Rethinking Needed

By Rev. S.J. Emmanuel

Rev. Dr S.J. Emmanuel

Today the world, especially the western, is filled with fear of IS-attacks, and leaders are nervously conferring about further security measures and escalating all forms of attacks against those suspected of terror and suicide attacks. In Sri Lanka we have had our own history of state terrorism vs Tamil terrorism. At present while the Sinhalese are narrating their experience of terrorism, Tamils are remembering on the 27th.Nov. of each year, the victims of the war and honoring those who gave their lives in defense of the land and people.

Though with the proclaimed victory of the state forces against the LTTE, the war-memorials have been bulldozed and commemoration of the fallen have been prevented/discouraged, the memory of those who voluntarily gave their lives and of the victims cannot be erased from Tamil memory.

Merely condemning these acts of terrorism and suicide or looking at them merely from one side of the divide, will not help to find the root-causes of these symptoms and eradicate them. Only a sincere and honest search for truth and justice can help towards eradicating them.

In the present context of fear about IS attacks, terrorism, suicide attacks etc. both in and out of Sri Lanka, I like to share my reflections on what I wrote as an Asian theologian in 2003 at the invitation of a well-known theological magazine called Concilium. (It also appears as Ch.8 of my book Agonies and Aspirations of the Tamil Struggle, Pp62-69 of 2004)


sri lanka 1(A Christian theological view of Martyrdom in an Asian struggle for Life and Dignity. This article first appeared in Concilium 3/2003 – an International Theological Quarterly)

1. Need to Revise the old concept of Martyrdom

Karl Rahner, on the eve of his death, rightly called for an enlargement of the concept of martyrdom in the context of active struggles for truth, justice and peace in the world. This call is increasingly justified in the context of the many struggles for life and dignity going on within the Asian continent. Though this continent of peoples is blessed with great religions and age old cultures and traditions, human life is still conditioned and threatened by many man-made practices of social injustices, oppressions and discriminations.

While the governing structures and the higher strata of society in these countries, enjoyed fellowship and recognition as enlightened democracies from their former colonial masters and present counterparts of the first world, much of the Asian population as such still faces many threats to life and its human dignity from these very so called democratic governments. Hence there are many struggles of people against their own governments for survival, human dignity and liberation.

As a result millions of Asians are victims of oppression. They die in their fight against evil; because they do not want to betray the good values of their ancestors, their forefathers and their religions; because they want to defend the God-given land and heritage inherited by them as a people; because they want to cherish the dignity and right conferred on them by God by reason of their likeness to God. Still these victims and defenders are killed as rebels and terrorists and thrown into the dustbin of history.

With Asian struggles becoming the matrix of a new victimhood and martyrdom, going beyond the “catholic concept” towards a wider concept that will recognize other forms of martyrdom will serve the growing need for religions to join hands in fighting common threats to life and dignity of human beings.

It is with this interest a case study could be made of the long Struggle that the Tamils are waging for life and dignity on the island of Sri Lanka. The so called ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, between the majority Sinhala people and the minority Tamil people degenerated into a 20 years long horrendous war between the Sinhala oppressive State and the Tamil militants who rebelled against it. Such a study can be a resourceful window to see some of the new images of victimhood and martyrdom emerging out of this struggle as well as identifying powers which can turn out to be demoniac forces under a cover of democracy.

2. The Tamil Struggle in Sri Lanka

History reveals that by successive migrations from the Indian sub-continent, beginning some 2000 years ago, the south and west of this island were inhabited by the Sinhala people who were Buddhists and the Northeast of the island by the Tamils who were Hindus. Islam, as the religion of the later migrant traders from India and Christianity as the religion of the 16th century Portuguese and other colonizers, also found a place in the religious niches of the island.

As a result of many south-Indian invasions and feudal wars among the Singhalese and Tamils, there emerged three kingdoms – two Singhalese kingdoms with their capital in Kotte and in Kandy and one Tamil kingdom with its capital in Jaffna. From the beginning of the 16th. Century the island came under three successive waves of colonialism – the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British – each ruling the island for about 150 years. The Portuguese, brought christianity with them and the Dutch after persecuting the Catholics introduced their Reformed Churches. The British, who took full control of the island and all three kingdoms, including the Kingdom of Kandy, introduced in 1833 one centralized administration of the whole island with Colombo as capital and English as the official language of the country. Under the British, except for the so called Indian Tamil tea-estate workers brought by the British for their tea plantations, others of different ethnicity and religions enjoyed equal rights and opportunities.

The island enjoyed the natural resources and the human potential to become a multi-ethnic and multi-religious island of unity in diversity, but chauvinistic politicians helped by extreme nationalists have ruined it.

When the three waves of colonialism( Portuguese, Dutch and British) came to an end, after almost 450 years, political power went into the hands of the Sinhala majority who overlooking the rights of the Tamils as genuine and equal citizens of the island converted the British centralized administration into a Sinhala Buddhist administration thus forcing the Tamils under a new form of inner colonialism. The last 50 years has witnessed Sinhala majority Government using a majoritarian-race-rule-democracy to pass laws and oppress an ethnic minority by depriving them of their rights, denying their identity and destroying their homeland.

3. Ethnic Discrimination, mob-violence and State-violence leads to counter-Tamil violence and War against the State

When three decades of non-violent and democratic attempts to win their basic human rights failed miserably, the Tamil people faced with further genocidal measures, resorted to a militant struggle against the oppressive forces of the State. State terrorism begot counter Tamil terrorism resulting finally in a war between the State and the LTTE which rebelled against the State in the name of the victims. The war weapons of the state involved not mere aerial bombing and artillery shelling but economic blockade, media blockade, rape of Tamil women, disappearances of Tamil youth and wanton destruction of the ecological resources of the Tamils. To these the Tamil response was guerrilla and suicide attacks on the enemy positions.

On the one hand, hundreds of soldiers from very poor Sinhala families, who only joined the Army to earn their bread, were getting killed leaving behind many widows and orphans. On the other hand, thousands of innocent civilian Tamils were victims of aerial bombing and artillery shelling of schools, churches and temples. 800,000 Tamils have fled the island for survival to other countries and an equal number are internally displaced refugees.

The human and material loss incurred by the 20 year old war and the bankruptcy of the government coffers from pursuing a war have finally forced both sides to a cease fire and begin direct talks towards a political resolution of the conflict.

4. Glorifying and Demonizing tendencies will not help

The martyrs and saints on one side of the conflict tend to be the enemies and demon-figures of the other. While the State-forces and their actions, are seen by many extremist Singhalese as justified actions of a democratic state to defend itself against separatism and terrorism of the Tamil rebels, the non-violent and democratic pleadings of the Tamils for almost 30 years are overlooked or even ridiculed. The actions and reactions last resorted to by the Tamil militant LTTE against State-Terrorism, are far too easily dismissed as extreme Tamil terrorism to justify indiscriminate killing of Tamils. A basic human principle of the victims right to self-defence is denied them.

Hence a dispassionate reading of the struggle, the struggling people and their aspirations, convictions, motivations and mindset of the people who are struggling as victims and as self-giving (that-kodai) martyrs has to be undertaken.

Many Tamil Christians forced to live as victims under aerial bombings, artillery shelling, economic blockades and horror rapes of women and murder of innocents were reading the Bible from the perspective of the oppressed. And this gave them strength to suffer and hope to walk along. When they cried out of their experiences for better understanding and justice they were labeled as rebels and supporters of terrorism!

5. The Religious view of Tamils about their Victims and Martyrs

All Tamils, be they Hindus or Christians tend to view their suffering very much in the same way because of their common worldview. This view is largely conditioned by Hindu-Saivism, the centuries old religion of the Tamils, which believes in a destiny decreed by the gods, (called thalai eluththu in Tamil) and interprets present suffering as caused by the past evil (Karma). A form of resignation based on the above belief plays a role in accepting and withstanding much suffering with patience and endurance. Although they suffered and continue to suffer many discriminations and humiliations, immense loss of life and property, yet they were and are resilient, cool and calm against the provocative and inhuman actions of the State. But such a view does not by itself give a direction or impetus to fight back for the alleviation of the suffering or the complete removal of suffering. Instead the Hindu belief in reincarnation of gods as super-human beings to fight against evil plays a role in enabling the people to recognize and accept leaders, who in the name of the suffering people and victims fight back the oppressor. They tend to attribute divinized titles to such successful leaders.

While we Christians believe that it is only by the removal of sin, the root cause of suffering, that we can overcome suffering, Christian leaders may not be doing enough to fight evil on behalf of the people. The Saivites believe in re-incarnation of the gods as super human beings in many ways to fight against evil. They live also in the hope that leaders will be born even with divine power to fight for them against the triumph of evil. It is on this view that the LTTE invites all Tamils to two focal commemorations -one on Victimhood and other on Martyrdom.

6. Victimhood and Martyrdom: Focal Commemorations of the Tamil Liberation Struggle

On the 23rd. of July 1983, thousands of innocent Tamils, were literally butchered to death all over the island. This holocaust is commemorated annually as Black July of victims. And the night of the 26th.- 27th. of Nov. is observed as the Heroes Night (Mahaveerar Thinam) , honoring thousands of heroic Tamil youth who gave their lives in fighting for the liberation of their people. These two events commemorating victimhood and martyrdom have fostered a powerful growth of Tamil nationalism and an increasing thirst for Tamil liberation.

Besides these there are also commemorations of those who fasted to death against the cruelties of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces. Two well-known cases are that of a mother Annai Poopathy in Batticaloa and LTTE-Political Leader Thileepan in Jaffna. Their annual commemorations are focal points of great awakening among Tamils. Both Hindus and Christians participate actively in these commemorations, honoring their dear ones as self-sacrificing heroes of Tamil liberation. Though the majority of Tamils are Hindus and it is customary in Hinduism to burn their dead, those who die in combat are given burials with due military honors in well-kept war cemeteries and their memory commemorated as martyrs for the cause of liberation of the Tamils.

Without attempting to explain away, justify or encourage violence in any form, one can easily understand how a struggling people and their leaders, are forced by the oppressor to react to state injustice and state terrorism through suicide bombings even overlooking collateral damage to innocent lives. Repeated Tamil pleas not to air-drop bombs on civilian populations under the pretext of targeting terrorists went unheeded for years. Air attacks were carried out even on refugee camps, churches, temples, schools and hospitals. What reaction could be expected on behalf of these victims? Not having any plane or a bomb to retaliate in a similar manner (as in the case of war between two full-fledged states), some suicide cadres of the LTTE secretly penetrated the military base situated next to the civil Airport in Colombo, made themselves into human-bombs and exploded the very Kifir jet planes which bombed their brethren for days and nights for years. This was done without killing a single civilian.

7. An Overview

Struggles bring out the best in human beings. In the case of the Tamil Struggle one good thing is that it had motivated Tamil Christians to forge a better inter-religious solidarity in suffering along with the Hindus, to greater awareness of injustices inflicted on the Tamils as well as to recognize values such as self-sacrifice, heroism and patriotism beyond the narrow boundaries of their churches and temples.

The phenomena of victimhood and martyrdom unfolding within the liberation struggle of Tamils, though condemned by the opponents, ridiculed by the media and abhorred by modern society as mere terrorism, they still raise disturbing but valid questions to our present day establishments – be it the so called „democratic State“, be it the neutral NGOs or the Church within such a State.

The struggles of people for truth, justice and freedom, have more and more focused the attention of the world on new culprits of oppression and oppressive structures near and far. But unfortunately the major powers of the world tend to strengthen a coalition of oppressors who impose, even with military force, their own values of self-security, order and justice as the one absolute order of the world. The western world proclaiming its „new world-order“ and wielding its political and financial power tends to make absolute its own interests, its form of democracy, human rights and international laws; easily foists on struggling people its own definitions of terrorism; seeks to justify its hidden power-seeking acts of war and horror and bulldozes over the genuine aspirations of people dying for their convictions.

People in struggle, believing in the righteousness of the international community appeal to their highest authorities, for example – to the UN and its Structures. But to their disappointment they find that even these are subject to manipulations by the super powers!

Unfortunately the church founded by Jesus Christ the Prophet, to stand in his name and question the partiality of the rich and the powerful, has succumbed to some of the world views of major powers. It has taken over uncritically the vocabulary and judgments of the oppressor, and has gradually weakened and silenced itself to be part of the establishment. But the majority of humanity, suffering and struggling is relying more and more on the cries of their innocent victims and on the heroic martyrdom of their rebels, who have given up their own lives so that others may have a just and free life.

Unless religious institutions like the church stand out, at least now, in the name of God as advocates of these struggles and cry halt to oppressions, injustices and mass killings, they loose the right of blanket-condemning all acts against state-terror as terrorism and suicide. A rethinking of the concepts of “terrorism” and “suicide” as defined by the traditional super powers and the churches is called for.

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