ASIA-OCEANIASRI LANKA: The Hard Road to Reconciliation
The Presidential Election in Sri Lanka, considered by many to be a turning point for a nation recently embroiled in a thirty year war, and a harbinger of a lasting peace, has left the country further divided along ethnic lines.
Since its independence from the British in 1948, Sri Lanka, a resplendent island nation reputed for its natural scenic beauty and legendary hospitality, is home to over 14 million Sinhalese and some 4 million Tamils, out of a total population of 20 million inhabitants. The rest are an assortment of minority groups who live peacefully among the two major communities.
The Tamils, who form a majority in the North and East of the Island, have always felt that they were not treated equally by consecutive post-colonial governments that have been predominantly Sinhalese. Non-violent political efforts by Tamil leaders to obtain equal rights for their community - whether in terms of language or self government – failed. This led to segments of the Tamil youth resorting to arms in order to carve out a separate state combining the North and the East – considered by Tamils to be their ‘traditional home-land’. This separatist effort was crushed in May of last year in a bloody defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the death of most of their leadership.
The recent Presidential Election has offered no solution to longstanding Tamil grievances. The country is now in a post-war, post-presidential election mood. With only 20% of the Tamils voting in the North, the writing on the wall is clear that the Tamils do not trust the Sinhala politicians in the South to guarantee their regional autonomy and self-rule. 63% of those votes went to retired General Sarath Fonseka and 24% to the incumbent, not because they loved the army commander who routed the fierce Liberation Tigers more, but because they loved President Mahinda Rajapaksa less.
The message is that they have not forgotten or forgiven the ‘war without witnesses’. Last spring, over 350,000 innocent civilians were cornered in a ‘no war zone’ where at least 20,000 of them were mercilessly mowed down and massacred. Those who managed to flee were treated like common prisoners and herded into camps surrounded by barbed-wire from which they were unable to leave until the camps were opened in early December 2009. These incidents are still vivid in the minds of the Tamils.
People in the north are facing fatigue and apathy. Having denied those in the camps vital medical assistance and especially freedom of movement, any attempt from the government towards reconciliation that lacks a political solution will be rejected. They feel their fate of being a neglected community has been sealed.
Healing and reconciliation will necessarily involve trust and confidence building, a journey that is bound to be slow. If it is to happen at all, it must be a people to people effort. Both Tamils and Sinhalese have lived together for ages without the intervention of political figures who now disseminate racial dissension and division for political expediency. Reconciliation will be difficult, and efforts will need to begin at the community level.
The Oblates have given the lead in the needed work of rebuilding shattered relationships. Last year, they formed small teams of religious sisters – Sinhalese able to speak Tamil – to enter the camps and mingle with the Tamil women and their families. This was called a ‘ministry of presence’ and it has been very successful. The religious sisters gradually set up about twenty Montessori type schools for the kids within the camps. With some 100,000 people still living in the camps, these schools are very important. They are currently teaching some 750 children. Hardened hearts have begun to melt. Tension and fear have begun to ease. Tenuous strains of trust are emerging. Last December, the Oblates and nuns brought their La-Kri-Vi children (known as kids with valiant hearts) from the South to spend Christmas in the camps. Kids of both communities exchanged gifts, sang songs and acted skits. When the time came to depart, it was a scene of laments and tears. The wounds are beginning, gradually, to heal - through children.
The Oblates are taking a lead in promoting needed reconciliation. The leadership of the two Oblate provinces – Colombo and Jaffna – in one of their joint sessions, decided to re-establish the Oblate pre-novitiate in the North (once the scene of relentless war). There, prospective candidates to the Oblate way of life will live and learn together to be missionaries to the poor of both communities. This decision will mark a further vigorous step towards advancing a spirit of harmony and dialogue between the two communities. One resulting imperative of this decision would be for the Sinhala recruit to become conversant in the Tamil language, and vice versa, so that he could become, as John Paul II once said in a Peace Day message “a craftsman of a new humanity”.
The local Church, where all ethnic communities with their deep rooted cultural values and time-tested traditions form parts of the living body of Christ, must take the lead in addressing the legitimate grievances of these communities in the quest for peace. In this context, the Oblates, with over 150 years existence to their credit and the largest men’s religious body in the Island’s Church history can become a visible sign and a standard bearer to other religious congregations who may be inclined to seriously engage in this timely ministry of national peace and reconciliation. (Oswald FIRTH, Assistant General, in JPIC Report, Spring 2010)
There is good news from Turkmenistan! Fr. Andrzej MADEJ, the superior of the mission, called Father General on March 12 to let him know that the Catholic Church has been officially recognized by the government. Andrzej has been informed about the approval by the Ministry of Justice and the Council for Religion and was to receive a signed document on that very day.
Our two Oblates are still the only priests in the country. For 13 years, the Oblates have been able to stay in Turkmenistan due to their diplomatic status as representatives of the Vatican State. We give thanks to God, and thanks to the patience of our confreres; now the Catholic Church is allowed to have a public presence.
St. Mary’s Seminary Melbourne, Australia was the venue for the Asia-Oceania Regional Conference from 22-26 February 2010.
This conference is held yearly with participants coming from the units of Australia, Indonesia, India, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Philippines, Colombo, Jaffna, Vietnam, Pakistan and Bangladesh. An apology was received from Turkmenistan. The Conference was also pleased to welcome Fr. Federico Labaglay, Asia-Oceania General Councilor and Fr Oswald Firth, First Assistant General.
Fr Roman BERNABE, Provincial of the Philippines, is the president of this Conference.
This was the first time that the Asia Region held its conference in the atmosphere of an Oblate Formation House. This setting provided an opportunity for personal and communal prayer as the participants joined the community for morning and evening prayer as well as the for the celebration of the Eucharist.
Fr. Filadelfo ESTRELLA presented an in-depth review of the history and preparations for the 35th General Chapter. He fielded many questions about the various changes to structures that are being proposed for discussion at the Chapter in September.
Fr Rodolfo (Jun) JACOBE (Philippines) was welcomed as the new conference secretary. Agenda items discussed by the Provincials and Delegations Superiors were the Oblate International Scholasticate in Manila; common preparation for Final Vows; financial and personnel support for different Units. Each Provincial and Delegation Superior presented a comprehensive report on his particular Unit.
A half day was granted on the Wednesday so the visiting Oblates could enjoy some of the sights and flavours of the Australian country side.
The conference concluded on the Friday afternoon with a concelebrated Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne to celebrate the Opening of the College Year for Mazenod College. (Fr Harry DYER)
Every Saturday, a group of up to 15 young neighbours, children of China Little Flower Parish, come to our Oblate apartment from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. From 3:00 to 3:30 p.m., with the help of Scholastica and Luc Young, they read some stories in both English and Chinese from a little Bible story book.
After reading the stories, questions are asked to see if they have understood what they have read. There’s no need to say that question time can be quite a rowdy and noisy time as each one of the young children would like to answer the questions before the others.
From 3:30 to 5:00 p.m., it is party time with lots of popcorn. No matter which flavor is served, our young friends see to it that nothing is left in the serving bowls. There is also lots of fruit juice to go with the popcorn. Popcorn is always associated with movies, so every Saturday we see a movie together with them.
As for the movie, I wish, their taste was as easy as their taste for popcorn. The reason for this is that there is always a little shouting contest among the kids as to which movie to watch. But, as they finally compromise about the choice of the movie, things calm down a little bit, but not quite, since very often, the movies get them pretty involved and excited.
My being with them every Saturday gives me a chance to watch movies I have never watched before. Sometimes, I do get to watch again some movies I have watched years ago.
My most memorable experience was watching the movie Narnia with them. Thinking that the movie would have been difficult for them to comprehend, after the movie, I asked them about Aslan the lion, and whom does Aslan the lion remind them of. They had no problem to tell me that Aslan reminds them of Jesus, his sacrifice, his death and his resurrection. I was taken aback to say the least.
These youngsters are part of the two dozen children with disabilities who live in foster homes organized by China Little Flower. Two foster parents live with and care for the children providing a homey atmosphere.
Apart from entertaining them, the Saturday gathering at the Oblate apartment gives them also some kind of spiritual nourishment. It also gives the foster parents a little break from them, even if it is only for 3 hours.
Finally, due to a generous benefactor from Hong Kong, popcorn of all flavors and fruit juice never lack for our Saturday little gathering. (Luc Young, www.oblateschina.com )
In his Christmas letter, Brother Bernard WIRTH tells us of one of his days at the Detention Center.
To avoid a bottleneck, I arrived at 6:30 this morning. In that way, I could have a quiet moment to find out what had happened since my last visit. And I could plan the day’s activities.
First of all, I visit the Vietnamese prisoners in cell number 4. Two of them escaped last week through the sewers: 200 persons are suffering the retaliation. There are a about a hundred of them, confined 24 hours a day in their cell of 20 by 4 meters, with a cement floor and walls. There’s no television, no visits, no releases. There is but one bathroom but the W.C.’s are still blocked. Last week, I fought to have them unblocked (at our expense, of course!) Everything has to be done over. When I left, at 5 p.m., the authorizations and contacts with the repairman were OK, but he was not yet there. The atmosphere is tense! I listen and I try to calm their spirits…with little success.
I move on to the cell of the Burmese. They too are about a hundred, between 18 and 25 years old for the most part. Newspapers around the world have spoken about them: they were abandoned in the middle of the sea, beaten back and rejected by everyone. Dumped first of all in a camp, they arrived at the Center in a pitiable condition. Fifteen of them could not even walk. Most of them do not know how to read or write and they speak only their dialect. Contact with them is difficult, but sometimes I make them laugh at my own ignorance. In January, I hope to get permission to teach them a bit of Thai or English.
With the Africans, it is easier: most of them get by in English or in French. As I enter, Mohammed calls me: “Why do we see you so seldom?” (It’s true that I often give them over to other volunteers.) I bring them newspapers and magazines. We discuss sports; we laugh. We mention the problems only later. How to contact their friends, their family; how to get money to return to their own country? Our organization helps, but they have to wait for months since the list is long. Others have health problems. A fan is broken. The drinking water leaves something to be desired. The images on the television are fuzzy. I take note and the list in each cell is often long: I do what I can.
Here I am, back at the office of the NGO which is helping with the Center. I meet Anne, another volunteer from the group: she shares with me what she heard in other cells, for example, of the women. She points out those who would like to see me.
All together, there are 15 cells: between 1,000 and 1,200 prisoners, most of them undocumented, besides the political refugees and those who have finished long terms in other prisons.
Sometimes, there is a ray of sunshine: I think of that woman from Somalia, with six children between the ages of 2 and 10, abandoned by her husband. She is leaving tonight for Canada with her six children. She will be taken into a UNO project. She is sitting on a bench with her little brood, proud to say that she is going to take an airplane that evening. Everyone shares her joy and the youngest child is passed from one person to the next: even the policemen take him in their arms.
Another joy was being able to celebrate Christmas with them. Ten or so prisoners from each cell were able to come down into the courtyard to take part in a ceremony: we prayed and sang in the language of each one: English, Ibo (Nigeria), Nepalese, Chinese, Korean, Tamil and Thai. Then we went into all the cells to wish each one a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year…at least a little more happiness! We also had a little gift for each one and I appreciated being able to shake the hand of my friends other than through bars!
So there’s a brief look at a little corner of life here in Thailand. I spend only fifteen hours a week there. But I am quite attached to them because many of the prisoners are truly the poorest of the poor. They live in indescribable conditions. (in Audacieux pour l’Évangile, April 2010)