The East has lost its defender - human rights activist Father Miller | Sunday Observer

The East has lost its defender - human rights activist Father Miller

The American Jesuit priest Father Benjamin Henry Miller, who documented thousands of cases on human rights violations during 1983-2009 war against terroism has died aged 93.

Father Miller arrived in Sri Lanka in September 1948, just after the country got its independence. Even though he was an exemplary human rights defender in times of civil war in Sri Lanka, he had no desire to discuss his accomplishment in public. He declined interview requests saying “I don’t want publicity” as he is discomfited by such accolades.

Father Miller taught physics, history and English and coached the soccer team of St. Michael’s College, Batticaloa. He was also the Rector of the College from 1959 to 1970. As a parish priest in Batticaloa, he learnt Tamil and went beyond his duties to build bridges between communities as educator, priest, protector and witness.

Human rights

When the war erupted in Sri Lanka, human rights abuses mounted. It gave father Miller a new role as a defender of human rights and the protector of the innocent civilians. As a fearless and courageous leader, he demonstrated against the government, security forces and several militant groups including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Father Miller’s outspoken criticisms of human rights abuses were a rare beacon of truth which could not be denied in a period of vast cover up and media censorship.

The priest became the ‘voice of the voiceless’ and was committed to be with the people in their time of need. In times of disappearances, torture and killings, he travelled on his motorbike in increasingly dangerous conditions to collect reports on abductions, disappearances, killings, arrests, child recruitment, forced displacements, communal tensions, violence and rape in Batticaloa and passed them on to the relevant local and international persons and organisations. According to Dr. T. Jayasingam, a professor of the Eastern University, Father Miller recorded around 8,000 cases of complaints from aggrieved people on violations of human rights and forwarded them to diplomats and international human rights organisations including Amnesty International.

He also founded the Batticaloa Peace Committee (BPC), which provided a safe space for relatives of those disappeared. Thousands of families who were reluctant to approach the authorities to find the disappeared were able to file police complaints and search for information about their relatives through the BPC.

The Committee provided the people advice on legal procedures to protect the detainees. Many were not even aware of the location of the prisons. Amara Hapuarachchi, who worked closely with Father Miller, witnesses to Father Miller’s fearless effort to safeguard the innocent from the atrocities of the security forces. She said that as there was no proof of arrests, the priest forced the military to give a receipt to the family of victims as evidence of the arrest. It saved many lives and prevented many cases of disappearance. That is the only assurance a wife or a mother had that her husband or son did not disappear.

Joe William, the Chairman of NPC, also remembers Father Miller as he became a repository for thousands of human rights abuses and disappearances that took place in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. Father Miller wanted not only ethnic harmony but also religious harmony in the country. The Council of Religions was formed to set up fora for community leaders and religious figures to engage in dialogue with one another and it helped to seek a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict. He also established a branch of the Federation of the Red Cross and, as a Rotarian, served as its president as well as on the National Rotary Council for Peace and Harmony.

Award

In honour of his service and committed effort to protect the human rights of the affected, The National Peace Council’s (NPC’s) awarded him the Citizens Peace Award in 2014. The award, granted only to Sri Lankan residents, is given in recognition of those who “have stood up for the protection of and enforcement of human rights and fundamental rights when such rights are under threat and such action requires unusual courage and self-sacrifice to do so”. Realising his integral role in peace making in the country, during the period of ceasefire in 2002, the Sri Lankan government appointed him to be its nominee to be a monitor of the ceasefire agreement between the government and the LTTE.

Father Miller who became a Batticalonian always said “I will never stay in the US, now Batticaloa is my home town.” Though Father Miller is no more, he will always live in the hearts of the people of Batticaloa and the St.Michael’s College fraternity.

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