Archive for June, 2006
By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Conferring awards and titles on each other has become a common feature in the life of Thamizh Canadians in recent times. Some individuals and institutions have made this practice a virtual cottage industry.There are however some notable exceptions to this general rule.
It was my privilege and pleasure to participate in such a ceremony last week (June 24th) in Toronto.Professor George .L. Hart, chair of Tamil Studies at California University, Berkeley was presented the “Iyal Viruthu” lifetime achievement award by the Toronto based organization “Thamizh Ilakkiyath Thottam” or Tamil Literary Garden(TLG)
The TLG is a non – profit organization founded in 2001. It is committed to developing Tamil literature internationally. Among its activities is the conferring of a lifetime achievement award or Iyal Viruthu to a “writer, scholar, critic or editor , who over a period of time has made a very significant contribution to the growth or study of Tamil literature”.
The “Iyal Viruthu” award comprises a commemorative plaque and an honorarium of 1500 Canadian dollars. It is awarded at an annual event jointly organized by the South Asia Studies Centre of the University of Toronto and the TLG. The recipient delivers a brief lecture before the award is presented.The lecture is organized by the South Asia Center.
Some of the past recipients were people like the editor/writer Sundara Ramaswamy, author Ganesh, critic Venkat Swaminathan and editor/ publisher Pathmanabha Aiyer. The award for year 2005 went to George Hart at a ceremony held at the Seeley Hall in Toronto University.Those familiar with his work and his efforts in promoting Thamizh studies would feel indeed that the man is worthy of the award.
It has been the good fortune of Thamilzh that many Western scholars have contributed greatly to its growth and development. The role of Western scholars in rediscovering the virtues of classical Thamilzh literature and reviving fresh interest has been particularly commendable.
George Hart belongs to a long line of such scholars who were greatly enamoured of Thamizh and helped promote modern scholarship of the language. Hart has written several books, monographs and papers. He was instrumental in establishing the Tamil Studies chair at Berkeley. Hart’s role in persuading the powers that be in India to confer “chemmoli” or Classical language status to Thamizh deserves praise.
I have read only two of his books. I have also read some papers and texts of interviews given by him. His impressive scholarship was not the only reason that motivated me in attending the event. It was my intention to meet him personally and express my gratitude for a remarkable gesture that helped me and many others several years ago.
The year was 1990. I had relocated to Canada from Sri Lanka the previous year. Journalism was/is both a profession and vocation for me. I was involved with a few others in reviving Canada’s first Thamizh journal “Senthamarai” that was practically defunct then. We made it a fortnightly and then weekly. I was its editor.
This was a time when desktop publishing was going great guns with the Thamizh Diaspora. Tamil fonts however had not been sufficiently developed then. In our case we relied on the Thamizh font developed by George Hart. This academic had not only pioneered this font but had with great magnanimity placed it on public domain. It was freely available to all users. Our publishing venture would not have succeeded then without george Hart’s generosity.
Subsequently others – many “Yaarlpaanam Thamizhar” included – perfected and developed fonts that were far superior to the pioneering effort of George Hart. But these were not free but sold for large sums. Like many others we too went in for the new fonts and the old font went slowly out of use.
But I have often wondered what we would have done then without George Hart’s font.The irony of a “material” Westerner providing his font free in order to foster modern Thamizh whereas other “Thamizhar” were making fonts and money simultaneously has not missed me.
It was against this backdrop that I met George Hart in person for the first time and conveyed my belated appreciation and gratitude. He modestly changed the subject and spoke of those days of font – making. Hart related how a Malaysian Thamilzh Muthu Nedumaran and he had embarked on this pioneering venture simulataneously yet separately.
George Hart grew up in Washington where his father was a Federal Judge. His fascination for languages began with Russian in high school. Then it was Sanskrit. Later came Thamizh. After obtaining his Ph D in Sanskrit from Harvard George Hart i went to Chicago university in Wisconsin to teach .There he came across the legendary AK Ramanujam .This was the beginning of his love affair with Thamizh.
Hart learnt his Sanskrit from KV Seshathrinathan and Thamizh from Irama. Subramaniam. His wife Kausalya who hails from Madurai the seat of the Sangam’s is a Tamil scholar too.His creditable achievement was in translating epic and heroic Sangham poetry into English. His role in helping Thamizh obtain classical language status in India was commendable.
Among his reputed works are
1.The Poems of Ancient Tamil, Their Milieu and Their Sanskrit Counterparts
2.A Rapid Sanskrit Method
3.The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom: An Anthology of Poems from Classical Tamil, the Purananuru
4.Poets of the Tamil Anthologies: Ancient Poems of Love and War
5. The Forest Book of the Ramayana of Kampan.
He is currently engaged in translating the “Pathittrup Pattu”. In his lecture “Tamil as a Classical language” George Hart quoted extensively from the “purananooru”.It was a rare treat to hear him explain in Thamizh the intricacies of vintage poetry .The TLG is to be congratulated in its “Iyal Viruthu” choice for 2005.
Meanwhile the TLG also inaugurated two new annual awards for contemporary fiction and non – fiction.The ‘Best Fiction for the Year in Tamil’ award went to So. Tharman for his novel titled ‘Koohai’. the ‘Best Non-Fiction for the Year in Tamil’ went to CreA S.Ramakrishnan, who was the Managing Editor of Tamil – Tamil – English dictionary known as Tharkalath Thamizh Akarathi. They are to be awarded plaques and honorariums of 500 dollars each . Both recepients are from India and were not present in person.
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June 29th, 2006
By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The on going ethnic fratricide in Sri Lanka has seen brutal violence on several occasions. The savagery shown in the slaying of a family of four in the North – Western village of Vankalai last Thursday was perhaps bestiality at its worst. Even the most hardened eyes would have turned moist at the terrible sight of the four victims killed so cruelly by persons who can only be described as barbarians.
Gruesomely graphic photographs of the four victims have been displayed in various sections of the Tamil media. The father, daughter and son were hanging dead in one room while the mother was dead on the floor in another room. The intestines of the seven year old boy are seen protruding. The vaginal area of the twenty – seven year old mother and nine year old daughter were extremely bloody. It appears that the killers have sadistically tortured their victims including the thirty – eight year old father.
The scene of this terrible massacre was in a village called Vankalai in the North – Western district of Mannar. Vankalai is situated north by north – west on the mainland . It is four and a half miles away from Thallaadi military base.. It is about six miles to the South – East of Mannar town.
In recent times the people of Vankalai had been retiring to the St. Annes and other churches during nightfall. Staying at home during night was not safe due to the security situation. The victimised family too used to do that. The family had been absent from Church on Thursday night. When relatives and neighbours checked on the following morning they found the entire family dead. The victims had been hacked, beaten, tortured and hung. The mother and daughter seemed to have been violated sexually.
The brutal massacre has resulted in much tension. Though there are no eyewitnesses to the actual killing or torture the people of Vankalai suspect members of the security forces as being responsible. The state and its media have denied security force responsibilty . There has been a counter charge that the tigers were responsible. Few people in Mannar believe that. The Catholic Bishop of Mannar Joseph Rayappu has stated that those responsible for security were behind the massacre.
It is difficult to understand how people could inflict such sadistic brutality on their fellow human beings particularly little children.Some background details may help in understanding at least the context in which this vicious violence occurred.
Vankalai is a pre- dominantly fishing cum farming village. It lies along the Naanaattan road with the sea to its west. The historic Saivaite shrine Thirukketheeeswaram is further up to its North. Naanaattan is further down to its south. Towards the east the biggest village is Uyilankulam. All these places have security camps.
Vankalai is a Christian village with Roman Catholics being more than 99 % and Protestant groups comprising the remainder. In earlier times the Muslim area of Erukkalampitty was the village with the largest population in Mannar district. With Muslims being driven away by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1990 , Vankalai has become the largest now. Currently its population figure is a little over 8000. Vankalai and Pesalai are inhabited mainly by members of the Bharatha community. [St. Annes Church - Courtesy of 125 Years Anniversary Jubilee Malar, Mannar.com]
Vankalai is a blend of “Neithal” (fishing region) and “Marutham” ( agrarian lands). Apart from fisheries and farming there is also an educational and professional tradition. There are a number of teachers, government officials , clergymen and professionals from the area. Former TULF Parliamentarian of Mannar P. Soosaidasan is from Vankalai. Even now many top bureaucrats of the district hail from Vankalai.
The past years of ethnic strife have seen Vankalai also being affected like many other Tamil villages in the region. In 1985 the Catholic priest Fr. Mary Bastian a native of Vankalai himself and about twenty others were killed by the security forces. In later years a prominent school principal from Vankalai and some others were also killed and dumped in a well by security forces. There have also been many other minor incidents. The climate of terror compelled many residents of Vankalai to relocate to other places in the Island, cross over to India or go abroad to Western Countries.
The ceasefire that came into force from Feb 23rd 2002 gave the people a much needed respite from violence. Vankalai began flourishing . Many refugees from India began to return slowly. Life was blossoming again.
The victims of the Vankalai massacre were members of one such family that returned from India. The husband was 38 year old Sinnaiah Moorthy Martin. The wife was 27 year old Anthony Mary Madeleine. The daughter was 9 year old Anne Lakshika. The son was 7 year old Anne Dilakshan. The family had re – settled in Vankalai about a year and a half ago.
Martin was not a native of Vankalai. He was from Vidathal theevu. He had married Mary Madeleine and settled down in Vankalai. Madeleine also called Chitra was from Vankalai and had many close relatives. Both Children had been named Anne because the St. Annes Church in Vankalai was the family church. Martin was by profession a carpenter.
Several youths from Vankalai had joined the LTTE and other militant movements in the past. Several youths were tiger members even now. The elders of Vankalai had used this “connection” to extract a promise from the LTTE that they should not “camp” in the village or engage in any violent activity there. This was honoured by the LTTE for four years.
With the LTTE not engaging in any hostile action in the vicinity of Vankalai the security personnel also kept the peace. Apart from the Thallady base there was a camp and some security posts in Vankalai too. There was also a Police post. There was very little friction between the people and the security forces in Vankalai. This was the general situation in Mannar district too.
All this began to change after Mahinda Rajapakse became President. Relations between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the LTTE began deteriorating. Soon the tigers commenced a “peoples war” . Members of the security forces were targeted . One consequence of this was the shattering of relative peace in Mannar. The landmining of a naval convoy in Pesalai saw the situation in Mannar changing drastically.
More personnel were deployed in the district and security intensified in Mannar. This tightening of security was felt in Vankalai too with security posts being set up in the junctions and even interior. Friction began increasing between the people and security personnel in Vankalai. The situation got aggravated with the induction of a fresh security personnel batch recently. According to Vankalai residents these security men were an uncouth, indisciplined lot. They reveled in uttering obscenities and engaging in indecent gestures. Their favourite target was the school girl population of Vankalai. One act was to exhibit condoms to the girls.
It was against this backdrop that the LTTE broke its pledge to the village elders and struck in the vicinity. On Thursday June 1st a claymore mine was set off on the border of Vankalai and adjacent Naruvilikkulam. A two wheel tractor was taking food to an army chekpost at Naruvilikkulam from Vankalai camp at about 7. 30 pm when the explosion was triggered. One soldier was killed and two injured.
Upon hearing of the landmine incident soldiers stationed at Vankalai camp began firing indiscriminately for nearly 20 minutes till they were brought under control. 42 year old Arulnesan and his 12 year old daughter Lorenzia were injured seriously and admitted later to the Muringan hospital.
The indiscriminate firing made the Vankalai people panic stricken.nitiallt families fled Vankalai. They began returning in the next few days. Thereafter people began expecting massive military reprisals and started avoiding staying at home during night. They slept in churches during night. The Vankalai camp used to discharge a few rounds of fire regularly in the night.
The situation worsened further when the LTTE threw a grenade on an army patrol near the Eruvittan junction on the Naanaattan – Arippu road on Monday June 5th. There was an exchange of fire for about 10 minutes. One soldier was killed. Later soldiers began assaulting civilians in the area. This caused more insecurity among villages in the region including Vankalai.
The Martin – Madeleine family lived in the 10th ward precincts of Vankalai. Their housing scheme was named “Thomaspuri” or “Thomas township”. It was named after former Catholic Cardinal Thomas Cooray. The adjoining scheme was called “Bastipuri” This was after the slain priest Fr,. Mary Bastian.
The people of Thomaspuri and Bastipuri went to St. Annes Church in the night for security. On Thursday 8th the elder sister of Chitra or Madeleine started out to Church. The younger sibling said that her husband had not returned yet and asked her “akka” to go on . She said she would follow with her family after the husband returned. The family never went to St. Annes.
On the following morning the elder sister returned and tried to find out why Chitras family had not turned up. There was no answer when she called out. Knocking on the door had no response. Fearing the worst people gathered at the house. The door was kicked open. What they saw horrified them.
Mary Madeleine was dead on the floor lying naked in a pool of blood. There were signs of her being sexually assaulted brutally. The bodies of Martin and the children were hanging inside the room. They had been tortured , beaten and hacked to death. Pieces of rope in the house were used to hang the bodies. The intestines of the boy were protruding. The areas around the girl’s vagina were crimson red with blood. It was feared that she too had been violated.
The carpentry tools of Martin like the “uli” or chisel had also been used to prick, cut and torture the victims. In addition heavier and sharper weapons like knives or bayonets too had been used to hack the victims. Some sado – masochistic persons with a bestial nature had been at work in the house. No firearms were used . The cold – blooded barbarity of a brutal nature defied description. Only people crazed with callous hatred or those whose senses had been distorted through narcotics could have inflicted such gruesome cruelty.
As news of the massacre spread people of Vankalai began gathering at Thomaspuri. They were sad and bitter. The youths in particular were in an angry mood. Their mindset reflected the overall agony and frustration of the Tamil people over an uneasy peace where innocent civilians were getting increasingly victimised. The climate of impunity under the Rajapakse regime was resulting in security personnel and their Tamil para- militaries getting away with murder and mayhem easily and effortlessly.
The preponderant opinion among Vankalai residents was that some security personnel were responsible for the massacre. Besides the general obnoxious conduct by the security men in Vankalai there was a more specific reason too for the suspicion. Apparently three soldiers had been in the neighbourhood on the 8th morning.
According to one woman they had shouted out to her at about 10. 30 am. When she came to the door they had asked her whether she knew Sinhala and whether she was living alone. She had replied in the negative and said her parents had gone to the market. They had asked her for her identity card. She went in and returned with her IC. But they had gone. She alleges that they were at the entrance of the Martin home. She had shut the door and waited inside.
It is suspected that the security personnel had “eyed” Mary Madeleine in the morning and returned later in the night. People of the area say they can identify the three. The reality is that even if the three are identified there is no proof to show they were responsible for the massacre.
Despite the lack of concrete evidence or unavailability of reliable eye- witnesses the people on the whole began pointing their finger at the security forces. When the Police and Army arrived an enraged crowd in its hundreds refused to let them proceed. People also began shouting slogans against the Vankalai army camp. Fearing a heavy breach of peace additional troops from Thalladdy and Riot Policemen were deployed in Vankalai.
An ugly situation was averted due to many members of the Catholic clergy and senior Government officials arriving at the scene. The Vicar – General for Mannar Rev, Fr, Xavier Crusz was himself from Vankalai. So too was the Mannar AGA Ms. Stanley de Mel. TNA Parliamentarian from Wanni district Vinothaharajalingam also arrived on the scene. The Mannar Bishop Joseph Rayappu also came to the scene of the massacre.
Thanks to the eforts of these persons the passions of the people were contained. Bishop Rayappu was visibly moved. When questioned by the BBC Tamil Service the Bishop said that people whose duty was to ensure the protection and security of the people were allegedly responsible for this violence.
Mannar additional magistrate TJ Prabakharan arrived on the scene and conducted preliminary inquiries. He ordered an autopsy of the bodies and recorded initial statements of some people. He directed that some pieces of evidence be sent for forensic analysis. Mr. Prabakharan scheduled a judicial inquiry and inquest for June 23rd. He ordered the Police to apprehend suspect sand conduct an identification parade on that day. He also directed the army and Police chief of the area to be present on the 23rd.
The bodies of the victims were released on Friday evening. They were kept at the Vankalai school for the public to pay their respects. On Saturday 10th the bodies were taken in procession to St. Annes Church for funeral mass. About 5000 people were in the funeral procession. The Bishop and Vicar – General of Mannar conducted the service with about 25 priests assisting. The four bodies were then taken to the Vankalai burial grounds and laid to rest in a single grave. One more Tamil family had been wiped out in a vicious campaign of violence.
Defence Ministry Spkesperson Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe when questioned by the media denied that the army was responsible. “The security forces have never done such a thing” he said. He said the tigers were responsible. Some newspapers quoting Police sources also said the LTTE was responsible. According to this version the victims were army informants. The LTTE had taken revenge in a brutal way due to this.
The cycle of violence continues in Sri Lanka. The violence committed by the LTTE is dutifully recorded and branded as terrorism by the authorities, media and International Community. The violence perpetrated by the state and its organs both official and unofficial are not condemned in equal manner. Unless the Sinhala people, responsible media sections and the International community realise that unadulterated state terror is being unleashed on innocent Tamil civilians by the Rajapakse regime no end seems to be in sight .
Meanwhile the wheels of justice would begin to grind slowly on June 23rd in the case of the Vankalai killings. With all due respect to the Mannar judiciary there seems to be absolutely no chance that justice would be done. From the Bindunuwewa massacre to this Vankalai violence the people responsible have got away and will get away. This is the past, present and future as far as the Tamil civilian victims are concerned.
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“None can swim the sea of vice, but those who are united to the feet of that gracious Being who is a sea of virtue.” – Thirukurall [HA]
June 13th, 2006
By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Sri Lanka is being steered firmly towards full – scale war by both the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) headed by Mahinda Rajapakse and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) led by Velupillai Prabakharan. The impact of total war will be felt by all sections of Sri Lankan society. It is however the Sri Lankan Tamils of the North – East who will bear the brunt of renewed conflict and undergo the greatest degree of suffering.
Realising the grave consequences many responsible members of Sri Lankan society are crying out against this tragedy in the making.. Their voices are becoming increasingly inaudible as the drum beats of war get louder and louder. The international community(IC) pushing for lasting peace in the Island is frustrated and on the verge of abandoning Sri Lanka altogether. The IC is correct in stating that the responsibility of ushering in lasting peace rests primarily on the GOSL and LTTE and not on others.
With the grim prospect of total war looming large on the horizon those likely to be affected most are becoming increasingly insecure. If the illusory glory of war is stripped away what remains is the suffering and loss of the ordinary people. It is the poorer sections of ordinary society that are most affected by war. The internet sites may be full of postings by “lions and tigers” clamouring for war but these vocal warriors with access to computers are far away from the theatre of conflict.
The ordinary people living in potential conflict areas are not roaring like lions or growling like tigers. They are gripped by fear. The violence of the present and resultant tensions provides them with fear of the future in a situation of war. These people have suffered in the past and know what it is going to be like in the future if and when conflict escalates to full scale fighting. In such a situation the vulnerable people are simply taking flight. They seek safe havens of security and not greener pastures of prosperity.
This sense of impending tragedy is felt intensely in the North – Eastern district of Trincomalee. This is a multi – ethnic, multi – religious district possessing politico – military importance. All three communities are more or less of equal strength here. Tamils however are more concentrated in the coastal areas including Trincomalee town.
In recent times there has been a concerted drive to populate the region with Sinhala speaking people along with a parallel effort to de- populate the district of Tamils. State aided schemes and other incentives are the way to attract new people into the district. Violence, terror, economic deprivation and enhanced insecurity are the ways through which people are compelled to leave. The escalation of the ethnic conflict along with excessive militarisation has made this process of “De – Tamilising” Trincomalee easier.
Thousands of Trincomalee Tamils left the district. Many relocated to other parts of the Island. Others went abroad to Western Countries. Some went to neighbouring India. A large number of Trinco Tamils who went to India were fisherfolk.
This process of Tamil outflow which accelerated after 1983 had only two “lulls” . The first during the time the Indian Army was in the Island and the North – Eastern Provincial Council with Annamalai Varatharajapperumal as Chief Minister was set up in Trincomalee.
The second one was during the climate of “no – war” created by the ceasefire accord of Feb 23rd 2002 signed jointly by Ranil Wickremasinghe and Velupillai Pirapakaran. This prevailing ceasefire period witnessed more than 5000 refugees returning from Tamil Nadu. Of these returning refugees the bulk were from Trincomalee and Mannar districts.
What is happening now is a reverse flow of Tamil refugees back to Tamil Nadu. Preponderant among these people are Tamils from Trincomalee district. Trincomalee Tamils began fleeing to Tamil Nadu state in India from January this year. Indian newspapers reported that by Sunday June 4th the figure of “new” Tamil refugees in the State had reached 3226.
The latest arrivals on Sunday 4th were 61 people from 21 families from Thirukkadaloor in Trincomalee. They landed on places like Paamban , Olaikkudaah and Arichamunai on the coast of Ramanathapuram or Ramnad district.There were 23 male and 22 female adults. The children comprised 6 males and 10 females. After the routine interrogation, screening and mandatory quarantine period they will be housed in the main Mandapam camp.
It is this Mandapam camp that is becoming home to the “new” Tamil refugees. This was a camp originally set up during British rule to facilitate transportation of Indian plantation workers to and from Sri Lanka. It became a major refugee camp for Sri Lankan Tamils in the eighties. Even before the current refugee flow began there were 775 people staying in Mandapam. Of these about 225 -30 have requested a transfer to other camps .
There are about 100, 000 Lankan Tamil refugees in India even now. According to Indian media reports about 60, 000 are housed in nearly 100 refugee camps in different parts of Tamil Nadu and also some other states. Those having links or suspected of having links with the LTTE are kept in Vellore. The security measures are strict here. Most refugees in camps consist of the poorer sections of society.
In addition to this there are also about 40, 000 Lankan Tamils living independently without Government assistance. These people are quite affluent and live comfortably. Many are engaged in business activity. A large number in this category relies on lucrative remittances sent by relatives in Western Countries
The Indian Government was slowly encouraging Tamil refugees to return after the 2002 ceasefire. This has now been put on hold. The Indian authorities are neither encouraging or discouraging Tamil refugees. They are not turning any one away. All those seeking refuge are first interrogated and screened due to suspicion that some LTTE members may be among them. Thereafter they are housed in Mandapam and given basic food items like raw rice and lentils, cooking vessels, mats, pillows, sheets, buckets, kerosene, soap etc and some cash.
The rations and dole distributed is definitely not enough by Indian standards for the upkeep of refugee families. So most refugees engage in work, self – employment or small business. This is the practice in Mandapam and several other camps. Indian authorities in the past had turned a blind eye realising fully well that the provisions and cash given was not enough to sustain the people. Tamil refugees have become a source of cheap labour exploited ruthlessly by employers. In some instances prostitution and drug running too take place.
The situation in Mandapam camp is far from satisfactory. Three Tamil Nadu legislators conducted an inspection of Mandapam recently. They were Gunasekeran from the Indian Communist party , Ramaswamy and Hassan Ali from the Congress party. They were not happy about what they saw.
Speaking to media persons later the Political leaders said that many of the cottages were in dilapidated condition. There was no electricity to many. The sanitary conditions were woefully inadequate. The monetary dole given was unrealistically low. The provisions given were not enough at all. There was also harassment by some officials. Deploying only male Policemen for security without female Police arrangements for the women was causing much friction.
The Tamil Nadu legislators have promised to alert their party high commands of the prevailing conditions in Mandapam. They would be urging remedial action. A petition outlining shortcomings and recommendations is to be drafted shortly and submitted for urgent action to Tamil Nadu chief minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi.
Notwithstanding the problems at Mandapam refugee traffic from Sri Lanka continues. The weather conditions are rather bad for sea crossings right now. Even the UNHCR issued a statement warning people not to undertake perilous sea journeys at this point of time. The Sri Lankan Government officials and Catholic clergy in Mannar are also advising the people not to hazard the choppy waves. The Navy has even threatened to shoot at the suspected refugee boats.
The navy has also apprehended some would be refugees. On May 22nd the navy made its biggest haul by seizing ten boats with 122 people at Pesalai in Mannar. On June 5th the navy caught another thirty – seven people and four boatmen off Thalaimannar. It was discovered that some of those arrested on May 22nd were among the people caught on June 6th.
Most of the people arrive in Mannar because that is the shortest point across to Tamil Nadu and has many boatmen familiar with the marine route. They are put up temporarily in Churches and Schools. Some stay with friends or relatives. With inadequate facilities at Churches and schools the people are being helped by residents of Pesalai and Thalaimannar who allow the refugees to use their homes for bathing and answering calls of nature. Government officials are trying to open a big refugee camp in Mannar but find themselves blocked by security officials.
Attempts were made by security authorities to forcibly drive refugees away from Mannar initially. Sections of the Colombo based media treated it as an illegal migration issue. These efforts to chase them away was stopped due to pressure exerted by INHCR and other NGO officials.
Despite these hardship and danger the people continue leaving for India. Crossing the sea at this point of time may be risky but they prefer that as the lesser evil. Conditions at Mandapam may not be ideal but they seem preferable to what they think awaits them in their own , motherland. The navy has caught some of them and warns that it would fire on boats yet the people cross clandestinely at night. As a Mannar Catholic priest told a Journalist “Even if they get caught by the navy they will try again. Some don’t have any thought of what fate lies in wait for them in India but they just want to leave the country.”
The fleeing refugees are taken by boatmen across to the Tamil Nadu coast and put ashore at points like Dhanushkodi, Arichalmunai, Muhuntharayar sathiram, Serankottai, Olaikkudaa, Paamban, Paambankunthukaal etc. Some just drop them off on the shifting sandbanks or “thittys” of Ramar Anai near the Indian coast. On May 19th 33 people were stranded for 33 hours on a sandbank till the Indian Navy rescued them. Another group was not so lucky on the same date. A boat with 30 people capsized near the Indian shore killing eleven people of whom three were sisters. On May 20th fishermen from Chilaw rescued another 20 people foundering in water after the boat had sunk.
Among the refugees who have gone across and are housed at Mandapam around 95% are from Trincomalee district. The rest are from Kilinochchi , Mannar and Vavuniya disricts. Trincomalee district is in the throes of a major refugee upheaval. Continuing violence in many forms resulted in massive displacement. At one point the number of displaced people in the district topped 43,000. Nowadays it has dropped to about 18,000 within both the GOSL and LTTE controlled areas. The climate of insecurity and fear remains and people continue leaving the district.
Apart from those at Mandapam in Tamil Nadu some Trinco Tamils are refugees in places like Munthal and Udappu in Puttalam district and Akkaraipattru in Amparai district . There are also many middle – class people who have moved to Colombo and other areas in the South. A few have reportedly gone to tiger territory in the Wanni. The statistics compiled at Mandapam camp reveals another important fact.Trincomalee Tamil refugees are from the coastal areas like Nilaweli, Sambaltheevu, Salli, Thirukkadaloor, Veeramaanagar, Padukkai, Pallanthottam and the 10th ward in Trincomalee town. Most of these people are fisherfolk , casual workers or petty traders.
What makes Trincomalee Tamils flee from the district is a combination of past experience, present problems and future fears. The current phase of refugee outflow began in the aftermath of the Jan 2nd massacre of five innocent youths at the Dutch bay beach and the mysterious destruction of a Dvora near the harbour. Fishing was restricted and fisherfolk were assaulted at random.
Then came the anti – Tamil violence in the town after the claymore explosion at the vegetable market. Tamils were attacked and businesses looted and set on fire while the security personnel simply watched or aided and abetted the violent elements. There was a sinister plot to drive Tamils away from the town and outlying coastal areas at night. This was stopped mainly due to the telephone conversation between Indian Premier Manmohan Singh and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse. Violence directed against Tamil civilians and harassment of coastal Tamils continues sporadically.
The Colombo regime also conducted a deliberate policy of targeting the coastal region of Muthur in the district after the bomb explosion at the army headquarters in Colombo on April 25th and the attack on a naval flotilla off Point Pedro on May 11th. These attacks sanctioned by Rajapakse himself demonstrated that civilian safety of coastal Tamils in Trincomalee was of no consequence to the GOSL.
There was aerial bombardment of areas in Muthur for two days in April. There was also shelling from naval gun boats and artillery fire from Army camps. After the sea attack in May there was artillery firing by the army from land and shelling by the navy from sea. The coastal areas mainly populated by Tamils were the most affected.
Adding to Tamil insecurity was the fact that no Tamil however “important” was safe in existing conditions. The popular Tamil political activist Vanniyasingham Vigneswaran was killed at his workplace premises in broad daylight. Dr. Aiyathurai Manoharan the father of Rajihar a victim in the Jan 2nd massacre was continuously harassed by security personnel and their Tamil henchmen for seeking justice for his sons murder. The medical practitioner has been reduced to state of abject helplessness due to the systematic persecution.
The April 12th anti – Tamil violence saw the businesses of one of the leading Tamil entrepreneur in Trincomalee being attacked. Another influential segment comprising bank employees were also under threat at their workplaces. Yet there was no action taken by the Police or security personnel to protect them.
Even worse is the complete break down of the law and order machinery when it comes to meting out justice to Tamil victims. No one has been penalised so far for any of the violence directed against Tamil civilians. Some of those responsible move about freely in a climate of unprecedented impunity.
All these developments would no doubt have added to the feelings of fear and insecurity among Tamils in Trincomalee. There were however other factors too that have contributed to this refugee flight. Foremost among these is the continuous harassment and persecution that Tamil civilians are being subjected to. Fishing has been severely restricted. Fisherfolk at sea have been attacked and even asked at times to jump into the sea by the navy. As a result their livelihood is affected. Also affected economically are the casual workers and petty traders. The climate of violence has stifled opportunities greatly.
It is the Navy that is mainly in charge of security in Trincomalee. According to Trincomalee Tamils the conduct of many Naval personnel has been atrocious towards Tamil civilians. They are taunted and threatened regularly. Some fondle women with lewd remarks under the guise of searching for hidden bombs. Pregnant women are severely harassed after the allegation that the suicide bomber who targetted the Army Commander was pregnant. Tamils are able to name particular Navy officials as being persistent in these activities.
The single most factor causing the refugee outflow is however the fear of full – scale war breaking out. Tamils know that their plight would be terrible in that situation. Adding to these fears is the continuous threats by some navy men , politicians and Sinhala anti – Social elements that Tamil areas along the coasts will be ethnically cleansed when war is declared formally. This is not an idle threat is the feeling shared by many Tamils.
Related to this fear is the increasing militarisation going on. Sinhala civilians are being recruited as home guards and given arms. This is done with the blessings of some persons in Yellow and Saffron robes. These elements are likely to engage in large – scale violence against Tamil civilians during war.
The tigers are also “training” civilians in warfare and giving grenades to some. The LTTE is also getting its so called civilian militia to engage in violent acts wherever possible.They have offered to give arms to Tamil civilian youths who team up with them. This is the only way out when war erupts say the tigers.
The simple truth however is that the ordinary Tamil people do not want to fight or even get caught up in a fight. They do not want to join or for family members to join the LTTE. They also know that remaining uninvolved and safe in a time of war would be virtually impossible. They know that they would be victimised by the security forces. Relocating to tiger regions is also no answer because aerial bombardment and shelling is possible. Also they dont want to be “drafted” by the LTTE as combatants. So they are voting with their feet and fleeing.
A rumour going around earlier was that full – scale war would erupt in June. This increased the refugee outflow. Many Tamils decided firmly that they were going to India as refugees and would return only if genuine , permanent peace was restored. They realised that the only safe place for Tamil refugees without enough money was India. It was only there that they would be safe from both the security personnel and tigers. The fact that many had lived for years in India as refugees fuelled this yearning for the safe haven of Tamil Nadu.
So many have sold their meagre possessions at rockbottom prices and scraped enough money to take them across. Apart from ferrying and transport costs there was also the “hidden” cost of bribing security personnel. When the refugee outflow started the going rate was 8000 rupees for an adult and 4000 for a child. This included transport from Trinco to Mannar, passage to India, bribes to security personnel and commission to the agents arranging everything. Now the rates have increased to 15 to 20, 000 for adults and about half of that for kids.
These hapless people reach Mannar by road and stay in houses or the makeshift refugee camps. After some days passage is arranged and they set off clandestinely at night risking their lives in the choppy seas. The Navy is usually bribed. But there are occasions when the navy is compelled to “catch” a few boats to show they are maintaining vigil and satisfy their superiors.
As for the Mannar boatmen they are prepared to take the risk because of the money. Fisherfolk have always been courageous and ready to risk life as part of occupational hazards. The cruel experience of war has only increased their intrepid valour.
Whatever the “noises” made by those walking the corridors of power in Colombo there is no denying the fact that the Trincomalee refugee situation is covertly relished by the Rajapakse regime. Depleting Trincomalee of Tamils is advantageous to Sinhala supremacist ideology politically, militarily and economically. The Tamil population ratio decreases and economic opportunities can be “Sinhalaised” further. Militarily the strategic coastal areas are made “safer” for Colombo. The long term project of transforming ” Thirukonamalai” into “Thrikanamale” becomes easier.
With the threat of war becoming larger and larger the refugee problem can only increase. The unfolding Tamil tragedy in the Island continues . The plight of Trincomalee Tamils encapsules this situation vividly.
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[Pictures: Sunset in Orr's Hill, Refugee Camp at Saraswathy Vidyalayam, Thirukonneswaram Temple vicinity, 'Pandiyan' era 'Kalvettu', Uppuvelli Shore and Sunset in Thamaraikullaum - Courtesy of HumanityAshore.org]
June 9th, 2006
By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Mahendra Percy Rajapakse now known as Mahinda Rajapakse is a man of many surprises. One facet of his personality is the impressive ability to pontificate. The Catholic Bishops of Mannar and Jaffna were two Pontiffs who witnessed this in full measure when they called on him last Tuesday (May 30th) to outline the problems experienced in recent times by the ordinary civilians of the North – East. Chief among these was the violence.
There were newspaper reports about the meeting. This is what one report said about discussions on the prevailing violence. ” President Mahinda Rajapakse has requested the Bishops of Jaffna and Mannar to urge the civilians to immediately bring to the notice of the police and security establishment, provide the necessary evidence and assist investigators, whenever violence is unleashed on civilians in the North and East.In the event of civilians encountering any difficulty in complaining to the police or military authorities, such complaints could be directed to the government peace secretariat, the President told the Bishops..”
The news report also stated the following ” Associated with the President at the talks were Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse, Secretary of Plan Implementation, Ajith Cabraal, head of the Government Peace Secretariat Dr. Palitha Kohona, Chief of Defence Staff Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri and Navy Commander Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda.”.
President Rajapakse’s pronouncements project an impression that the average civilian in the North – East is reluctant ” to “immediately bring to the notice of the police and security establishment,” and to ” provide the necessary evidence” and also ” assist investigators, whenever violence is unleashed on civilians “. The President has also been magnanimous enough to proffer the advice that ” In the event of civilians encountering any difficulty in complaining to the police or military authorities, such complaints could be directed to the government peace secretariat”.
I would have loved to see the faces of Bishop Thomas Soundaranayagam and Bishop Joseph Rayappu when the President made this statement. Both Bishops are fully conversant with ground realities of the North – East. They know the nature of prevailing violence and the persons responsible. Being tactful and diplomatic the prelates would no doubt have maintained stoic silence.
What then is the reality behind North – Eastern violence? It emanates basically from four sources. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Tamil armed groups like the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) and Karuna faction, the Sinhala homeguards and armed hoodlums that are instigated by Sinhala chauvinist outfits and aided by the Police and Armed forces comprise three of these. The last but certainly not the least source are members of the armed forces and Police themselves.
In a scenario that brings fresh meaning to the proverbial saying about the fence devouring the crops it is supposed to protect the preponderantly “Sinhala” speaking Armed forces and Police are mainly responsible for the violence against innocent Tamil civilians of the North – East. Against this backdrop where and to whom does the civilian complain? Even if they complain what action is taken?
Take for instance the killing of Tamil National Alliance Parliamentarian Joseph Pararajasingham. He was shot dead in the St. Mary’s Cathedral of Batticaloa while attending midnight mass for Christmas. The assassins came up near the altar and fired just after Joseph received Holy Comunion from Batticaloa Bishop Kingsley Swampillai.
The killers walked coolly away after the shooting. Joseph’s five Police bodyguards did nothing. The surrounding area was filled with security personnel when the service began. They had all mysteriously disappeared after the shooting. It is well – known that one of the killers was a Tamil “Sitha” from the Karuna faction. The other was a Sinhala army man in civils. No action has been taken yet. Worse still the Army website announced that the LTTE was responsible for killing their close supporter.
It was only four months ago that Lakshman Kadirgamar was shot dead in Colombo. Kadirgamar and Pararajasingham were on opposite sides in Politics. One was part and parcel of the Government while the other was supportive of the LTTE. Both were democratic politicians appointed as national list MP’s. Yet one killing received worldwide condemnation but the other was virtually ignored. Even the fact that the sanctity of Church had been cruelly violated found no responsive chord in International circles. Subsequently some of Joseph’s relatives in Batticaloa too have had to flee.
If a democratic politician representing the district for more than a decade could be killed in this horrible manner in full view of a Church Congregation in the Cathedral in front of the Bishop what chances does the ordinary civilian have? If no action has been taken so far on this matter then what use is there in others complaining?
Let’s take the shooting of five innocent Tamil youths in Trincomalee at the Dutch Bay beach. First it was made out that they were terorists who died when the explosive in their possession went off accidently. Next it was said that they had died in a firefight with security personnel. Thanks to a fair – minded, courageous JMO it was proved later that all five had been executed mafia style. They were made to kneel and bullets fired at close range.
Even after the post – mortem there were attempts to obstruct justice. The Police on duty at the hospital intimidated parents to sign statements that their children were tigers if the bodies were to be released. Thanks to the leadership provided by a medical doctor parent the others stood firm. They got their children’s bodies. Dr, Manoharan also gave valuable evidence at the Judicial inquiry.
What has happened thereafter is atrocious. It was this column which first spotlighted the terror tactics being employed to frighten Dr. Manoharan. Later the Amnesty International issued a statement. Namini Wijedasa of “Sunday Island” also wrote a vivid account of the troubles faced by Dr. Manoharan. After making a victim out of a son the whole family was now being victimised. They were living in perpetual fear due to the harassment and intimidation.Dr. Manoharan has written even to President Rajapakse about the family’s plight. But has Mahinda done anything so far? No!
Who was responsible for the killings? According to the UTHR report Police Supdt. Kapila Jayasekera had masterminded the operation that had been carried out under the supervision of Inspector Perera. There were also media reports about an STF platoon being deployed in Trincomalee on the orders of National Security adviser Kotakadeniya. The report said that the STF had been instructed to be hard. Kotakadeniya went public with the statement that Mahinda’s brother and defence secretary Gothabhaya Rajapakse knew of this deployment and had approved of it.
With international attention being focused on the incident eleven STF men and two Policemen were arrested. No action was taken against Jayasekera . Every one on duty in the vicinity on the day of the incident should have been detained. The Policemen on duty at the Hospital should have been detained. The entire STF platoon should have been grilled. But nothing happened. Now comes the news that the bullets in the bodies do not match the guns in STF possession. They are to be released shortly.
Rajapakse gave an indication of his mindset when he reportedly said that the suspects will be released unless people who saw the execution came forward to give evidence. How is that possible when all civilians were kept out by the security personnel and lights put out at the time of the shooting? Even if there was a witness would he or she come forward after witnessing the persecution of Dr. Manoharan’s family? In my opinion the responsibility for the Trinco massacre goes way up. This explains the elaborate cover up and Mahinda’s despicable attempt to blame the victims for justice being denied.
Let’s take another instance. Seven persons went missing at the Amman temple in Manthuvil. There were bloodstains and signs of violence. The Army was observed “visiting” the temple at ungodly hours. The people complained en masse to the security forces. They did exactly what Mahinda wanted them to do. But what happened? The army denied any responsibility and declared an unofficial local curfew to keep the agitated public indoors. The people scoured the shrub jungles and marshy lands in search of the bodies. The families of the disappeared gathered daily in front of the Varany camp. Nothing done so far!.
Lets take another example. The “Uthayan” newspaper office in Jaffna was attacked and two killed. The EPDP was implicated. The attack came at a time when an International Conference related to World Press Freedom was underway in Colombo. With international media attention focused on the incident the Government was compelled to take action for demonstration purposes. Four students and two employees of an eatery were arrested as “suspects”. All of them were innocent.
Speaking of the EPDP brings the Allaipiddy massacre to mind. Eight people including a four year old child and four month infant were shot dead in cold blood. Another three members of the same family were killed in Puliyankoodal. Another man was killed at Velanai West. Thirteen people were killed and eleven businesses attacked in Allaipiddy, Velanai and Puliyankoodal on the same night. The Navy and EPDP were allegedly responsible. There were many media reports and even a statement by Amnesty International.
The EPDP is led by Douglas Devananda its Secretary – General. Devananda is a cabinet minister in the Rajapakse Government. The recent statement by the four co – chairs points the finger at the Karuna group and “Violent” elements in the EPDP. With Devananda being in the cabinet the line of responsibility goes right up to Government level.. Yet not even an iota of action has been taken. In a show of solidarity President Rajapakse took the unusual step of visiting Devananda at his Layards road residence and spending some hours. An emboldened Devananda is now criticising the AI and even the co – chairs for daring to accuse the EPDP.
There have been many other incidents like the one at Nelliaddy where eight passengers in two auto rickshaws were fired at and killed by soldiers who even used Rocket Propelled Grenades.In Puthur five persons from Vatharavathai were taken in for questioning. Their bodies were found near the army camp in the morning. In Punguditheevu there was the rape and murder of a 20 year old woman allegedly by the navy. No meaningful action taken against any member of the security forces so far.
Then there was the Trincomalee violence. Tamil civilians were kiled and Tamil owned businesses looted and attacked in the aftermath of a claymore bomb exploded in the vegetable market by the LTTE. The organized mobs went about their task systematically as members of the security forces stood by simply. Some even collaborated in the violence against Tamils. No one has been arrested so far for being involved in the anti – Tamil violence.
Against this backdrop of the security forces and Tamil acolytes being involved in the anti – Tamil violence how on earth does Mahinda Rajapakse expect civilians to complain to the authorities? Even if they did so has any concrete action been taken anywhere? The Manthuvil families complained but what has happened? On the other hand people who were courageous enough to seek justice like Dr. Manoharan are being victimised!
The worst indictment of the Rajapakse regime is the deliberate attacks on civilian areas.Aerial bombardment was done in Muthur, Kilinochchi and Udayarkattu. Naval gunboats shelled the coastal areas of Muthur East. The Army fired artillery including Multi – barrel Rocket launchers. The justification for this targetting of civilian areas was the suicide bomber attack on the Army Commander and the Sea tiger operation against a Naval flotilla. Whatever the provocation the Rajapakse regime had no right to retaliate by launching attacks on civilian areas.
The “Sunday Times” had a piece about Defence Secretary Gotha Rajapakse and Cabinet Minister Mangala Samaraweera being in the Operational Headquarters when discussions were on about an adequate response. The two options were the “Dog option” and the “Lion option”. The dog runs away when a stone is thrown but a lion fights back when attacked. The retaliatory Aerial bombardment and artillery shelling was supposedly part of the “Lion” response. What hope does the Tamil civilian have when decisions are taken at a high level and described as a ” Lion option”?
As stated in these columns earlier the Rajapakse regime has adopted the targeting of Tamil civilians as deliberate strategy. In some cases it is retaliatory in nature for attacks on the security forces.. In some cases it consists of reprisals after the attack. In some cases it is done to eliminate or drive out civilian supporters of the LTTE. In some cases it is simply indisciplined excesses committed confidently in a climate of impunity.
Mahinda Rajapakse is being arrogantly sarcastic when he calls upon affected Tamil civilians to complain with details to the security forces. He is neither stupid nor ignorant of North – Eastern conditions to expect this to happen. Justice will simply not be done. Perversion of Justice is the norm. The advice to tender complaints to the peace secretariat is a bad joke. Under the new boss PTB Kohona ,the peace secretariat has become a glorified propaganda unit disseminating misinformation and disinformation. The SLMM is becoming increasingly ineffective.
This then is the plight of the North – Eastern Tamil civilian. There is no protection against violence. This is the ground reality. It is the democratically elected Government which bears responsibility for civilian safety. Sadly there seems no way out when the State begins targeting Civilians . Until and unless the Rajapakse regime is pressurised to remedy this situation there is no light visible at the end of the dark, dark tunnel. A terrible Tamil tragedy is unfolding.
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June 2nd, 2006
By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
President Mahinda Rajapakse has ordered the Public Performances Board to ban the screening of the movie ‘The Da Vinci Code’ in local cinemas and on local television channels. Apparently the Catholic Bishops Conference made the appeal through an epistle .”The decision to ban the film was taken on an appeal by the Catholic Bishops Conference in Sri Lanka” , President Rajapaksa reportedly told the Daily News.
The film directed by Ron Howard starring Tom Hanks is based on the novel written by Dan Brown. The book has remained on the best seller’s list for three years at a stretch since it was first published in 2003. It has been translated into 44 languages and has sold 52 million copies so far. 40 million copies were sold in North America and at least 100 million Americans are estimated to have read the book. The film released two weeks ago grossed the highest box office sales for North America the first week and shows signs of being a Hollywood block buster.
The ” Da Vinci Code” (DVC) has raked up a controversy. There is no doubt that the Controversy has contributed tremendously to its sales. Now the film too seems destined to be a hit due to the same. Banning the movie in some Countries will no doubt lead to a boom in pirated VHS or DVD’s. This is what will most probably happen in Sri Lanka. Even as I write this article there comes news that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi has ordered the movie banned in that state too.
The Catholic Bishops of Sri Lanka as well as leaders of the Christian Clergy in Tamil Nadu have sought and obtained a ban on the movie. They seem grateful to the rulers for adhering to their wishes. I have seen the movie twice so far and intend seeing it again. The first time was for entertainment. The second ( possibly third ) viewing is due to a spirit of inquiry. While understanding the reasons which prompted these Christian Clergymen to request a ban I want to state after seeing the film that I am not in agreement with them on this.
The request for and decision taken to ban the film can be critiqued for at least four reasons.. Firstly it can be condemned on the basis that it infringes upon the right to free _expression and artistic freedom. Secondly it can be criticised for its abuse and misuse of power. A decision to ban a film can only be taken by the Public Performances Board. In this case the President has imposed his decision arbitrarily. Thirdly it can be seen as an unwarranted overreaction. A sledgehammer has been used to swat a fly. Fourthly it can critiqued as an affront to the Christian faith. The Catholic Bishops are supposedly acting in the interest of Christianity but the end result of this initiative would actually be insulting to Christians.
It is the fourth aspect that I wish to amplify further in this article.Let me state at the outset that I write this piece in my personal capacity as a Christian and not in my professional capacity as a Journalist.This piece is written primarily from a Christian perspective as I believe fervently that Bishops, Moderators, Presidents and Chairpersons of the Christian Religion cannot decide unilaterally on what films should be viewed or not viewed by the faithful flock.
My background as a Christian first. I am Protestant not Catholic. My father was an Anglican and mother a Methodist. I was baptised, Confirmed and attended Sunday Schools in Methodist Churches. The greater part of my secondary education was in three Christian Schools. Two of them were Anglican Schools in Colpetty and Mount Lavinia while the third in Vaddukkoddai was run by the Church of South India (Jaffna Diocese).
I have worshipped in Anglican, Methodist and CSI churches and appreciate the finer points of all three denominations.. The ritualism of the Anglicans, the importance afforded in Methodism to the Laity and the CSI promotion of indigenous cultural norms in worship are all acceptable to me. Though not a Catholic I have also spent much time within the portals of St. Lucias and St. Anthony’s when I was in Colombo. The only Christianity with which I am uncomfortable is that of the new evangelistic variety . I am old fashioned in my faith which thanks to God’s grace has been sufficient enough for me.
Now about the ban. When challenged with a tricky question Jesus Christ replied by saying “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto the Lord that which is the Lord’s”. The worthy Catholic Bishops have crossed this line when they invited “Caesar” to invade the spiritual realm. They have preferred to let the state’s writ interfere with what is essentially an issue affecting the Church.
President Rajpakse lost no time in banning the film out of concern for Christian sentiment. Politically he lost nothing and had everything to gain. A large number of Christian places of worship have been attacked in the past few years . No action has been taken to protect Churches or punish the culprits responsible. But as for banning the movie demand action has been prompt.
The Catholic Bishops have set a disturbing precedent in invoking state power to restrict a fundamental right of the people for a parochial purpose. . By doing so they have forfeited the right to be in the vanguard of protests in other situations where the state tramples on fundamental rights of the people in the future. There may come a time when public _expression of Christian beliefs too could be banned on the grounds that some Religious leaders are offended. The Church will be rendered mute in such a scenario.
Once Church leaders request and obtain favours like this from the President a Quid Pro Quo could be expected. This may hamper the commendable role played by some sections of the Catholic Clergy in leading protests against Social injustice. A case in point is Norachcholai. I will not be surprised if the Church is compelled to go “silent” on the Coal power plant issue in the future.
Let me return to the film which like the novel is a mystery thriller. Some of the controversial points made like the role of Mary Magdalene in the life of Jesus Christ for instance has been stated by many other people at different times. In DVC those views are wrapped in attractive, new tinsel. Fact is mixed with fiction in the form of fact. This is its magic. I do not want to provide a synopsis of the story or review the film. What I want to do is to briefly address some of the controversial points in the film that trouble Christians in general and the Catholic Church in particular. I simply wish to place the facts I know alongside the “facts” shown in the film.
The DVC says Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. He had a daughter by her. According to the movie Jesus wanted Mary to lead the faith after him. But Church leaders like the Apostle Peter forced her to run away with the child . In later years Mary was depicted wrongfully as a prostitute. The twist that DVC provides is to use Leonard Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” painting as proof. The youngish figure with long hair on Jesus’s right is supposed to be Mary Magdalene and not John says DVC.
What are the facts? Mary Magdalene was certainly close to Jesus. She wept at Jesus’s tomb. She was the first witness to the resurrection. Jesus even asked her to go and tell the disciples about him being risen. There is no proof that Jesus was ever married to her despite this theory being bandied about for many, many years. If such a thing had happened St. Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians would have cited it in support of his case that Apostles could marry. He did not.
According to Church historians the confusion about Mary Magdalene was due to Gregory (the great) in the sixth Century. It was Gregory who associated the Mary Magdalene mentioned in Luke chapter eight with the unnamed sinful woman or prostitute mentioned in chapter seven of Luke’s gospel. Yet there is no historical evidence of any vilification campaign against Mary Magdalene.
As for the painting the figure on the right has from the earliest times been regarded as John the youngest and most affectionate of his disciples. When Jesus talks of someone at the last supper going to betray him the disciples query Jesus. John leans on Jesus’s shoulder. Now DVC says the figure was Mary. It does not seem correct. Artists of that era used to draw youths as having feminie features. This is what Leonard Da Vinci seems to have done.
Apart from the Mary Magdalene marriage argument the DVC also irks Christians by its assertions about the Bible and Christ Jesus. About the compilation of books into what we call the Holy Bible the DVC dismisses it flippantly observing it “was not a fax from Heaven”. With regard to Jesus the DVC says ” almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false.”The DVC also refers to the historic convention in 325 AD at the ancient city of Nicea in what is today modern Turkey. It is here that the divinity of Jesus and the infallibility of the Bible was promulgated.” until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet … a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless ” says the DVC.
Again the answer to these assertions is that the DVC mixes fact with fiction in the guise of fact. According to Christian Scholars the DVC author Dan Brown seems to have relied on Arianus for most of his arguments about pre – Nicene beliefs. This man from Alexandria propounded the argument that Jesus though a great man was not the son of God or God in flesh. It was this thesis of “Arianism” that was keenly debated and rejected at Nicea in 325. This was a convention held by Constantine the First Roman emperor to declare Christianity legal. Constantine a new convert legalised Christianity in 313.
It is however wrong for DVC to allege that Jesus was not regarded as divine prior to the Nicea Convention. An overwhelming number of early Christians had been worshipping Jesus as the risen saviour and lord long before 325. Even before doctrinal regulations were formulated the early leaders had devised edicts of faith known as canons.These canons of faith affirmed this belief.
One example, according to theologians was the canon of prominent second-century bishop Irenaeus which was derived on 1 Corinthians 8:6: “Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ.”The term used was “Kyrios” for Lord.
The early Christians applied the Greek term “Kyrios” meaning Lord for Jesus. In early translations before the time of Jesus the word had been used to denote “yahweh” or Jehova. The Jews used it only in divine terms. The Romans used the same term as a term of honour to denote the emperor. The Jews refused to use “Kyrios” for emperor reserving it only for God. It was this Kyrios term that was used to describe Jesus by early Christians long before 325. The earliest extra-canonical Christian book Didache was written in the late 100s. In this book, the earliest Aramaic-speaking Christians refer to Jesus as Kyrios.
Early Christians also acknowledged Jesus’s divinity by imploring God the Father in Christ’s name. According to Scholars ” the early Church leaders, including Justin Martyr, a second-century luminary , baptized in the name of the triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–thereby acknowledging the equality of the one Lord’s three distinct persons”.
Contrary to what the DVC says ” the Council of Nicea did not entirely end the controversy over Arius’s teachings,” say Theologians nor did “the gathering impose a foreign doctrine of Christ’s divinity on the church. The participating bishops merely affirmed the historic and standard Christian beliefs, erecting a united front against future efforts to dilute Christ’s gift of salvation.”.
” The church leaders at Nicea rejected Arianism and affirmed that God and Jesus existed together from the beginning in the Trinity” say Scholars. This council produced the first drafts of what became the Nicene Creed, the explanation and affirmation of Christian belief that is repeated dutifully in Churches nowadays.
It is true that the Bible was not a “fax from heaven” as stated in DVC. The New Testament was formally approved in 367. What happened in Nicea in 325 was that some scriptural texts were discussed and debated. The four Gospels and St. Paul’s epistles were widely accepted by early Christians. By 190 the Christians had codified as the “Muratorian” canon most of the books found in the New Testament. The Nicene council saw two of those books being excluded (Wisdom of Solomon, Peter’s Revelations) and two others being included (Hebrews , Johns book of revelations).
Those who codified the canon gave pride of place to who the authors were. Those written by persons who walked and talked with Jesus were given importance. Letters and personal experiences were regarded as authoritative only if they were written by the Apostles or disciples of Apostles. This was proof of authentic reliability.
The selection process also gave priority to those documents with a constructive capacity to make the Church grow and flourish. Those documents going against the grain of established wisdom in the form of those books accepted in earlier times were rejected. This then was the Nicene legacy and not a conspiracy as depicted in DVC.
Among other controversial points in DVC is the way the “Opus Dei” has been portrayed in DVC. According to Scholars the “Opus Dei” is a conservative religious group within the Roman Catholic Church. ” Opus Dei urges priests and lay people to strenuously pursue sanctification through everyday discipline. The group has taken criticism for its conservative views, zeal, and secretive practices. There is no evidence that Opus Dei has resorted to murder; nor has the Vatican entrusted Opus Dei to violently guard the church’s deepest secrets, as is claimed in The Da Vinci Code.”
There is also the reference to the ” Priory of Sion ” in DVC . The movie projects it as the secret society protecting and preserving a dynasty founded by Jesus and Mary Magdalene.. Leonard Da Vinci and Isaac Newton being members. This Society does exist but not in the way suggested by the movie.
Contemporary Researchers ” suspect that members of the real “Priory of Sion” , founded in 1956, forged documents that placed major historical figures–such as Isaac Newton and Leonard da Vinci–in an ancient secret society by the same name.. There is no evidence that such a group existed before beyond these questionable documents.” Tales relating this group to a dynasty begun by Jesus and Mary Magdalene seem to be nothing other than pure fiction.
There are many other points giving offence to Christians like the “Philip Gospel” and “Mother Goddess cult” around Mary Magdalene etc. All these issues in addition to the major ones mentioned above can be easily contested and trashed if the “Gospel according to Da Vinci Code” is effectively challenged. Asking for a ban on the other hand suggests fallibility and weakness as if Christianity has something to hide.
In that context it must be noted that the movie has not been banned in any of the pre- dominantly Christian Countries so far. Many Christian leaders in the West do not want to articulate a demand seeking a ban for two or three reasons. One is that many are democratic enough to genuinely accept concepts such as creative freedom and artistic _expression. Secondly they are also smart enough to realise that making such a demand would only erode the image of the Church.
More importantly it is realised that a campaign for such a demand could be counterproductive. In 1988 Martin Scorsese came out with his controversial “Last Temptation of Jesus Christ”. There was widespread protests and demands to prohibit screening. The end result was massive box office sales for that movie.
What most North American church leaders are doing now is two – fold. One school of thought urges Christians not to see the film. It is a form of voluntary ban that they seek. Instead of seeing DVC they urge people to go to theatres and see others instead. This is one way of driving a lesson home to money – conscious Hollywood they feel.
There is a second school of thought which sees the movie as both a challenge and opportunity. These sections want to exploit the curiosity and interest evoked by the movie. Despite the controversial viewpoint the movie does not provide a substantive basis for that. Much of what is expressed in the movie is simply not true. It is possible through reasoning on facts to disprove the DVC theories.
At the same time it is recognised that the movie and novel have succeeded in creating widespread awareness of the history of Jesus Christ and the Early Church. Attempts are being made to attract those interested due to DVC into seeking further knowledge. Books are being written, classes conducted , lectures arranged etc to counter the views expressed by the movie. The idea is to utilise the furore caused by the movie to foster further knowledge of Jesus and the Church . It is a subtle form of evangelisation.
It is this second course of action that I would have wanted the Church to take in Sri Lanka. For one thing the book is interesting but the movie is rather heavy and dull. Much of the movie depends on dialogue rather than action. Though attempts have been made to simplify the issues there does exist a lacuna at times in comprehension. Unlike the “Last Temptation” there are few visual images that are detrimental in any way to Christ or Christianity.
Thus only those with some degree of proficiency in English would understand the film. It simply would not have made any impact on the mono – lingual Sinhala and Tamil person who saw the film unless it was sub – titled. In such a situation the demand for a ban was totally unnecessary. Instead of banning the Church could very well have let the film be shown and issued perhaps a booklet in all three languages shedding light on the issues raised.
It could have gone on the offensive and utilised any extra interest arising out of such viewing to provide true enlightenment instead of being on the defensive and clamouring for a ban.The movie could have been both a challenge and opportunity to review and renew our faith.
Some people may recall that movie “Jesus Christ Super Star”. There is a song in that which is of relevance -
“Day By Day,
For Three Things I Pray,
To Know Thee More Clearly
To Love Thee More Dearly
To Follow Thee More Nearly”
Movies such as “Da Vinci Code” may offend and upset some Christians. In the final analysis they will strengthen and not weaken our faith. We will know Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly.
Ultimately all religion centers around faith. It is the inter – face of rationality and irrationality. The birth and growth of religions such as Christianity have a mixture of sacrifice, cruelty, piety and ambition. Those of us who are Christians in Sri Lanka realise that some of our ancestors may have been converted due to a variety of reasons under Colonialism. This does not diminish in any way this legacy of faith that we are heirs to.. As for first generation Christians they would be zealously faithful as ,most converts are capable of being.
Against this backdrop it seems unbelievable that eminent men of the cloth such as the Catholic Bishops should seek intervention of the State to protect our faith from movies such as DVC. Did they think that our faith was so fickle that a mere movie can overwhelm our minds and crush our spirits? Did they think that Christians would get so angry that they would indulge in Violence and so required prevention?
The Bishops would do well to be reminded of that incident related in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is asleep in the boat and a storm rages. The disciples are afraid and wake him up. He calms the sea and chides them about their fear and lack of faith. The Bishops worried about the impact of a movie also need to be asked ” Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?”
Let me conclude on a personal note. Two of the schools I studied were named after St. Thomas. He was the disciple who first refused to believe that Jesus had arisen. He believed only after examining the hands and feet of Jesus. He is referred to as Doubting Thomas. Yet it was this doubting Thomas who when convinced affirmed his faith with great clarity by uttering “My Lord and My God”.
There may be many people like Doubting Thomas around us. Perhaps movies and books like “The Da Vinci Code” may increase their doubts. At the end of it all they would I am sure re- affirm their faith and like St. Thomas proclaim “My Lord and My God”.
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June 2nd, 2006