On November 20, the President of Sri Lanka officially proclaimed his intention to hold a presidential election two years early and seek a third term. It was widely believed that the reasons for a premature election was the fading popularity of the president and his strong belief in astrological predictions that his best chance of winning the election is in early January 2015. The premature election was not at all based on public interest or to further democratic culture in Sri Lanka.
Accordingly, on November 22, the Commissioner of Elections announced that the presidential election would be held on January 8, 2015. According to election laws in Sri Lanka, the day of the election should have been set between January 6-20, 2015 (28-42 days after the nominations). The Election Commissioner has implied to media that considering the papal visit, the date for the election was fixed for January 8, probably based on the widespread belief that a papal trip will not happen a few days before an election. Thus, Your Holiness’s visit has been used as a justification to fix the election on January 8, 2014, and drastically reduce the election campaign period. This will severely limit the few opportunities opposition candidates and civil society will have to engage in debates about issues around the election.
Your Holiness is already implied as blessing the incumbent President’s election campaign, with large billboards showing President Rajapaksa and his wife meeting you erected in predominately Catholic areas. Some slogans say “With the blessings of the Your Holiness, you (incumbent President) will be our President Again”.
There is widespread fear of election violence, which has already started with an opposition politician being shot within hours of the election date being announced. In this first week after nominations, at least six incidents of shootings have been reported, with most targeted being those connected with the opposition parties. Widespread abuse of state resources and state officials is expected, as it was in previous elections. There is also uncertainty and fear about large-scale violence and retaliation against opposition activists in the days after the election. The main opposition candidate from the last Presidential Election in 2010 was jailed immediately after the election. Fears have also been expressed that the incumbent may not hand over power even if an opposition candidate wins the election.
After years of repression of dissent and minorities and uncertainty about viable opposition candidates, there appears to be new hope, enthusiasm and courage amongst Sri Lankans to engage in discussions and debates about their future, including democratic governance, rule of law, peace and reconciliation, and issues related to minority communities. I also believe that it is the duty of Catholics to be fully conscious and involved in matters that have such serious consequences for the future of our country during this period.
It is likely that election results would be formally announced on the evening of January 9 or the morning of January 10. The days following will be a period that Sri Lankans, including Catholics, should be fully involved in as we will be dealing with the aftermath of the election, which could most probably be a very violent and tense period. If a new president or the existing incumbent takes office peacefully, the days after the election will be a period during which Sri Lankans will attempt to take forward a reform agenda that promotes better governance, rule of law, media freedom, judicial independence, accountability for serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law, reconciliation, a political solution for ethnic conflict etc. In this scenario, we as Catholics, and even non-Catholic brothers and sisters, may have to make a difficult choice whether we should get ourselves fully involved in preparations for the rare and unique occasion of a papal visit and the beatification of the Blessed Joseph Vaz, or a critical presidential election.
Visiting Sri Lanka 3-4 days after election results will also not give Your Holiness enough time to assess the post-election situation in the country and share some reflections about the way Christians should be involved in social-political-economic issues of the country, particularly with the victims of human rights violations and their families.
Like me, most Sri Lankans — Catholics and non-Catholics — would be very keen to welcome Your Holiness to Sri Lanka. But a few days after a presidential election is definitely not the time. Your Holiness has already been used to limit the campaign period which will negatively affect opposition candidates, and on the other hand, Your Holiness is implied as supporting the election campaign of the incumbent President.
Presidential elections in Sri Lanka are due only in two years time and there is absolutely no pressing reason to have it now. It has been fixed in January 2015 in the interest of one individual — the incumbent President — and perhaps his family. Likewise, there is no hurry for a papal visit to Sri Lanka or to beatify the Blessed Joseph Vaz. We have waited two decades and hundreds of years respectively for both these and we can wait for a few more months or even years. A papal visit in 2016 (perhaps when you are visiting Asia again for the Eucharistic Congress?) has the potential to be much more meaningful to Catholics and all Sri Lankans. In particular for us to be able to spiritually prepare and participate in events, taking into consideration socio-political-economic realities.
Life in Sri Lanka today, including “prophetic” roles by sections of the Catholic Church
I take this chance to share some facts and reflections, based on my personal experience. Space and limits of my experience may make these incomplete, but I hope the information below will help Your Holiness see a glimpse of life in Sri Lanka, that most mainstream media and the government and even most Church leaders would not want to share.
In March 2014, I got urgent messages from some Tamils to assist their relatives and a large number of other Tamil persons who were allegedly arrested in the war ravaged North. I visited the area with a Catholic priest to assess the situation and see whether we should try to offer any assistance. For us, this was a response to our Catholic calling, to visit the detainees (at least their families) and others subjected to injustice. Military/police followed us, stopped us for long periods at checkpoints, interrupted us when we were chatting with local people in their houses and finally arrested us. I was subjected to intense interrogation, denied access to lawyers despite repeated requests and visits by several teams of lawyers. The reasons given for my arrest in the arrest receipt was that I was supporting the revival of terrorism, sending information abroad to earn money and causing discomfort to the government. I believe both of us were released due to immediate and massive national and international outrage. But both of us are still under investigation, our bank accounts are being scrutinized, and court orders have been obtained to restrict our freedom of expression and travel. One of the women we went to inquire about, Jeyakumari Balendran, still languishes in prison eight months later without being charged, separated from her teenage daughter. Another woman we were inquiring about was detained and released, but prevented from traveling overseas. Her mother-in-law, who we met during our visit, was also arrested and released but was also reported to have been prevented from leaving the country. There are many others who have been in prison for a long time due to no fault of their own.
In August 2006, many people were killed and others injured inside a Catholic Church in Allaipiddy, Jaffna, which offered sanctuary to terrified Tamil civilians amidst fierce fighting. This is not the first time civilians have been killed or injured while seeking refuge in a Catholic Church. Even hospitals were not spared in the fighting. Father Jim Brown, a young Tamil Catholic priest who was the parish priest of the Allaipiddy Church, disappeared after he had done his best to protect civilians from being killed and to get medical assistance for those injured. No one has been held accountable for the disappearance of Father Jim, or for the son of Ms. Jeyakumari who I mentioned above or for the many journalists, human rights activists and civilians who have disappeared. Many of their families clamoring for truth and justice are being threatened, intimidated, harassed and restricted. In August this year, I was at a “listening and sharing” meeting with families of disappeared, held in a center run by Oblate priests. A mob led by Buddhist Monks invaded the place, and when we called the police, the police compelled the meeting to be canceled and refused to take action against the invaders.
Government ministers and officials have discredited and intimidated a Tamil Catholic bishop speaking out on human rights violations and there have been calls for his arrest. He has been subjected to interrogations at least twice. Many other Catholic clergy and lay persons, independent journalists and human rights activists have been killed, disappeared, attacked, threatened, intimidated, harassed, restricted and discredited with false allegations. Christians and Muslims have been under severe attack, by those claiming to be Buddhist groups. Private and state land have been acquired, often illegally, for military and touristic purposes. A very traditional Tamil Catholic village where the Church also owns land is now a Navy camp. The military continues to stop or interfere in religious and civil events in the North. Militarization is spreading all over the country, including in education, sports, tourist resorts, airlines, boat services, shops, restaurants, farms etc.
Belated efforts by the UN to assist in ascertaining the truth of what happened in the last years of the war and to ensure accountability have been rejected by the government.
Sri Lanka is a country where even a Catholic priest can disappear for writing a letter to the pope. In May 2009, a Tamil Catholic priest, Father Francis Joseph, wrote a letter to Pope Benedict from within the war zone, about conditions that existed and the slaughter of thousands. He expressed fear that he may be killed by the Sri Lankan government for writing and making public such a letter. I’m unaware whether Pope Benedict read that letter or what he did to act on it or to protect the writer. What I do know from eyewitnesses is that a few days after writing the letter, Father Joseph was seen surrendering to the Sri Lankan Army and then he disappeared. A court case has been pending in Sri Lankan courts about the disappearance of Father Joseph and the matter was brought before a Commission of Inquiry in Sri Lanka, but we are nowhere near to establishing truth and justice.
I’m aware that there may be reprisals from the Sri Lankan government or even the Catholic Church leadership for making this appeal to Your Holiness. Along with concerned Catholics and others, I have been involved in reflections and discussions about Your Holiness’ visit for a number of months. Now that the day for a premature and unnecessary presidential election has been formally announced with utter disregard for the long pre-planned visit of Your Holiness and the shameless use of Your Holiness for a political campaign of the incumbent President, I felt compelled to share my thoughts. I hope Your Holiness will also take this into consideration before reaching a decision about visiting Sri Lanka in January 2015.
Ruki Fernando as an adviser with the Inform Human Rights Documentation Center.