Protestant Churches Could be Next on Target in Sri Lanka

By: Fernando Perez

WEA-RLC/IIRF Research and Analysis Report - 3/2012

The United Nations Human Rights Council today passed a resolution calling on Sri Lanka to properly investigate alleged war crimes during its onslaught against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This shows that while Sri Lanka was able to gather support from nations in the global south during the final phase of the war in 2009, opinion has now shifted away from Colombo. Neighboring India, for example, voted with the United States in passing of the resolution. The international condemnation it brings along is likely to make President Mahinda Rajapaksa more authoritarian at home.

A panel appointed by the U.N. last year found that both the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE had committed war crimes during the last days of the civil war, and tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives after shelling by troops on a no-fire zone. Colombo responded by saying the report was flawed, and formed its own Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which did not deal with the issue of accountability and was therefore unacceptable to most Western nations.

However, concerns over Sri Lanka are not only about war crimes, but also about what followed, continues and may remain for years to come. Sri Lanka was under a state of emergency for six years since 2005. It was lifted last September, about two years after the government’s military victory over Tamil Tigers. But before doing so, President Rajapaksa suppressed and silenced the political opposition, the media and the civil society, and thereby sought to abolish every threat to his power. Now, it appears that the government sees Protestant churches also as a threat and moving towards bringing them under its control.

Behind President Rajapaksa’s authoritarianism is ambition as well as a desperate sense of insecurity in a democratic set up, after all the bloody war killed a very large number of civilians. Rajapaksa and his brothers, who have been appointed at key positions, are paving the way to remain in power for decades to ensure their safety.

Rajapaksa oversaw the passing of the 18th constitutional amendment, removing the two-term ceiling for the president. The amendment also ripped the election commission of its power to prevent the use of state resources during elections. Additionally, it abolished the constitutional council which would oversee the running of public services including the judiciary, police, anti-corruption bodies and elections. The council’s powers were transferred to the office of the president.

Several members of political opposition, journalists and civil society leaders have been killed, abducted, attacked and threatened. As a result, there little that is published or openly spoken against the government in the country.

In the north and the east, formerly under the control of Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan government has deployed military personnel in huge numbers, indicating that it has no intention to share power with ethnic Tamils who were seeking an ethnic homeland due to alleged discriminatory policies of the Sinhala-Buddhist dominated regime. Instead of making efforts towards reconciliation after the war, the government is “colonizing” Tamil-majority areas.

“The construction of large and permanent military cantonments, the seizure of private and state land, and the military-led cultural and demographic changes – all threaten Sri Lanka’s fragile peace,” said Alan Keenan, International Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst and Sri Lanka Project Director in a recent report. “Instead of giving way to a process of inclusive, accountable development, the military is increasing its economic role, controlling land and seemingly establishing itself as a permanent presence.”

Moreover, the government has built numerous “Victory Monuments” with Buddhist symbols, constructed Buddhist temples, and promoted Sinhalese settlements in predominantly Tamil areas.

Yet President Rajapaksa’s position continues to be precarious. In addition to the international sentiments now turning against Sri Lanka, the government is finding it difficult to keep the people even in the Sinhala-majority south happy.

The government curbed civil freedoms and waged the war against the LTTE with support from sections of the ethnic Sinhalese majority, using the excuse that the defeat of the rebels would help the country attain significant economic development. However, over-expenditure on the war and the subsequent militarization of the country coupled with widespread corruption have adversely affected the economy. China had thus far invested in and given loans to the country in exchange for its strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. However, Chinese money does not seem capable of stimulating Sri Lanka’s economy any further. Last month, there were apolitical protests over fuel price rise despite the alleged use of ammunition by government forces.

Colombo therefore continues to strive to consolidate its hold on all segments of society. Next on the government’s target could be Christians.

About 70 percent of the population of Sri Lanka is Buddhist, 15 percent Hindu, 8 percent Christian, and 7 percent Muslim. Almost 80 percent of the Christians are Roman Catholics, with whom the Sri Lankan government has hardly had problems. But the regime has been suspicious of Protestant groups.

It is estimated that more than 40 percent of Protestant Christians in Sri Lanka are ethnic Tamils. And Protestant Christians in general are known for their zeal for social work, including speaking for the voiceless. Evangelicals in particular are seen as closely linked to rich and powerful American organizations. The government perhaps foresees an emergence of civil society from evangelical Christians, which can become a threat to it.

The government seems to be contemplating mandatory registration of churches. Local churches complain that they have received a circular saying all any new construction or continuation of a place of worship will require prior approval from the Ministry of Religious Affairs. However, when more details were sought from officials, they refused to give any information.

It appears that the government is testing the waters to see how the Christian community responds to what soon might be implemented as a national policy. Given its intent, compulsory registration of churches will greatly hamper independence of churches, which is a prerequisite for religious freedom.

Societal attacks on Christians have also increased in the recent past.

On March 11, unidentified people hurled stones at the Assembly of God Church in Kotiyakumbara, Kegalle District, at about midnight, causing damage to nine asbestos roof sheets. The pastor of the church lodged a complaint at the Ruwanwella police station. (The reference number of the police complaint is CIB ii142154.)

On Feb. 20, a group of about 30 Buddhist monks threatened to kill a pastor unless he left his village, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ambalangoda police station in Kalle District. Accusing the pastor of converting Buddhists, one of the monks slapped and beat him. A few days later, the gate of the pastor’s house was found vandalized. (The reference number of the police complaint is CIP2/329/379.)

On Jan. 4, a Buddhist association in a village lodged a police complaint against pastor saying he was constructing a church without “permission” from authorities although he was leading a congregation of about 100 believers for about 11 years in Wellawaya area in Monaragala District. Police advised him to stop leading the church. (The reference number of the police complaint is CIBII 194/21.)

Another tool the government can use against Christians is the anti-conversion bill, first introduced in parliament by the Jathika Hela Urumaya, JHU or a political party of mostly right-wing Buddhist monks, in 2004. The Supreme Court ruled that some provisions of the bill were unconstitutional and therefore it was referred to a parliamentary committee for revision. The revised bill is ready and can be presented in parliament any time.

The international community is rightly raising its voice against war crimes, but there is also a need for raising issues concerning the post-war policies of the Sri Lankan government.