By Ratna Bala –
During this period of Vesak day celebrations my heart calls me to do something for those suffering in anguish without any hope of help. Few years ago, I wrote many appeal letters to our political and spiritual leaders to consider releasing all political prisoners soon. The very demoralising plight of political prisoners shouldn’t continue any longer in Srilanka. For some reason, I strongly believe our leaders can show courage and compassion during this auspicious time and give pardon or amnesty to all political prisoners. This act of empathy, kindness, compassion and love with a very clear and beautiful message of forgiveness will encourage all our communities to come closer, united with hope, to celebrate these very special Vesak days. What could be a better time to engage in this magnanimous endeavour?
However much we call these prisoners terrorists or criminals, we can’t deny that they were arrested under PTA for various reasons, while they were engaged in such alleged (or proven) activities merely following the orders of their leader. They were acting in the belief that they were following their orders for the benefit of their people. In their eyes, they were taking part in a selfless act and not acting to attain any personal gain or revenge. It’s very likely they wouldn’t be alive now had they refused to obey those orders. With a little empathy, it is not hard to realise that they are not bad people filled with selfishness and greed for power and wealth. They must be much better people than normal average person, wanting to do something or dedicate their life for their peoples’ future. Hence, it would be the right thing to do to recognise them as political prisoners and consider forgiveness for their crime, to give pardon or amnesty, and release them. This will also give hope to those political prisoners and their family. This could be a major step towards reconciliation, helping heal the wounds, and promoting healthy dialogue for cooperation and coexistence.
Inmates of the Magazine Prison, Welikada get ready for Vesak  .Pic by Rukshan Abeywansha
One can argue they all (or a few) may be a threat to national security and peace in the country. But history in other countries has proven that the release of political prisoners can be the driving force for promoting peace and stability. In countries like Ireland and South Africa many political prisoners (after release) actively promoted peace, positively contributed to reconciliation and led the peace process to a successful conclusion. I have no doubt that these political prisoners could also constructively contribute towards peace and reconciliation in our country. Maybe the release of political prisoners is an essential initial step in initiating a genuine reconciliation process.
Vesak days play an important role in Sri Lanka. While we celebrate the Buddha’s birthday, we also reflect on his teachings and promise ourselves to strive to follow them. In the Buddha’s teaching empathy, compassion, forgiveness, kindness and love in relationships are constantly repeated to stress their importance in life. They definitely play a significant role in conflict resolution and reconciliation too.
In his teaching about communication the Buddha said “ … Better than a collection of a thousand meaningless words is one word full of meaning, on hearing which one becomes peaceful..”. In talking about reconciliation we may have uttered few thousand words without any use. Let us make this release of political prisoners into words of useful impact to make peace. Let these words, as the part of Right Speech of our leaders during these Vesak days have the qualities of truthfulness, kindness, usefulness and promoting concord.
Even for an unrepentant criminal person, one cannot justify torment caused to that individual and his family by keeping him in prison for many years without proper judicial proceeding under rule of law, so it is inconceivable for political prisoners. Every day they and their family wake up and spend the day not knowing their future. This kind of life in Kafka-esque limbo is the worst life one can get in modern society. Many of these political prisoners and their families have been living this unbearable life for many years now. I would humbly request our leaders to show courage and compassion by granting amnesty to all political prisoners and release them to join their families without further delay.
Releasing political prisoners is a more meaningful act during Vesak celebration days. Many of us embark on meditation to experience higher state of consciousness and development of universal loving kindness. We may be more motivated to follow Buddha’s spiritual path with enthusiasm, and to keep away from the Five Poisons -Distraction, Anger, Craving, Conceit and Ignorance- and enrich our hearts with the positive emotions of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity and faith. These efforts would be more meaningful and fruitful if we could encourage our leaders to show empathy and compassion towards these political prisoners to promote peace, healing and reconciliation. Giving hope to these political prisoners languishing in prison in unfortunate circumstances for many years, is one simple noble act our leaders could do to make this Vesak day celebrations meaningful in our country and for its people. It would also be kinder to their families, who have been similarly impacted by their incarceration.
Wish you all happy Vesak Days!