"Why talk (again) now?"
Peace Secretariat asks Religious Superiors

The Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Office at Geneva
06th June 2008

The religious superiors of the CMRS (Conference of Major Religious Superiors) have recently sent a letter to the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers calling on both parties to stop all forms of violence and war immediately and enter into negotiations. This request has also been endorsed by a statement issued by the JPIC (Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission), the Rome-based International Union of Superiors General. Commenting on the lack of relevance of such a request at this juncture, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, Secretary-General of the Secretariat for Coordination the Peace Process, has written the following article:

It is reported that the Conference of Major Religious Superiors (CMRS) in Sri Lanka has joined a chorus of calls for 'a political dialogue to meaningfully resolve the ethnic problem and bring peace to Sri Lanka.' This could have been seen as a positive step had the chorus been heard five years ago, when the LTTE first withdrew from negotiations. It might even have been helpful two years ago when, in refusing to come to talks scheduled for April 2006, the LTTE attempted to blow up the army commander but found no concerted criticism of its approach. It might even have had some purpose a year ago, at the time when the Norwegian Ambassador went to Kilinochchi and was told that the Tigers were unwilling to talk, but found the world instead sympathetic to the sulks that had seen off all European Union members of the Monitoring Mission, which had found the Tigers guilty of so many violations of the Ceasefire they did not think it necessary to observe 100%.

Given that the Sri Lankan government has always been ready for talks, and has said so consistently for over six years, it would make sense if the chorus addressed itself more clearly to the Tigers. But no, in a search for balance, as a Norwegian politician now in opposition put it cynically, those who have not suffered the corrosive effects of totalitarian terror put an elected government and a terrorist movement on a par, they condemn in the same breath both what is obviously collateral damage and also deliberate targeting of civilians, they belittle the human rights abuses that occur by refusing to seek specific remedies for them but instead lump them together in a persistent desire to impose external solutions upon a sovereign country.

So too the Religious Superiors make a request, obviously from the government, to 'Remove the existing embargo on travel and transport on humanitarian aid workers and allow relief items to reach the displaced in the camps', obviously not aware that there is no such embargo, and that relief items do reach the displaced. There are certainly limitations on travel and transport, but these are essential in a context in which instruments of terror are cunningly transported, even in the vehicles of ecclesiastics.

Though the superior sorts of Religious personnel are not likely to get involved in such pursuits, they have to remember that blackmail and terror can affect even the spiritual, and people sometimes need protection from themselves, as the Church has proclaimed over the centuries.

Again, the Superiors ask that necessary steps be taken 'to stop paramilitary groups functioning in the north and east and to disarm them'. It is not clear whether this request is addressed to the LTTE too, the paramilitary group par excellence, which decimated all other Tamil groups, the more easily when they were disarmed in 2002, following the Ceasefire Agreement. Even at the request of Superiors, there is no way the Government of Sri Lanka is going to betray Tamils who have stood out against the LTTE, to allow them to be slaughtered. Certainly the Superiors should ask that all these including the LTTE stop functioning as paramilitary groups, and enter a democratic political process, following the example of the most Catholic Group of all, the Irish Republican Army, which finally agreed to decommission arms so that peace could be pursued. The singling out of more vulnerable groups is however insidious, given that the Religious Superiors cannot be ignorant of the bloodshed to which earlier selective disarming led.

Finally, it is sad that only now do the Superiors ask 'for the disputed area around the Our Lady of Madhu Shrine in the northern diocese of Mannar to be made a "peace zone" and for the government and rebel forces to stay clear of it.' No such call was heard when the LTTE used the area for its weapons and its cadres. No such call was heard when the Sri Lankan forces had surrounded the shrine, but carefully refrained from any attack so that there would be no sacrilegious damage, simply ensuring that the Tigers had finally to withdraw when supplies failed. No gratitude is now expressed though the forces, having taken over the shrine, handed it back to the custody of the Church, which cannot still guarantee that the Tigers will not return, and hence keep the sacred statue still far away.
The distinguished Catholic poet Patrick Fernando wrote

merits of the mass
are infinite; Father Bruno used to say
they encompass even hell, meaning of course,
not to question eternal damnation
but only to drive home a point in class.

Sadly one gets the impression that, when faced with terror, some elements of the Catholic hierarchy can only try to drive home points in class. One hopes they will read the words of His Holiness the Pope who, in addressing the new Sri Lankan ambassador to the Vatican, noted that acts of terror are never justifiable, who raised questions in a spirit of understanding, who did not condemn a government struggling against terror but reminded it of its own continuing obligations. That is a model of how to maintain a proper balance, not a spurious equalizing of disparate entities.

Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process

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