Most parts of this was published in the Ceylon Today of 29th Dec. 2013, while some responses were not published. It is not clear whether this is a censorship or due to lack of space. We publish below the questions and answers in full;
1. You have been addressed to be a ‘controversial bishop’. Why are you branded so?
There are too many “controversial issues” in Sri Lanka, especially in the North, like people who disappear, those arrested and detained illegally for long period, about land occupied illegally by the Security Forces, attacks and threats on journalists and human rights activists. Commission after Commission was appointed, most of whose reports are held in secret by the Authorities, not shared with families of victims and public. Constitution deliberately violated such as in ignoring the rulings of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal in the case of the Chief Justice and full implementation of the 13th amendment. These are just few of the controversial things. I talk about these things. Things many don’t like to talk about or deal with. Maybe due to fear, as others who have talked about such things have been killed, disappeared, arrested and detained, branded as traitors, terrorist supporters etc.
2. How would you describe the life of the people in the North East now that the terrorism has been eradicated?
You say “after terrorism is eradicated”, but people in North and East still live in terror. Women live in terror of being abused. Others live in fear of their lands being taken away by the military. Those in detention live in fear of them being tortured and at times killed and uncertainty of how long they will have to be detained. Normal people fear being abducted amidst the high level of military presence. Journalists, human rights activists, priests, academics, lawyers who challenge and criticize the government live in fear. Sadly, people are terrorized even when they try to commemorate family members who have been killed or when they try to search the truth about what happened to their disappeared family members. Positively, people in the North and East now don’t have to hide in bunkers to avoid shelling and bombing, they don’t have to hide their children to avoid forced recruitment, and many have been able to go back to their own villages after months and years of displacement and detention. Positively also, some of major roads have been done up, some schools, hospitals, government offices have been rebuilt. But physical infrastructure while important is no substitute to real healing, and to addressing some of the immediate problems and the underlying political problem that predates the war and the LTTE.
What is the necessity to keep the Armed forces in such a large numbers in the North and East? Why civil administration can’t be completely restored in the North and East as it is in the other parts of the Country? Unwanted interference with the day to day life of the civilians, their freedom, their economy, their lands, their culture, their language, religion etc. They promote state sponsored colonization to stealthy create an electoral imbalance in the regions of the Tamil traditional habitations. Let it not be understood that I am questioning the right of any citizen on his own to come to the Tamil areas, purchase land and go about his/her work and live with the people here in brotherhood with no state- sponsored interference with the traditional inhibitions.
3. Bishop, you have been accused of being a ‘torch bearer’ ‘supporter’ for the LTTE movement. Why is that?
I certainly have met the LTTE political leaders prior to 2009 along with the bishops and Buddhist monks including the Maha Nayaka of the Askiriya Chapter. and have held discussions, where I have also condemned violent and unjust activities of the LTTE and pleaded on behalf of the rights and well being of civilians. Indeed, even leading government Ministers in the present government has met the LTTE. I have stated my position quite clearly that I condemn the violent acts by the LTTE and that I stand for internal right of self-determination for Tamils, and concept of many or two nations and one country. Indeed, it would be interesting to examine how many critiques of the government – opposition politicians, lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, representatives of foreign governments and even top UN officials have been called LTTE supporters! It seems “LTTE supporter” is a label reserved for anyone who speaks the truth and demands justice.
4. You had said that your life was in danger and you are alive because you are a Bishop. Do you feel safe now?
I still feel insecure. Similar to the insecurity others who criticize and challenge the government feel. Priests who have challenged and criticized the government have been killed, disappeared, detained, and threatened in Sri Lanka, especially Tamil priests in the North and East in recent years. Just like journalists, human rights activists and opposition politicians.
5. The government says the LTTE is still ‘active’ in various ways. What is your view?
I’m not an intelligence officer, and as a religious leader, Bishop, I don’t have time and resources or expertise to investigate such matters and to give informed comments. What I can say is inability and unwillingness to address root causes of the conflict which led to war and past abuses, as well as continuing repression of Tamils in the North and East and these should be brought to end so that fear of possible resurgence of violence be also brought to end.
6. Last week Minister of Media Keheliya Rambukwela accused of you being a spokesperson for the LTTE, that you have embraced them from the beginning and says he has enough evidence to prove that. How would you respond to him?
I think he is misusing his position as Government spokesperson, using official platforms to utter personal opinions. It would be good if you and other journalists ask him whether this is his official position or that of the government. I have personally met the President and government Ministers many times, and they have not expressed what Mr. Rambukwella has said. He speaks about the Miraculous Statue of our Lady of Madhu being handed over by me. to the LTTE for protection and that I had rejected the offer of the Security Forces to protect the same during heavy battle between the parties of the Divide in this region. This is Mr. Rambukelai’s wild imagination and is totally baseless.
7. The media minister also said that Sri Lanka Catholic Bishop Council had tabled its recommendation to the government. What are the recommendations and were you also involved in drafting the proposal?
My signature is there. This is a document all the Bishops, including me, could agree by consensus. In the Catholic Church, each diocese under a Bishop is autonomous, under the Holy Father. Bishops conferences are organized and they express collective opinions at Asian level, national level and in big countries in India, even state level. Such collective expressions are complimentary to a Bishop expressing individual opinions about specific matters in relation to the joys, aspirations and struggles of the people in their respective diocese, and I myself and others Bishops of Sri Lanka are no exception. These recommendations should be deeply studied by all concerned as they form the indispensible dictates towards Reconciliation, peace and prosperity. The reality of the political nature of our Country is not fully recognized in our constitution. Our Country is Multinational, multi Cultural, multi linguistic, multi religious having traditional habitations and different economic system. This is shadowed in the Constitution as its framework is unitary. All the religions have power within themselves to change the life of their adherents and make progress and growth. No religion needs special State-support. All our religions should be considered equal and be treated alike in the constitution and same with the languages spoken in the country. This is like saying that all religions equal but one religion is more equal than the others. Similarly all powerful executive Presidency should also change. We know how the Presidential candidates had been speaking very vehemently against the executive presidential system but once they win the election, they become completely dumb about it. This constitutional inequality must necessarily change and we need real statesmen for that.
8. One of the evidences he quotes that you are an ardent supporter of the Tamil Tigers because during the war, when the Defense Forces wanted to protect the Madu Statue, you have taken the Statue to the LTTE who were abut 40km away from the Church and you had claimed that the statue would be ‘safe’ with the Tigers than the government’s military. Is this true? If not how did the story come about?
Refer to the answer 6
9. Do you want the North and East to be merged a stance the TNA also believes its necessary?
It is not I wanting that North and East be united because it is a single unit in itself. The Tamils lived in exclusively in this region. It is only with the plan of the British Colonizers that the Tamils left this region to other regions of the Country. The Tamils living in the Up-Countries were brought in by the British from South India as workers. This is 5th standard history and it is a pity and sheer shame that some so called educated people refuse to accept history.
10. The nine members representing the EPRLF, TELO and PLOTE, all constituent members of the TNA, decided to take oaths at Mulivaikall where hundreds of civilians were believed to have been killed during the final stages of the war. However the day the oaths taking ceremony of the nine dissidents was set to take place, only TELO member M.K Shivajilingam took oaths in Mullivaikal and you have had mediated and managed to convince the other eight not to take oaths in Mullivaikal and seven members took oaths at different locations in the North and in Colombo. Why did you do that?
This stance was published in the media and I had sent word to the different leaders in the TNA to come together and take the oath in the North Provincial Government Quarters under the Chief Minister. This is the expectation of all the Tamil people who with single minded elected the members of the Northern provincial council of which we Tamils are very proud. This was never because Mullivaikal was least of places to take such oath but to come together to a place preferred by the Chief Minister and most of the members. Even though eight members preferred to take their oath else were, I am very happy that they all are united and are overcoming their individual agenda and stand together in their commitment to serve the people in promoting their political aspirations and their economic, Social, Educational etc. needs neglected for the last 40 or more years due to the situation of war.
11. Some say you are doing politics. Are you?
Pope Francis has said recently that a Good Catholic meddles in politics, giving the best that one can give, in opinions, words, and prayer, for the common good, so that those who govern can govern well. And those citizens cannot be indifferent to politics and say that I have nothing to do with governance and politics. This is also the spirit of Vatican II and of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church.
I have given priority to embrace, speak about and address the aspirations and struggles of people living in my diocese, and more broadly Sri Lanka. It is in this line, and in line with Jesus’s mission to bring good news to the poor, that I talk about people who disappeared, who are tortured and killed in custody, those whose lands are occupied illegally etc. If you or anyone else calls this as doing politics, so be it. For me, it is my spiritual, religious, humane mission. I do not engage in party politics
12. How is your relationship with the Tamil National Alliance and are ou on the same wavelength on Northern Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran with regard to the demand to remove Northern Province Governor G A Chandrasiri?
I have agreements and disagreements with the TNA as a alliance, and also with individual parties and members of the TNA. I have not joined any political party, but I engage and dialogue with all political parties – the government, TNA, even the UNP about problems faced by our people. Irrespective of what Mr. Wigneswaran thinks, I’m certainly of the view that All governors, not just in the North, should be civilians and professionals, with needed expertise. I believe Sri Lanka has people who have this expertise and experience. Long years of military service, is not a qualification for a civilian position. Indeed, in the North and East, where the military stands accused of large numbers of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, sexual abuse, torture, land grabbing etc., being a military officer is definite disqualification, something people are uncomfortable. Such officer resort to military approach and certainly will not win the hearts and minds of the people.
13.What is your views on the proposed visit by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Jaffna?
I have always welcomed people from different places, within Sri Lanka and overseas, to come to the North, to meet our people and see and hear what was happening. They can be ordinary people, politicians, journalists, clergymen of any religion – anyone who comes with an open mind and sensitive heart is welcome. It’s better if those coming, including the Indian PM, can also visit other places in the North and East – not just Jaffna only. Especially the Vanni and East, which are often ignored. And they should also make the effort to spend more time with people most affected by the war due to human right violations, such as families of persons who have been killed and made to disappear, those whose lands are occupied, those who had suffered torture etc. And they should make efforts to visit prisons and detention camps, refugee camps where displaced people are living etc. India has had special connection with Tamils in the North – in negative way and positive way – and it will also be good if the Indian PM is ready to engage in an honest reflection about the roles India has played in relation to the ethnic conflict and war.
14.How do you describe the visit of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Jaffna during the Commonwealth summit?
Based on what I said above, I’m happy that the British PM visited Jaffna. It was a very short visit, and it was disappointing that he didn’t talk to families of disappeared people, and that he didn’t visit any other place in the North and East. But it is good he took time to meet people, whose lands have been occupied by the military, a press that has been repeatedly attacked and the elected representatives of the Tamil people.
15. you were also being blamed for writing to various other countries about the plights of the Tamils which has upset the government. Your reaction please?
I have been writing to the President, various Ministers, MPs in the government and have personally taken a lot of effort and time to make submissions to the LLRC. I have also personally met the President and others government officials and politicians, and my Priests have also done the same. The same way, I also write to others about the problems faced by people in the North, including to foreign governments, UN and church groups. This is also because I believe in a shared humanity, where people care about sufferings of their brothers and sisters, irrespective of where they live and are willing to help. Jesus asks “who is your neibhour?” in the sense who needs your help, there is no restriction about geography. This I believe is also the spirit of UN human rights treaties and agreements to monitoring of their implementation by other States and experts, to which Sri Lanka has also voluntarily agreed.
16. What is your expectations from the newly formed Northern provincial Council?
That they will help to ensure civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of all the people in the province, and also that they will contribute towards reconciliation by supporting all genuine domestic and international processes towards truth, justice and accountability.
17. The international community is pressing the government for an independent international probe into the war crimes allegations. What is your stance?
I have stated before that an international investigation is required, to ascertain truth about allegations of war crimes. This will contribute towards reconciliation, as most Tamils in the North and East, do not have confidence in a domestic process anymore. They have tried to cooperate with so many domestic institutions and processes, but without any results. And many have been threatened and intimidated for participating in domestic processes such as LLRC, Commissions of Inquiry, filing court cases, complaining to the police and human rights commission. I myself and several of my priests have this same experience. On many occasions, police and human rights commission have refused to even accept complaints, and police often force Tamil complainants to make complaints in Sinhalese, a language they don’t understand. Thousands of human rights violations, sexual abuses, murders, disappearances, extra judicial executions, had taken place throughout the war and later has any single case been investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice here? Except two or three cases, one of them being the case of rape and murder of Miss. Krishanthy Kumarasami of Jaffna and none else. What are we left with in a set up where the perpetrator and the judge happen to be one and the same person.
18. Do you believe a South African style reconciliation process would work for Sri Lanka? What is your alternative suggestion?
I’m not an expert on South African process – but I have been there to study the process, met knowledgeable people and still studying about it. From what I understand, we in Sri Lanka have a lot to learn – in terms of what South Africa has done well, but also not done so well. It is particularly important to understand the very different contexts. For example, in South Africa, the majority was being dominated by the minority, in Sri Lanka it has been and still is, a case of majority dominating the minority. In South Africa, the ruling Whites, who had been accused of the majority of the violations, including systematic policies of apartheid, were ready to give up power, but here in Sri Lanka, the ruling government, which stands accused of war crimes and massive human rights violations, is still in power. Indeed, the government has been unwilling to engage in a genuine dialogue to come up with a political solution, with various past initiatives such as proposals during the Chandrika’s Presidency even this government’s own APRC appearing to have been dumped into the garbage bin. The government has even been violating its own constitution for 26 years by not sharing the powers devolved to Provincial Councils under the 13th amendment. In South Africa, the transition happened with freeing of political prisoners, here, political prisoners languish in jail for years, some without charges, some who have been charged having their cases dragged on for years. In South Africa, there was violence during the transition, but certainly not killings, injuries, disappearances, destruction and displacement on the scale we saw happen in 2009 in Sri Lanka. I believe the processes and procedures of the TRC was agreed on by the White rulers and leaders of the ANC, but all the initiatives taken so far by the Sri Lankan government has been unilateral, with no discussion with opposition parties, even though the Tamil National Alliance won overwhelming victories in the 2010 parliamentary elections in the North, in addition to the overwhelming victory in the last September’s Northern Provincial Council elections. There has been careful consideration by the TRC, about who is to be given amnesty or not – I understand majority of amnesty applications were turned down, and amnesty was conditional on full disclosure of the truth. There was also a lot of space for victims and their families to provide input in the process of granting or rejecting amnesty. These are some of my thoughts on South African style process, but this does need more study.
19. Are you satisfied with the government set up commission to find the missing and the disappeared persons?
As I have mentioned before, there have been so many such Commissions, and I have not seen or heard anything that gives me confidence that this Commission will help satisfy grievances of families of disappeared persons, and contribute towards a process of truth seeking and reconciliation. One woman who went before this latest Commission had said it was the fiftieth time she was making a complaint. What has happened to previous 49 times? There was a Commission appointed by the President to look into 16 cases of grave human rights violations in 2006, which the disappearance of a Catholic Priest Fr. Jim Brown, the attack by the Navy inside the parish church of Pesalai killing an elderly woman and injuring over 17 more, the killing of 17 aid-workers in Muthur etc. Families of those affected, who cooperated with the Commission, have not even seen what happened to this Commissions’ report. Thousands complained about disappearances to the Mahanama Tillekeratne Commission appointed in 2006 or 2007, and they have not seen the final report or the results. I believe the LLRC report is the only report of such a Commission of Inquiry that has been published, and even in the case of the LLRC, the thousands of families of disappeared persons have not heard anything about their loved ones, nearly three years after making their submissions. Then there are the thousands who have complained to the Police and National Human Rights Commission, who have not heard anything about their loved ones after many years. Why does the government keep on appointing Commission after Commission that affected people have no confidence in? Is it to show the international community they are doing something? If the government genuinely wants to address the grievances of families of disappeared persons, they can invite the UN’s Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, which has requested for an invitation to visit and assist the government as far back as 2006. This indeed is a request that families of disappeared persons and those supporting them have made as well.
At the same time, if the government is genuine about addressing disappearances, they should stop harassing families of disappeared persons and those supporting them. On human rights day, on 10th December, families of disappeared persons who were protesting in Trincomalee were attacked with Police watching. In March and again in November this year, families of disappeared persons from the North were prevented from going to Colombo to express their grievances. Families of disappeared persons have even been intimidated and ridiculed inside the UN in Geneva and Sri Lankan courts. Catholic priests and activists supporting families of disappeared persons have been threatened and beaten in recent months. Just over a two years ago, two activists who had been campaigning against disappearances, themselves disappeared. And most importantly, the government should ensure that no disappearances happen at least now, as sadly, disappearances continue to happen in the highly militarized North even in last few months.
20. You had said that land grab, the complexity in the resettlement programme and issues with the fishermen in the Mannar District are still unsolved? Can you brief the present situation there?
Thousands of Tamils are not allowed to resettle in their villages as the military is occupying their lands in Jaffna, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Trincomalee districts. These have been well documented, books have been published and there are also court cases. Fishermen face problems because they are not allowed to go back to resettle in their traditional villages, and due to encroachment of fishermen from India and from the Southern part of Sri Lanka. These too have been well documented.