Ruki Fernando on 03/03/2021
Last Sunday, February 28, during the holy mass our parish priest at St. Joseph’s Church, Ratmalana announced that all Catholics in Colombo Archdiocese are requested to wear black when going to church the following Sunday, March 7, to demand justice for Easter Sunday attacks on April 21, 2019. He emphasized that this is not a political action but a call for justice. Since then, I have heard from other Catholics and through media that next Sunday is to be a “Black Sunday”
It is nearly two years since Easter Sunday bombings that killed about 115 in Katuwapitiya Catholic Church, about 50 in Kochikade Catholic Church, about 30 in Batticaloa Zion Church and about 66 more at other locations including three tourist hotels. Those responsible have often been identified by their ethnicity (Muslim) and religion (Islam). However, the masterminds as well as high level politicians and government officials who could have prevented the attacks are yet to be determined, although suspicions have been cast on several, including the then president, prime minister and chief of police.
The most prominent advocate for justice in relation to the Easter Sunday bombings has been the Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith. His efforts would have contributed to the previous government taking quick measures towards investigations and reparations.
A multi-party Parliamentary Committee was set up a month after the attacks and a report was submitted and published six months afterwards. In September 2019, the former president set up a Presidential Commission of Inquiry to look into the attacks. Two interim reports and a final report were handed over to the present President in December 2019, March 2020 and February 2021 but they have not been published. Separately, police investigations had led to hundreds of arrests, some of whom have been released and some are still in detention, although I have not seen reports of formal charges being filed against anyone. Within a few months, the then government had paid more than Rs. 262 million in compensation for the dead and injured, with Rs. 1 million per dead person. Additionally, Rs. 20 million each was allocated to rebuild the two Catholic churches and Rs. 5 million for the Zion church in Batticaloa.
In addition to the government efforts, there has been church led program of reparations. In a visit to Katuwapitiya church and discussions with those affected and those supporting them, I learnt that Catholic church’s efforts included medical support for the injured, dedicated psychological support teams for each family, scholarships for children and religious services. Monuments for victims of the Easter Sunday attacks had been built within a few months in the two affected Catholic churches and elaborate arrangements were announced by the Archdiocese of Colombo to commemorate the first year of the bombings. These were supported by the government. The commemorative events had to be restricted due to Covid-19 but were nationally televised, including on state TV stations and received wide media coverage. Many political leaders, including the present president, prime minister and leader of opposition, have repeatedly committed to ensure justice for the Easter bombings. These are important affirmations of the respect for survivors and victims’ families, although justice has not been served yet. While inadequate, this is significant progress within two years, by dismal Sri Lankan standards of acknowledgment, memorials, compensation and other forms of reparations and justice for serious crimes and rights violations committed decades ago.
Navaly church bombing in Jaffna, 1995
Attacks and killings in churches have been common during the war. One of the most horrific incidents is the bombing of Navaly Catholic church and its surrounding in the Jaffna diocese in 1995, where about 147 people are reported to have been killed. However, those responsible have not been referred to as terrorists and no references have been made to their ethnicity or religion. All the people in Navaly that I met categorically stated that the bombing had been done by the Sri Lanka Air Force. This was reinforced by issuance of death certificates by the government stating the cause of death as “death due to injuries caused by aerial bombardment”. Back in 1995 there was no other armed group that could carry out aerial bombing. The then Catholic Bishop of Jaffna is reported to have said that “Displaced had sought shelter in the church and temples, based on instructions given by the Ministry of Defense.” The same media report indicated that the Bishop had written to the President the day after the attack, describing the tragedy, and appealing to her to “kindly instruct your forces to desist from bombing, strafing, artillery rocket attacks on civilian targets such as kovils, churches, schools and hospitals.”
There is a community monument built at the Navaly church some years ago. Last year, during the 25th year remembrance, the names of some of the victims were displayed. Compensation has been limited to Rs. 15,000 for a dead family member that some victim’s families had received. I have not heard of government support to rebuild the bombed church, a Hindu kovil and other buildings. The 25th year commemorative event didn’t receive national television or media coverage and the police and army had tried to intimidate and obstruct the commemoration. There have been no high profile presidential commissions of inquiry and no parliament committees. No arrests. No commitments by presidents and political leaders to ensure justice. The Northern Tamil clergy’s calls for justice did not received the kind of mainstream media coverage that Cardinal’s calls for justice received.
Lack of truth and justice and need for international options
Families of tens of thousands of Sri Lankans killed and disappeared do not know the truth of what happened to their family members or have received justice. Among those killed and disappeared without truth and justice are Father Francis Joseph (disappeared after surrendering to the army in 2009 in Vattuvahal in the Mullaitivu district), Father Jim Brown (disappeared after signing in at a Navy checkpoint in 2006 in Allaipiddy in Jaffna district), Father Chandra Fernando (killed in 1988 in Batticaloa), Father Michael Rodrigo (killed in 1987 in Buttala in Moneragela district), Father Mary Bastians (killed in 1985 in Vankalei in Mannar district) and Sister Mary Agneta (killed in 1983 in Lunugela in Badulla district). There are many others.
Nearly 40 years afterwards, there has been no justice for war time massacres and crimes, except in few cases where LTTE cadres have been convicted. In a rare case, a single soldier was convicted in 2015 for the massacre of civilians in 2000 in Mirusuvil, but he was pardoned last year by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Many journalists have been killed and subjected to enforced disappearances but there’s only one case where charges have been filed against accused and there’s not been a single conviction.
The end of the war didn’t end enforced disappearances, killings and massacres and impunity for them. Protests for clean water in Rathupaswela in 2013 and workers’ rights in Katunayake in 2011 and another protest by fisherfolk in Chilaw in 2012 led to killings of protesters by the army and police and there has been no justice. Many of those killed in these were Catholics. Neither has there been justice for 2012 Welikada prison massacre or 2020 Mahara prison massacre or killings during the 2014 riots against Muslims in Aluthgama.
Many victims’ families and activists have demanded access to reports of the Commissions of Inquiries for which they had given testimonies and cooperated with; the Cardinal is the latest to join this line, demanding a copy of the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Easter Sunday bombings. After a month, the President’s Media Division reported that the Cardinal and leading Buddhist Monks had been given the report, but it is yet to be published for survivors, victims’ families and other citizens to see. The Cardinal is reported to have rejected another committee to study the commission report, just few weeks after there was wide spread criticism and skepticism about the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry to assess the findings and recommendations of preceding Commissions and Committees.
The failure of domestic laws, institutions, mechanisms and processes to ensure justice has led to survivors, victims’ families and other concerned parties to seek international justice. Earlier this year, 12 years after the killing of editor and journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, and no signs of justice, his daughter filed a complaint with the United Nations. A few years earlier, she had filed cases in the US. The latest to be frustrated by lack of domestic justice is the Cardinal, who told media that he would consider seeking justice from an international court and seek assistance of international organizations if there is no justice in Sri Lanka for Easter Sunday bombings.
Past divisions and future opportunities for an united front for justice
The context, background, extent of war time abuses, post war abuses and Easter attacks are not comparable but the grief of survivors, victims’ families and affected communities and their aspirations for justice is often similar. Privileging some survivors, victims’ families and affected communities over others in terms justice (including acknowledgment, compensation, memorials, investigations, prosecutions and convictions) can increase trauma and further polarize communities.
With some exceptions, Sinhalese and Tamils, including Catholics, have been selective in their search for justice for war time and post war crimes. They have been divided in seeking international involvement for justice. I recall that about a decade ago, at a time when the Catholic Bishop of Mannar and Tamil Catholic clergy and others were demanding international involvement in seeking justice for tens of thousands of killings, disappearances and other crimes during and after the war, Cardinal Ranjith opposed international involvement, saying “Such efforts is an insult on the intelligence of the people of Sri Lanka.” But on February 11, the Cardinal said he is ready to go to an international court and seek the support of international organizations for justice for the Easter Sunday attacks if there is no justice domestically. The Cardinal’s call came weeks after a renewed demand for international justice for war time crimes by Tamil political parties, civil groups and Tamil clergy including the Catholic Bishop of Trincomalee.
Less than two years after Easter Sunday bombings, the Cardinal is recognizing the limits, failures and challenges of seeking justice in Sri Lanka and importance of international options and support, which Tamil Bishops and clergy realized a long time ago. Justice is central to Christian faith and I hope that at least now, Sinhalese and Tamil Catholics can support each other’s quests for justice. Next Sunday, March 7, could be a beginning.