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Sri Lankan president bids to woo Tamil community

Church hails development projects unveiled by Wickremesinghe as vital to the post-civil war reconciliation process
A woman holds an image of her family member who went missing during the height of the island’s Tamil separatist war that ended in May 2009, during a demonstration near the national parliament in Colombo on Dec 5, 2022
A woman holds an image of her family member who went missing during the height of the island’s Tamil separatist war that ended in May 2009, during a demonstration near the national parliament in Colombo on Dec 5, 2022. (Photo: AFP)
Published: August 17, 2023 06:32 AM GMT
Updated: August 17, 2023 07:30 AM GMT

Sri Lankan Church leaders have emphasized the importance of the reconciliation process after President Ranil Wickremesinghe unveiled a slew of development projects for Tamils to address trauma left by the 26-year old civil war at a popular Marian feast in the island nation.

Attending the feast of Our Lady of Madhu in Mannar diocese on Aug. 15, Wickremesinghe said an inter-city train service will start from Tamil-majority Thalaimannar district to the capital Colombo from Sept. 15.

"The government will develop northwestern Mannar as an energy hub. A sugar factory will be established in Vavuniya," said the president while addressing Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Brian Udaigwe, bishops, priests, and nuns after the Eucharistic celebrations at Our Lady Church, located about 239 kilometers north of Colombo.

Due to the civil war, all development work in Tamil areas came to a standstill. The unemployment rate skyrocketed and the number of poor families increased many fold. The shrine is the only place where Tamils and Sinhalese Catholics come together. 

"I have informed the officials to seek the advice of priests in the development activities in this area," said Wickremesinghe.

More than 2,50,000 devotees attended the annual feast and the holy Mass had Archbishop Udaigwe as the main celebrant.

"When the country faced an economic crisis last year, a large number of people came here and sought help and protection. It should be said that the blessings of Mother Mary gave us strength at that difficult time," said Wickremesinghe.

Although 14 years have passed following the civil war, a lasting peace process has not been created and the reconciliation process is still dragging its feet. 

The Indian Ocean nation is known for failed negotiations to end the Tamil claim of discrimination.

At the beginning of this month, Wickremesinghe told parliament of a plan to fully implement the 13th Amendment as part of his reconciliation efforts with the Tamil community.

The amendment provides for the devolution of power and has created nine provinces as devolved units.

Sri Lanka declared an end to the civil war after killing Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in May 2009.

According to the United Nations, the war claimed the lives of at least 40,000 civilians in its final days alone and tens of thousands of people, many apprehended by the military, still remain unaccounted for.

"Religious leaders should lead by example and should be unifiers and not agents of division," said Archbishop Udaigwe during his homily.

The archbishop hailed the statement made by the president in parliament, and said that it has the blessings of the Catholic Church. Catholics account for nearly 7.4 percent of the country's 22 million population. 

Bishop Raymond Wickremesinghe of Galle, Bishop Norbert Andradi of Anuradhapura, Bishop Emmanuel Fernando of Mannar, and Auxiliary Bishop Maxwell Silva of Colombo also attended the feast.

The next year will complete one hundred years since the crowning of the statue of Madhu, and special services will be held throughout the year to mark the occasion.

The Tamil community has appreciated the developmental work unveiled by the president. But its members still have doubts about them. Critics have alleged that Wickremesinghe is wooing the Tamil community ahead of presidential polls in September 2024.

"Finding answers to the unemployment of Tamil people by creating new industries is very supportive of the reconciliation process," said Amila Nidha, a Tamil teacher who attended the Marian feast.

Young Sinhalese and Tamils “working together” is the need of the hour, she said.

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