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Exclusive: An Interview With Rev. S. J. Emmanuel – Final Part


The following interview originally was printed in, The Conflation, a latest book written by the author.


( April 7, 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.

Here is the final part of the interview;

Q: What went wrong with the LTTE to face the defeat in the war? What are your views of the reasons for the government’s “success”?

A: For both the defeat of the LTTE and for the success of the Government, there was a common reason:
  1.  that the international community misunderstood the reasons behind the conflict and the war;
  2. that post-September 11th of politics of the US made a big impact – negatively for the LTTE and positively for the Sri Lanka Government.
  3. The LTTE was banned as a terror organisation and talks with Ranil-Government was derailed by the super powers moving a Washington Conference excluding the LTTE. All super-powers, including India collaborated in crushing LTTE as a pure terrorist-organisation, without any consideration for their political goal.
  4. For the Sri Lankan Government unlimited finance and weapons were given by the international community including strong support from India.

Only after the end of the war it became clear to the international donors of finance and weapons:
  1. That the war was not simply a war against Tamil terrorism.
  2. That the Sri Lankan Government of Rajapaksa will not listen to old friends but new ones who will support a 4-brother-dictatorship on the island and overlook freedoms of the press.
  3. That Sri Lanka’s war against Tamil terrorism was a cover for their unwillingness to give equal dignity and rights to Tamils and to share power with them.

Hence the defeat of the LTTE and the Success of the Government have to be understood in a wider background, namely, the defeat was a military defeat, true, but the Tamil struggle will continue. Similarly, the success of the government is not the end of the story, it has to prove that they can win the hearts and minds of the surviving Tamils.

Q: The post war situation has exposed Sri Lanka as a failing state due to both legislature and the executive being all out to undermine the independence of the judiciary. Independent judiciary is a must for the much needed freedom and rule of law. In your book, “Let my people go” you have stated: “If peace is conceived as the outcome of doing justice to the truth of realities, then all genuine lovers of peace must at all cost shun untruth and injustice.” Bearing this in mind, do you think, the Sri Lankan society has a better understanding of justice, freedom and their personal liberty?

A: Truth, Justice and Peace/Reconciliation are religious values preached by all religions. Any human organisation that overlooks Truth and Justice cannot enjoy peace or reconciliation. One cannot disconnect or change the order of these values. One cannot talk of Truth and Reconciliation, without addressing oneself to justice and its demands. One cannot bury the Truth of past realities and seek peace or reconciliation.

The pre-May2009 situation of war of the Government against Tamil terrorists, helped the Government to cover up or distract attention from its brotherhood-dictatorship and the amassing of wealth by the Rajapaksa clan. Masses, in their euphoria of a victory of the Mahinda and Mahavamsa Chinthanaya, overlooked the deficiencies of democracy in the Government and the building up of the Rajapaksa Empire. But the post-war situation of a victorious –government showed more of its core-corruptions. While they could bull-doze their way into the North and East without any challenge and escalate their military control, Sinhala-settlements, Buddhist temples, commit rape and disappearances with impunity, they needed to guarantee their power among the majority Sinhalese by bringing the legislature and judiciary to suit their needs. Hence the Government using Sinhala-euphoria of a victory of King-Mahinda-Dutugenunu, made serious amendments to the Constitution and handled the Judiciary too with an iron hand. The blame is not totally on the Rajapaksa-clan. What about the parliamentarians elected by the people? Love of power and corruption seemed to have their world-vision and understanding of the values of democracy. The more enlightened sections of the opposition and of the civil society, and the non-Buddhist religious leaders filled with fear –all put together could not bridle the Rajapaksa and his masses to a common-sense path.

Q: Comparative analysis of the political history of Sri Lanka will confirm that the economic revolution progressed is conflicting with the deep rooted feudal system. This conflict has helped evolving an elite class of politicians who are able to manipulate the system of governance for the few. Your take on this please?

A: After 450 years of colonialism, especially as a consequence of British colonialism, power went into the hands of the better-educated and elite. Though there were democratic parties and regular elections, though there were leftist LSSP (Lanka Sama Samaja Party) and CP (Communist Party), the masses were manipulated by the few at the centre. The first post-independence Government of the UNP was one of Colombo-based elites. But soon Mr. SWRD Bandaranaike sought people’s power with the help of the Buddhist monks who were grass-root leaders. Thus the elite, this time of the SLFP, were supported by the Buddhist clergy. Getting the support of the Buddhist-clergy from the grass-roots meant accepting their narrow vision of the Mahavamsa that the island is primarily for the Sinhala Buddhists only! All successive Governments used the Mahavamsa mentality and the consequent Sinhala Buddhist extremism for their political success. Governments changed hands by whipping up false-nationalism and fears of the others – the Tamils and the Muslims!

Hence even an insurrection born out of discontent among the youth of the south was brutally put down without addressing the root causes of the discontent. Similarly the rise of the LTTE against racial discriminations has been brutally put down. What we see during the last few years is the worst form of government where a brothers-dictatorship is able to manipulate the masses.

For a change to take place in the upper rungs of power, there should be more “enlightenment” for the Buddhist leadership of the country. The Sri Lankan Buddhism, claiming to be unique, so protestantish and politicsed as to react to other Buddhist leaders of the world like Dalai Lama, has a sacred responsibility to return to the sources of Buddhist teaching, not to exaggerate the Mahavamsa chronicle to replace the Buddhist teachings, tread the path of Truth and compassion and save the island from a national suicide.

Q: Years ago in a discussion meeting with B.R. Ambedkar in Colombo, a Tamil political leader went on to explain the conflict between Sinhalaese and Tamils. Ambedkar’s response was: “why Tamils can’t convert their religion and become Buddhists, then the conflict will be largely over”. I do not subscribe to his assertion and I am against forceful conversions.

A: I heard a few decades ago, reacting to caste-discrimination among Tamils, few hundreds in the Northern peninsula converted themselves overnight to Buddhism. But this conversion did not last long and brought no change in the attitudes of the Tamils. Hence changing religion is no solution to escape discrimination. Instead all believers, including my own, should reform their religions into accepting equality of man and his basic rights.( In my early years as priest, I had to face a hostile crowd in my church for giving equal rights to people getting married in my church!)

All religions have and teach the noble truths of love compassion and brotherhood. But the practice of religion needs courage of convictions which is lacking not only among believers but also among leaders! Religious leaders make use of human beings to enlarge their membership or following. They forget that religions are meant to serve human beings - to love one another and live peacefully.

Q: In law, religion is a basic human right and no one have the right or power to force and convert anyone. But my concern is: “Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalists” ruining the rights of the Tamils including their right to self-determination. Will Sri Lanka ever deal with the fundamentalism of the Buddhist and how this issue should be handled to bring a fairer society in Sri Lanka?

A: I have written and spoken enough as an outsider – a Tamil catholic priest – to identify Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalists as the root cause of the conflict in Sri Lanka (vide Agonies and Aspirations of the Tamil Struggle- Chapter 2). If Buddhists can proclaim and practice equality of all human beings on the island, then there is hope for a bright future. The teachings of Buddha, the enlightened One, must not be overtaken by the teachings of the Mahavamsa! Thic Nacthan – a much respected Vietnamese Buddhist monk in Paris, says “If you want peace, become peace, if you want freedom, become free” How many of our Buddhist monks have peace and freedom in their hearts? Covering their hatred for the non-Buddhists under the cover of a Mahavamsa-promoted patriotism and practicing it as Sinhala Buddhism spells a disaster for the future of this island. I will appeal to my Buddhist brothers to return to the teachings of the Enlightened Buddha as practiced in other lands where Buddhism thrives, and give up this extremist and exclusive vision based purely on the Mahavamsa chronicle written many centuries after Buddha. A return to genuine Buddhist teachings is the hope for a peaceful Sri Lanka.

Q: At the beginning of the Tamil rebellion there was sympathy and support from the right thinking Sinhalese and Muslims, but later this support base disappeared and as a result the Tamils (or even the LTTE) became isolated. This is what happened with the left wing JVP militancy in the south. We lost hundreds of thousands of youth in the counter insurgency operations that helped to create democratic dictatorships under the pretext of democracy. Is there any hope of revolutions and violent rebellions in the future?

A: Militancy is not a luxury of the powerful, but the last resort of the oppressed after having tried non-violent methods without success. I hope and pray that the oppressors- elite and communalists - who have put down violent protests by more violent and unjust ways, sooner realise their mistakes and make amends for them before the cries of the oppressed takes over them.

Militant actions, even for a just cause, have only temporary support from the people depending on how far those militant actions promote their cause or not. LTTE too had those phases. But waxing and waning of support for militant movements, do not justify the conduct of those in power as democratic. Drunk with military success they become sooner or later dictatorial.

In our context of how the Tamil rebellion was put down brutally, there was a long buildup of a hegemonic Sinhala mentality which paved the way for a dictatorial government. Rajapaksa is the result of a long pregnancy, namely, all the political leaders who rode on a Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism of hate and ethnic cleansing of the Tamils.

Q: You are the head of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF). How do you summarise GTF’s activities and achievements in the post-war period in the country?

A: GTF is a post-Mullivaikal organisation, set up to coordinate the democratic and non-violent efforts of the Tamil diaspora to help the cause of liberation of the Tamils still surviving in the island of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Government having labelled every Tamil as a terrorist or potential terrorist, and succeeded in getting all Tamil diaspora organisations as terrorist-organisations, saw the GTF also as the remnants of the LTTE. The Government after officially declaring the war against the LTTE as victoriously ended declared a new war against the Tamil diaspora and made propaganda against us. But we remaining non-violent, transparent, democratic and sincerely wishing well for all the peoples of Sri Lanka, have won acceptance and recognition to speak up on the international arena not only on behalf of the Tamils living both within and without Sri Lanka but also for the general welfare of a peaceful Sri Lanka..

After dedicating a good part of my priestly life for educating hundreds of priests at the Kandy Seminary as well as in the Jaffna seminary, I have not taken a leadership role against the welfare of the whole country. My collaborators in the GTF as well as Governments and international institutions with whom we work have understood us. There is nothing in the vision and mission spelt out by the GTF constitution, which spells a threat or hatred to Sri Lanka and its peoples. Our wish is that the progressive forces in the South join hands with us in our common efforts.

Q: There are several Tamil organisations in the Tamil Diaspora in addition to GTF. One of them is the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, which is headed by a former LTTE legal representative, Rudrakumaran. His dream is none other than establishing a separate state of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. In his New Year message issued in January, he said: “Let us take necessary steps in 2014 to further isolate the Sri Lankan state in the world arena and march forward towards freedom of the Tamil Nation”. Do you think separate state for the Tamils is an achievable objective considering the 30 years of failed violent warfare in Sri Lanka.

A: The call for a separate state was born after 30 years of non-violent and democratic struggle of the Tamils to live as human beings with equal rights and freedom to preserve and foster their ethnic, cultural and religious heritage in their homeland for many centuries. It is the refusal of the basic rights and freedoms of the Tamil people which pushed them to call for a separate state of Tamil Eelam. The second phase of the struggle in which the Sinhala Government and its forces treated the Tamils has strengthened their conviction that only a separate state can guarantee their rights and freedom. The defeat of the militant struggle and the post-Mullivaikal events has only strengthened the convictions of the Tamils about a separate state. The aspirations of a people to survive as a dignified people cannot be defeated or erased easily. Hence the people’s struggle for justice and freedom cannot be determined by temporary defeats and losses.

The Tamil struggle to win their human dignity, rights and freedom will continue on many fronts – at home and abroad – vis a vis the Sri Lankan Government and vis a vis the international community – and by different organisations at different levels because the culprit of our oppression and destruction is primarily the Sri Lankan Government with the help and connivance and omissions of the international community. While those within the island will continue their struggle on the ground vis a vis the Government and its supporters, the diaspora organisations will struggle vis a vis the international bodies. Thus for the same goal of liberating a people to their dignity and rights as a people on the island, all Tamil organisations will stands.

Q: We now have a Chief Minister for the Northern Provincial Council, who seems to be very provocative and is providing his views on the several issues. He is strongly objecting to the idea of a separate state but asserting on devolution of power under a united Sri Lanka. Is this position acceptable to the GTF and if so will you work with him?

A: The GTF as a diaspora organisation is happily working with the TNA and its provincial government. Mr.C. V. Wigneswaran, becoming the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council, was welcomed by many progressive forces in the South. Of course some among them thought that the man from Colombo with family relationship with Sinhalese will be pliable to their way of thinking. But those who knew him for a longer time knew that he was a man of principle, who spoke out his mind not as a politician, but as a promoter of justice in the society. Some Tamils were unhappy that he was not an experienced politician like Mr. Sambandan. But the unanimous choice of Mr.Wigneswaran by the TNA and the Tamil people, to lead the Provincial Council was a litmus test for the good will of the Government to cooperate with the Tamil leadership for their welfare. Mr. Wigneswaran, unlike Mr. R. Sampanthan who was second to none in making eloquent speeches in Parliament to drive home his arguments for justice to his people, is a strong human and religious being who fearlessly speaks out his convictions and knocks the nails on the head. Without losing his refined personality and giving up his convictions or hiding his intentions, he asks the right questions even from the Emperor. Hence he is not provocative as a politician, but asking questions which need only common-sense answers. Why is the military bending backwards on seeking and recruiting young Tamil women into the army? Why not a Governor without any militaristic but civic background or a Provincial Secretary who can work more with the Province than with the Centre? Why should the Tamils sing the national anthem in Sinhalese? These questions when asked in Parliament, the politicians have way of turning away. But here the Chief Minister is asking in public both the country and the international community.

To dispel the inborn fears among the majority Sinhalese that the Tamils are bent on separatism, and to start a new path to find a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict, he chose not separatism but living and working within a united Sri Lanka with the right devolution of power. This view is also our view and we too are bending backwards to dispel fears of separatism and seeking a peaceful solution within a united Sri Lanka.

Q: The hot topic these days is the forthcoming UN resolution against Sri Lanka. This is said to be drafted by the United States – a country that contributes heavily to the annual budget of the UN. Some say the resolution passing through is a foregone conclusion. Will the resolution make any difference to Sri Lanka? If it does not what could happen next?

A: The UN and the UNHRC, consisting of 193 nations, though ranking high in keeping peace in the world, are not without weakness and corruption. After the 2nd world war these have served order and peace to a large extent. But they are not free of self-interests and hypocrisies.

The war in Sri Lanka, more than the ethnic conflict, has got internationalised because the Sri Lankan Government presented the ethnic problem as one of terrorism, consequently received international help by LTTE-ban, finance and weapons to crush terrorism. Those international bodies which collaborated with the Sri Lankan Government (over 20 countries helped us, claims Rajapaksa) are now asking a question about accountability for the help given but misused by the Government.

As long as the Government rejects international views, recommendations and offers of help from the international community, Mahinda might retain his power, but we the Sri Lankans are the poorer.

As Tamils, we know the history of those who collaborated with the Government before Mullivaikal and those who in humiliation and in repentance try to rectify past mistakes. Our struggle is led first by the Tamil people and their representatives on the ground, secondly supported by the diaspora and the Tamil Nadu and thirdly by the support given by the super-powers – India, US and Europe – for their own interests.

The final resolution of the conflict towards a peaceful Sri Lanka depends on the horse, you may take to the water, but will it drink?

Q: Certain Tamil political parties are calling for sanctions against Sri Lanka. Do you think it will help the country to find a solution to the problems if the United Nations imposes sanctions?

A: Punishment will never force anyone to do the good that is needed. Neither the UN nor any organisation of the international community can force us to think and change our ways. If any sanctions are imposed, it is the poor masses and not the Rajapaksa clan that will feel the pain. The government has been claiming that new friends will always support them and save them. But this begging to keep their present supporters happy, will be a long time burden on the future generations as well as subjugating the country to new powers.

Q: The government is still considering having South African model peace and reconciliation process. Do you think Sri Lanka is serious about it and if such a peace effort is tried could the problems be solved?

A: The Sri Lankan Government is not at all serious about peace or reconciliation, nor about learning anything useful from the South African experience. When the South African leaders offered their help to find a solution, two years ago, the Sri Lankan Government declined saying that they have learnt lessons from the Norwegian mediation and that they will seek a home-grown solution by themselves. But now with international pressure growing around it, the Sri Lankan Government had thought of a cover-up proposal, namely, to tell the world that they are seriously considering the model of South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The attempt of the Sri Lankan Government to overlook the truth about the conflict and bypass justice and accountability issues by this deceptive cover-up effort to deceive the people and the world will not succeed.

Further, the TRC of South Africa was a post-political solution event, when the black majority took power and equality of races was acknowledged. But in Sri Lanka, the mood and the vision about a true reconciliation are puerile, to say the least. Whom are they trying to deceive? Development, and that too for the Rajapaksa clan and majority, whereby the Tamils are enslaved rather than empowered, cannot be a way to reconciliation. We have not even a real draft for the basics of a political solution – acknowledge the equality and human rights of all human beings on the island, take responsibility for the crimes of the past and show good will in sharing power with non-Sinhala Buddhists.

Q: It is time for us to conclude our interview. We wish you good health and success in your work. Is there anything you would like to touch on before we close?

A: God has given us a paradise island and a mix of ethnic and religious groups to live peacefully and become a model of multiethnic and multi-religious coexistence and collaboration for peace and prosperity. But extremism and fanaticism favoured by the majority and used as a vehicle for political power is ruining this paradise island. I still hope for courageous statesmen and heroic religious leaders to stand up for truth and justice to all that is happening within this small island save it from a national suicide.

The 2014 Geneva resolution is not at all against a people, but an international warning to the present government about the truth of what is happening even four years after the war and calls on the government to stop its war against the Tamils. And by other means, to stop all dictatorial and anti- minority actions and change track by cooperating with the international community in seeking accountability for the crimes committed in the past and seek a sincere way of truth and justice to peace and reconciliation.

As I conclude my interview with you, the Resolution is passed in Geneva with a clear majority agreeing and abstaining. Those who opposed the Resolution and supported Sri Lanka, made many suggestions during the draft-discussions to soften it and finally voted against it. But India sat silently on the fence till the end, gave hope to many that it will go in the way as it did for previous two resolutions, but disappointed many of us not only by abstaining but by its speech going along with Pakistan- a crisscross of self-interests!

I hope and pray that the Sri Lankan Government cooperates as much as possible with the Resolution of the UNHRC. I hope it will grasp a new chance to win credibility and respectability in the international community, bow down to the search for Truth and to the demands of Truth for justice and accountability.

 Nilantha Ilangamuwa edits the Sri Lanka Guardian 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 ilangamuwa@gmail.com

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