An Interview with ‘Controversial’ Mannar Catholic Bishop Rayappu Joseph

by Sulochana Ramiah Mohan

You have been called the ‘Controversial Bishop’ and recently Minister of Industry and Commerce Rishad Bathiudeen claimed that you were the ‘cause’ for the clash in Mannar where Muslims attacked the magistrate and the Tamil fishermen in Uppukkulam? What is your explanation?

UK’s High Commissioner John Rankin in discussion with Mannar Bishop Rev. Rayappu Joseph, Jul 12, 2012-pic: UK In Sri Lanka

I am called a controversial Bishop because there are ‘controversial’ issues taking place and when I speak on those issues I turned to be ‘controversial’.

If I speak out, I am an ‘outspoken Bishop’. If I care for the poor and fight for justice, I am an anti Sri Lankan, a LTTE or a separatist. So, what am I to do? I care less about these names, but I will keep voicing against injustice and fight against human rights violations.

In Uppukkulam, Tamil fisher folk paid a rent to the Muslims to put up vaadiayas and fish in their area for a couple of years. In 2006, they went to the Fisheries Harbour Corporation and asked permission to fish in their area. It’s just a 200 meter stretch on the beach and the additional director fisheries, and the GA issued a recommendation letter in 2006 giving permission to fish in the requested 200m beach front sea. The beach belongs to the state. Anyone can ask permission and fish but the Uppukulam Muslims did not want them to fish there. They ‘claimed’ it’s their land.

The Muslims complained to Minister Bathiudeen and he went to the district divisional secretary and the GA to tell the Tamil fishermen not to fish there. After a complaint to the police, they were given another place to fish.

There too the Muslims of that area chased them. Tamils said they will wait till an area is given for fishing but nothing happened. After staying for some days, unable to starve they went fishing when the clash took place. What the judge said was to give 3 weeks and he will settle them. He was fair in his judgment. You cannot chase people off all of a sudden. And the beach stretch is owned by the state. Why cannot they let them fish there?

The Muslims say their livelihood is ‘threatened’ and less fish because all are fishing in their areas?

Muslims of that area are not fishermen. Most of them are businessmen. They don’t fish in big numbers. They have about six boats, I guess. They are seasonal fishermen looking for sea cucumber. You don’t find sea cucumber throughout the year. Only 200 meter stretch of the beach was used for fishing by the Tamils. Do you mean all the fish in the sea is in that 200 meter stretch? Why can’t they fish just outside the 200m sea area? The sea belongs to all and fish is everywhere.

What did the Fisheries Harbour Corporation do?

What can they do? It’s not ours or their problem. If the Muslims want to fight they should challenge the Fisheries Harbour Corporation. We are not the complainants. It’s the Muslims.

The Tamil fishermen have their own village about 10km away. Why cannot they return to their place?

Most of the 300 displaced families have settled here, living for the last 11 years. They have their own houses and land. How can they return?

But Amuthan, a Sea Tiger of LTTE issued an agreement letter to the Muslims that these Tamil fishermen will leave Uppukulam as soon as peace prevails. Shouldn’t they go?

Who is Amuthan? A government official ? His agreement letter carries no weight or has no power to change anything. It’s silly to talk about him now.

So you think it was a fair judgment given by Judge A Judeson?

Yes, he asked the GA and the GS how long it will take to settle the fisher folks and they replied they need about three weeks and his judgment was based on that.

But the protestors reacted in an inhuman way. They had a placard tied on a street dog’s neck which slandered the judge. The Minister is the one who told the judge to change the judgment. Who is he to change the verdict? He also went to the Judiciary Service Commission and gave a letter requesting to transfer the judge. It’s a contempt of court. They should have submitted an appeal.

The Minister claims he was not involved and takes no responsibility for his supporters’ actions. Should he?

Well, without a backing of a minister such protests and riots cannot take place. It’s upon his order they get the ‘strength’ to commit such offences. When you know you are ‘safe’ you can do anything and that ‘safety’ only can be provided by a powerful minister like Rishad.

Many say you are a close friend of the Judge. So can that be the reason why the Muslims think they are sidelined and you and the judge are ‘biased’ being Tamils?

He is one of those people who I know well. I know the brigadiers, senior military personnel etc. I don’t talk on judiciary matters with the judge. I have no right to talk about what he does and what he should do. That’s disrespect for me and him as well.

So why do you think Minister Bathiudeen is getting involved in such a ‘manner’?

All because of the forthcoming elections and to bag votes. It’s not Tamil clashing with Muslims but ‘winning votes’.

To win votes, out of the 650 government job approvals he gave only 19 jobs for the Tamils and two for Sinhalese. The rest is all for his ‘ardent supporters’.

Then the Indian government handed over 165 engine boats each worth Rs 4 lakhs to the ministry of fisheries. The ministry had a list of names of those who deserve the boats but Minister Bathiudeen rejected the list and gave ‘his list’. He wanted 150 boats to be given to his supporters and the rest to others.

I wrote to the fisheries ministry copying it to the Indian High Commission. Finally the IHC took back the boats. I don’t want such injustice. Either distribute the boats to all communities equally or nothing at all. Even land is not equally distributed. Minister Bathiudeen takes the advantage of collecting money and buying it for his people.

When it comes to land, the minister gets involved and when I speak he once said I am like the Dambulla Monk who protested against the Mosque being there. Why should I keep quiet? I am a citizen of this country. He also goes about saying I am ‘in charge’ of all the land in Mannar. I am not asking for land. I want the officials to regularize and follow the procedures. Be fair in every action. It’s the Tamils who were worse affected.

Have you helped the Muslims?

Of course, there are several families who come to me. I have donated money for medical treatment too.

What do you think of the LLRC report?

I will not want people to die in vain. I have details about the deaths and the missing persons based on the government statistics. I doubt the total population in the census. I pointed out the total persons missing to UNCHR and according to my calculation based on the government statistics its 146, 679 people missing.

So you have been quite a rebel and controversial figure in Mannar?

I am only standing for the truth and justice. We are talking about human lives and there is no ‘adjustments’ in human lives.

Are you a LTTE or an ardent supporter of their movement?

I don’t know why I am called so. It’s their weakness to call me so. I never accepted their killings and atrocities. I have condemned their killing and received death threats. I never wanted a separate country. Not even in my dreams. As a priest and follower of Jesus Christ who was a victim of violence yet manifested the Truth, the Life and the Way, I am doing my duties.

You were earlier criticized for taking part in ‘Mahaveer’ celebration during LTTE times? Do you think it was right to be there?

I went to listen to the speeches they made. I also should be aware of their next move and be informed as to what is going on there. I never participated.

So do you see a mess in the system?

There is no room for truth. No justice upheld. Everywhere holes and pits in governance. If I ask government officials about land being cleared in the forest all of a sudden, he is unaware. So such systems are dangerous. People do not know what the officials are doing and officials do not know what the people are doing.

Did you invite Minister Bathiudeen for ‘talks’?

I have always told him that he is like my son and told him to stand by the truth. I don’t condemn the sinner but the sin. He is dividing the community. He bribes people to support him and offers fishing nets and boats. He has done that in a place called Arippu. These are misleading tactics. The poor and the needy will definitely fall to such ‘preys’.

Do you think if you are not there, people of Mannar will suffer?

Well, I am the Bishop and they trust me because there is no policy and cheating is everywhere. I have even told people not to bring ‘evil money’ as offerings to the church. I will not permit that.

Did you receive death threats?

I don’t keep a record of that. In that case even Jesus Christ would have taken steps to live more than 100 years. I care less about death threats. I am alive because I am the Bishop. If not, I would have been part of Sri Lankan history. What I do is not to create disharmony but to help Sri Lanka. I am not anti but to point out the mistakes and rectify them.

But many faults are found in your approaches?

That is why I am telling, point it out to me. I am ready to face them.

How can in your view, reconciliation process should take place?

Show accountability of the deaths during the war. Speak the truth and also implement the LLRC. That is the only way forward. Settle the old issues. If you don’t clarify them how can you start afresh?

So you say this is a failed nation?

They have failed in their basic understanding. First of all there is one Sri Lanka. But there is no one people. I am not a Sinhalese and a Sinhalese will not say he is a Tamil at any point of his life. In that context, it is one country many nations, nation referring to the people of different communities having their own language, script, traditions and culture. The right to self determination in one country is also important. These should be recognized.

So isn’t that accepted by all Sri Lankans?

It must be meaningful when you say self determination, practically applied. Not just saying ‘it’s out there and all are entitled for it’.

I get numerous letters in Sinhala. Who will read it? It would take one month for me to read it. It makes no sense to me.

Do you think the National Anthem should be sung in Tamil too?

I don’t mind signing in any language. What matters is that does it carry any meaning to a Tamil who sings it? If you want, you can translate to any other languages too, right? A national anthem must be sung with feelings. If that purpose is lost, everything is lost.

We are ready to sing it in any language you want but the purpose is lost. It’s aimless. As a citizen of this country should we sing aimlessly, not knowing what we are singing? The fundamental principle is we are people and we are self determining people in one country under one rule. We jointly should develop the nation. We have political aspirations in one country. The reality is, we belong to different communities.

So what is your final say here?

It is one country many nations (nations: people). It’s similar to India which has many nations in one country.

So you advocate that?

I don’t advocate, I am pointing out the reality. Let’s help each other. I serve all communities. If there is injustice to any I can speak for them. I don’t hold it for Tamils only.

Former US Ambassador Patricia Butenis met you before she left the shores? Any major issues discussed?

She has come forward to help me in many ways. We did have some political issues discussed. Through her, the Sewalanka Foundation came to look into the Mullikulam matter.

What is happening in Mullikulam?

Mullikulam has been occupied by the Navy and the people are living in the jungles where elephants walk about. Sewalanka is negotiating to find a place to settle the people living in the jungle.

What is your dream?

To see a true statesmen who would rise above party politics, who will work for the welfare of the people irrespective of who they are, who would risk life to serve people, and who would stand by the people. Till then this country will be in darkness.

What do you want the government to work on immediately?

The forthcoming election should be free and fair. Give room for all parties to participate equally in its campaign and remove enmity.

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa met you recently. Did he help you with some of your requests?

He came to Mannar on July 21. I told about the presence of Navy in Mullikulam and the people are living under hardship in the forest without shelter, food and job. People of Mullikulam were compelled to reside in the middle of a jungle at Malankadu, without even basic facilities. He asked the officials what’s going on and they explained.

The officials suggested they will cultivate the land and make these villagers work in the field. I don’t think that is a reasonable solution. Why should the Navy cultivate the villagers’ land? I am waiting for a favourable reply for Mullikulam villagers and settle them according to their will and nothing ‘forced’ on them. courtesy: LakbimaNews