ucanews.com reporter, BatticaloaUpdated: November 20, 2014 03:52 PM GMT
Father Benjamin Henry Miller (right) first traveled to Sri Lanka in 1948 (Photo by ucanews.com)
When Father Benjamin Henry Miller left the US as a Jesuit student priest bound for Sri Lanka in 1948, he could have not predicted the changes he would see over the next 66 years.
To those who know him today, Fr Miller is an exemplar human rights defender. But the 89-year-old remains discomfited by such accolades, declining interview requests and telling a reporter recently that he had no desire to discuss his accomplishments.
“I don’t want publicity,” he explained apologetically, after welcoming the visitor into his sparse room located inside an attic in St Michael's College in Batticaloa.
These days, the beatific American priest moves slowly, shuffling on crutches as he gets up to answer an endless string of phone calls and descending from the attic only with the aid of a friend. But when he arrived in the eastern Sri Lankan city, just months after the country's independence, he was agile and driven from the start.
Almost immediately, Father Miller took on a role far beyond that of a parish priest helping to build bridges between communities as educator, priest, protector and witness.
But it was when civil war broke out in 1983, that his efforts reached their nadir. As rights abuses mounted, he demonstrated against the government, security forces and several militant groups including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
He also took to his motorcycle, traveling the nation in increasingly dangerous conditions to collect reports of disappearances, torture and killings that he passed on to local and international actors.
The same year, he founded the Batticaloa Peace Committee (BPC), providing a safe space for relatives of those attacked.
At the BPC, Father Miller helped thousands of families file police complaints and search for information on their relatives. Many were not even aware of the location of the prisons.
"Father Miller recorded all complaints from aggrieved people on violations of human rights, totaling around 8,000 cases that were forwarded to international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, and diplomats," said Dr T Jayasingam, professor of Eastern University.
"The priest commits himself never to leave the people in their time of need," he said.
Father Benjamin Henry Miller (center) is awarded the National Peace Council’s Citizens Peace Award earlier this month (Photo by ucanews.com)
Father Miller's outspoken criticisms of human rights abuses were a rare beacon of truth at a time of a vast cover up.
"His work became a voice for the voiceless and the poverty-stricken whose fathers, sons and brothers had been abducted or killed, and who had been too frightened to report their suffering to the authorities but ran to the priest who accepted them," he said.
At the BPC, Father Miller provided advice on legal procedures surrounding detention and how to locate those being held.
"It was a great relief for the people who were looked upon by the forces as suspected terrorists," said Bishop Joseph Kingsley Swampillai, Bishop of Trincomalee diocese.
Amara Hapuarachchi, who works closely with Father Miller, said the priest enjoyed a rare “healthy respect” from security forces, which allowed him to succeed where few did.
"There was no proof of arrests therefore the priest forced the military to give a receipt to the family of victims when they arrested them and it helped to prevent them disappearing," she said. "That is the only assurance a wife had that her husband did not disappear."
In addition to the BPC, Father Miller formed the Council of Religions to help seek a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict.
The integral role of Father Miller’s work has been evident time and again. When the Sri Lankan government pushed to end the war after more than 25 years, they turned to the priest as a ceasefire monitor.
Earlier this month, Father Miller was awarded the National Peace Council’s (NPC's) Citizens Peace Award. The award, granted only to Sri Lankan residents, is given in recognition of those who “have stood up for the protection of and enforcement of human rights and fundamental rights when such rights are under threat and such action requires unusual courage and self sacrifice to do so".
"Father Miller became instrumental in setting up forums for community leaders and religious figures to engage in dialogue with one another," said Joe William, Chairman of NPC.
"As the conflict and its effect on the people of Eastern Province worsened, he became a repository for thousands of human rights abuses and disappearances that took place," he said.
Though time has slowed him, Father Miller shows little intention of stopping his work. In 2009, he returned to his native New Orleans, only to quickly turn around and go back.
When he stood up to receive his award, the priest explained that he had long come to see Sri Lanka as home.
"I will never stay in the US, now this is my home town.”