Following a statement made during a TV talk show highlighting attacks on a religious minority group, human rights lawyer Lakshan Dias faced allegations raised by the Justice Minister on the grounds of creating religious disharmony. Commenting on the situation Attorney-at-Law Dias said that his opinion was based on the facts of a recently published report as well as facts derived from similar court cases that he was appearing for. Dias still stands by his comment. Questioned as to why he was absent from the epicentre of events, he explained that, “When the hegemony is in action stirring up the public opinion it is better to be away from the epicentre….. and observe the situation.” In an exclusive interview with the Daily Mirror Lakshan Dias pointed out that he has to defend himself standing on an unequal ground.
Question:The comment you made during a recent discussion on a private TV channel show led to an intense public opinion. What did you exactly say during the show? What was the reason to make such a comment about attacks on other religious places?
The topic of the discussion was role of the civil society and current issues. Except one panellist, the others were of the view that we as civil society activists were pro-government. They said that today we were not raising current issues comparing our actions during the previous Government and continued to state that we were part of the present Government. It is to counter that and to prove that civil society organisations are active I said we continue to raise current issues such as violence against minority religions specially those against Muslim and Christian places of worship and their followers.
And I further stated the facts that were raised in the recent report published by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance. And I pointed out that all these cases are not by the Buddhist monks. My opinion was based on the facts of this report as well as facts derived from similar cases that I appear for at the courts.
Q: Did you encounter face to face reactions following your comment? Were there comments or criticisms soon after the discussion?
A:Not at the time programme was on air other than the reaction from the moderator. Then I started receiving numerous comments through social media challenging, attacking, shaming and threatening me, with the use of various forms of language. Later was the reaction from the President and the Justice Minister. The President did not name me but the minister did.
Q:The civil society raised their voice and started protesting, stating that reactions to your comment were threatening the fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and questioned the credibility of the rule of law. When concerned parties are raising their voice over these matters, what makes you keep away from the epicentre?
A:This is a naming and shaming done by a party belonging to the executive of the country, labelling me as a traitor. It is like being excommunicated.When the hegemony is in action stirring up public opinion, it is better to be away from the epicentre and observe the situation. I’m on an unequal ground. Need to be concerned about effects of those situations.
Following the incident I informed the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) through a letter addressed to its Secretary and informed its President. I complained to the Human Rights Commission. Then I went in to a low profile because of threats from different fronts.
A similar situation surfaced during the Impeachment against Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. But there was a difference as a majority of the public was sensitive towards the chief justice. But today due to the nationalistic tendencies and the behaviour of the hegemony, certain groups of the public tend to believe in these ideologies and are rallying against me.
People never question the accuracy of a statement. It is not a healthy situation.
Q:Did you expect this sort of a reaction when you were making the comment from both the Govt as well as the civil society organisations?
A:I knew there would be a reaction as usual. But to support me and the fact that I raised over 200 persons from 20 different organisations and forwarded a petition against the current situation. Human rights defenders at the South Asian regional level as well as at the international level issued statements in support of me. All are worried about the direction of the Govt. I still have faith in the President and the PM. I observed that the President was misinformed. I don’t have an issue with the statement made by the President as he didn’t name a person but commented in a more democratic manner. He did not go beyond his limits. But the Minster of Justice was very offensive. He named and shamed me in public and took a level of authority which he does not have.
Q:But the comment of the Justice Minister stated that he would take necessary legal actions?
A:Yes that is to take legal action to disbar me.It is an authoritarian comment. It is implicating to others that he has the power to do so. Which is not so. The power is only with the Supreme Court through an inquiry with the presence of the Bar Association.
Q:The Archbishop of Colombo Rt. Rev. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith was reported to have told the President and Minister Rajapakshe (according to their comments) that there were no attacks on churches. Any comments on that?
A:They have contacted an irrelevant person. If any person, irrelevant of the position, takes this answer as the biblical truth and criticizes a person based on that, it is mere foolishness. There should be an understanding on the difference between Christians and Catholics. If a person is part of the country’s Executive, that person must have a very good understanding of all aspects of diversity existing in our country. After all he/she is representing the entire population belonging to all these diversities. There have been many instances where even Catholics faced discrimination, especially in the suburban areas.
Q:One of the allegations raised by those who oppose the Evangelical Christian community is the existence of fundamentalists. How do you see this?
A:There are internal differences in all religions in Sri Lanka. We have to respect this diversity and accept them as they are. The state cannot be pointing at the internal differences, the diversity of each religion and make judgements. Overall, I do not believe in these categorizations such as fundamentalists. This ideology is not only for religion. It may be in politics too. In that case, are we going to eliminate all fundamentalists? In every community there are fundamentalists. You have to deal with them in a democratic manner within the rule of law. My support to the Evangelical churches is not based on their doctrine but my respect for their right to religion, right to association and assembly, which are guaranteed by the Sri Lankan Constitution in Articles 10, 14, 14 (1)A. Protecting these rights is not the duty of Lakshan Dias but is the responsibility of the Executive, the Judiciary and the entire administrative mechanism, security forces and the Police. There are clear evidences to the lapses in protecting these rights by the Police and the administrative officials, disrespecting constitutional rights. These minority religious communities hardly trust the Police or the administration. They only believe in the Judiciary. But when court cases are filed and cases get piled up due to court delays, assuring justice to these victims gets affected. Without a judgment to these cases, tense situations tend to continue among these opposing communities.
But I do not dispute that there are extremely good Police officers who follow the rule of the law and order in maintaining peace protecting rights of the people. This needs to happen more often.
Personal beliefs cannot be imposed through your duties and responsibilities of your profession. Especially public officials – in administration and services, must be very impartial in their duties. Within the system, a public officer is allowed to take the side of the victim.
Q:How would you analyse the current situation with the existing resistance of the Govt vs the demands of the civil society organizations in an attempt to secure Freedom of Expression, right to a religion etc?
There are no demands of the civil society organizations. They are only the advocates of the public. Civil society organizations are also biased towards victims.There are demands coming from different communities of the Sri Lankan society. The civil society organisations act as the buffer among these communities and the authorities.
One allegation that tends to continue is that civil society organisations represent these demands to get funds. The fact is all activities done to keep this country functioning, depend on dollars or funds. The country’s economy largely depends on the money sent by our migrant workers. Who doesn’t need funds? But the funds alone cannot fulfil the demands of the public. It is misconception and a bad terminology used to discard and discriminate people who appear for social demands. Funds are a mere fact but it is not the voice of the needy. The civil society organisations who worked in unity to bring this Government to power and establish democracy, never worked expecting dollars.
Q:Is it true that you made those comments during the much discussed TV show were being biased to one religious sect?
I am not biased. I am not a religious chauvinist. To me all religions are valuable and I respect them. But I am biased on certain issues. I am biased towards victims facing violations of human rights, be it gender and sexual orientation, ethnic, religious, political or any social discrimination. I always take the side of the victim.
I also do have a strong Christian inheritance. I am a fourth generation Anglican. I have held and still hold different positions in the Anglican Church. I have served as the national president and national general secretary of the Student Christian Movement and as the former CEO of the Sri Lankan YMCA and was the former president of the Church of Ceylon Youth Movement. I was a member of the Executive Board of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance for nearly 18 years. But this is my personal belief but it has never been an obstacle in standing against injustice. At the height of the war, I worked with many Buddhist clergy living in the border villages and tried to the best of my ability to protect the rights of those people. I will remain to be biased towards victims and do not know any other biasses.
Q:A number of civil society organizations stood up in unity to create a change to the system that governed the country. Thus leading to a change in the Govt on January 8, 2015. What has happened to the change the civil society movement tried to create? Do you think it still exists under the rule of the present Govt?
A:The TV talk show I participated in was about the same question. I’m very proud and happy of several initiatives this Govt and the political leadership took – such as establishing the Office of the Missing Persons, the Right to Information and the Witness Protection Act. Establishing the freedom of association and assembly is highly appreciated. But when these assurances are violated in the society, it is we as the civil society organizations who need to stand up against them. So we did. The Govt has the responsibility to accept these mistakes pointed out and take action to correct them rather than challenging and labelling people as traitors. None of the civil society organizations has worked to tarnish the peace, harmony or the reconciliation of this country.
And while appreciating all good practices of this Govt, I must point out the pace is slower than we expected. We do understand the ground realities the Govt has to face but at the same time it must show further commitment towards its goals. The civil society organizations are impatient to see a good outcome.
Q:Do you still stand by your comment made on the attacks against minority religions?
A:Yes, I do.