By Shaahidah Riza
Human rights lawyer Lakshan Dias asserted that he has factual evidence of churches being intimidated by hate groups and that he can, when necessary, produce evidence to support his claim. He went on to note that the mainstream media is biased and distorts facts, thus incidents of hate crimes are either under reported or distorted. Dias recently came under scrutiny when Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe accused him of concocting stories of attacks on places of worship and threatened to remove him from the legal profession. Since then Rajapakshe has come under fire from law makers and politicians alike for his statement which was deemed irresponsible and does not befit the position of a Justice Minister.
Excerpts of the interview with Lawyer Lakshan Dias:
Q; Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe has drawn a lot of criticism over his behaviour. Yet, the Government has not taken any action in this regard. What is your view? Did the minister apologise to you?
A: What the Minister is uttering is baseless and it’s all his own finding, whereas what I said was based on facts that were assimilated by the National Council of Evangelical Alliance in relation to their member churches and other churches that they work with. There are few more attacks that took place on non-NCEASL churches as well and I appear on behalf of some of those churches as well. So the numbers can be higher than what NCEASL reports indicated. Therefore, I stand by what I said and we have our own way of looking at the gravity of the attacks. If the Minister confuses Catholics with Evangelicals, it’s his problem.
Further his sinister campaign against me coupled with foul mouthed comments and threats cannot be accepted and the UNP must sack him from the party and the Cabinet as well. Some UNP leaders and Yahapalana leaders too are of the same view. The Minister is a disgrace to the UNP, and the Government as whole, he has been accused by many sectors, including two Government Ministers over his conduct and it is unfortunate that he still remains in his position. We all respect Buddhism, but it’s a disgrace that he holds such a Ministry. I strongly feel that the Minister must apologize to me immediately and I am not foolish to expect one within 24 hours. I will send a Letter of Demand and then also complain to the BASL over his attitude and reactions towards a lawyer. This needs to be inquired into as it is a violation of Professional ethics of Lawyers and he must be disbarred. I have already complained to BASL and sent another letter to them, after their 24th meeting, asking for action to be taken against the Minister. If this happens in a democratic country the minister has to resign but I am puzzled as to why Yahapalana Government still allows him to remain in his position.
Q: The Asgiriya chapter criticized the Government through a strong statement in defence of BBS monk Gnanasara Thera. They conceded that the Thera’s approach was wrong and that lay people cannot arrest a monk. Since the Asgiriya chapter doesn’t condone the Thera’s behavior isn’t it the duty of the Asgiriya chapter to discipline the monks when they violate the law? So far they haven’t done anything about it. What is your view?
A: All the bishops, the Cardinal, kurukkals and Maulavis are under the rule of law. The Rule of Law is prime, nobody is above the law or the law cannot be bent for anybody. There are no people in this country who are superior and above the law. Any culprit must be taken into custody according to the law. Law is supreme and therefore no authority, Chapter, Order, or denomination can stand against it. Anybody can have his or her opinion but we are all under the law. Even the President is within the ambit of the law, that’s the uniqueness of the 19th Amendment. Neither the Police nor the Judicial officers should worry or seek instructions from any religious order to simply arrest anyone who violates the law. It’s simple as it is and there are a lot of provisions in Sri Lankan laws for this. What is worrying is this is not happening, that’s why I have to bring those issues to light. Intra religious matters are not my concern, especially with regard to others’ religion. I do struggle for my church and I have a right to do so, but I don’t like to comment on others’ intra religious matters. If this happens in my church I will go to town with those facts.
Q: The Bar Association passed a resolution, a few days ago indicating that you should name all the churches that were attacked. Will you be able to do that?
A: No such resolution was passed as per my information. I asked the BASL about it, when the newspapers reported it. So the BASL has to clarify, but I am sure about my sources. In my letter, I even requested the minutes of the Bar Council meeting of 24th June, as it’s my right to ask for at least the content of their discussion. I also informed the BASL that when it is necessary I will submit all the needed information. Anybody can get it on the NCEASL website.
Q; Churches, Mosques and other places of worship, of the minority communities are under reported. What is your view of the current state of the media?
A: The media is irresponsible. They have to report these incidents, but they don’t. That’s why I have to raise it and bring it to light.
There were certain incidents which were reported in the media, however the facts were distorted and biased. This is unacceptable, the media also succumbs to stereotypes so they can’t see the reality as it is. When we report the attack on churches to the Police, they ask whether we are registered and they say that if we are not registered then that’s the reason for our victimization. Victims have to be protected and they cannot be harassed. When someone goes to the police, the latter can’t refuse to take the complaint, they have to accept it, but it is unfortunate that such things don’t happen.
Q: You quoted a report from the NCEASL. Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith said that no Catholic churches were attacked. If there is an anti-Christian sentiment, shouldn’t catholic churches be attacked too? Don’t you think you should have consulted the Cardinal as well prior to making the statement?
A: I generally don’t like hierarchical leaders religious or otherwise, but the incumbent Pope – Francis, I love him. He initiated ecumenical work with Catholics, evangelicals and mainline churches like my church; Anglican and World Council of Churches (non-Catholic) so it’s happening at that level. I don’t need to consult the Cardinal as he is only the leader of Colombo Diocese of the Catholics, he is not the President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference that’s why he said that he can speak only about the Western Province. As far as he knows there are no such incidents. Catholics and Evangelists are very different groups and there is a big gap between them, until we all come onto a common platform we don’t have to consult each other. I can expect the same from the Cardinal as well. In some cases Catholics are being accused of being perpetrators. A case filed by the Madhu road Police in the Mannar Courts, is one such example. There is a conflict between Catholics and Evangelists and we have to accept that in Sri Lanka the two parties don’t work together. It’s like the Shias and Sunnis. This may not be the best example but something like that. We worship the same God but practise two different rituals. So I, as an Anglican, don’t need to consult anybody, other than my Bishop, the Bishop of Colombo. But, I never consulted him on my social activities as we are not slaves of our religions.
Q; When evangelicalism is mentioned, it is always associated with fundamentalism. This was also raised by certain parties who criticized you. How will you respond to them?
A: I also have differences with Evangelicals. As an Anglican it’s a different way of worship and liturgy etc, but it doesn’t mean I can refer to them as fundamentalists. ‘Fundamentalism’ is used to describe them but I don’t do so. Fundamentalism is contextual and needs to be looked into case by case and cannot be taken in a blanket description. Fundamentalism is prevalent in other religions too.
For example we have fundamentalism in all South Asian countries including Myanmar.
Q: You have worked extensively in the field of reconciliation in the North and East. How will you rate this Government’s progress?
A: I visited Jaffna in the North in April 1987, at the age of 19 as part of a goodwill mission during a ceasefire. Just before Operation Liberation. Since then and even before, I have to date stood for the rights of the Tamil People, but little has been done even though this Government is committed and has expressed its commitment. There is still more to do. Words must manifest in deeds. The fact is we hurt Tamil people and we hurt the Muslim people, but we have to live side by side. We can’t fight with each other, therefore we have to listen to their reasonable demands. Devolution is a must. I belong to the student Christian Movement where we accepted the Rights of the Tamil people in 1976. I am bound by that tradition and extensively work with the Movement for Inter racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) on these issues. So, I urge the Government and the President to come together to solve this problem so that we can live in peace and happiness and to do everything possible to avoid a repetition of the horrendous issues we experienced. As Sinhalese people we have to reconcile with Muslims, we have to reconcile with Tamils, Tamils have to reconcile with Muslims, Muslims have to reconcile with Tamils in the East, we all have to reconcile with estate communities and Burghers as we have totally neglected their language rights. This Government has a mandate to do so and they have taken many beneficial steps towards that and what we need is for it to continue. Nothing can be achieved overnight, we have to struggle for the next ten years but don’t lose the commitment as that’s important. We shouldn’t live in denial like the Justice Minister, we should identify issues accept them and then correct ourselves.
By denying we won’t achieve anything, we missed the bus but by accepting issues and taking measures to remedy it, we can win others and that’s the very essence of reconciliation. I am a trained peace worker, and trained on reconciliation and transitional justice as well. So, if the Justice Minister would agree, I can coach him.