The Church is embattled in Sri Lanka argues Miss E Thornton, in the wake of the murder of Fr Mary Bastien early this year
THE TROUBLES in far away Sri Lanka were brought into vivid focus in the Marylehone Church of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary on April 20, when large numbers of the London Tamil community attended a requiem Mass for Father Mary Bastien of Vankalai, killed by Sri Lankan security forces on January 6.
The Mass, celebrated by three Tamil priests, was only one of many being held in Canada, the USA, Australia and wherever there are Tamil communities. Tamils throughout the world are determined lo keep alive the memory of Fr Bastien. He has become better known in death than he ever was in life.
In the early hours of January 6, a convoy of soldiers surrounded Fr Bastien's church in the little town of Vankalai in the Tamil homelands in the north of the island and shot him dead in his own presbytery, together with two boys who were with him. A third boy escaped and lived to tell the story of the murders.
In justification the army' claimed to have found explosives and ammunition as well as subversive literature in the church, a claim vigorously denied by the Bishop of Mannar.
The troubles that have placed the Catholic clergy in such jeopardy arise from Ceylon's colonial past. In 1833, the British united the previously separate Sinhalese and Tamil kingdoms into one entity, thus joining into uneasy partnership two peoples of different language, customs and religion.
After independence, the rise of an extremist form of SinhalaBuddhist nationalism among the majority Sinhalese, found its readiest expression in rising agitation against the Tamil minority, whose presence on the island frustrated the establishment of an entirely Sinhala-Buddhist state.
The propaganda generated by the Sinhalese was directly responsible for the anti-Tamil pogroms of 1977, 1981 and the great holocaust of July 1983 and for the series of measures that have turned the Tamil minority into second class citizens with restricted entry into the universities and virtual exclusion from government service and Ihe armed forces. Peaceful protest against these measures was crushed with the greatest ferocity.
Many of the young men, eventually took to arms and various groups of guerrilla fighters emerged. It is against these young militants that the Sinhalese army • in the Tamil homelands in the north and east is deployed.
In their solidarity with their parishioners, their denunciation of the army massacres of the civilian population, the torture of suspects in the army camps and the extra judicial executions made possible by the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act which allows troops to immediately dispose of dead bodies without inquest, the Christian clergy have increasingly come into confrontation with the ruling regime and its security forces.
The first overt action against the Christian clergy occurred in November 19112 with the arrest of six Catholic priests and one protestant minister. Four were released soon after but two of the Catholic priests, Fr A Singarayer and Fr S Sinnarass were held at the notoriously brutal Gurunager army camp on a charge of "harbouring terrorists".
The priests' arrests sparked off mass protests and thousands of Tamils, including priests, nuns and students took part in demonstrations, pickets and hunger strikes. Bishop V. Dogupillai of Jaffna registered a vehement protest to President Jayewardene.
On 15 December 1982 police invaded St Anthony's Church in Vavuniya where about 500 people had assembled for a day of prayer and fasting in protest against the arrests. At about 9.35 am, police arrived in force, invaded the church with tear gas and attacked Ihe congregation with their batons. Women were seized by their long hair and kicked and beaten.
The Papal Nuncio, Monsignor Nicola Rotunno. the Vatican's representative on the island for five years, attempted to intervene on the larrrested priests' behalf. Ile had already become unpopular with the government for his interest in the problems of the Tamil community and his intervention gave them the excuse they needed. He was expelled from the island, his alleged offence that he had been in touch with priests accused of collaborating with Tamil terrorists.
In Gurunager, the priests were held incommunicado and refused access to friends or lawyers. They were subjected to the same regime of brutality and torture with which Amnesty International had earlier indicted the camp.
The trial of the priests, together with other detainees, eventually began on June 23, 1983, after the accused had been in custody for over six months and then only after a public outcry and pressure from all quarters. It dragged on. postponed again and again by lengthy adjournments requested by the prosecution, while the accused languished in prison.
July 1983 found Frs Singarayer and Sinnarass in the high security prison of Welikade, near Colombo, with the other detainees. At the end of that month, the island was engulfed by anti-Tamil riots.
On the first night of the holocaust, July 25, 35 Tamil detainees in Welikade prison were murdered, allegedly by fellow prisoners, but, as pointed out by the International Commission of Jurists, no effort was ever made to discover and punish the guilty parties — a fact that has given rise to well ventilated suspicions of official collusion.
The priests escaped the first killings. But two days later the attacks were repeated. At 2.30 pm on July 27 they heard shouting outside and armed prisoners were seen scaling the walls and breaking down the gates to the compound.
Nearly 40 prisoners armed with axes, swords, crowbars and iron rods started to break down the lock of their door. The detainees broke up tables and chairs and using them as weapons fought desperately for their lives. They succeeded in keeping the mob at bay until the belated arrival of the army who dispersed the mob with tear gas.
The same day the priests and their party were evacuated to Batticalna Prison in the east. From there Fr Sinnarass, with help from the guerrillas, escaped with 40 others and eventually reached safety in Madras. Sadly, Fr Singarayer elected to remain behind with the other prisoners. Nearly two years later he is still in prison, still untried.
Eighteen months later, the situation in the Tamil homelands has rapidly deteriorated. In their drive against the guerrillas the. army has adopted a scorched earth policy. Huge areas of vegetation and crops have been destroyed to deny cover to the rebels.
Extensive prohibited zones along the coast have resulted in the forcible evacuation of the inhabitants who have become homeless refugees, the Government providing no relief.
People are obliged to carry identity cards and are forbidden to enter or leave the security zones. The result has been the complete cessation of the economic activity of the areas. Food, medicines and petrol from the south have been cut off.
Sri Lanka has become the new country of the "disappeared ones" — youths rounded up by the army and never seen again. They now run into hundreds. Tamils in their thousands are fleeing to India in flimsy, barely seaworthy crafts — the new "boat people" of the east.
In this situation the Christian clergy have played a leading part in organising relief and food supplies for the near-starving people. They have been prominent in documenting the atrocities perpetrated by the army and in obtaining the evidence to submit to human rights organisations in India and the west.