POPE’S VISIT WILL BE A BLESSING TO THE POST-WAR HEALING PROCESS--Jehan Perera

The run up to Pope Francis’s visit to Sri Lanka was notable for the controversy over the determination of the government to hold Presidential Elections at around the same time. The Vatican is known to have a policy whereby the Holy Father’s presence in a country is not used to purposes of partisan politics by politicians who put power before everything else. In particular, His Holiness will not visit a country for a specified period either before or after an election. This was said to be a month. But it is fortunate for us in Sri Lanka that the Vatican demonstrated flexibility on this issue. It was nevertheless unfortunate that the government’s determination to hold the Presidential Elections around the time of the Pope’s visit led to an escalation of speculation and doubt as to whether this visit would actually take place.

The general environment in the country due to the forthcoming elections is not a positive or reassuring one. Winning the presidency is the goal of both sides. The issues being canvassed at the elections, of corruption, nepotism and betrayal of the country to international interests are highly emotive ones. Violations of election law have occurred on a large scale with the misuse of state property and resources being highlighted by election monitors. There have also been acts of violence that have increased as the election approaches. There is apprehension that the forthcoming weeks will only see a rise in such incidents, which will restrict the space for a free and fair electoral process. There is serious concern that incidents resulting in physical harm to political campaign supporters and members of the general public will increase.


Some sections of civil and religious society even urged the postponement of the Holy Father’s visit, on the grounds that its proximity to the elections would unnecessarily involve mixing politics with religion. Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar speaking on behalf of the Church explained why it did not seek such a postponement. He said, “We cannot dismiss the fears posed by some individuals, that the elections would disrupt the visit. But we had to balance these fears with the understanding of what is good for all the Catholics of Sri Lanka. The Church of Sri Lanka has decided to put aside any differences and stand by the decision that the Holy Father should visit Sri Lanka. The Papal visit is a visual visit of Christ on earth and postponing this event will not work at all.”


NATIONAL INTEREST
After a divisive election campaign there will be a need to calm down and re-unite the people. Change of heart can take place through prayer and contemplation or by interaction with the divine, in which face to face meeting is the most material and substantial. Face to face engagement with highly developed spiritual persons can soften the hardened heart and enable the spirit of love and empathy to enter it. It is by engagement, and not by refusal to engage, that the doors to change can open. This is where the timing of the Pope’s visit so close to the Presidential election is serendipitous and will be a great blessing to those who wish to engage across international, political and ethnic boundaries.

There are also several other reasons for the Pope’s visit to be in the national interest. At a time when Sri Lanka is getting on the international map for being a home to extremist Buddhist nationalism, the visit of the Pope and the honour paid to him by the government can send a counter message of the country’s religious pluralism and tolerance. In addition, the Holy Father is scheduled to visit Madhu in the North of the country and hold a service there. Madhu is not only a sacred area for Catholics on account of the Madhu shrine to which tens of thousands of Catholics from all parts of the country go yearly to pay homage. Pilgrims from all parts of the country go prayerfully to Madhu to invoke divine blessings. This is a point of national unity where members of the two primary ethno-national communities have an opportunity to interact with each other in a manner that fosters bonds of solidarity between them.


WAR TRAUMA
Madhu was also a part of the last phase of the war, and one of the last battleground areas. Therefore, a religious service there could be one that helps in the national healing and reconciliation process. In particular a service that remembers all the victims of the war could take the reconciliation process a step forwards. The post-war tragedy for Sri Lanka is that each community is inured to the other community’s suffering and trauma. This was pointed out by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the President, which called on the government to commemorate all Sri Lankans who died in the war, and not only one or the other side. But this has yet to happen. In the absence of a state-driven national healing process each side tends to see the war from the perspective of a tragedy to itself.

The Sinhalese majority under the guidance of the government has been encouraged to remember the war through a victory celebration which identifies those who fell in the war through a military standpoint. This reinforces their feeling that the military control on the ground must continue in order to ensure that war never happens again. As they do not see the other side’s perspective the need for a political solution and for power sharing between the ethnic majority and minority gets downplayed.

On the other hand the Tamil minority recall the last stages of the war and the killings that occurred and mourn the death of their loved ones, and see their victimhood being reinforced by the victory celebrations of the government. They have lost their children, their parents, their relatives, their friends, their neighbours and their schoolmates. Despite their repeated demands from the government to answers as to the whereabouts of those who went missing the government has failed to give them an answer. The government has appointed a variety of bodies to ask them for details of their loved ones, but has not yet provided them with the answers as to what happened. Unable and unwilling to believe that their missing loved ones are dead, the survivors search high and low, go to army camp after army camp and even to police headquarters in Colombo following every lead, seeking some way to reconnect with the lost ones, but in vain.


COLLECTIVE REMEMBERING
In order to progress, the communities that were affected the most must carry out collective grieving which will then pave the way for memorialisation. It is important that the people are made to understand that the end of war does not mean victory over a minority community or a particular group of people. Grief will always be at hand for those who have lost their loved ones and have not found out what happened to them. There is no repressive power that can stop people from missing their loved ones and coming out to remember them. The longing of people to find out what happened to their loved ones and the impulse to remember them will always be greater, and more enduring, than the desire of the government to suppress the truth. This is why in countries such as Argentina and Bangladesh, even forty years after the events took place, wrongdoers who denied them have been brought before justice.

The issue of national reconciliation appears to be uppermost in the Holy Father’s hopes regarding Sri Lanka. When the Sri Lankan bishops met with the Pope recently at the Vatican he is reported to have urged the bishops of Sri Lanka to continue their role in working towards reconciliation between the government and the Tamils living in former conflict areas. He said, “After many years of fighting and bloodshed, the war in your country has finally ended … though the war has ended, you rightly note that much work needs to be done to promote reconciliation, to respect the human rights of all the people and to overcome the ethnic tensions that remain.”

More than 20 years ago, in 1984, the Catholic Bishops of Sri Lanka issued a Pastoral Letter that was titled "Towards the rebuilding of the Sri Lankan nation." Many of the prophecies in that letter have come to pass. "In the present conflict both sides are bound to suffer if they resort to violence," said the Bishops. "There can be no satisfactory resolution of the ethnic issue through violence. On the contrary, we are likely to have a festering sore that will plague several generations of Sri Lankans." Although the war is over the polarization within the country has been growing and we are in danger of failing to resolve the root causes of our war and recreating heightened conflict once again. The visit of Holy Father Pope Francis to Sri Lanka offers the possibility of collectively remembering the past and its costs and praying together as citizens of one country to find the way to a just and mutually acceptable political solution that ensures that such a collective tragedy will never occur again.