Church leaders seek justice as Sri Lanka faces new elections and protests

By staff writers
February 9, 2010

As Sri Lanka's recently re-elected President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced that he is dissolving parliament and calling early elections, Anglican and Catholic church leaders issued a strong statement against abuses during and after the last poll.

Meanwhile, demonstrators have been preparing to take to the streets in vociferous protest against the detention of the main opposition leader.

The senior church leaders also identified political devolution, good governance, media freedom, economic development, the application of equal rights for the vulnerable, the total independence of the judiciary, and poverty alleviation as the "key priorities" facing any administration

A statement from a senior official in Colombo today (9 February 2010) declared: "The president dissolves the parliament with effect from midnight [tonight]."

Mr Rajapaksa won a second term in office by a large margin last month, but the outcome was rejected by his main rival, Gen Sarath Fonseka - who was detained by security forces on Monday 8 February.

Human rights groups are reporting widespread violations. Opposition politicians say the government is engaged in a witch-hunt and have called for protests this Wednesday against the arrest of their leader.

Announcing the dissolution of parliament, a presidential spokesman, Lucien Rajakarunanayake, said it was up to the elections commissioner to decide dates for the parliamentary vote.

The bishops' letter in full:

Regardless of how they voted, many Sri Lankans strongly disapproved of three trends during the campaigning. These were: continuous personal slander, provoked by undue media publicity. As the norms of vigorous and healthy democratic debate were disregarded this way, the people were denied an objective understanding of the real issues.

The wilful violation of electoral laws which, sadly, demonstrated that might is right. The Election Commissioner’s public confession amply endorsed this.

The unprecedented amount of money spent on the campaigning. This raises ethical questions of leadership qualities in a country striving to eliminate poverty and bring justice to internally displaced people (IDPs).

Our political leaders can still rectify these trends by setting self-imposed codes of conduct, especially as we approach a general election. A voter preference for those who demonstrate this change will result in a welcome transformation of our political culture. Such a change will endorse the sovereignty of the people.

Promotions, transfers, termination of service and the resignations of some Military, Police and public services personnel send worrying messages about rewards and punishments for certain styles of political behaviour. Competency in public officials is to be appreciated and those who have done their duty well, need to be commended. But administrative changes, immediately after a public event that requires the impartiality of all officials, undermines good governance.

We should take serious note of the majority who did not vote in some Tamil areas. The lack of transport deprived thousands of IDPs from voting. The behaviour of those who could vote but did not, may indicate a lack of confidence in an electoral contest between two primary candidates, which offered little in relation to the problems faced by Tamils. Their silence may be seen as a clear message that their expectations were not being addressed.

It is bad practice when elections are followed with the intimidation and harassment of candidates, their supporters and those in the media who have freely expressed their views. The total lack of information regarding journalist, Mr. Eknaligoda, missing since two days before the election, is a most disturbing case in point. The police have an immediate responsibility to investigate and prevent such happenings. The President, and all political, civil society and religious leaders are called to set the standards in healing tensions and ensuring justice and protection for all.

From here we need collectively to address the pressing priorities of political devolution, good governance, media freedom, economic development, the application of equal rights for the vulnerable, total independence of the judiciary and the alleviation of poverty, which are faced by our country. We urge the President, the Cabinet and the Opposition to work towards these goals with purpose and commitment. The test of a campaign is the urgency and priority given to the needs of all the people by all candidates when the campaigning ends. None who contest have the right or the luxury to continue with personal hurts, personal glory or personal agendas.

With the assurance of our prayers for all.

Signed by: The Most Revd Dr Thomas Savundaranayagam, Roman Catholic Bishop of Jaffna; The Most Rev Dr Kingsley Swampillai, Roman Catholic Bishop of Trinco/Batticaloa; The Most Rev Dr Rayappu Joseph, Roman Catholic Bishop of Mannar; The Rt Rev Kumara Illangasinghe, Anglican Vicar General of Kurunegala; The Rt Rev Duleep de Chickera, Anglican Bishop of Colombo; and The Most Rev Dr Norbert Andradi, Roman Catholic Bishop of Anuradhapura.

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