THE STRUGGLE FOR JUSTICE AND FREEDOM CANNOT BE DETERMINED BY TEMPORARY SETBACKS
The following interview originally was printed in, The Conflation, a latest book written by the author.
by NILANTHA ILANGAMUWA
( April 2, 2014, Geneva, Sri Lanka Guardian) REVEREND Father S. J. Emmanuel is a priest, activist and the president of the Global Tamil Forum, an umbrella organisation for Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora groups.
Father Emmanuel was born in 1934 in Jaffna, in what was then known as Ceylon. He studied in Jaffna before going to the University of Ceylon in Colombo from where he obtained a Bachelor's degree in physical sciences (Mathematics & Physics) in 1958. After graduation he spent time as a teacher and a journalist before entering the priesthood. He then went to the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome from where he obtained a degree in philosophy and theology.
In this interview he extensively elaborates the situation in Sri Lanka from the geo-political perspectives with his personal experiences.
Q: I’m happy to be able to interview you’re for the second time. Let me start by quoting what you said in 1999, on the civil war in Sri Lanka. You observed that, “Though the war is always claimed by the Sinhalese Governments as a war against the LTTE, it is crystal clear to all Tamils, especially to those still surviving in the North and east of the country, that it is directed against the Tamil people to subjugate them”. The war is now over. If we view the present situation, it is blatantly evident that while the country emerged from the three decades of war in a brutal way in 2009it is unfortunately progressing now in an authoritarian direction as claimed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights last year. How do you view this trend that has so far not created any major discontent in Sri Lanka, leave aside the widespread disappointment overseas?
A: My earlier statement, “though the war is always claimed by the Sinhalese governments as war against the LTTE, it is crystal clear to all the Tamils, especially to those still surviving in the north and east of the country, that it directed against the Tamil people to subjugate them” has been clearly confirmed not only by the Tamils living in the North and East but also has become crystal clear to the whole world, proved especially after the May 2009 actions of the Sri Lankan Government. I made the statement because I was then a direct witness of the bombing of civilian targets like the churches of St. James in Jaffna, Saints Peter and Paul in Navali, of children in school-uniform like those in Nagarkovil etc. and also of the unjust economic blockade imposed on us Tamils for years. One of the reasons my aged mother died was because I could not carry enough medicines and foodstuff for her.
But now the attitude and actions of the Sri Lankan Government, even after declaring officially that the war against the LTTE was victoriously concluded on18th May 2009, their actions in the former war-arena, prove beyond doubt, that in the absence of an LTTE-threat/defence, the Mahinda Government has taken on a more comprehensive programme in the authoritarian direction to further subjugate the Tamils by stronger military oppression, state-aided-Sinhalisation, state-aided Buddhistisation, the raping of women by military personnel and forcible-grabbing of land from the people.
If the thousands of the Sinhalese, who visit the north to see the conquered north and the heroic actions of their sons and daughters, could also take time to talk to the people living there, reflect on their own and express some solidarity with the victims that could be considered a genuine move towards reconciliation. But what is happening?
The support given to the Rajapaksas by silence or absence of criticism or encouragement in their ongoing oppressions of the Tamils in the North, make us Tamils feel that even the Sinhala people are supporting the new forms of post Mullivaikal-war against the Tamils, namely a complete cleansing of Tamil existence in the Tamil homeland and replacing it with Sinhala Buddhist population. The Chief Minister of the elected Provincial Government has articulated the feelings of the people many times in the south too. This drives us to the conclusion that the will of the Sinhalese, not merely the extremists, but also the large majority, is to subjugate the Tamils. This exposes clearly that the war was not simply against Tiger terrorism, but an execution of a Sinhala-Buddhist hidden agenda to subjugate, if not exterminate, the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Looking back to all the measures taken by a Sinhala majoritarian parliament and by the conduct of its military in the North and East, it was a step by step oppression and extermination of the Tamils. What is happening today on the ground is the last stage of eradicating the roots of Tamil-existence, so that in a few years’ time students of history will read that Tamils once lived on that part of the island.
As one still concerned about a peaceful coexistence of peoples and religions on that island, I am surprised and saddened that the majority of the island have not yet woken up to the hidden agenda of the Rajapaksa brothers, namely, to cling on to power and wealth of the country at the expense of a peaceful coexistence of peoples and religions. So far with a very weak political opposition, there is no major discontent or opposition visible in Sri Lanka. Not even religious and civic leaders from the South have come out openly against the day to day genocidal acts of the government going on under the eyes of the elected representatives of the people in the North.
In my view, the post-independence political leaders of the majority Sinhalese have been coming to power by strengthening and riding on a Mahavamsa-mentality by which Sri Lanka is only for Sinhala Buddhists. They have whipped up anti-Tamil feelings to gain victory and once in power they could not give even the minimum reasonable rights to the Tamils. Successive governments have also favoured a system of education giving priority to the Mahavamsa mentality in their history books. What we have today is a Sinhala-Buddhist-extremism headed by the Rajapaksa regime descending fast into a national suicide. The civic and religious progressive leaders within the country have been reduced to silence or subjugation by fear. The country is ruined more by the passivity and fear of the good than by the activity and eloquence of the bad.
We can only hope against hope that:
1. the international community shake/wake us up to think realistically to come to terms with the realities on the ground as well as realities outside Sri Lanka( local politics and geopolitics);
2. the voice of the religious and civic leaders of the South, become a courageous voice to shout the saving truth: “the king is naked”; and,
3. the Buddhist leaders be liberated from a Mahavamsa vision and mission and become genuine followers of the Noble Teachings of Buddha.
Q: The government claims that it fought a war against terrorism? Your response to the media in the past was a simple, “Absolute nonsense”.
A: As a disciple of Jesus Christ and a catholic priest, I do not support or encourage any form of terrorism from any side. Unfortunately, undefined terrorism or hypothetical definitions of it to suit the states, have become a label one puts on an enemy to justify one’s own anti-terrorist actions. Even super-powers have not yet defined terrorism, but have loads of security measures to combat and control it. Under cover of national security and welfare of people, they resort to one-way state-actions which are clearly terroristic. Pre-emptive actions against suspected and perceived enemies and torture of alleged victims are clearly state-terrorism.
Any action by the victims of state-oppression, using only the last resort of hit-back-violence to defend themselves or to bring injustice against them to the attention of the world, is labelled hastily as pure terrorism. No effort is made to find out why they are violent in their reactions. If a child in the family suddenly resorts to some violence, is it the remedy to punish and even kill that child? And all actions against those helpless victims are labelled as terrorism and the state’s actions (state-terrorism) justified and even named unquestionable security-measures. In Sri Lanka the 1977 Prevention of Terrorism Act is very operative even five years after the war ended!
In Sri Lanka, the Tamils have experienced State-and military oppression long before the LTTE was born. The latter was born only as a response and reaction to resist state and military oppression. The majority of Sinhalese do not know the history of Sinhala military presence in the North and East from early 60s. They were initially sent to stop smuggling activities between Ceylon and India. But soon became the executive arm of fear for the discriminatory laws passed by the Sinhala-majority Parliament. I am a witness of army terror acts in the Tamil areas – firstly as a Lake House Correspondent in Mannar (1959-61) and then as a priest in Jaffna (1967-72).
I would like the majority Sinhalese to analyse the state-terrorism against the two JVP insurrections. The insurrections which were born out of deep discontent among the southern youth were brutally suppressed and thousands of Sinhala youth were killed by the state and it’s military. The Governments failed to identify and remedy the discontent. They killed them. So emboldened were they by their brutal success against JVP, they went also to crush the Tamil insurgents too.
Thus the Government failed to see the LTTE as a consequence of their own state discrimination and military oppressions already going on in the Tamil areas. When the non-violent and democratic protests of the Tamils against state-discriminations were attacked by mob-violence with the connivance of the Sinhala military, and later by military-violence itself, Tamil youth most affected by discriminations and pushed to the wall without a future, responded with Tamil violence.
The spiral of state and counter-state terrorisms became a war that was brutally ended in May 2009 with the collaboration of the international community including India. But the state-terrorism continues even today in other subtle forms of military-dictatorship, rape, grabbing of lands, instilling fear into the population etc. Hence the international donors, who collaborated with finance and weapons, to crush Tamil terrorism (and acknowledged as over 20 countries by the President), have now waking up to the truth that it was not merely a war against Tamil Terrorism. But much more, it was a mass massacre of civilians too as found by the UN-Panel Report and other photographic evidence.
The majority Sinhalese for whom the Tamil problem was merely Tamil terrorism from 1983 onwards, must look at least into the last 65 years of history and ask how the Government treated the Tamils. Celebrating victories of one phase of the Tamil struggle, and eradicating the roots of Tamil existence will not bring peace on the island.
Q: A true reconciliation is when an open and transparent process is undertaken to dissect the causes of the conflict, its ramifications and finding ways to honestly respond to all the issues involved in the war including payment of reparation to the victims. It was my feeling during the military conflict that the ordinary Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims did not support the war. But the successive governments and the movement that fought for the liberation did not understand this. The brutalities and military mechanisation overwhelmed the people for them to put their head above the parapet wall. Do you agree?
A: Yes, true reconciliation demands “an open and transparent process” into finding out the root causes of conflict and war. All the governments which came to power in the Sinhala-majority parliament, were able to bulldoze any discriminatory law against the Tamils. They were blinded by the Mahavamsa mentality and the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism which was exclusive in character. It was so embedded into the minds of the majority that even a President of the country remarked that the Tamils are like creepers and suckers of the Sinhala population. Only when they came to facing the LTTE which was clearly a result of the policies and actions of the successive governments, they woke up to a threat of violence from the other.
At least after celebrating a victory, the Government could have undertaken a sane and sincere approach towards reconciliation by following boldly the path of truth and justice. There was an iota of a chance of this politician becoming a statesman. But he messed up even his brutal victory. Without knowing the truth about the conflict and war and taking responsibility or accountability for the crimes committed against the victims, there cannot be reconciliation. Without admission of guilt there cannot be forgiveness and reconciliation. But unfortunately the Government is moving quite in the opposite direction by adding injuries to insult and making true reconciliation recede further away. Bulldozing the cemeteries of the LTTE and building military bases over them, preventing people even from mourning over their dead, asking the Tamils to sing the national anthem in Sinhalese, are acts of pouring oil into the fire. Building better roads, houses and hotels for increased Sinhala military presence and settling their families, instead of building houses for the victims of war, exposes their concern for reconciliation through rehabilitation.
You say that “The ordinary Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims did not support the war”. Yes the ordinary good people did not support the war. But they are not innocent of the war. In some way they also are the causes of war. Conflict, violence and war are all results of the so called “ordinary people” living a selfish and egoistic life, without concern for the others and the larger humanity. It is these large mass of ordinary people, by their disinterestedness and passivity help evil forces to thrive and take over leadership. Politicians and governments come to power, not so much on the intelligence and the truly patriotic giving support, but on the ignorance, disinterestedness of such people. They do not speak up their minds, do not take part in elections, and live a closed up selfish life. See to what extent the Rajapaksas are able to mislead the ordinary masses!
But who really supported the war when the conflict became a war? The war, in so far it is in consequence of oppression executed by the Sinhalese and suffered by the Tamils, is participated in different ways by each of the communities. For the majority Sinhalese, their government was using its forces fighting the “Tamil terrorists” to keep the country as a truly Sinhala Buddhist country without losing a part of the land or its power over the island. Their support was only passive, especially from the poor who sacrificed their sons joining the army and dying in the far away North in fighting “Tamil terrorists”. But the major support for the war led by the government came from foreign funds and weapons won by false propaganda of the Government. Whereas for the Tamils, who were targeted as threats to the country, and war was thrust upon them by long years of state-terrorism, the Tamil youth joining the LTTE were fighting in self-defense of their homeland and people. Thus it was not a war between two states or equal forces. One side was supported by the whole world through its misunderstanding whereas the other side was fighting in self-defense using its own children and its own resources.
But the government claiming to fight Tamil-terrorism received aid and weapons and succeeded in wiping out the LTTE and thousands of civilians. Basking in the sunshine of a victory, the Government and people are refusing to render accountability to the very donors of finance and weapons for the alleged war-crimes and not caring for the victims even after four years after the war ended.
At least now, what prevents the majority people from common sense and reasoning? The majority Sinhalese still suffer from “a minority-complex “. Of being threatened by those around namely, the Tamils. Hence the need to attack – a pre-emptive attack on the imagined enemy! Power hungry politicians find the Mahavamsa chronicle to be very useful to keep the masses with them by preaching Tamil-threats to Sinhala-Buddhist existence. Why are the Rajapaksas encouraging extremist Buddhist monks to further attacks against churches and mosques? It is a shame on all the religious leaders in the South where these attacks are taking place that they have not woken up against injustices and freedom. Self-centered religions and religious leaders commit a crime by their silence in the face of injustice.
Hence true liberation for all will begin when the majority Sinhalese liberate themselves from a Mahavamsa mentality, when power hungry politicians stop whipping up false Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism and when religious leaders become courageous enough to stand up for truth and justice. I wish the rise of at least a few courageous statesmen and religious leaders to lead the Sinhala people, and see the Tamils not as opponents and threats to their race but as co-habitants and cooperators.
To be continued on next Monday ( 7.4.2014)
Nilantha Ilangamuwa edits the Sri Lanka Guardian, an online daily newspaper, and he also an editor of the Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives, bi-monthly print magazine. He is the author of the just released non-fictions, “Nagna Balaya” (The Naked Power), in Sinhalese and “The Conflation”, in English. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org