SRI LANKA: by Dr John WhitehallNews Weekly
Sectarian, anti-Christian bill re-appears
, March 21, 2009
The Colombo Government is poised to enact laws which could prevent Christian charitable organisations from caring for the estimated 250,000 Tamil civilians displaced by Sinhalese persecution. Dr John Whitehall reports.Radical Buddhist parliamentarians in Sri Lanka are pressing once more for blatantly sectarian laws directed against Christian churches.
In 2004, a misleadingly named bill, entitled "Prohibition of Forcible Conversions", was gazetted for a second reading in the parliament of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. It had been championed by the fundamentalist Buddhist party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), and appeared set for acceptance despite the opposition of the Christian churches.
However, it was eventually withdrawn from public consideration, perhaps in tactical response to the huge amount of foreign aid that was flowing into the country after the Boxing Day tsunami later that year.
Christian organisations were responsible for delivering much of this aid and for purifying water on the east coast, preventing a feared outbreak of gastro-intestinal disease.
Had Sri Lanka's sectarian bill been made law at that time, the governments of Western donor countries might have been sensitive to Christian protests against the bill's repressive nature.
The sectarian bill, however, has been resurrected, according to the Sri Lankan newspaper The Nation
(February 19, 2009). The JHU has referred it to the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Religious Affairs and Moral Upliftment (comprised of a government minister and 31 other members of parliament), for consideration in the coming weeks.
A JHU leader reportedly declared that the bill had been "unduly delayed", but, after the appointment of a JHU party member as chairman of the committee, it was "cleared for its final vote. So now it can be passed by a simple majority."
Several members of other parliamentary parties in Colombo are reported to have spoken out publicly against the bill, but the JHU leader has contradicted this, saying, "All this time [that the bill has been under review], they had not expressed concern over the bill and no suggestions to amend the bill were brought."
Section 2 of the bill states: "No person shall convert or attempt to convert any person from one religion to another by force or allurement or by any fraudulent means", and any such offences would be punishable by up to five years in jail or a fine of 150,000 rupees.
For an attempt to convert "a minor, a woman, an official, a prisoner, inmates of rehabilitation centres, persons with physical or mental activities, employees of an organisation, members of the armed forces or police, students, patients in hospitals or nursing homes, refugees and any other category determined by the minister", a person found guilty could be imprisoned for up to seven years and fined 500,000 rupees.
The bill has long been widely opposed by local church organisations, such as the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), which has been particularly concerned about the interpretation of the word "allurement", defined as the "offer of any gift or temptation in the form of: 1) any gift in cash or kind; 2) grant of any material benefit, in cash or kind; 3) grant of employment or grant of promotion in employment".
The NCEASL has long feared that the definition could mean that "any religious body, any individual, church or organisation engaging in social action, by providing food, shelter, medical care, education, etc., including the running of orphanages, schools, homes for the aged, vocational training programs, providing food or medical care" may be accused of attempting to convert by "allurement".
A discussion paper published by the Catholic archdiocese of Colombo and entitled "No to Anti-Conversion Bill" concludes that the bill would mean "Christians who indulge in charitable works after this law will be exposed to being charged by persons hostile to them for whatever reason...".New criminal offence
It said the bill may have "detrimental effects on the economic well-being of the poor and disabled... who are now being cared for in institutions by Christians" and said it would "create a new criminal offence based on the mental condition" of the accused.
How could a court possibly tell if a Christian was "giving money or other benefit to someone in need" in order to convert that person, or merely as an act of charity?
The question is: why has the bill been resurrected now? Is it merely fundamentalist Buddhist resentment at supposed "sheep-stealing" on the part of Christian churches? Or could it have a more sinister implication?
Why might it be passed just now when the Colombo Government is in the process of claiming victory over the Tamil struggle for autonomy in the north-east of the country and when the ranks of refugees are swelling?
If Christian organisations are prevented from caring for the estimated 250,000 displaced Tamil civilians in that region, who will look after them? Who will report on their conditions? In the absence of such organisations, how much more easily will it be for the Tamil minority to be destroyed as a people?
Tamils could be forgiven for concluding this bill to be merely the latest in a series of racist "Sinhala only" legislative acts which have discriminated against them since the independence of Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) from the British in 1948.
At present, the Colombo Government has forced all aid organisations to leave the north-east, so that Tamils fleeing for their lives are now at the mercy of a fundamentalist Buddhist state whose "ancient texts" bequeath a responsibility for the removal of foreign "devils" from the island.Waves of violence
This religious and racial xenophobia of the Sinhala majority, expressed in discriminatory legislation, has led directly to waves of violence that have killed many thousands of Tamils and forced many more into exile.
It was the Tamils' justifiable fears of genocide that spawned the creation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the late 1970s, and it is their commitment to survive as a race that energises their persitance in the unequal struggle today.
Surrounded by their enemies, out-gunned, out-fed, out-medicined and out-sheltered, the Tamil movement and its civilian supporters are holed up in the north-east, and are taking a pasting from unchallenged bombing and long-range, indiscriminate shelling. Nevertheless, they are still holding out.
Where the Tamils have decisively lost is in the battle of propaganda, and that loss may be terminal. In this day of the "global war against terror", Western governments and opinion-formers have unthinkingly ostracised Tamils as terrorists and, apparently, suspended all critical analysis of their motives.
Worse still, Westerners have so far not bothered to subject to critical analysis any of the Colombo Government's motives and repressive practices.
Certainly, the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) have been responsible for explosions that have killed Sinhala civilians; but such reprehensible actions should not be seen in isolation from the sustained terror deliberately inflicted on Tamil civilians by the Colombo state.
The world's media attention to the Israeli attack on Gaza has been relentless and profound; but more Tamil civilians have died in the last month than Palestinians have died in the recent Gaza conflict.
Compared to Gaza, more Tamil hospitals, schools, refuges and orphanages have been flattened, not just damaged; disproportionately more violence has been inflicted; and scarcely any supplies of medicines or food have been allowed to reach civilians.
One convoy of food was permitted entry on February 19. It contained 30 tons of food for perhaps a quarter of a million people.
Probably worse, although the world's media has remained at the front-lines in Gaza (perhaps revealing less destruction than reported), there is no
foreign media presence in the north-east of Sri Lanka.
Reporters who have criticised Israel are still alive in Jerusalem. Reporters who have criticised Colombo have often been killed.
In contrast to Colombo's war of annihilation against the Tamil minority, the Tamils have not rained missiles onto Sri Lanka and do not seek its destruction.
Meanwhile, media reports allege that the LTTE will not allow its civilian cover to escape. The truth of that accusation is not known, but history suggests otherwise. For example, on October 30, 1995, when the capital of the Tamil region, Jaffna, fell to Colombo forces, almost all of the 500,000 residents fled eastward on foot along clogged roads or in tiny boats across the wide inlet to the mainland.
The Colombo Government had invited them to remain in Jaffna, but in a vastly unpublicised, tragic exodus, they fled with the LTTE.
Some residents, however, did put themselves at the mercy of Colombo. Hundreds disappeared. Some bodies have been disinterred, but Colombo retains control of the graveyards.
In the meantime, throughout the Colombo-controlled regions, thousands of Tamils have reportedly been taken into custody in the notorious "white vans". Many have been tortured; many have disappeared.Interred
From long and bitter experience, Tamils do not trust Colombo and an extraordinary percentage have been driven to take up arms in self-defence. As evidence of that commitment, the bodies of over 20,000 of their young men and women are interred in war cemeteries in the Tamil north-east, some of which I have visited.
It is misleading to portray the LTTE as a small and unrepresentative group controlling the majority of Tamils. It is in fact a government that once administered territory and its people. It had ministries of health, education, public welfare and police, and had an army, navy and air force. It was certainly authoritarian; but so is the government of Sri Lanka.
The Tamil people should never be stereotyped as potential terrorists, certainly not after they have fled to Australia. Given access to the Sydney Opera House, they would rather sing in it than blow it up.
They are not an anti-civilisation force like fundamentalist Islamists, and have no support from the Arab world and Western appeasers, as does Hamas in Gaza. They are not revolutionary terrorists as are the Maoists who have seized control in Nepal with at least the tacit approval of Beijing.
The Tamils represent nobody but themselves and their own desire to survive as a people. Therefore, who is prepared to speak up for them?- Dr John Whitehall is a Townsville paediatrician, who has frequently travelled to Third World trouble spots.