In 2016 I wrote my hope for Sri Lanka. At that time it seemed a space for democracy had been opened after the civil war and with the present government coming to power in 2015, backed by the overwhelming support of minorities.
These minorities (Tamils, Muslims, Burghers and others) realised that if they could band together they could change the course of politics or at least impact who gets elected.
There was a greater sense of belonging, which had eroded under the previous majority Sinhalese regime. The national anthem could be sung in Tamil again.
Drawing inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr I wrote that my dream was “that one day the Government of Sri Lanka will say sorry to the minorities for the discriminatory policies that marginalised them in their own country”.
“That one day all those who have suffered will receive justice. That one day those who have inflicted pain will truly repent and be sorry for their deeds.”
Sadly, as I learnt last month during the Ecumenical Network for Sri Lanka meeting of ministers in Colombo, that day seems much further away.
One minister said “Even God is helpless” and I believe he was expressing the general feeling of his community.
Every two years the network meets to visit places of need and discuss how the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, which members of our church partner with, can meet the challenges facing a post-war nation.
On our visit to the Anuradhapura district we met with the farmers at Rajangana who are fighting a battle with the local council and government authorities to safeguard their water resources.
The government planned to use the Rajangana tank, which was built for farming use, for drinking water.
The farmers agitated and organised public demonstrations. This protest was met with arrests and intimidation by the security forces. But their relentless protest actions made the government suspend their plan.
During Sri Lanka’s civil war one of the minorities grievously affected was the Muslim community.
They were sometimes forced to leave their land within 24 hours by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant group that was controlling a major part of north and east.
In the Mannar region they were allowed to take a meagre sum of cash, but had to leave behind all their belongings.
It was nearly 20 years later, after the conflict ended, that they returned to resettle their land.
Their land boundaries had to be redrawn. They had to rebuild their houses, schools and mosques, but are struggling with irrigation as water resources are scarce.
There was an overwhelming feeling that the government has let all the minorities down. This was very evident in the meeting we had with the citizens’ committee. There was frustration and anger expressed against all Sri Lankan governments since independence for the violence unleased on the Tamils, which some described as nothing short of “genocide”.
They expressed the view that the present government had done nothing to address the grievances of the Tamil people.
While we were in Mannar we discovered the unearthing of skeletal remains in a mass grave. These findings are not uncommon.
In Vavuniya, we met with the parents of children who disappeared. They told stories of children forcefully taken by the LTTE and the government security forces.
The parents, most of them women, have been staging a demonstration for nearly 550 days to highlight their plight and to appeal to the local and international communities to help find their children.
There were tears, frustration and anger as they spoke.
One of the mothers posed us the question: “How would you feel if your child went missing even for a short time? We have been searching for our children for the last nine years.”
Many believe their children are alive, working in hidden military camps. Some claimed they have spoken directly with the president but no information or help has come forth.
A Muslim representative group from Mullaitivu also spoke to us about the resistance and hatred they are experiencing from Tamils after going back to settle in lands where they were driven out.
They lamented that the local government was being unhelpful and that were unable to understand the animosity shown to them by people they had lived with before.
As I listened to the many stories of conflict, struggle and pain I reflected on the statement made by the minister about God being helpless.
I thought of those who have seen their children being taken by force, thrown into the military truck by government forces or conscripted to take up arms by the LTTE.
There are also those whose lands have been occupied by the military, meaning they are unable to return. Some have camped opposite their house living under makeshift shelters under trees to look out at their occupied former home.
I was asking: “Where is God in all this?” What theology can help to prompt communities to reflect on their role in the chaos? What theology can help to engage with the helplessness of the individual and communities?
Can the Carpenter from Nazareth, convicted as a criminal, stripped of all his belongings, abandoned by his closest friends, forsaken by God whom he called father and hanging on the cross utterly helpless offer a theology that would empower the powerless?
Even though the guns have ceased, Sri Lankans have seen the brunt of war. Many have lost loved ones.
There is a very high probability that many of those who are searching for their children may never find them.
But I saw something remarkable happen. Mothers, sisters and wives, who in a conservative society are considered the weaker sex to be protected by males, have gathered to demand the government help find the missing children.
They are willing to walk the hard mile meeting with NGOs, local and foreign officials and organisations to highlight their pain. They feel they have nothing to lose. Their experience of helplessness has given them a power to continue whatever the outcome may be.
My hope and prayer now for Sri Lanka is that their powerlessness is channelled in such life-giving ways so that in the midst of hopelessness they become symbols of hope.