Foreign Refugees in Sri Lanka
According to Human Rights Watch there are some 1600 asylum seekers in Sri Lanka and they need the urgent protection of the Sri Lankan government as committed to the UN when they were accepted as refugees. They include Afghans, Iranians and Pakistanis. While most are Ahmadiyyas, there are even some Christians. I have tasted sumptuous meals prepared by them when they were working as cooks for a Christian Workers’ Fellowship lunch. One did his theology degree here and is an Anglican priest today, considered an asset to the Church here. Granting asylum to so many is one of Sri Lanka’s rare and proud achievements in support of minorities needing protection. This achievement is now under threat.
The Telegraph (UK) has reported that 1000 Muslim refugees have been forced from their homes in retaliatory attacks following the Easter Sunday bombings. Reflecting our shame, few local newspapers have reported on this.
Says the Telegraph, “A small number of Christian refugees from the three countries have also been caught up in attacks through mistaken identity.” It quotes Tariq Ahmed, a 58-year-old Pakistani Ahmadiyya as telling the Associated Press that in Pakistan they were chased off saying they are not Muslims but “in Sri Lanka, people attack us because they say we are Muslims.”
Adds the Telegraph report, “Around 650 refugees are said to have sought shelter at a mosque in the city of Pasyala, near Negombo. Others are believed to be staying in police stations or local schools while 30 Iranians have barricaded themselves inside their homes.”
The Christian Church has responded as commanded in many places in the Bible. To quote just three that confessing Muslims too are bound by,
1. Of immediate relevance: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. (Leviticus 19:33)
2. Offering refuge even to foreign murderers: These six cities shall be for refuge for the people of Israel, and for the stranger and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills any person without intent may flee there (Numbers 35:15)
3. Giving a portion of our harvest to the poor: And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:10).
Many Sri Lankans, particularly Tamils, are the beneficiaries of this now internationally accepted biblical ethos underlying political asylum. The Sri Lankan Church has come forward to offer protection to threatened Muslims invigorated by Bishop Dhiloraj Canagasabey’s bold statement:
The Christian community cannot and must not act on the basis of “an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth,” in these trying times, […] ” It is sad that humans have arrogated to themselves the right to commit mass murder in the name of God Almighty the giver of Life, […] Life belongs to God and no one has the right except God to take one’s life away. […] We cannot and must not act on the basis of “an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth” but we will follow the Master’s example and cry the same cry He cried on the cross with so much of sadness and heaviness of heart saying-“Father, Forgive them for they do not know what they do. […] The Executive and the Legislature were busy working on their own petty agendas and it appears that those under them were also polarized and paralyzed by this division. This Island nation which bled for almost four decades is bleeding again. If those who have been elected genuinely loved their country, this should not have been allowed to happen. This is a Total Betrayal of the entire Nation.”
Police Unable to Protect Refuge Seeking Refugees
Accordingly some refugees were housed in a church building by Church leaders of the National Christian Council in Athurugiriya but overnight, Church sources tell me, Buddhist monks marched on the shelter leading angry villagers. The refugees had to be sent back to the police station. The Church was told by the police that they cannot offer protection, despite that being the primary police duty.
As the government including the President told us that the government would protect Muslims under threat, nothing was done as some virulent Buddhist Monks led the charge on the refugees. Their argument is similar to that used in June 2007 saying it is dangerous to have Tamils in Colombo. The Defence Ministry as quoted in the Times of India then had “Police Chief Victor Perera” defending the eviction:
“The move was necessary to secure the capital city and protect it against bomb attacks by Tamil Tiger rebels who allegedly live among Tamil guests staying in low budget hostels.”
Just read substituting the word Muslim for Tamil – it is the same hegemonic tactic of ethnic cleansing again, this time of Muslims by the government – I say government because it is abdicating its commitment to the UN to protect the refugees when accepting them as refugees. Government’s refusal to act on Indian intelligence on the then imminent holocaust, reminds me of SWRD Bandaranaike and JR Jayawardene fiddling in their times as riots raged, the latter adding fuel by threatening the Tamils
“If you want war, let there be war. If you want peace let there be peace. This is not what I say. The people of Sri Lanka say that.”
That expulsion was reversed by a successful challenge in the Supreme Court by the Centre for Policy Alternatives where M.A. Sumanthiran appeared opposing the expulsion. Today what are the people of Sri Lanka saying to Muslims through their silence and attacks on innocent refugees?
My Church sources inform me that when Mr. A.T. Ariyaratne of Sarvodaya tried to take some Muslim refugees to their buildings, some monks leading villagers whipped into a rage would not even let the refugees get off the bus. It is people like Mr. Ariyaratne and the Church who are at least proving that some of us Sri Lankans are still human.
Deadened Empathy From Tamils
And what of the Tamils who went through the holocausts and expulsions? What are they saying? Tamil sources say that these communalist monks told the government to send the refugees to Tamils areas if they wished but not to any other are, and that some Tamil leaders are angered. While M.A.Sumanthiran, MP is agreeable to accepting the refugees in the North in keeping with his arguments in court in 2007 and his position as a Methodist Lay Preacher, MPs Sivasakthi Anandan and Charles Nirmalanathan are vehemently opposed, the latter swearing that even if his leader Mr. Rajavarothayam Sampanthan ordered him to, he would vote against the government if the refugees were sent to the North. We Tamils are unable to learn from our expulsion from Colombo!
National Christian Council, the NCC
In response a band of true Christian leaders – and I do mean leaders more than in name – is determined to help the UN resettle these refugees among us at least till a lasting solution is found. The Ven. Fr. Sam Ponniah (Anglican Archdeacon of Jaffna) is part of this band of national leaders from the NCC. They are trying to house the refugees in the homes of Christian volunteers. Fr. Ponniah hopes that by helping small groups – like 10 families in Jaffna – we can do our duty by them while ensuring their safety.
The Military Tightens its Grip on Jaffna
In the meantime as rights in general are eroded, as I write (3 May) the 513 Brigade has moved some 300 troops into Jaffna University and begun a search of every building. Having discovered a picture of V. Prabhakaran’s and a map of Eelam in the students’ union office besides a pair of binoculars and boots (said to be standard military gear) elsewhere, the President and Secretary of the students’ movement have been arrested. Now everyone entering the university undergoes a search. The find seems to have been a ruse for the military to tighten its grip on us.
The two arrested union leaders are ardent devotees of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress but despite many lawyers in Jaffna being from that party no one came forward to appear for them. This reflects the general fear of the armed forces. In the end, Sumanthiran, saying the two cannot go without a defence when having a Prabhakaran photo or a map of Eelam is no crime, decided to represent the abandoned unionists in court today.
C.V. Wigneswaran Enters Fray
The two students were charged under 4 laws – the PTA, laws promulgated in Aug.2011 under the PTA, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Emergency Regulations passed on 22 April. They have been remanded until 16 May by the Jaffna Magistrate, and the TNA is negotiating with the new Attorney General because his consent is required for them to be enlarged on bail.
Former NP Chief Minister CV Wigneswaran jumped into the fray capitalizing on the plight of the two student union leaders. He faulted the TNA for not opposing the Emergency Regulations. He also accused the TNA of asking the army to not leave Jaffna.
In response, the TNA today, 3 May, issued a statement in Tamil explaining that even without the regulations the two students would have been charged under the other three laws. It further said that, yes, they did not oppose the Emergency Regulations but have opposed the draconian laws passed subsequently under those regulations which have been used to charge the union leaders. The statement also denies that the TNA ever asked the army not to leave Jaffna and that the only person who so asked is Ananthi Sasitharan, former TNA Provincial Minister, the widow of disappeared Sea Tiger Elilan and the LTTE’s Trinco Head, and, importantly, an ally of Mr. Wigneswaran’s who is seen by the TNA as trying to wreck it.
[Note: The Daily Mirror of 3 May 2019 quotes ITAK leader Mavai Senathirajah as saying during a May Day speech in Kilinochchi: “The army and the police security should be beefed up to ensure people’s security.” However a reporter who heard the speech says that what Senathirajah actually said was in Tamil and it is “We are being pushed to ask for more security but we will not.” This reporter says the actual statement was doctored by a TV station by leaving out the last bit and newspapers like the Daily Mirror were misled. Indeed such a change in policy by the TNA is major and unlikely to be made in an impromptu speech.]
Heading for a Military Dictatorship?
Where are we heading? Were the warnings from India on imminent bombings not heeded to promote chaos as an excuse for the military to play a bigger role? And what of Government Spokesman Rajitha Senaratne’s claim that the previous government had been paying Muslim and Buddhist extremists? Why did the military move into Jaffna University seemingly trying to foment trouble in a peaceful university?
The answers lie in the present military spokesman Brigadier Sumith Attapattu’s recent statement that even if the government asks the military to vacate all occupied Tamil lands, they will not. That is treason and a violation of our constitution. And no disciplinary action? That is anarchy.
Anarchy is the beginning of a dictatorship. Are the seeds of anarchy being deliberately planted to make way for the military to take over?