Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith. Photo: AFP
Rajpal Abeynayake
Rajpal Abeynayake

‘Voice of the nation’: as Sri Lanka loses faith in the government, it looks to a cardinal for leadership

  • Forbes magazine said Cardinal Ranjith was among the leading contenders for the papacy after Pope Benedict retired
  • However in Sri Lanka nowadays, most people seem to say in one voice: ‘cardinal for president’
It’s tense in Sri Lanka nowadays.  Scarcely a day passes that the army does not discover a cache of arms, ammunition or other combat related material, such as radio-frequency jammers, in a mosque or nearby one.

Even in a country almost inured to violence due to the nearly 30-year conflict between armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), such discoveries have left people stunned with fear because of what they suggest: “terror” and “Islamic State”.

So when a minor traffic accident showed signs of escalating into a Muslim versus Sinhalese riot in the town of Negombo – where a church was bombed on Easter Sunday – the Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith called for a temporary ban on alcohol sales in the largely Catholic town.

Being practical, never vengeful, has always been typical of the beloved cardinal’s approach, and increasingly, people are calling in one voice: “Cardinal for president”.

A general view of St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo two weeks after the attacks. Photo: AFP

Sri Lankans may be terrified of more attacks, but the response by authorities since Easter Sunday has done little to calm the mood.

Very few positive words have been spoken of the government since it revealed it ignored security warnings about possible suicide bombings ahead of the Easter Sunday attack.

The government has banned and unbanned social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp, and issued conflicting statements, none of which have inspired confidence.

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Hotels, which were booming in a country that Lonely Planet named the number one tourist destination for 2019, have been almost totally deserted.

And when schools reopened earlier this week for the first time since the bombings, only about 1 per cent of students turned up, despite the government assuring parents of safe classrooms.

Such non-responsiveness was unheard of during the worst of the LTTE violence, which cost close to 100,000 lives.

A Sri Lankan woman watches a live broadcast of a service conducted by the Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith. Photo: AFP

Consequently, the only voice that seems to carry any clout – in what many now consider a battle against IS – has been that of Ranjith, who Forbes magazine reported as among the leading contenders for the papacy after Pope Benedict retired.

Similar to how people in the Philippines used to wait for Jaime Cardinal Sin in Manila during the People Power revolution, Sri Lankans – of all faiths – have turned to Ranjith.

“Cardinal Ranjith has surpassed Cardinal Sin, in that His Eminence has become the voice of the nation in a country where, in contrast to the Philippines, Catholics are a tiny minority,” said Crishnath Mendis, a lifelong student of Christian theological trends.

Police officers show an IS flag recovered from an alleged militant hideout in Kalmunai, east of Sri Lanka. Photo: AP

Authorities have also become increasingly mindful of protecting Ranjith, especially if indeed the Easter Sunday bombings suggest the beginning of a bigger fight against IS.

In an effort to keep the cardinal safe, the prime minister offered him a bulletproof car – like the Popemobile. But Ranjith refused it with a volley of derisive words.

“I will not use a bulletproof car when my flock is unsafe,” he said.

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The response disappointed the government.

“The Pope travels around in a bulletproof Popemobile,” said Ranjan Ramanayake, a Catholic Minister of State, implying that the cardinal should have accepted the offer.

But refusing a Popemobile was only the latest in many comments by Ranjith to rile the administration. Even before the April 21 attacks, he had repeatedly questioned the government’s resolve.

Citing the United States’ demands via the United Nations for Sri Lanka to prosecute intelligence officers for war crimes and human rights violations during the three-decade fight against LTTE, the cardinal has on numerous occasions criticised the government for allowing foreign powers to dictate its actions.

Last year, Ranjith notably said “human rights had become the religion of the West”, and there was “no need to teach human rights to Sri Lanka, which has had religious inclination for centuries”.

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Now, after the devastating bombings, he has again taken aim at the relationship, saying the local authorities’ intelligence failure was due to the international community’s interference and “running the country”.

“I respect the Cardinal for preaching love towards the Muslims, but I disagree with him about the international community undermining intelligence, because the intelligence arms of all major powers are helping us now,” Ramanayake argued.

In the wake of the Easter Sunday massacre, Robert O Blake Jnr, the former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, urged Sri Lanka to assemble a committee of technocrats, similar to the forces of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the former defence secretary under civil war-era president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Sri Lankans light candles and pray outside St. Anthony's Church in Colombo. Photo: AP

Therein lies the rub. Many Sri Lankans, including Cardinal Ranjith, are cynical about the West’s involvement in Sri Lanka’s security affairs.

During and after the civil war, the United States constantly found fault with Sri Lanka and criticised its armed forces for committing human rights violations – a position many saw as a hindrance in the fight against the LTTE. So the mere suggestion by the US for Sri Lanka’s armed forces to take a similar course of action as during the war, could be seen as a massive U-turn by Washington.

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“The UN Human Rights Council report stated that Sri Lanka should devolve power. That’s not a human rights issue, it’s a political issue,” said Manohara de Silva, a senior lawyer and President’s Counsel. “It shows the level of interference and that this government blindly followed the international community’s diktat.”

So now, after the horrors of Easter Sunday and the security failures that led to it, it seems Sri Lanka should question who it seeks its advice from, and ask itself: is the country’s fight against Islamic State automatically the West’s fight too?