“The time has come to address core issues”

*The LTTE must also show a desire to return to the table.
*This fear, that if one side wins the other loses, must be addressed.
*It’s possible for us to reach a consensus, where everybody’s rights are protected.
*It’s not enough to hear the official stances of political parties or, the SLMM and the international community.

Bishop of Colombo, Rev Duleep De Chickera was, earlier this week, in Jaffna, to look into the affected communities in the peninsula and the islands. He expresses his concerns for the people and the need for greater accountability and for the Government and the LTTE to move back to the negotiating table.

Q: You were in Jaffna three days back and visited the affected Kayts islands, where 12 civilians were killed. What are your concerns?

A: I am very concerned. Any killing or massacre of people must be condemned, must concern religious leaders. These situations add to the fear. There is a great deal of panic right now. The surviving members of the families live in fear because the intention of the killing is still very vague. In addition to that, the whole village has received an order that they should vacate the village. There is now, a fairly large-scale mobility of the people out of the island. Some of them have been housed on the peninsula and others are trying to make it through into the Wanni. This is really adding to the fear and intimidation and making the ground situation so much more complex. It’s a very, very worrying development. The impact of the massacre on the immediate members of the family and what it is doing to the life of these very poor and powerless community, is very sad.

Q: Are you satisfied with what is being done by the Government in this regard. They have promised an investigation into it.

A: I don’t know the details of the investigation. I only know that an investigation is being conducted. My only request is that it is done swiftly and be as impartial as possible. Those giving evidence are protected and the perpetrators brought to justice.

Q: You spoke of the need to protect those giving evidence. Is there fear among the people against giving evidence?

A: I am assuming that surviving members of the family, where there was indiscriminate killing of its members, obviously live in fear and there are anticipatory repercussions, if their evidence leads to the arrests of the perpetrators.

Q: How affected are the normal lives of the people in Jaffna itself?

A: Up to the time that I was there, the schools and offices were not functioning. Banks were only open for one hour. Transport was at a standstill. There were very few people on the streets and by early afternoon the streets were deserted. When I left on Monday, the A/L students were being permitted to sit the exam that started that day. I think it was a ‘hartal’ that was being called.

Q: Were their immediate needs such as consumer goods, being met?

A: I didn’t get the feeling that there was a shortage of food. However, people did speak of an inability to get petrol or diesel and I did see long queues for kerosene though.

Q: There are concerns of a serious human rights situation breaking out?

A: The individual cases have to be investigated and that is a process. What one notices is the fear and a sense of intimidation and of whom can be trusted. The fear to speak and take independent decisions and judgments, in itself can be a violation of a human rights situation. But beyond that, where a particular families’ or groups rights are violated, we must have a mechanism to investigate them.

Q: There have also been concerns regarding extra-judicial killings?

A: Yes, these are very worrying and the only way the Government can clear the forces is, if a speedy investigation is carried out and the findings made public. Till then, the finger can be pointed but I guess a person is innocent till proven guilty. That principle of law must be made available. Certainly, there have been indications that the security forces may have been involved in some of these killings. It helps, both the morale of the forces and the credibility of the Government, if the investigations are carried out quickly and the perpetrators brought to justice.

Q: How well would you say the Government was meeting the situation of the displaced that has built up in the North and the East?

A: I know that the GA and the AGA showed a lot of interest on this situation. They had made provisions for the displaced and they were coordinating even the movement of people from the island to the mainland. To that extent, the Government was fulfilling its obligations. But there is a point at which the people would like to exercise their freedom and might opt not to stay in a camp for the displaced. That seems to be a situation that even the Government cannot control.

Q: How do attacks at INGOs such as this week’s, affect this whole process, in your opinion?

A: That must be condemned by all peace loving people. I know some of the people in this organization and they do admirable work. They courageously stand for victims of violence and those vulnerable in threatening situations. The authorities must do everything to clear certain assumptions about who did it. The groups who are working for peace are seen as a threat by those with a different agenda.

Q: What are the prospects for peace in this backdrop? Do you see the talks starting again?

A: My hope is the real aspiration of the people of a wide cross section of the country. The ones who suffer directly and indirectly, all cherish this hope for a sustainable peace. And when a crisis becomes worse, the longing for peace becomes even more. But that longing is not enough. Different sections of society have a role to play. I think it is the responsibility of the government forces to view all Sri Lankans as their responsibility. I have often suggested a people-friendly approach towards security, where neither can or should, suffer. This doesn’t mean you relax or reduce security measures. The Government has a responsibility to keep pushing towards a return to the table. I think the time has come to address the core issues.

The fighting, the killing and the suspicion goes on at the ground level, but the Government must now say that it is ready to address devolution. At least state it in principle. The degree of devolution is something that the different sides will need a little time to work. The Government might want a Select Committee to deal with the degree of devolution it is prepared to and the LTTE must also be given the opportunity to think in terms of what kind of devolution they’ll be ready for. The LTTE must also show a desire to return to the table. Sometimes, trivialities get in the way. And both sets of leaders must rise above them.

Similarly, civil society has a role to play. We need a process of coordination that brings the good deeds of these groups together. Without pressure from the people, even leaders are helpless. Leaders take their cues from the people. This fear, that if one side wins, the other loses, must be addressed. I think it’s possible for us to reach a consensus, where everybody’s rights are protected, if handled professionally. It’s head and heart and a lot of courage and humility, that can make the difference.

Q: Do you see those qualities in President Rajapaksa, to address this issue?

A: I think every leader struggles with this. And I have confidence that if the people are able to express their views, the leadership will pick it up.

Q: You met the President yesterday, how did the discussions progress?

A: It was very rewarding. We discussed a number of important national issues. I hope the peace process will benefit.

Q: There are criticisms against certain elements within his government, for pushing him away from peace. How do you view this situation?

A: A lot of it comes out of historical prejudices and this has to be addressed. Why is it that some groups are considered extreme or, behave in an extreme way? That has to be addressed. There is a saying that the truth lies at the extreme which is still applicable. It’s in listening to the extremes and responding to their fears that I think is the way forward. You don’t have to ignore the people at the extremes. A peace process of a country must draw all groups of the country. If you isolate or ignore any groups, you are in trouble. The responsibility of leadership understands the timing for bringing these groups in. Parallel dialog is absolutely essential. The Muslims feel their issues are ignored. I am also very concerned about the independent Tamil voices. Either, they are being suppressed or, given the connotation of being pro LTTE or, informants of the government. That’s not the real picture. Our leaders must find a way of hearing them. It’s not enough to hear the official stances of political parties or, the SLMM and the international community.

Q: So, has this voice completely died down?

A: There was a time it was there but the culture of fear and intimidation is gradually suppressing that. We need to find a way to bring it back.

Q: There are criticisms against the CFA. How do you view these?

A: By and large, it brought a cessation of hostilities and for that we must be grateful. That is the pre-requisite for discussions. I believe, that, while there are hostilities, discussions can run parallel. That is the case today. So, we need not wait for an immediate cessation of killings, which we long for, we need not wait for that to stop, to begin the next round of talks. In fact, the next round of talks can have repercussions on the hostilities at ground level.

Q: How do you see the fears of a return to war?

A: Different segments of society have to read and understand what is happening. They have to be careful about stereotyping people and be mindful of the need in people for a sustainable peace. They are likely to define it differently but recognizing it is important. [Source: DailyMirror]

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