“The identity of Sri Lanka must be redefined”

“The identity of Sri Lanka must be redefined”

We need a reconciliation process in the relationship between Tamils and Singhalese

Interview with Professor SJ. Emmanuel, President of the Global Tamil Forum

When in 1948, in the context of decolonisation, the British left the former island Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, they left the country without offering a common political perspective to the two ethnic groups, the Singhalese majority and the Tamil minority. By introducing the British Westminster system, the majoritarian system, they conveyed the power to the Singhalese. This legacy was the main reason for the subsequent clashes between the two ethnic groups, which were above all characterised by a high level of discrimination against Tamils. Over time, a Civil War evolved from the Tamils’ initially peaceful protests against the oppression, that was fought with great severity. Periodic ceasefire agreements did not lead to solving the problem, because on the part of the Singhalese, there was no willingness for a political solution. In May 2009 after a terrible battle, the Civil War that had lasted for almost 30 years, ended with a victory of the Singhalese army. Since that time there have been efforts on the part of the USA as well as other countries to examine the war final period with respect to  possible war crimes. In the course of its autumn session in Geneva the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution, which was supposed to shed light on the darkness here. On the sidelines of this conference, Current Concerns talked to Father SJ Emmanuel, President of the Global Tamil Forum, and asked him about his assessment of the situation in and around Sri Lanka.

Current Concerns: Parliamentary elections were held in Sri Lanka, recently, Rajapaxe intended to become Prime Minister. These were anxious times for the Tamils. What is the political situation today?

Professor SJ. Emmanuel: Rajapaxe could be prevented, fortunately. However, he holds a seat in parliament as an ordinary representative, and with him there are 95 other parliamentarians who support this position. The so-called coalition government between the United National Party (UNP), a Western-oriented party, and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that regards itself as a national party, has been established in a common agreement and in the next two years we will see how the situation will develop. Both parties work together for the first time. That may be positive, but they have to do something concrete within the two years.

Of what are you thinking?

I am speaking about the relationship between Tamils and Singhalese. A reconciliation process is urgently required. Symbolically, the new government has already done something. They stopped Rajapaxe’s policy  and thus terminated the expulsions of Tamils. They also returned a small part of the territory to the affected Tamils. Furthermore the newly elected parliament appointed a Tamil parliamentarian as opposition leader. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is represented with 16 members in parliament. This is the first time in over thirty years that a Tamil parliamentarian is opposition leader. President Sirisena wanted it that way. That was an important sign. However, it is a difficult task for the opposition leader.

Why that?

On the one hand he has to represent his people, on the other hand he has a general task. He has to lead the opposition in parliament. Fortunately, he is a person with a lot of experience. He is 82 years old, and he will cope with the task. Another sign, indicating that the new president is interested in a reconciliation with the Tamils, is the fact that the President and the Foreign Minister have asked me to come to Sri Lanka to assist in this process of reconciliation.

Will you do that?

I have accepted the invitation. Some young people immediately said: You have to go. But it will take time to see how the country is developing now. In order to contribute to reconciliation I will continue to speak and to write. As a religious person – when I travel to Sri Lanka – I want  to encourage all Christians towards reconciliation. I am convinced that the whole affair is a big challenge for both sides. For example, the victims, the affected people, who are complaining that their family members have still not returned home, although the war came to an end 6 years ago, and that the territory continues to remain under military control. Sinhala politicians have the task to calm the mood in the country and to change the attitude towards the Tamils. During 60, 70 years one or the other political party has pursued their policies at the expense of the Tamils.

How must we understand that?

The parties were convinced that it was necessary to suppress the Tamils in order to protect themselves against them. UNP and SLFP have managed to completely defeat the Tamils, but we Tamils have been suffering severely during all these years.  In 1983 the UNP started the great pogroms, and during the reign of the SLFP under Bandaranaike all this developed to a war, and the territories of the Tamils were bombed. For us Tamils that means that both parties are responsible.
The victory in 2009 over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is celebrated as a fundamental victory over the Tamils. But on 4 February the National Day, the acting president said for the first time: “We have won the war, but it was a cruel war.” That was very brave, indeed.

Why is this courageous?

The Singhalese celebrated (the victory) as a great success and heroic victory with military parades, while the Tamils were weeping for their relatives that had been killed in that war. Now they hear from the new president, that the war was cruel. This means that the Singhalese may start considering that not everything was right what happened then. By that remark he gave rise to a little hope for us Tamils.

How does the new prime minister conduct himself?

For a long time Ranil Wickremasinghe had been the leader of the UNP and, with the help of the Norwegian government he had performed peace talks with the LTTE, but the then President of the SLFP, Bandaranaike, interfered. It is hard for Ranil to explain the new attitude towards the Tamils to his people. Bandaranaike is an important person in the process. Although she does not hold a seat in parliament, she played a very important role in the election of the new president. She was later appointed as head of the Reconciliation Committee.

What is the mood like in the Singhalese population?

For the Singhalese, the LTTE [Tamil Liberation Organization, which has long fought for a separate Tamil state, editor’s note] was the opponent. The soldiers are the heroes, they ended the war, they saved them and brought peace back to them. They see themselves as a peaceful nation. This is the image that the majority of the Singhalese have. But the truth is quite different. The war is over, but there is no real peace, and above all, no understanding. This means that the challenges for the political parties are great, and we Tamils understand the difficulties that this entails.

What contribution can the Tamils make to this goal of reconciliation?

If possible we want to assist. We can write and encourage people to explain the truth about the whole story to the Singhalese. We Tamils have not done so in the past. We have never edited a newspaper in Singhalese or English in Colombo to explain to people in Sri Lanka what the Tamils want. That’s a problem. We only had newspapers for the Tamil people, but not for everybody in Sri Lanka. So we Tamils were always outsiders to the entire population, and that was a big problem. The majority in Sri Lanka think: We are Buddhist Singhalese, we are the owners of the country, and all the rest are minorities and thus second class citizens. In order to change this perception and to understand the country as a multi-ethnic and a multi-religious country we will take a lot of time and courage. Whether the current government has this perseverance, we do not know.

But you have some hope that the situation might improve.

The way the new government is taking small steps forward gives cause for hope. But whether it will be able to comprehensively revise the existing attitude towards the Tamils, whether it will change the constitution etc., we cannot say now, but it has taken the first steps in this direction. Now some intellectual Singhalese write about this development in Colombo. But the people around the former president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaxe, are opponents. There are efforts of the government to integrate the Tamils into the state, with a common flag, a common understanding that the Tamils also belong to it. The identity of Sri Lanka needs to be redefined. The Singhalese say we are Sri Lankans, but they talk about the Tamils as Tamils. I told the Foreign Minister that I would never accept the national flag without the Tamils being represented on it. That would not work. That would be a big mistake.

At the UN Human Rights Council the United States made some efforts to investigate into the war crimes at the end of the Civil War. How do you assess the new resolution?

Before the end of the war the United States had mobilised more than 50 countries to give money and weapons for the war against terrorism. The United States had hoped that afterwards Sri Lanka would become ally with the United States. But the president turned away from the US and towards China. That is why the United States then tried to propose a resolution against the Sri Lankan government for war crimes after the war. But the other states voted against the US and the Western world and celebrated the end of the war as a victory over terrorism. The United States were humiliated. That was the first time that a resolution introduced by  the US was rejected here in this building in Geneva.

What was the reaction of the United States?

They introduced another resolution, which was also rejected. Finally, the US were successful in 2014. The Human Rights Council instructed the High Commissioner for Human Rights to carry out an investigation of the war crimes within a year. Shortly before the report of the High Commissioner, there was a change of government in Sri Lanka. The USA then hoped for the possibility of a rapprochement, they have their own agenda. In September 2015, the report on the war crimes came out. The Tamils were satisfied. The new government took note of this report. But they rejected the proposed “mixed Court”.

What do we have to understand by a mixed Court?

A court, composed of national and international judges.

Why do we need it, what is its purpose?

The Tamils have no confidence in the national judges. All Tamils request at least one internationalised court. The new resolution, which was introduced by both the United States and Sri Lanka, was adopted without one dissenting vote in the UN Human Rights Council. We Tamils took this decision with a certain caution. The government promised that they would cooperate with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. That is new. It is open how they want to make their own people understand this move and to what extent they will actually cooperate.

What does this mean for the government?

They are now facing the task of adapting their constitution so that this court can become active. Government officials and military officers are under suspicion of having committed war crimes. So far they have celebrated the victory, now they are under suspicion of having committed war crimes.

How do you see this new development at the UN?

The UN has literally twice apologised that they did not stop the massacres of the civilians. Now this is a new opportunity. The UN must now remain vigilant and observe the new developments closely. The latest resolution demands that Sri Lanka must publish a report on its efforts within 18 months. Thus, the UN has taken on an important task. It is the only hope for the Tamils that the government is put under pressure to take further steps here. For the first time in history, a coalition of the two parties takes over this difficult task in order to build up a new Sri Lanka. We wish it a lot of courage and honesty. We Tamils also demand an honest attempt at finding a political solution in addition to the reparations to those affected. Thereafter the reconciliation process can be realised.

Professor Emmanuel, thank you very much for this interview.     •

(Interview: Thomas Kaiser)

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