority vote over the objections of the Sri Lankan government at its session of March 2012. This called upon the Sri Lankan government to implement the constructive recommendations of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The UN’s Human Rights Commissioner has issued a report that is largely a critique of the government’s claim that it is implementing the LLRC report.
It is in this backdrop of crisis in the international arena that Sri Lanka has received an unexpected affirmation of the positive dimension of its relationship with the international community. This has come in the form of a report in the prestigious Forbes magazine that is circulated internationally that Sri Lanka’s Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith is on the unofficial short list of candidates to succeed Pope Benedict XVI as the Pope in Rome. He is the only Asian on the list and this is the first time a Sri Lankan has been named as a favourite to be the next Pope. For the past several decades there has been thinking within the Catholic Church that the Pope should come from outside of Europe and thereby reflect the universality of the church.
There is speculation that as one of the incumbent pope’s weaknesses was his inability to reform and streamline the Vatican bureaucracy, the cardinals may choose someone with a good knowledge of the administrative system to make those necessary changes which have eluded so many previous popes. According to one report, “Hugely popular among the more orthodox wing of the Church, Cardinal Ranjith ticks many of the boxes required to be Pope. Known for his personal holiness and administrative abilities, he is also a trained Vatican diplomat who has served in many cities around the world. Strongly loyal to Pope Benedict, he has also spent time in the Roman Curia as number two in the Vatican’s department on liturgy.”
Prior to being elected Pope, Pope Benedict had created a reputation for himself as the Vatican’s top ranking theologian with his many scholarly writings. Different leaders have different talents. The suitability of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith to be considered a successor to Pope Benedict would not come as a surprise to those within Sri Lanka who know of his practical and administrative skills in guiding the Catholic Church through the most turbulent times in Sri Lanka’s modern history. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s talents would have been evident to his colleagues in Rome where he was stationed for several years prior to being elevated to the rare status of being one of the 116 cardinals amongst the estimated 1.2 billion strong Catholic population worldwide.
Since taking over the leadership of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has ensured that its resources are utilized effectively. The streamlining of the many autonomous groups within the church, the raising of funds for institution building, the sale of properties to finance activities is always a difficult and controversial task. This has caused heartburn amongst some sections but by and large those who benefit from the developments on the ground are impressed and appreciative of the changes that are taking place. There is a feeling that resources from both the Sri Lankan government and the international community have become more available during the stewardship of the Cardinal than in the past.
During his tenure in office, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith is also seen to have developed a close rapport with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Benefits to the church have come in the form of improved governmental funding to Catholic schools and to a degree of protection from ultra nationalist groups. This accounts for the belief that the governmental machinery is deferential to the Catholic Church due to the personal relationship between the Cardinal and the President. Both of them share a common vision that those in the international community should not dictate terms to Sri Lanka that are inimical to the country’s sovereignty and which are based on geo- political considerations that are not in the national interest.
As a politician President Rajapaksa is naturally inclined to short term political gains. The President’s current thinking on reconciliation appears to be that post-war reconciliation will come about as a result of economic development and prosperity. He also appears to be deeply suspicious of any decentralization and devolution of power, and of separation of powers, that makes him dependent on systems of governance that are not directly under his control. The increasing international stature of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and his personal rapport with President Mahinda Rajapaksa offers a unique opportunity to influence the President in the direction of an adherence to eternal values that have a longer time frame than the next election.
The ancient Hindu scriptures said that the world is one family to the wise. The most important feature of a family is that everyone is looked after and cared for to the maximum. Unfortunately by emphasizing ethnic nationalism of the majority community in their governance and conflating it with an overarching Sri Lankan nationalism, President Rajapaksa and his government appear to be at the opposite end of this thinking. As a leader of the Catholic Church which has adherents in all parts of the globe, and in Sri Lanka with its mixed Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic composition, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith is well suited to identify a balanced approach to governance. This would be one that keeps the concerns of the different ethnic communities in Sri Lanka on the one hand, and the government and international community on the other, in harmony and constructive coexistence.
The last public statement by the Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka led by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith was issued last month on January 22 after they had visited the former war zones of the north, in particular the three districts of Mannar, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. This was where the last battles of the war were fought with unprecedented ferocity to their bitter end. The first observation of the bishops was that many families still did not know what had happened to their loved ones and wanted to mourn them if dead or contact them if alive, both of which options are presently not available in full measure. They also noted that “the frequent presence of the troops amongst the war affected people does not create an atmosphere conducive to the restoration of normalcy as there is still a sense of subconscious fear of the uniform. We therefore strongly encourage the early establishment and strengthening of all forms of local government in the said areas, including the Northern Provincial Council.”
Subsequently in his own Independence Day message on February 4, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith himself noted that there was “an underlying sense of suspicion between the Sinhalese and Tamil races of this country and now it has been shown to spread even against our Muslim brethren.” He also made a critical observation that “we do not see a sincere attempt being made to win over the hearts and minds of the people in the North who are longing for a time in which they can administer their own areas without being centrally controlled by men in uniform. They are longing to enjoy the freedom to administer themselves.”
During the years of the war, prior to the internationally facilitated Ceasefire Agreement of 2002, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith who was then Bishop of Ratnapura, together with Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar, met with the LTTE leadership on several occasions as emissaries of then President Chandrika Kumaratunga. The two bishops, one Sinhalese, the other Tamil, risked their lives and reputations in a common endeavour to be peacemakers. But today the government views Bishop Rayappu Joseph with suspicion owing to his open criticisms of government actions that continue to oppress the Tamil people of the North where he is bishop. Protecting the Tamil component of the church in Sri Lanka, transforming the consciousness of the government leadership especially the President and ensuring that all Sri Lankans are treated as members of one family are the worthy challenges for the Cardinal, whatever his future may be.