By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
The most outspoken Bishop in Sri Lanka, Dr Rayappu Joseph of Mannar says a purely domestic inquiry will not be perceived by Tamils as impartial, at least at this stage. Also, what should be done now as first step is to cooperate with the UN investigation and discuss next steps after that report is published.
Following are excerpts:
Where have the Tamils gone wrong in resolving the national issue?
A: Tamils have historically asked for recognition of their identity as a community, equality with all other Sri Lankans, asked for federal or such system of power-sharing and engaged in democratic and peaceful struggles. It is only when these were not being realized, and their efforts met with violence and armed suppression that Tamils felt compelled to demand a separate State and the youth resorted to armed militancy. In that process, Tamil militants have also committed abuses against Tamils themselves and others. It has also been difficult to have united positions within Tamils, and have self-reflection about where we had gone wrong.
Where have the Sinhalese/the governments gone wrong in resolving the national issue?
A: The Sinhalese and the government need to recognize the aspirations of the Tamils as a distinct community, that want to govern themselves in their areas of historical habitat, in areas where we are more in number. Same way, the Sinhalese governs themselves in areas they are majority, according to their way of life. They also need to recognize Tamils want to be treated equally, and want acknowledgement and accountability for abuses committed against them. These should not be equated with or viewed with suspicion of being aimed at creating a separate country, encouraging terrorism or taking revenge.
A: We have had so many local processes, which have always been called ‘credible’ by the Sinhalese dominated governments that established them. There is one still underway. Very little had been achieved by such process over decades. Even some of the positive findings and recommendations have been ignored.
Have you read the letter by the UN High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who says ‘time given for Colombo in fact gives room to gather more new information related to war crimes to make the report stronger’? What is your response to this statement?
A: It’s good if new information is gathered to make the report stronger. That is our wish too. But, it is difficult to see how new information can be gathered if the UN team cannot visit Sri Lanka and even if they visit, unless the government guarantees a free and enabling environment, where no one will face any reprisals, it will not be possible. The previous government threatened to take stern action against those who cooperated with the UN. There have been reports of those trying to cooperate with the UN investigation being killed, arrested last year. There were even threats to arrest me. It is good, the new government has not resorted to that type of threats. But, the new government has not said we are free to cooperate with the investigation nor has it given a guarantee that there will be no reprisals.
Most Tamils considered the former UPFA Government as a failure. Isn’t it time that they work cordially with the new government, in order to put things right?
A: Majority of Tamils have voted for the new President. I personally, the TNA and many others have been discussing with the government our concerns in a cordial way. We also extend our support to the government in matters that concern all ethnic, religious groups in Sri Lanka, such as rule of law, independence of the judiciary, media freedom, extrajudicial killing, disappearances etc. as we had previously experienced. But, we also expect the new government to reciprocate and be sensitive to Tamil concerns, which we think should be concerns of all Sri Lankans if we are to think of Tamils also being part of Sri Lanka.
Thousands of Tamils in the North staged a massive protest against the decision of the UNHRC to defer the report of the UN investigation on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. Don’t you think such attempts discourage the new government from working towards a national solution?
A: Tamils were expressing our concerns and frustrations. This is an essential feature of a democracy and good governance. The previous government rejected the UN process, and this government asking for a deferral makes Tamils concerned that process will be shelved. Publication and debate of the UN report will assist in addressing the national question. There has to be openness to read, understand and discuss the findings and recommendations inside Sri Lanka. After all, this report is based a lot on stories of Tamils and probably even non Tamil Sri Lankans. The deferral of the report is also a deferral of the voice of those who went before it, braving threats and other difficulties.
Some critics say these protests by the Tamils can change the political scenario giving room for other parties to take hold of the government. What is your response?
A: The political interests of parties in the South have always overridden interests and concerns of Tamils. We are not surprised it’s happening again. But, we are demanding and hoping it will not continue at least now. Why should we stop voicing our long-standing grievances to help one Sinhalese political party or alliance?
This is a new government and they are going for a new home-grown mechanism to probe the war crime allegations. What made you feel that you have no faith in the processes even before the format has been announced?
A: There have been no indications given how this new domestic mechanism will be different to the ones that the previous government has come up with, for us to have any faith or confidence. I have personally made great efforts to collaborate with previous domestic mechanisms, especially the LLRC. I made a long submission, with six attachments, with 266 names of those extra-judicially killed and others made to disappear in the Mannar District alone in the area out of the war zone during the last phase of the war. I provided documentary evidence from government sources, when I asked about 146,679 persons being unaccounted for during the last eight months of the final phase of the war. After more than four years, I have not had a substantial response, except being subjected to CID interrogations and their only concern was whether I had made this known to any foreign governments. Thousands of Tamils have gone before previous domestic mechanisms. What have they got?
Do you feel that the Tamils had not been consulted on the proposed local mechanism?
A: The TNA had never been told or consulted about this at all. To all Tamils this came as a shock. This appears to be an arbitrary announcement. Such arbitrary announcements are not healthy for moving forward.
What is unclear to you about the commitment this government has promised to the Tamils?
A: There is no clear commitment, related to Tamil aspirations in the 100-day programme or in the manifesto. But, some positive gestures have been made, such as the appointment of civilian governors to the North and East, and level of intimidation has been less. But, so many other issues, such as the political question, militarization, political prisoners, land grab, etc. remain.
Do you have confidence in the new government that a fair probe would be conducted?
A: We have no confidence in a purely domestic probe.
Is there any other proposal from the Tamil community on how the probing process should be conducted, if the mechanism they are working on is not satisfactory?
A: The first step is for the government to cooperate with the UN investigation and create an environment for Sri Lankans to cooperate with it without fear. Then its findings and recommendations have to be seriously studied, disseminated and discussed in Sri Lanka. The government has to take the lead to address doubts and concerns of those who maybe opposed to it, without bowing down to such forces. Civil society, professionals, religious leaders also have to do the same.
It is the opinion of many that the claims of ‘genocide’ made by you and the Chief Minister of the Northern Province will only harm the process to resolve the national issue. What is your response?
A: Not at all. The CM and NPC have been elected by nearly 80% of our people and they have to take actions to highlight the concerns of those who elected them. Our CM had made this proposal to the NCP after a tough study on the issue and came out with this truth and he had the right to do so. To my knowledge, main points in the resolution, particularly the historical incidents, have not been contested. We welcome objective feedback, even disagreements, and are willing to participate in discussions and debates on it.
What will you tell the government on what should be done and how they should be done?
A: Many of it is already covered in my answers to previous questions. Reference can be made to a letter I wrote to the then President in August 2012, also the submission I made to the LLRC in 2011. There are very practical suggestions. These documents are also in the public domain.
The Tamils are considered to be having no faith at all in the majority. How do you think this issue of not trusting each other can be resolved?
A: We need to have more dialogue but also actions. If Tamils’ concerns continue to be summarily dismissed or we are accused of encouraging terrorism each time we raise our concerns, we cannot resolve this. Tamils are certainly open to discuss concerns Sinhalese and other communities have, and also look at wrongs that have been committed by Tamils. The culture of dismissing any concerns, suggestions, aspirations as extremist, and supporting terrorism and separatism will not at all help build trust. Keeping commitments made is also important to build trust, when promises are constantly broken, there won’t be trust. Concrete actions to address grievances, such as first steps towards addressing the Tamil political question, actions towards releasing political prisoners, handing back land occupied by the military, demilitarization, finding and acknowledging the truth about the disappeared – these are some actions that will help build trust.
The LLRC report affirms the need for an impartial inquiry into Lanka’s war crimes. How should it be handled?
A: I have already made it clear that a purely domestic inquiry will not be perceived by Tamils as impartial, at least at this stage. Also, what should be done now as a first step is to cooperate with the UN investigation and discuss next steps after that report is published.
Do you think India needs to review its Sri Lanka policy, than any others?
A: All countries have to review their foreign policies when context changes, even if principles will remain the same. India has to constantly assess the situation in Sri Lanka and review its foreign policy accordingly, in terms of long-term political aspirations of Tamils, accountability and dealing with issues such as land, disappeared, political prisoners, concerns in relation to fishing etc.
How do you think the Resolution against Genocide by the NPC should be handled?
A: I think the Sri Lankan Government and people must be open to study it seriously, and discuss this, without dismissing this and making emotional statements. The international community should do the same. This resolution was not done in a hurry, the CM is a former Judge of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka and this Resolution was brought about after much thought and study. Not to give consideration is not to give consideration to Tamil people’s pains, frustrations as well as hopes and aspirations.
You have been labelled as a LTTE sympathizer. Do you think the government will take you seriously on all your claims?
A: Even the previous President, Defence Secretary and various government politicians, officials, military personnel etc. have invited me for meetings and communicated with me. The indications are the new government will do same. If they don’t take my views, questions suggestions seriously, why are they contacting me? Both President Sirisena and former President Rajapaksa came to meet me before elections. If they don’t take me seriously, why should they come? Just as a show? Then who are trying to deceive whom? Instead of labelling me, it may be more useful to objectively address the issues I have raised. The message is more important than the messenger. Most of my claims have been based on documentary proof, facts and figures. I’m open to be corrected if I had made incorrect claims and they are pointed out objectively. Anyways, all the people who had criticized or challenged the previous government had been called pro-LTTE, including the Sinhalese, so this is not just about me. Seniors in the present government have been labelled as pro-LTTE and even UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other high level foreign dignitaries who the government itself invited and welcomed, have been accused of being LTTE supporters. Why were they invited if they were LTTE supporters?
Some of the allegations against you are that you did not condemn the LTTE for abducting children from schools, homes and orphanages to train as child soldiers and suicide bombers; did not condemn the LTTE for herding 300,000 civilians like cattle to use as a human shield to protect the terrorist leaders; removed the Virgin Mary’s statue from Madhu and took it to the LTTE controlled area, preventing other Catholics from praying to Her; did not condemn the attacks and killing of Buddhist clergy and pilgrims or Muslims worshiping inside mosques. It is also said that you have fabricated stories to slander the Sri Lankan armed forces and the government. “Either this Bishop or Father Emanuel insulted Jesus Christ by stating Jesus was like Prabhakaran,” some say. What is your reply to these allegations?
A: I state categorically that I have never said Jesus is like Prabhakaran. I have always condemned violence and abuses by the LTTE. Even in my submission to the LLRC, there is a paragraph about Muslims who were evicted by the LTTE. My position and that of the Tamils in general, has been to examine the conduct of all sides to the conflict. I have previously clarified about the circumstances that led to the temporary removal of the miraculous Statue of Our Lady of Madhu, when the priests and others were hiding in bunkers amidst shelling. I’m also the Bishop of one diocese, the diocese of Mannar, comprising districts of Mannar and Vavuniya. I have taken as my primary role as speaking on behalf of the people of the diocese, particularly as they were facing severe repression. Other Bishops do the same about their Dioceses. But, I do care about all others in Sri Lanka and beyond, even though what I have been able to do and say may have been limited, being preoccupied with the suffering of the people where I have been made the Chief Shepherd.
Besides calling for reconciliation, international probe etc., how should the new government pave the way for a better future for all communities regardless of caste, creed, race and religion, to live in peace?
A: I believe the new government should be sensitive to listen and acknowledge aspirations and concerns of all people and communities, particularly communities less in number. When these are articulated, they must not be dismissed, but listened carefully and discussed and steps taken to address concerns.