Father Jeewantha Peiris: The Priest At The Forefront of Sri Lanka’s Protests

Father Jeewantha Peiris: The Priest At The Forefront of Sri Lanka’s Protests

‘If Ranil Wickremesinghe starts repressing and suppressing the protesters who represent the people, that will pose a danger for him to continue in office.’

IMAGE: Father Jeewantha Peiris addresses protestors as they burn an effigy of Ranil Wickremesinghe, the day before he was elected Sri Lanka’s president, in Colombo, July 19, 2022. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

One of the prominent activists in the people’s mass movement that ousted Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president, Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister and Basil Rajapaksa as finance minister is a 45-year-old Catholic priest.

A clinical psychology graduate, Reverend Father Jeewantha Peiris is the parish priest of a remote village of plantation labourers in Ratnapura district.

The economic crisis in the country has had a crippling effect on the village folk which prompted Father Peiris to travel to Colombo to join the people’s movement.

Since then, he has become one of the prominent faces of the leaderless movement. The government cancelled his passport in May for participating in the protests and he risks being arrested in the wake of the crackdown on protestors after Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected president.

“We will continue the protests in a peaceful and non violent manner because Wickremesinghe has been brought back by parliament, not by the consensus of the people,” Father Peiris tells Rediff.com‘s Archana Masih in a phone conversation from Colombo.


What has been the greatest success of this protest movement in Sri Lanka apart from the ouster of the Rajapaksas?

Religious and pluralistic harmony.

It is for the first time ever in the history of Sri Lanka that people have gone beyond religious, ethnic, political or ideological barriers, and come together to oust a corrupt political system and work together for social and structural change.

The real purpose of this whole protest movement is not just to change one or two leaders, but to ensure our country has a stable economic and political situation.

It’s a mass people’s movement. People used to be indifferent to social and political issues and worried about personal issues, but right now there is a lot of social consciousness, political literacy and political involvement of the people.

IMAGE: Father Peiris during the protest. Photograph: Kind courtesy Father Jeewantha Peiris

You are a Catholic priest working in a remote village in Sri Lanka. What made you leave your flock and travel to Colombo and get involved in the people’s movement?

I have been living among the community of plantation workers and working for their social, political, economic, spiritual and transformation upliftment for more than four years.

Especially our minority groups and those living in the peripheries are struggling for survival. Their daily wages of Rs 1,000 amount to nothing when confronted with the skyrocketing cost of living, coupled with scarcity of medicine.

People are suffering; children are affected with malnutrition.

I realised I should come to Colombo where we can bring some structural and political changes in Sri Lanka.

The minority groups and poorest of the poor will not survive because of the political and economic crisis. It is a tragic moment in Sri Lanka.

This was the motivation that brought me to Colombo on April 9 and join the civil rights movement of Sri Lanka.

What are some of the hardships that the people you work with have had to face?

One of the main hardships is the economic crisis. The labourers earn 1,000 rupees daily which is meagre for one person who needs three meals. They are about 9-10 people in one family with no right to land or house. They are almost like slaves, but they are contributing to the national income.

They have no money to buy medicines from private pharmacies. They are facing starvation and cases of malnutrition among children is increasing.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Father Jeewantha Peiris

You spoke about the pluralistic nature of these protests. I have seen pictures of Buddhist monks, Catholic nuns and Muslim clergy in the protest.
What was it about this struggle that bridged the religious divide between majority and minority?

People from different ethnicities, racial groups, religions, political ideologies came together spontaneously to change a terribly corrupt system.

Buddhist monks, Muslim maulvis and Christian sisters came together and it gradually evolved.

The more the suppression and repression from the government’s side, these religious groups also got involved in the defence of the people.

All religious people have been working in different capacities. The inter religious involvement is very much appreciated.

Do you expect this religious unity to continue like it has?

Of course. It’s a new learning; a new way of overcoming our barriers and coming together in Sri Lanka. Politicians have always divided the different groups, but we were able to overcome all these divisions.

This is a new way of harmony. It will continue.

IMAGE: Father Peiris addresses the protestors. Photograph: Kind courtesy Father Jeewantha Peiris

Does the coming together of different religious/ethnic groups during these protests mean that people have put the religious tensions and backlash of the Easter Sunday Bombings behind them and are united against the regime?

It was a turning point. 300 people lost their lives. Ranil Wickremesinghe was prime minister then and the political situation became bad to worse. It paved the path for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s return to power.

People came together to raise their voice against the same leaders.

The struggle is still valid because Wickremesinghe is elected president and the victims are still waiting for justice.

Do you feel that you could be targeted for taking such an active role in this protest?

It is risky. They want to totally suppress this moment, so they will surely target us by bringing in different laws or regulations to arrest us. They will try to arrest some of us so that they can sweep out this whole protest moment.

I have a travel ban. My passport is with me, but it has no validity.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Father Jeewantha Peiris

The protestors demanded the resignations of both Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe, but now that the latter is back for the next two years, how are you going to chart the way forward?
Also, what kind of a response are you likely to get from parliament when it seems out of step with the demands of the people?

The people’s movement was able to oust the powerful Rajapaksas.

The power of the people is supreme. We will pressurise the president or the governing body in an organised, nonviolent and peaceful way.

We will continue our peaceful protests. The intention is that there should be a system change in Sri Lanka.

We have put forward an action plan which states our demands. This is not just about removing the president or prime minister, but about bringing a constitutional change which is the ultimate target.

We propose to abolish the executive presidency.

But before that, the food and medical crisis has to be dealt with immediately. We have suggested an interim governing body to do that.

We have laid these demands in a nonviolent manner.

The parliament has failed to stand by the people. Therefore, we have proposed the formation of people’s councils, as a pressure group outside of the parliament.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Father Jeewantha Peiris

What is your day like since you came to Colombo in April?

I am on the protest site. There are meetings, seminars, dialogues, interviews, rallies, marches and planning of events. I visit some of our people who are in jail, go to courts, meet the police etc.

What is happening to your flock back in the village?

I am priest of Dolaswala village in Ratnapura district. It is a very rural, remote, village which is facing a lot of problems, especially a shortage of food. I go back every weekend.

Since the education of children is interrupted, there is a leadership team in Ratnapura that brings the children together and teaches them.

There is a community kitchen and dry rations are given to those struggling for survival. We have some social awareness meetings and small community activities daily.

I am closely observing the community work while being in Colombo and visit every weekend.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Father Jeewantha Peiris

How long do you intend to stay in Colombo?

I want to finish this so that I can get involved in community work in my village without giving up the protest struggle on the ground. Both will continue till I hope we can get economic and political stability soon.

The protestors were determined to prevent Ranil Wickremasinghe from being the next president, but he is back. What now?

We will continue the protests in a peaceful and non violent manner because Wickremesinghe has been brought back by parliament, not by the consensus of the people.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Father Jeewantha Peiris

Can he steer the country through this crisis and provide stability needed to receive global funds?

We don’t believe he will.

He has been prime minister six times. He has failed six times.

He was prime minister during the Easter Sunday bombings and till date there are no commission reports and no justice.

He has been prime minister for three months during in this terrible financial crisis, but we have seen that he has done nothing. We don’t believe in him.

I don’t think he can provide a stable government because even though he has the support of parliamentarians who will help him, but there are so many who are also against him.

If he starts repressing and suppressing the protesters who represent the people, that will pose a danger for him to continue in office.

Have you had any engagement with the government?

We have introduced our action plan to Opposition party leaders and many political leaders have agreed, so let’s see.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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