UCAN: 'Gagged' Catholics join protest against Red Cross worker killings
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (UCAN) – About 400 local and international nongovernmental (NGO) activists and supporters, wearing "gags" of black cloth over their mouths, staged a silent protest at the central railway station in Colombo.
The June 6 demonstration protested the abduction and killing of two Red Cross workers, Shanmugalingam Kandiah, 32, and Mahadevan Chandramohan, 27. The men were abducted June 1 from the same railway station, while waiting for a train back to Batticaloa in the east.
Holding the black cloth away from his mouth, Father Terrence Fernando, parish priest of St. Anne's Church in Negombo, told UCA News that the two Tamil Hindu workers had come to Colombo for a workshop. "Why should they be killed?" he asked. "Nobody can give their life back. It is terrible."
Father Fernando brought about 15 lay Catholics from his parish north of Colombo. They joined about 100 fellow protesters from other parishes at the harbor-front railway station, located near government offices, banks and shopping complexes.
Rush-hour commuters intent on catching trains home stopped to look at the silent campaigners. About 100 of the demonstrators were foreigners holding banners and signs in English, Sinhalese and Tamil that read: "Your grief is our grief," "Stop abduction and killing" and "We share your grief."
No slogans were shouted.
"Horror stories" of missing businessmen, academics, activists and journalists abducted in Colombo, their bodies often found discarded on the roadside, appear almost daily in the news.
An unidentified group abducted the two Red Cross workers from Batticaloa at 6:30 p.m., while they were in the waiting room in the railway station. Their bullet-riddled bodies were found June 2 at a tea plantation 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) southeast of Colombo. Their bodies were delivered to their families and buried in Batticaloa on the day of the protest.
At the protest Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives, an advocacy group, nodded "yes" when UCA News asked if the situation was getting worse.
Sarojini Sivachandran, an activist, broke her silence to tell UCA News she was scared. "Daily there are murders, abductions and extortion," she said.
As the protesters stood in silence, police and army personnel stood watching while local and foreign TV crews filmed the scene.
One of the protesters said the killings of the Red Cross workers are an ominous sign of a situation in which aid workers increasingly face hazards in providing assistance to needy people. "Who did this? Why they do this? Where is law?" he asked, preferring not to give his name.
Journalist Benedict Thiyagaraja told UCA News, "We can't talk, we can't write, so this silence and the gag tell you the message."
NGOs condemned the murders and expressed concern for the safety of all aid workers in the country. The United Nations condemned the act and also urged an investigation into the killing of 17 workers with the French NGO Action Contre la Faim (action against hunger) in Mutur, Batticaloa, in August 2006.
According to a statement issued June 4, the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society said the killing of two of its volunteers would jeopardize the commitment of its other volunteers in delivering humanitarian assistance to the needy. It called on the authorities for a full investigation.
According to the media, the government has called for an impartial inquiry into the killings. The country's parliamentary opposition, however, claimed the state had a hand in the killings.
The Sinhalese-led government is locked in conflict with rebels who have been fighting for Tamil autonomy in the north and east since 1983. About 60,000 people have been killed and more than a million displaced. A cease-fire that began in February has unraveled the past year-and-a-half as heavy fighting resumed in several areas.
Father Fernando said the state should assume responsibility for the killing of the Red Cross workers.
Although the church has expressed concern about the abductions and killings in Sri Lanka, he thinks religious leaders need to take more action. "Religious leaders issue statements only," the priest said.
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