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Memorial for Catholic priest shot dead by Indian troops

 

A memorial has been held in the east in remembrance of a human rights activist-Catholic priest shot dead by Indian troops in Sri Lanka 36 years ago.

Rev. Chandra Fernando was assassinated on 6 June 1988 at the St. Mary’s Cathedral in Batticaloa. During this year’s memorial organised by the Batticaloa Inter Faith Association, Rev. Fernando’s photograph was displayed in front of the place in the cathedral where his remains have been laid to rest and floral tributes paid.

Regional reporters said that in addition to representatives of multiple faiths, the memorial held on 6 June was attended by Rev. Fernando’s relatives and civil society activists in the area.

At the invitation of the then United National Party (UNP) government, in which present President Ranil Wickremesinghe held a powerful ministerial portfolio, the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) arrived in Sri Lanka in August 1987 allegedly to establish peace in the country. However, IPKF’s brutalities caused a repeated round of oppression against Tamil people.

Government forces that had been stationed in the north until that point were summoned to the south to avert Sinhala youth’s uprising.

With assaults, abductions, disappearances, sexual crimes against women, murders, and vandalism rising even under the IPKF’s rule, the citizens’ committee led by Rev. Fernando, human rights organisations and religious leaders’ collective launched a massive march in Batticaloa to express opposition.

The IPKF responded to this peaceful march with tear gas and bullets.

From that point on, the priest attracted the hatred and anger of the IPKF and allied paramilitaries as such as the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF).

The priest had been asked to provide information about the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan (LTTE).

“I am a Christian priest. A believer of god. Loving people’s life is my religion. Regardless of which side commits it, I abhor killings. If you came here to bring peace, it cannot be achieved like this. It will only make the situation worse. It is impossible to bring peace wielding weapons. You are asking me to tell you where the LTTE is at. If you cannot get them to come forward in order to achieve peace despite the fact that you have been nurturing them for a long time, can I, who live with ordinary people, do that?,” Rev. Fernando had said in response to IPKF leaders’ questioning.

The priest, who lived among the residents of Batticaloa despite threats to his life, died in the church at around 5 p.m. on 6 June 1988 after being gunned down by an ‘unidentified gunman’.

Residents of the area are of the strong opinion that this assassination would not have occurred without the knowledge of the IPKF that was in control of the Batticaloa town at the time.

Even though people were suspicious of pro-IPKF armed groups EPRLF and PLOT too, later, quoting a highly placed IPKF leader, media outlets had reported that the assassination was executed with a junior officers’ involvement.

Local and international human rights organisations and journalists have published credible evidence against IPKF soldiers in connection with a spate of mass murders that occurred in October 1987. The IPKF arrived in Sri Lanka at the invitation of the then J.R. Jayawardena government and was deployed in the north to ‘establish peace’.

Leaders of both countries have not taken any measure to deliver justice in this regard. However, each year, they have grand commemorations for Indian soldiers who died in the war in Sri Lanka.

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