Sri Lankan sisters join diverse movement to demand change

A nun climbs above the perimeter wall at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo, Sri Lanka July 15 after an official announced the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa amid the country’s economic crisis. (CNS/Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte)

Mangaluru, India — Sri Lankans are experiencing one of the worst economic and political crises today, yet they enjoy an “unusual unity and brotherhood”, say some Catholic nuns in the South Asian island nation.

“North and South are united. Sinhala and Tamil have joined hands. Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Hindus no longer see any differences,” says Sr. Dulcie Peiris, a Salvatorian nun who has worked for reconciliation between the Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic communities since the end of a civil war between the two groups 13 years ago.

Earlier this month, they all marched towards Colombo, the national capital, shouting “Gota, go home”, a slogan they used to protest Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the country’s president, and his government. Rajapaksa, who played a key role in ending the civil war in July 2009, resigned on July 14. On July 20, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected president by lawmakers.

The protests began in April, when Sri Lanka descended into a severe economic crisis. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted tourism on the island and the Rajapaksa government has been unable to pay for essential imports. In addition to shortages of fuel, medicine, food and other basic necessities, the country faces food inflation of 57.4%, notes the World Food Programme.

Catholic nuns wear headscarves that say,

Catholic nuns wear headscarves that say ‘Gota Go Home’, a slogan used by protesters in Sri Lanka. (Courtesy of Shiroma Kurumbalapitiya)

According to downtoearth.org, an environmental website, Rajapaksa’s decision in April 2021 to ban pesticides and manure in Sri Lanka and to call for organic farming has destroyed the country’s agricultural sector, reducing its harvests further. by 50%.

Peiris, who joined the civil protests from the start, said the lives of ordinary people have become miserable and hopeless as they feel the effects of shortages. However, “they are united under our national flag”.

The Rajapaksa family ruled the country for two decades and important positions in the last administration were held by members of the Rajapaksa family, including the President, Prime Minister, Minister of Finance and Minister of Defence. It was estimated that more than 40 family members controlled the entire administration.

On July 7, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court rejected a petition from the president’s office to stop the protests, saying the court had no power to stop people from responding. Following this, the Rajapaksa family went into hiding.

The protests remained mostly peaceful until July 9, when an estimated 200,000 people gathered in Colombo demanding the resignation of Rajapaksa and his team. They stormed and took control of the presidential palace as a symbolic victory for people power. Rajapaksa fled the country, reportedly went to the Maldives and then to Singapore.

TV channels showed people using the president’s swimming pool, bedrooms, kitchen and meeting room as the military remained quiet. Protesters also staged mock parliamentary sessions at the palace.

On the same day, protesters burned down Wickremesinghe’s house and he resigned as prime minister. He then became interim president when Rajapaksa resigned.

Wickremesinghe said Sri Lanka is now a bankrupt country and it could take years to recover. Sri Lanka announced in April that it would suspend repayment of nearly $7 billion in external debt due this year out of an estimated $25 billion due through 2026. Sri Lanka’s total external debt stands at $51 billion.

“There is no magic solution to the problem,” he said in a moving note as he responded to protesters destroying his home.

Nuns in discussion with youth leaders during protests in Galle Face, Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka.  (Courtesy of Shiroma Kurumbalapitiya)

Nuns in discussion with youth leaders during protests in Galle Face, Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka. (Courtesy of Shiroma Kurumbalapitiya)

“A great revolution”

Sister Shiroma Kurumbalapitiya, a Salvatorian provincial, was among thousands who demonstrated at Galle Face Green in the heart of Colombo to demand the resignation of the president. Galle Face, a 12-acre oceanfront urban park along the coast, is the location of the former parliament and presidential offices.

Speaking to Global Sisters Report by phone from Galle Face, Kurumbalapitiya said she had come by train to Colombo from her base in Kurunegala, about 65 miles to the northeast, to join the protests.

“These days I am on the streets with my people, and I will continue to be with them until we achieve our goal,” the nun said July 8, a day before protesters storm the presidential palace. She did not return to her provincial home until after the president’s resignation.

The provincial said she boarded the train with hundreds of people from her town to join the protests in Colombo.

“Like me, thousands of people came from other parts of the country by train, bus and truck. Some came on foot,” said the nun, who spent nights at the scene of the protest serving population.

“During the day I do my official provincial duties in our convent in Colombo, but at night I usually join the protesters at the Galle Face grounds,” she said.

Religious leaders from the Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu communities during the protest rally in Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka.  (Courtesy of Shiroma Kurumbalapitiya)

Religious leaders from the Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu communities during the protest rally in Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka. (Courtesy of Shiroma Kurumbalapitiya)

Kurumbalapitiya and five other Salvatorian nuns volunteered to pack and deliver food to protesters. They cooked in several community kitchens around Galle Face. Several nearby hotels and restaurants also cooked and provided food to protesters.

“No one should go hungry during protests,” said Kurumbalapitiya, who added that they feed thousands of protesters daily.

Several Muslim restaurants operated exclusively to provide free food, Buddhist monks and nuns served in community kitchens, and Christian youths provided water.

“Everyone played their part as the best example of crisis management,” said the provincial.

Kurumbalapitiya said despite some violent incidents, the protests were generally peaceful.

“It’s a great bloodless revolution,” she said.

Kurumbalapitiya said major superiors of Catholic religious congregations have made an open appeal to clerics to get involved in the protests and serve the protesters in any way they can.

“Catholic clerics joined the protests in large numbers from day one, and they also took part in the July 9 mass protests,” she said.

She said it was a pleasant experience to see Catholic priests and nuns join Buddhist monks and nuns, Muslim clerics and Hindu priests to play a bigger role in ensuring peaceful protests.

“They all worked hand in hand, a situation I could never have imagined in the Sri Lankan context,” she added.

Sr. Prothmary Marianatham, a Holy Family nun from Jaffna, about 250 miles north of Colombo, said she had not witnessed such a union between Tamils ​​and Sinhalese since the end of the civil war. .

Marianatham, a Tamil who works among fishermen, said those most affected by the protests are farmers and daily bets, who struggle to have just one meal a day.

“Everything is expensive and everyone is unemployed,” she told GSR on July 12. She said she joined the protests because the church could not stay away from people.

Good Shepherd Sister Dinalika Perera said her congregation was struggling to manage its homes for the elderly and children due to cooking gas and food shortages.

“We hope and pray for good days to come,” said Perera, whose religious congregations are one of the oldest in Sri Lanka.

Peiris, who runs a house of formation in Kandy, about 90 miles northeast of Colombo, told GSR that for three months she survived on wood for cooking instead of gas and sometimes ate raw vegetables. .

“When you think of people in the villages, you feel much better,” she says. “We have firewood and complain about cooking gas, but they don’t have rice.”

Kurumbalapitiya said the crisis brought people together, showed their generosity and humanity, and “it was a memorable moment with people, experiencing their joy and their frustrations, their struggles and their hopes.”

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