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Why weep my beloved Wellassa: Remembering Fr. Michael Rodrigo OMI on 34th Death Anniversary

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by Sr. Milburga Fernando

On the eve of November 10, 1987, as the sun went down on the crimson west, dragging and drowning with it all the hopes of the people of Buttala, Father Mike was gunned down at Suba Seth Gedera while he was engaged in the offering the sacrifice of Communion on the altar with his community in the little Chapel.

As soon as the ripple of news spread, the people came with haste, sobbing their hearts out to pay their respects to their great leader, lying peacefully on the altar of sacrifice, a true testimony, of a laying down of his life for his friends whom he had loved and served for seven whole years. That evening, before the sacrifice, he stood at the foot of the altar, read an excerpt from St. Oscar Romero, the former Bishop of El Salvador, paraphrasing and interpreting it to make it his own. “I have often been threatened with death, I must tell you that as a Christian I don’t believe in death without the Resurrection, if they do kill me, I shall rise up in the hearts of the people. I’m not boasting, I say this with great humility.

As a priest, I am obliged by divine command to lay down my life for those whom I love. This means all the people, especially the poor of Uva Wellassa, with whom we have bonded together in our origins and our destiny, and in short, the whole inhabited earth, “for all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” For God is self-emptying love who is enfleshed in the neighbour, through whom God becomes really present. Martyrdom is a grace from God which I don’t think I have earned, but if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, let my blood be the seed of freedom and a sign that hope may soon be a reality to our people. If they do kill me, tell them that I forgive and bless those, who do it. I shall die, but may my people never perish.’’ True to his words, he continues to live in the hearts of the people as their testimonies confirm:

Madhuri gazing

on the martyr’s body blurted, “Sisters, why are you desolate? Why do you weep? It is absolutely clear that Father Mike’s life shines as a brilliant light in this obscure situation in Buttala. He will continue to give us life, light and hope. Now we are not afraid to face death. He has courageously set the example. His memory will live on to eternity as we go on being witnesses to it’.

Padma Paranagama:

testifies, “Father, you are living forever, when death threats were closing in upon you, you confided in your close associates in your own words, “There are death threats to me, but I am not afraid to die. If I’m killed, may my blood be the seed sprouting forth freedom and hope for the people.’ Beckoning Sister Benedicta and Sister Milburga and the others, Fr. Mike prayed invoking God’s immeasurable love and mercy. His own life was secondary to him. His love for humankind was uppermost in his life and it was a totally self-emptying love.

The passing away of this great humanitarian, was ratified on the altar, what more can one expect of this life? The life and death of this Saint will be etched in the history of Wellassa for us and our children and their children, will go on remembering and reliving this history forever. The brilliant light of the saint who kindled the village, is seemingly extinguished. Nay, it will go on shedding its brilliance eternally to overcome crime violence and oppression levelled on us by the evil forces of the powers that be.

Deepika writes:

We thought that it is quite an unnatural occurrence for Christians to come to a village that is predominantly Buddhist. But soon, they took to us with much ease. They began to associate with the people in a very inclusive and friendly manner which won the hearts of the simple village people by, and by, Suba Seth Gedera became the people’s second home. There were many reasons for this. Free medical services were available for the needy, was one of them, a combination of both Eastern and Western medicine. The youth, naturally frequented the place to read and enhance their knowledge as there was a mini library and sufficient newspapers, providing an all-round news bulletin, the village had never heard of before.

The person responsible for this treasure trove, the one who identified with the villager, wearing the villagers’ attire was Fr. Michael Rodrigo, affectionately called Father Mike by the people. He was so unassuming and simple, that it took us some time to find out that he was one of the most learned stalwarts in the various sciences, even having a doctorate in Buddhism. It didn’t take long for the Buddhist clergy and the people to accept his group into their milieu. Father Mike treated everyone with profound respect, sensitivity and humanity. He studied the needs, problems and aspirations of the people, working out solutions with the people themselves.

Soon, the villagers were engaged in their health and educational concerns, finding solutions and engaging themselves in interesting livelihood projects. This is what alarmed the miscreants totally engaged in violent, oppressive, illegal and malevolent deeds to put an end to Fr Mike. One can emulate Fr. Mike’s good example, epitomise qualities like simplicity, humility, sincerity and honesty. I was able to learn many a lesson from him, to make my life successful. We learnt that the green light for the official procedure towards his Sainthood had been given. But the people of Buttala rose up with one voice to call him blessed on the day he gave up his life on the altar of Sacrifice. He was profoundly human and Christ-like, a meeting point of the Divine and the Human so said the people in one voice. We salute you Fr. Mike. Our tribute will continue in history forever.

Jinadasa

recalls with much nostalgia that it was a pleasure to work with Fr. Mike. I became acquainted with him, as I admired his wealth of knowledge, his affable qualities, his scholarly familiarity of Buddhism and his catchy humour. I thought to myself that Buttala will be blessed if there were more people like him. Fr. Mike had a passion for Education, he always advocated that education is the key to find solutions to the burning problems that villagers face. He complied with the stance of Nelson Mandala `that Education is the most powerful weapon which can be used to change the world’. Jinadasa further adds, how Fr. Mike at a meeting `Minis Samagi Havula’ discussed the importance of Education.

Education should be the vehicle to teach humanness and human values. The school creates the atmosphere, it provides the ambit to share and experience these values. People like him are too good for this world. He was a true leader, who felt the pulse of the people, he was committed to serve the poor and bring some solace to them, his life was snuffed out but he has left indelible foot prints on the soil of Buttala and lasting memories etched in the hearts of the people he served.

Father Mike was a multi-talented priest with a double doctorate in Theology and Philosophy. He was offered a prestigious position in the Institute Catcholique in Paris. A big climb in the ladder of success with honour, power, wealth and global connections where he himself would be writing the drama, producing, directing and starring in it as it were. Verbally, he had already accepted the offer, a little while later comes a second offer, an appeal from the late Bishop of Badulla, Rt. Rev. Dr. Leo Nanayakkara. It was to serve the poor in the Diocese of Badulla. The Bishop defines his context with the two realities of Asia, as the continent of the poor and the continent of religions and cultures.

It was an appeal to initiate direct and recast a programme of contextual theology in his newly founded School of Ministries (including the priestly ministry) as a response to the double challenge of poverty and dialogue. Saddled between these two opposites, Fr. Mike wrestles between his ego-drama and God’s field-drama. (Hans Urs von Balthasar). He then retreats to deep prayer and reflection and confesses to his elder sister, that God is asking him to sell all what he has in order to buy the pearl of great price and the treasure hidden in the field. Further quoting the Bible, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose himself’? Since then, he stood firmly with Jesus at the Cross with profound faith and faithfulness firmly convinced that the Resurrection of Jesus has conquered death Fr. Mike committed himself to this way of proclaiming the Good News to all of humankind and especially to the poor.

He studied the problems of the area with great intensity, the past history of Colonial rule by the British cannot be overlooked. History has recorded Uva-Wellassa was an agriculturally thriving land known as the granary of the Kandyan Kingdom. It was not only famous for rice, it also abounded in other edible crops such as jak, breadfruit, coconut and yams that were invaluable for the village people. Besides there had been libraries containing technological resources and engineering skills, ancient irrigation skills and hydrological resources, medical know-how and in addition strips of rain forests replete with medicinal trees and herbs. One could say it was a miniature or replica of the Garden of Eden. Incidentally, a professor of Egyptology in London in his excavations in Egypt, has even found the real garden of Eden, a most beautiful place still surrounded by mountains, valleys and springs with beautiful fruit trees all around leading down to an inner sea. Brutal force was unleashed to crush the 1818 Rebellion.

Under the then Governor Robert Brownrigg. Every form of livelihood came under attack, the British went on rampage scorching the fields, crops, cattle, homes and a large number of youth were mercilessly killed. This area of plenty was ravaged and left desolate. The people of Uva Wellassa even after the elapse of 165 years could not erase this bitter experience etched in their memory, anything new specially an alien religion earned their aversion and suspicion This still hangs as a big block on our reputation.

It is against this backdrop, Fr. Mike and his band of faithful supporters had to forge ahead. First and foremost, they had to win the confidence of the Buddhist clergy and the 99% of Buddhist people; hence with much patience perseverance, and constant dialogue, their efforts were rewarded. The ‘tide turned’ by Vesak 1982. Fr. Mike and his group with the collaboration of an eloquent lyricist farmer’s help re-wrote the Buddhist Devotional songs based on the ‘Saradharma and Dasaparamitas’ the ten perfections, closely reflecting the values of the Kingdom. It was listened to by about 700 devotees. This event cleared all suspicions and their sincere effort received much recognition and appreciation by Venerable Alutwela Sumanasiri and Koteneluwe Upatissa and other monks of the area. On May 1987, he officially affirmed his collaboration in the village effort of the Buddhist-Christian Dialogue and conscientization by placing his signature to the constitution and agreement.

With this assurance he engaged himself with several livelihood projects targeting different groups, the farmers, the youth, the women, health workers, etc. His main focus was to impart knowledge and form a nucleus who could reach out to the various strata of society and teach them to come out of strangulating poverty. One way was the monthly, ‘Story Hour’. He used to read excerpts from E.F. Schumansher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’. The ideas expounded were very much in alignment with Fr. Mike’s ideas which gave him added impetus to integrate them in his endeavours as he too believed in sustainable development which should go hand in hand with environmental protection. He looked upon the environment specially the forests, as the home for the village people, as the poor depend on the environment for fuel, fodder and animal stock. He also discerned the stark reality of poverty and malnutrition, the vicious circle in which the poor are trapped, and the only viable solution is to improve the rural agricultural and ecological mechanism Fr. Mike discovered that the ideas suggested by Schumancher and his own perception on sustainable development were complementary and would be beneficial to the rural community.

He envisaged smaller working units and communal ownership utilising local labour and resources, while the emphasis is laid on the person and not the product. He was averse to massive projects involving increased specialisation resulting in profit maximisation causing irreparable harm to the environment carried out by multi-national organizations wherein the human becomes a mere cog in the wheel. It is this liberative approach as against the Trans-National Corporations’ approach that stirred up suspicion and hostility with the would-be powers. Fr. Mike looked at development from a different perspective wanted to impart the right kind of knowledge which will make the poor free and independent.

After studying the needs of the people and assessing the traditional methods of the farmers which were liberative he got the farmers and the University students in the field of Science and Agriculture on to the same platform to share their knowledge. The students contributed their scientific knowledge, while the farmers their indigenous traditional methods. The result was the enhancement of conservationist, eco-friendly, lucrative farming methods. Fr, Mike’s aim was to find affordable locally appropriate sustainable solutions to the most pressing needs of the people while preserving the environment. The fertilizer needed for agriculture was successfully met, recycling raw materials from the village itself. According to a familiar saying, ‘give a man a fish, it is a short-term help, if you teach him the art of fishing, he can help himself and his family’

A comprehensive study of Fr. Mike in his involvement with Buttala goes beyond the concept of he being a Catholic priest who loved and served the people of Wellasa until his untimely death in 1987. There is another vital dimension which has been neglected in the tributes written about him annually. From the very inception, of Suba Seth Gedara, Father Mike was very much an environmentalist steeped with profound respect for God’s creation made him creatively involve in sustainable development which was centered around agro-ecology that was rationalized by Buddhist and Christian thought. Father Mike combined indigenous farming methods with science to develop that alternative economic structure, that went against the then national development models of the state with their Trans National Corporations.

In his last monthly reflection and prayer when the community gathered together in His Name. ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them’ (Matthew 18:20) Father Mike said, “The sword of Damocles is hanging over us, we are overshadowed with death threats, interventions by the secret police, the military and the CID. At a time like this is there a court of appeal and what do we do? Let’s turn to Jesus. I can clearly hear his voice. ‘Why are you afraid, don’t be afraid O ye of little faith.’ If we examine the charge sheet against us: It is crystal clear that we have only stood firmly against crime, violence and oppression levied on the people by death dealers the local, national, and international middlemen and the sociopolitical leadership, dealing death to the – Anawim Yahweh (The poor of God). They little realize that every heartbeat of theirs becomes a calculated drumbeat on their march to the grave. But every move to prevent crime, violence and oppression will bring about a fullness of life for our people. ‘For he came that we may have life and have it to the full.’ This is eternal life and abundance of life destroying death and death dealing. We are living life and not death. Let us choose life and death will not touch us.’ These were the passionate sentiments of Fr. Mike, the prophet expressing the passionate feelings of God the Supreme Prophet in whom is summed up the whole purpose of prophesy.



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Opinion

Building trust, a better investment

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The government has allowed private companies to import chemical fertilisers. The farmers had been holding many a street protest against the government’s blatantly unwise policy of shifting to organic farming overnight, but to no avail. The Minister concerned and others repeatedly said that they would not change the government’s decision as it had been made for the good of all the people. The farmers had no problem with organic farming but insisted that the transition had to be phased out to avoid serious adverse effects. But no! The government never relented and tried to show that the street protests were instigated by interested parties including chemical fertiliser companies, to make the government unpopular. The government insisted that chemical fertilisers have caused many ailments including the dreaded kidney disease and turned a deaf ear to the farmers’ grievances.

However, hot on the heels of Mr. Modi’s U-turn last week, the Minister has changed track and tells us that the government, being one which is always ‘sensitive to people’s concerns’, has decided to make chemical fertilizers available through private imports, but would not import them on its own or change its policy of going fully organic. Questioned by journalists, another ruling party spokesperson quipped that the government’s decision came about neither due to the Indian PM’s ‘example’ nor in response to the loud protests. It is a result of the discussions held within the party, he assured.

However, it is unfortunate that the government had to wait for more than seven months to be ‘sensitive to peoples’ concerns’. If the ruling party members had only taken a few minutes to watch TV news headlines, they would have proved their ‘sensitivity’ months earlier, not waiting for Mr. Modi to steal a march on them, so to speak. To any reasonable person, the government obviously has responded to the rampant protests that were actually the climax of a prolonged process, which began with pleading, explaining their predicament, reasoning, chest thumping, expressing disbelief, which gradually culminated in loud protests, burning of effigies and threatening to come to Colombo in numbers. Surely, Mr. Modi didn’t make it any easier for the government to justify its ‘sensitivity’ to farmers’ grievances!

Thus, to any reasonable person, the government had actually responded to the unbridled anger of the helpless farmers, not to their grievances. What’s more, looking at how the government had handled the previous issues of a controversial nature, it is hard to recall any instance where it promptly responded to people’s concerns; it was always a case of responding to people vehemently protesting as a last resort- be it the Port City issue, Eastern Terminal, Teachers’ salary or Yugadanavi Power Plant issue, not to mention the pathetic state of innocent villagers being perpetually traumatized by wild elephant attacks often taking their lives wantonly. In each of these cases, the government, wittingly or unwittingly, seemed to regard the voices of concern, not as appeals worthy of serious attention, but as attempts at disruption or politically motivated interventions. This, surely, does not augur well for the government or support its claim to ‘sensitivity’ as regards people’s concerns.

The government’s decision to compromise on its strict chemical fertiliser ban, which has come soon after Mr. Modi’s reversal of sorts, allows room for the discerning public to make obvious inferences, despite the government’s claim about its decision not being influenced by that of the Indian PM. In fact, the government reps have nothing to gain by pretending to blush when journalists suggest that they perhaps took a leaf from their neighbour. Even at this juncture, people’s representatives seem reluctant to prefer sincerity to affectation; hence the government’s growing aloofness, which is causing a “severe trust deficit”- to borrow a pithy phrase from The Island editorial of November 19.

As the representatives of the public, what any government needs to foster are sincerity and empathy. It is this tacit bond between the people and the government, which will consolidate trust in the long term. Being the party that holds power, the onus is on the rulers to secure people’s faith. Instead, every party that has come to power since Independence has always helped the Opposition to make a five yearly ‘ritual cleansing’ in the eyes of the people. So, the wheel turns.

Susantha Hewa

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Don’t harass whistle-blower

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Thushan Gunawardena, who alerted the authorities and the media to a serious fraud taking at Sathosa should not be harassed by the Police as it is clear that he has no political motives and has acted in the public interest.

The Cabinet minister concerned is attempting to show a conspiracy against him when he has failed to prevent such frauds at Sathosa and let it continue as there were benefits flowing to him in addition to his being able to employ family members and manipulate the system for personal profit.

It is patently clear that he is trying to take the investigation in a different direction and prevent changes that would clean up the mess that is contributing to the massive losses at Sathosa.

Mahinda Gunasekera

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Stanley (Sam) Samarasinghe

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A TRIBUTE TO A PATRIOT

Even with the prior knowledge that the end was near, when the news of the passing away of Sam on the 23rd of November 2021 was conveyed to me, it was difficult to bear. Though living the better part of his adult life in the United States, to those with whom he had regular contact and dialogue, he was ever present. He succumbed to an illness that he bore with courage and fortitude for several years. In that time his enthusiasm to live his life to the full did not diminish. Except family and close friends none had even the slightest inkling that he was battling an invasive enemy within.

I have described Sam as a Patriot, if its definition is “one that loves his country and zealously maintains its interests”, then it fits him well, as he did that in full measure.

Having schooled in Kandy at Dharmarajah College, Sam completed a special degree in economics at the Peradeniya University where his father worked. Having being accepted by both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, he turned to his mentor, Professor H. A. de S. Gunasekera, who had advised him to take Cambridge. He went there with his wife Vidyamali, whom he had met at Peradeniya and obtained his Ph.D. in Economics. They both returned to Peradeniya and Sam became a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics. He taught there until 1989, when he left for the United States with his wife and two sons, Mevan and Ranmal. He was appointed Professor of the Development Studies Programme at the USAID, a position he held for many years in Washington. But what is remarkable, is that he continued his abiding interest in the many facets of Sri Lankan life, especially in education and politics and of course, Kandy. He returned to Sri Lanka at least twice a year. While others would spend such breaks as a let up from work, Sam vigorously involved himself in many spheres of activity.

Along with Prof. Kingsley de Silva, he created the only intellectual hub outside of the Peradeniya University in Kandy at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES). As Director, he secured funding for many academic projects that the Centre did. Sam was instrumental in the ICES buying its own place and then constructing a tarred road leading to the Center. The way he set about it will give the reader an idea of the man Sam was. The road served at least 12 houses. He arranged a meeting of all the householders and sold them a deal that none could refuse. Each household was asked to pay proportionately to the distance from the main Peradeniya Road to their house. At the end of the exercise. Sam refunded the excess in that same proportion!!

Sam was an academic, researching and writing extensively, sometimes collaborating with other academics such as Prof. Kingsley de Silva and Prof. G.H. (Gerry) Peiris. On several occasions, he brought out his post graduate students from the Tulane University, New Orleans (where he was Visiting Professor of Economics) to Sri Lanka and to Kandy, arranged field trips and had them interact with academics and professionals.

His particular interest in Kandy made him do a study of its traffic congestion and organised a public seminar with other experts on the subject. As the President of the Senkadagala Lions Club, Sam obtained funding for many of its projects. In fact, Sam had a penchant for writing up project proposals, an expertise he ungrudgingly shared with anyone who asked for it. He started a monthly local newspaper in 1994, the “Kandy News”, becoming its Chief Editor and its main sponsor. The last issue was a special supplement done in the run-up to the Kandy Municipal Council election in 2018.

When the tsunami stuck the country in 2004, Sam was the lead Consultant of a World Vision programme designed to make a qualitative assessment of tsunami and non-tsunami villages from Kalutara in the Western Province to Kilinochchi in the Northern Province. A task he successfully completed with his team under the aegis of the ICES.

He was an advocate for cooperation and harmony among the races. His involvement in the post tsunami work in Jaffna and Trincomalee with the Lions Club is proof of that, as much as it was when he asked the guests to the nuptial reception of his son Mevan, not to give presents but to contribute towards the project initiated by Mevan and himself in giving school books and equipment to the Tamil Primary School at the Gomorra Estate in Panwila.

My own association with Sam goes back to the time I ran for office as Mayor in 1997. He threw his weight behind me helping out in ways too numerous to mention. That friendship grew and grew and it embraced my family as well. He would ask me to criticise his writing especially on politics. He was a stickler for accuracy and uncompromising on facts. His opinions were rational, practical and unbiased. A bubbly personality, he was always a believer that there are better times ahead. His enthusiasm was infectious. His criticism of events and people were never personal. There is much to take from the life and times of Sam Samarasinghe.

We share his loss with his wife, the two boys of whom he was justly very proud of and his siblings whose welfare he always had. The country is poorer for his passing.

May he find peace in Nibbana!

Harindra Dunuwille

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