Interview with Rev. Fr. Ravichandran Emmanuel

Rev. Fr. Ravichandran Emmanuel is a Roman Catholic priest from the Diocese of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka which is considered by the Tamils as part of their traditional homeland. All throughout his life he has lived in Jaffna experiencing decades long war and the final war in 2007-2009 as well as the 2002 peace process between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Since the end of the war during the last 11 years he has been an outspoken pastor against militarization of his homeland, land grab and the continuous violation of human rights by the Sri Lankan security forces. He is a leading member of the Tamil Civil Society Forum and a lecturer in Christian and Islamic Civilization in Jaffna University. 

1. You have lived through the war from the 1980s to 2002 and then through the peace time from 2002-2007. You also witnessed the final war between 2007-2009 which ended with the military defeat of the LTTE. Now you have spent 11 years after the military victory of the Sri Lankan state? What is the difference between the last 11 years compared with the other periods?

The Sri Lankan state and the foreign governments, including the NGOs say that the decades long war in Sri Lanka is over and now the country is free. Yes, this may be true for the Sinhala majority and the foreign governments, but not for us, Tamils, who live in the North and East of the country and not for those Tamils who are living abroad who have their relatives here in the Tamil homeland. We are under a total Sinhala military rule in our homeland, which was never the case before. During the previous periods of war between the 1980s-2002 and peace time in 2002-2007 there was no total Sinhala military rule. There was no total oppression of the Tamils by the Sri Lankan state. At least there was some level of equality. There was some level of respect for each other. There was space for political negotiation. But now there is no equality, but subjugation. There is no respect, but humiliation. There is no freedom for Tamil people, but fear. We find Sri Lankan soldiers in every village. Some are in uniform and others are in plain cloths. We are under constant surveillance. Those who oppose this oppressive system are threatened. Some are arrested and tortured. Women live in constant fear of sexual assault. There are thousands of widows and former female LTTE combatants. They are the most vulnerable group here. The LTTE is no more now, but the Sri Lankan state is afraid of the Tamil people. There is no space for political negotiation, but it is the will of the Sinhala-dominated state that is being implemented. The Sri Lankan state and its security forces can build military camps whenever they want and wherever they want. They grab our land at their will. The Buddhist monks build shrines with the support of the military as they like claiming that this is a Sinhala Buddhist country.  The ancient Tamil archeological sites in the North and East have been renamed as Sinhala Buddhist sites. Tamil names of places have been replaced with Sinhala names. The Sri Lankan state can build Sinhala settlements, as they wish in the traditional Tamil villages. During the time of war everyone says there is a war, but now the world says there is normalcy. In reality, what we experience as Tamils is a war by other means. The most painful thing of this period compared with the other periods of my life in my homeland is to call this period a normal period or a peaceful period. It is true that the death was instant during war time, but now what is happening is a slow death of my people, a slow destruction of our land and a slow destruction of our culture, religion, economy and historical memory.  It is a slow burning genocide. It is happening not directly by killing people but mainly structurally.  It is a victor’s peace. It is an oppressive peace maintained by the military might of the Sri Lanka state. The countries that give the biggest support to the Sri Lankan state are the USA, UK, India and China. Without them the Sri Lankan state cannot be strong and oppress the Tamils. For all of these powers there is normalcy in Sri Lanka because militarization of the Tamil homeland suits them, but not for the Tamil people who are forced to live in an open prison. It violates our basic human rights. Demilitarization is essential for peace.

2. Can you give some specific details about the extent of militarization and land grab in the Tamil region?

RE: In the district of Jaffna, the troop density is 1 to 5 or 6, which means one soldier for one Tamil family. This ratio exceeds the military-civilian ratio in Chechnya, Kashmir, and Baghdad (just  before the US invasion). By 2012, 14 out of 19 divisions of the Sri Lankan Army had been stationed in the Northern Province. There are 117 small, medium, and large-scale military camps in the Jaffna district alone, which also houses the largest High Security Zone in Palali. According to the Jaffna District Secretariat, 8,500 landowning families have been uprooted due to militarization of the district. In the district of Mullaiteevu in the Northern Province, the population is 120,000 and there are 60,000 soldiers stationed there. This means one soldier per two Tamils. Can you imagine this situation anywhere in the world? Furthermore, military cantonments are being built next to the military bases in some places in the North and East to permanently house the families of soldiers. There are at least 150,000 security force personnel in the North and East.  It is more than half of the Sri Lankan security force.

The process of militarization is intrinsically interwoven with large-scale acquisition of vast tracts of civilian land. Out of 18,000 square kilometers of total landmass in the North and East, the security forces have acquired 7,000 square km. Sri Lankan state justifies its acquisition of land by the military on the basis of Land Development Ordinance of 1935, which was introduced by the British colonial government in collaboration with the Sinhala ruling elite. Under this law, land can be acquired by the state to initiate different development projects and settlements. This has served throughout history in favor of the Sinhalese by discriminating against the Tamils. In these lands, in addition to maintaining military structures, the security forces engage in farming, food processing, providing houses for the local tourists, etc. It has to be noted that some of these lands were full of Tamil residential areas. Moreover, the most fertile swath of land covering 4,589 acres in Valikamam, in Jaffna district, has been occupied by the military for many decades. The Sri Lanka navy also engages in fishing. Mullikulam and Mayliddi are rich fishing villages whose original inhabitants are barred from entry. The security forces engage in tourism and have built tourist resorts in Kankasanthurai and in Chundikum. It also runs a range of restaurants, mini-supermarkets, and barbershops across the region. Some of these are located adjoining the A9 main road that connects the North and South. This is the road that is being frequently used by thousands of local and foreign tourists daily. In addition to these, the military runs large-scale farms and war museums. Permanent structures have been built as part of this business-military complex. In the Kilinochchi district in the North alone, there are twelve military-run farms where pulses, maize, and groundnut are grown using modern technology and around 2,500 people are employed in these farms. Some of them are former LTTE combatants, and a majority of the farm workers are women. Kilinochchi district is an agrarian region, which has very good soil and water resources. It is also a region that was severally affected by war displacing and destroying all most all the villages. As the military has engaged in farming and many other businesses, the Tamils who have been resettled in these areas have little access to means of income. Even the small number of Tamil farmers  who have started farming cannot compete with the low prices of products of the military farms. The military can provide these products at a low cost due to cheap labor and large-scale farming. This is how the total subjugation of the Tamil people continues. As I said it is a war by other means. What is most humiliating is that every day there are thousands of Sinhala tourists coming to our region. Some stay in the houses in the High Security Zone that are managed by the soldiers. The Tamil owners of these houses cannot go there. They continue to live as permanent displaced people and see every day how the Sinhala tourists occupy their houses.

3. What about the processes of justice to those who were killed in war, tortured, raped and made to disappear? Have the Resolutions of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Sri Lanka helped improve human rights situation in Sri Lanka? 

RE: No, there is no official process of justice for the victims of the last phase of the war. As you know the Sri Lankan state has withdrawn from the UN Resolution now. Earlier this Resolution was co-sponsored by the USA and the Sri Lankan state to establish mechanisms for accountability regarding the last phase of the war. What is most disturbing is that this Resolution was not legally binding and the Sri Lankan state was entrusted with the task of investigating into human rights violations during the last phase of the war. Can the perpetrator investigate his or her own crimes?  This Resolution reduced human rights violations to individual cases. The collective right of the Tamils as a nation and their right  to their  traditional homeland were not recognized. The destruction that the Tamil people underwent in the last phase of the war is collective. This was and is not recognized. Through the UN Resolutions juridical justice was promised by the international actors, but not political justice. This promise sounded like this: “Do not talk about your right as a nation, about a traditional homeland or right to self-determination. We will get juridical justice for you by finding out what happened to the thousands of people who were made to disappear. We will get your land back…” At the beginning many Tamils believed in the UN Resolutions, but it is clear now that we have been deceived again. We have neither juridical justice nor political justice. The Sri Lankan state continues its war by other means as I explained before without any international pressure.

How can the Sri Lankan state change its action? There is no moral, legal, economic, diplomatic and political pressure on the Sri Lankan government made by any international actor to change its path. Instead, we can see there are continuous joint military training sessions going on between the US and Sri Lankan military teams every year. India, China, Japan and Korea are involved in many development projects in Sri Lanka without questioning the continuous human rights violations of the Sri Lankan state. The Sri Lankan security forces live in total impunity. The Sri Lankan state continues with its Sinhala racist policies against the Tamils as well as Muslims. This is why the civil society groups in Korea should raise their voice regarding the true situation in the North and East of Sri Lanka.

4. What is the situation of the Christian and Muslim communities in Sri Lanka?

RE: After the military victory of the Sri Lankan state in 2009 over the LTTE the Sinhala Buddhist racism reached its climax. The belief that the entire island belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists became very strong. With this Sinhala Buddhist triumphalist attitude since 2010 we could see a rise of anti-Muslim attacks by the Sinhala Buddhist racist groups. Christian churches were also attacked. No one was convicted. This means not only the Sri Lankan security forces have total impunity with regard to the crimes committed against the Tamil people, but also the Sinhala racist groups have total impunity.  To attack a non-Sinhalese is seen as national heroism.  In the long run this is a tragic trend for the Sinhalese too. What are they going to give to their children in the future as moral values? It is true that my people are been oppressed by the Sinhala-dominated state, but I am sad about the Sinhalese. They have lost their moral conscience.  Unfortunately the Easter Sunday attacks on the Christian churches in 2019 has increased the anti-Muslim sentiments in the country. A new division has been created between the Christians and the Muslims. This affects the Tamils too. Christians in Sri Lanka are both Sinhala and Tamil.  The final outcome of these divisions is the Sri Lankan state’s justification of further militarization of the island in the name of national security. An oppressive and racist state that relies on military might is a godless state that makes its people live in suspicion of each other. This is why it is very important for the Tamils and Muslims to come together overcoming the fear of each other. In fact, in the Hindu, Muslim and Christian areas in the Tamil homeland every military camp has a Buddhist shrine. Every new Buddhist shrine that is being built is protected by military. This kind of Buddhism spreads fear and justifies oppression. But true Buddhism in my understanding dispels fear, spreads compassion and treats everyone equally. The Sri Lankan state has destroyed the great Buddhist teachings by making it racist and militaristic.  As a Catholic priest I respect the Buddha immensely, but I resist militarized racist Sinhala Buddhism. I am aware that some South Korean Buddhist monks are working with the Sinhala Buddhist monks. They come to Sri Lanka often. It is important that the peace loving South Korean Buddhists raise their voices against racism and militarization in Sri Lanka as they oppose war and militarization of the Korean peninsula. I believe that all those who genuinely follow their religions should come together because this kind of militarization and racism destroys the best in all our religious faiths; Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslims. The main role of any faith should be to dispel fear from the hearts and minds of the people and work to establish dignity of every human being.

5. The story you told us is very depressing and it looks like there is no hope. As a Christian leader how would you give hope to your people?

RE: Yes, the story is depressing, but we continue to resist oppression, land grab and militarization because we live in hope. We are not permitted to remember those who were killed in the war, but we continue to memorialize them amidst continuous military and police intimidation. For example every year for the last 11 years we have been remembering the final massacre of our people on 18 May which we call the Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day. Mullivaikkaal is the place where the final massacre of thousands of our people took place in 2009. For the Sri Lankan state this is the day of the military victory, but for the Tamils this is a day of remembering the unbearable loss of lives as well as the immense power of resistance of our people who decided to stay in their homeland. By remembering them we resist and keep hope. Not only that,  the family members of thousands of those who were made to disappear by the Sri Lankan security forces have been demanding the Sri Lanka state to tell the truth about what happened to their loved ones. Seeking truth gives us hope. The people whose land have been taken away by the military have been protesting for months and months. They do not give up their struggle. This is hope. The political prisoners who have been detained without trial for years and years resist. This is hope. There isn’t a single family that has not been affected by war in this land. Even after such an unbearable loss of lives we come together to protest in the face of massive militarization. I believe this human spirit cannot be destroyed and God is with us in our pain and resistance.

As a Christian I believe in the Resurrection. Yes, we are in the pain of loss, but we have faith in a liberating God who gives us hope. We experience this hope through the personal and collective acts of our community for justice. The early Christian communities, by their faith in Jesus and empowered by the Spirit of God, believed experientially that despite his brutal death under the Roman empire, Jesus was exalted by God as God’s son and was alive in God. In other words, the communities that believed in Jesus, through their faith and with the help of God, made the resurrection of Jesus possible and real.  We will continue to struggle in the hope of justice.  Our struggle is not to take revenge from the Sinhalese, but to seek justice. I have expressed this clearly to the Sinhala Christians in the South of Sri Lanka who have supported the Sri Lankan state’s war against the Tamils. Yes, the end goal of our struggle is reconciliation, but not cheap reconciliation that covers up crimes and justifies oppression and dehumanization of my people. It is not the kind of reconciliation that the Sri Lankan state and the global powers demand from us. They want us to forget the past and give up our collective political aspirations. True reconciliation starts from the foot of the cross, not without it. This means the basis of reconciliation has to be justice, equality and freedom where no nation is treated inferior or superior to the other.  As the Sinhalese would love to live in their land free from fear and want we Tamils too have the same human aspiration to live in our land. The foundation of peace has to be built on this recognition. Love your neighbor as yourself. Recognize your neighbor’s dignity, as you would want your dignity to be recognized by others. I think this applies to North and South Koreas too.

Interview organized by Shin Seung-min