November 8, 2015, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Following interview with Fr. SJ. Emmanuel, President of the Global Tamil Forum was originally published by the Suder Oli, a Colombo based newspaper published in Tamil language.
Q. Could you briefly tell us about your activism these days?
A. After my 80th Birthday in Jan 2014, I have retired from active church work in the diocese of Münster/Germany. I was by invitation a guest professor at the University of Muenster in 1983/4. Since 1997 in self/exile, I was Pastor in Horneburg for 10 years and then as assistant here in Darfeld for the last 8 years. 1999 I was again guest-Professor for one semester at the University of Frankfurt.
Besides church-work, I am regularly in touch through various media of communication with what is happening generally in Sri Lanka, especially to my suffering Tamil people. I am following up the political developments at the international level, especially with respect to human rights. As president of the Global Tamil Forum, I am in touch with the views of the world-wide spread Tamil diaspora, their activities and efforts in connection with the situation of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
With the elections and change of government we of the GTF had to do much lobbying in favor of the present government. After the new President and Foreign Minister invited us for a meeting and wished that I return to Sri Lanka and help in the work of reconciliation, there was focus on my return as to when and how. I have explained that I will visit only when the hurdles against me are removed, heaps of lies and false accusations are lessened and when my contribution to Truth Justice and Reconciliation become really important.
As it is the Government is making efforts to meet the challenges of the Geneva Resolution and local demands of Tamil prisoners and victims. I am watching the efforts of the government as well as of the Sinhala leadership- politicians and others, to give my support when necessary by writing or by other media.
Q. When did you leave SL and why?
A. From 1967-1996 I served as priest/professor/rector and vicar general in Jaffna and in Kandy. In Oct.1995 I moved out of the Jaffna peninsula with 500,000 people in their historic exodus. In Aug.1996, I came to UK for a 6 months break, but the media in Colombo escalated their campaign against me, with lies as I was not a genuine priest but an LTTE supporter.
Till 1986 I was in Kandy teaching as professor priest-students Sinhalese and Tamil. From 1986 I became a direct witness of the suffering of the people. I spoke as a victim and witness on behalf of the people. When churches like St.James in Jaffna, Sts.Peter Paul in Navaly,Nagar Kovil School, Fischervolk in Nachikuda were bombed I spoke out as Vicar general on behalf of the people. The others were silent and fear-struck. But all these I did on behalf of the people but was interpreted as my supporting the LTTE and speaking against the Govt.
There was not a single Tamil church leader to defend me. And the then Sinhala auxiliary bishop Malcolm Ranjith (now Card. Colombo), as secretary of the Bishops Conference, issued a press statement that my views are not the views of the church, thus distancing me from the church. As falsely accused by the government on one side, and let down by the church and its leaders, I was left alone to condemn atrocities of the Government and its forces. Hence decided to extend my stay outside.
One year I was at the University of London as visiting scholar (1996-97) and then moved to Germany, Münster where I was a guest-professor in 1983. Since then I am in this diocese working as priest here and at the same time helping my people in Sri Lanka through humanitarian assistance as well as lobbying international support as President of the Global Tamil Forum for the Tamil cause.
Q. What is the solution that your organization proposing for the Tamil problem at this stage ?
A. Our organization, the Global Tamil Forum, is a post-Mullivaikal network- organization of many country organizations. A network organization, unlike a country mass organization, is coordinating the efforts of many country-organisations. We are making efforts, along with the elected representatives of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, at present the TNA, towards a peaceful settlement of the ethnic conflict.
Besides GTF has devised a 4 – point/pillar program – to unite all the Tamil organisations towards a common goal, to engage with the Sinhala progressive forces in Sri Lanka, to seek justice and accountability for the crimes against the Tamil people and to help the victims in their humanitarian need.
At the present stage, with a new government showing signs of a better future and making attempts towards finding the truth, justice and accountability and reconciliation, we will cautiously but hopefully give our support along with the TNA, to the government to resolve the conflict through a political solution and move towards reconciliation. The political solution we work for is the once voted by the Tamils in Sri Lanka by their election of the TNA, namely – a united Sri Lanka where all citizens are equally treated and the Tamils are recognized as a distinct people and devolved power to rule themselves.
Q. What is the role Tamil diaspora can play towards achieving this?
A. The Tamil diaspora spread over many countries can do a lot, first by helping the people still striving at home with financial and personel help. Many are talking, criticizing and only finding faults from their comfort but not doing any help. Humanitarian assistance to the victims at home is the stamp of our credibility as genuine supporters of our people.
Secondly, they can through their own organizations in different countries lobby the respective governments for support by informing them of the developments at home and asking them to help Sri Lanka to accept the truth and strive for justice and accountability as demanded by the international community. While the Sri Lankan Government as a state has its embassies, we Tamils are only a people struggling for our rights. Hence the diaspora organizations can act as agents for lobbying support for our cause.
Q. What are the major impediments towards achieving the genuine reconciliation in SL?
A. A genuine reconciliation is possible only through a sincere search for the Truth concerning the last 60 years of conflict and war, a courageous effort to face justice and after identifying the culprits of war-crimes, seeking not revengeful punishments, but ways of acknowledging guilt and doing reparation/remuneration. Justice is due first and foremost to the victims of the war, who are struggling still to survive.
The impediments are mostly due to the falsehoods and misunderstandings spread by the politicians for their self/interest.
Tamils living in the north and east are not a threat to the majority in the south. But the Sinhalese have been led into suspicion that the 60 million Tamils of Tamil Nadu combined with the Tamils in the Northeast of Sri Lanka will not allow the Sinhala Buddhists to propsper in the island. Hence from the beginning, the Sinhalese people and their governments were bent on keeping the Tamils UNDER threat and putting them in a lower status of citizenship by gradual discrimination in language, education, emplozment, governance etc. In short, they were giving pre-emptive strikes on their potential/enemies. It is like the Americans giving pre-emptive strikes on countries considered to be potential threats to American security.
Sinhala politicians and other leaders among them must educate the masses about the truth about the Tamils, how they were unjustly discriminated because of suspicions, how they were forced to take up arms as self-defence against state-terrorism …..The spiral of state and anti-state violence soon became a war! Mahinda government brought it ot brutal and inhuman end with the massive help of the int. community, who only saw the LTTE as pure terrorism and not their political grievances.
Now is the chance with the new government for all of us – Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims,- to make a genuine and common effort to understand each other and find a way of a multi ethnic multi-religious people living peacefully.
Q. What are you aiming to achieve through your visit to SL ?
A. I have no great or unrealistic ambition for my possible future visit. I can only intensify in person what I have been trying to do from here through media communications. Since I am an elderly catholic priest known to many of my church leaders and former students, I can try to explain the events of the past decades from my own perspective and urge all sides to move towards reconciliation. Tamils seek truth, justice, accountability, not with revengeful intention, but to go beyond towards reconciliation.
The Tamil leaders of all sectors must guide the Tamils. I will exhort the Sinhalese political and religious leaders to make an effort for knowing the truth – to better understand the long drawn out ethnic conflict and war, to seek sincerely justice and respond courageously for accountability. Going through these steps will make us all stand on a firm foundation to enjoy peaceful coexistence as a united multi ethnic multi religious people.
Q. What is your assessment of the present Govt? (are they trying to hoodwink or genuinely address the issues)
A. When we talk of government and politicians, we must not expect them all to have only the genuine interest of truth, justice, peace etc. Self-interst and party politics are at play. This government, in comparison to the past governments in Sri Lanka, is a coalition of the two opposing parties of the past. There is some chance of moderation and truth-seeking.
Secondly, compared to the last government of Mahinda, this government has no intention of eradicating the roots of Tamil existence through Sinhalisation and Buddhistisation.
We as Tamils are not free from self-interest or party-politics. But as representatives of the victimized people, the TNA remaining in the opposition and cooperating with the government ( critical collaboration) is the right path. They are trying to face challenges posed by the Mahinda-regime and Sinhala extremists. Hence we help the government as much as possible to face their southern issues and also to meet our demands.
Q. Why do you believe that accountability is so important while significant number of people in the south think that opening the old wounds won’t help to achieve reconciliation ?
A. Accountability is an unavoidable step from Truth and Justice towards Reconciliation. Without Accountability one cannot move towards true/genuine reconciliation. Justice demands first of all justice for the victims still left after the war. Those who think of achieving reconciliation through a blanket covering of the past or fear in facing the truth of the tragedies of the past are escapists, but not sincere and courageous people seeking genuine reconciliation.
Pope Francis during his visit also explained that seeking accountability is not for the purpose of opening old wounds and hurting, but courageously doing what is necessarily demanded by justice and laying the foundation for genuine reconciliation..
Q. When do you think that govt will eventually lift the ban on GTF? I mean do you have a time frame in mind? if it happens within weeks, when will you visit SL?
A. The ban imposed by Mahinda government was to tarnish the image of Diaspora Tamils and their organisations and portray us as enemies of Sri Lanka. But the majority of the diaspora Tamils left Sri Lanka long before the ban. Lifting of the ban is the right thing for the present government. It has been promised by the FM also in Parliament. Hope this will happen soon.
I have been in self-exile long before the ban was imposed and lifting of the ban makes little change in my future decision to visit Sri Lanka. I am already 81 years old. My life and work have been tarnished a lot by all previous governments and politicians. When things improve on the ground and when I think that I can contribute my share towards reconciliation, I may return.
Q. Is your organization help the war affected people in any form?
A. As I explained above, GTF is a network global organisation – linking and coordinating efforts of its country-organisations. Personally, I am helping many affected people and also the war affected children in Pampomadu, Vavuniya. Country organisations. Our country organisations raise funds and help the victims in Sri Lanka.
Q. What are the lessons we can learn from the failure of the armed struggle ?
A.The armed struggle was born as a result of
1) the governments using the state forces already from 1958 against the Tamils in suppressing their non-violent democratic protests as well as acts of state-terrorism committed by the forces with immunity from 1960-1983.
2) The Tamil youth discriminated by language, education, employment and having no future were pushed to the wall without a future
3) Sinhala Mob-attacks and aerial bombings forcing the youth to rise in defense of their land and people.
Hence we cannot speak of the failure of the armed struggle. I do not support violence as a just means, but can understand the violent response of those forced to react in defence. It was suppressed brutally and inhumanly by the Government with the full cooperation of 20 nations. Both Governemnt and the int. community saw only the Tamil response to State-terrorism, but not the provocative-cause of the discrimination and conflict.
Only by addressing ourselves to the facts of the past, can we avoid a dark future and move towards a better future.
Q. Prior to the regime change, GTF Suren had said that President Rajapaksa would be taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had he been beaten at the presidential polls, is that till stand?
A. I do not want to comment on what Suren said in the context of a discussion with others. He is free to react to others comments about future possibilities