Pope Francis has indicated he plans to visit Sri Lanka as the country struggles to find peace after a decades-long civil war. Tamil activist priest Fr SJ Emmanuel recently visited Brisbane to talk about the challenges the country faces. PAUL DOBBYN reports.
“WE would expect the Australian people and their leaders to take a more decisive role in promoting democracy and human rights in Sri Lanka so people there can live in harmony and do not need to seek asylum in other countries.”
Tamil priest Fr SJ Emmanuel, on his latest visit to Brisbane, delivered this variation of a message he’s been spreading around the world since going into self-imposed exile in Germany after fleeing Sri Lanka’s north in 1995.
His speech opened by describing Sri Lanka as sitting under India “like a pearl”.
Pope Francis recently said as much when he told a group of pilgrims from the country that their homeland was called “the Pearl of the Indian Ocean on account of its natural beauty and shape”.
Fr Emmanuel, now also president of the Global Tamil Forum, was among 500,000 people who fled the Jaffna peninsula when the Sri Lankan military launched an offensive to recapture the peninsula from the rebel Tamil Tigers.
The theologian and academic was in Brisbane as part of an Australian tour lobbying various social justice groups and political parties.
He did so in the lead-up to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s meeting in Geneva throughout March to discuss issues including possible human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.
Fr Emmanuel delivered a low-key, but impassioned, speech to a gathering at Brisbane archdiocese’s Justice Place, Woolloongabba.
“I am appealing to the Christian conscience of your people and its leaders to protect their values on which was built a good Australia,” he said.
“This has been a place where people recognise equality, dignity, human rights as basic values.”
Fr Emmanuel also gave an outline of Sri Lanka’s tormented past and his work educating his country’s priests.
This included his time as professor and Dean of Theology at the National Seminary in Kandy.
“More than 400 Singhalese priests have been educated by me, including (Brisbane Dominican Tamil priest) Pancras Jordan,” he said. “I am very proud of all of them.
“I am even more proud of the priests who gave up their lives fighting for their people.
“Out of the 10 priests or so killed by the army, five were my own students – today I have their pictures and I offer my prayers for them.”
Fr Emmanuel said there had been two phases to Sri Lanka’s descent into civil war after the end of colonialism in 1948.
The first phase lasted for about 30 years.
“The majority Singhalese community used their majority power to pass discriminatory laws in the parliament; there was burning of Tamil shops and houses,” he said.
“From that time on there was also discrimination in language, education and employment … everything.
“In the second phase, Tamil youth pushed to the wall without a future and threatened by state terrorism, took up arms to defend themselves.
“It became state and Tamil terrorism and became a war, a long war.”
Fr Emmanuel described the situation since the final clash, which saw the Tamil rebels defeated in Sri Lanka’s north in 2009.
He described “a slow genocide moving like a snake in the grass”.
“In the last five years after victory, the Government have militarised the whole zone although there is no enemy,” he said. “More than 80 per cent of the army are in the north.
“They even bulldozed four cemeteries built by the Tamils.
“The parents (are) still living in Jaffna.
“Where can they go to mourn their sons and daughters and others dead?
“What inhumanity. What arrogance. In Europe and other places such war cemeteries are respected.
“They have also taken land from the Tamil people and given it to the Singhalese people and settled them there.”
Fr Emmanuel said by doing this the Tamil people’s livelihood had been taken away.
“Their livelihood is fishing,” he said.
“By bringing in the Singhalese to settle around the coast and sending the Tamils inland their livelihoods have been lost.”
According to Fr Emmanuel, Buddhism was the only state religion the authorities wanted.
“They want Sri Lanka to be an island of Sinhala Buddhists,” he said.
“They want Christians, Muslims and Hindus to exist only as secondary citizens.”
Fr Emmanuel was also critical of the Sri Lankan Government’s recent elections in the country’s north.
“After international pressure, they came up with an election five months ago,” he said.
“They elected Tamils to a provincial government … but they’re not allowed to function because a military government is ruling there.”
Such a situation left him no alternative as a Christian and human but opposition, Fr Emmanuel said.
“We who are called to follow Jesus Christ acknowledge Jesus Christ as a liberator for humanity,” he said. “We are called to do that work of liberation; we cannot put it aside.
“It is about liberating the self; liberating the people.”
In an interview after his talk, Fr Emmanuel acknowledged crimes of terrorism on the Tamil side.
“When I think of my people, the Tamils, I am not defending the use of terrorism,” he said.
“However, the world is good at preaching certain values to the oppressed – preaching to the fallen man giving rules and regulations.
“What I am saying is when a person is pushed against the wall, he will defend himself … when the man on the ground is being stood on, he must stop the man who is standing on him.”
The Tamil priest was also critical of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s actions during his visit last November to Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
“Mr Abbott donated two warships to protect Australia’s borders at the time,” Fr Emmanuel said. “But this doesn’t address the injustice and violence which is causing people to seek asylum.
“Also unlike the British Prime Minister Mr (David) Cameron, your country’s prime minister didn’t travel to the north to see things for himself.
“This time the US Government is again bringing a resolution in the UN calling for Sri Lanka to do a real independent investigation into the crimes committed in the closing stages of the civil war in 2009.
“It is supported by countries like Britain, Canada and Europe. Australia is silent, yet it must support this resolution.
“The Australian Government must not align themselves with the Sri Lankan Government.
“It must stand with the traditional world of human values of which it has been a part for so long.”