Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

For Peace to Dawn in this Country

The aspirations of the Tamils must be respected

Interview with Dr. Nimalka Fernando, Nilavaram, December 12, 2008

“It is necessary for Sri Lankan civil society joining hands with the Tamil Nadu activists to form a greater South Asian solidarity for the struggle against the Sinhala state and to uphold democratic principles” said Dr. Nimalka Fernando.


Dr. Nimalka Fernando 2006
Dr. Nimalka Fernando

Dr. Nimalka Fernando is a lawyer and a human rights activist who advocates for the Tamils’ just right to self determination in the island of Sri Lanka. She is the President of the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) and the Women’s Forum for Peace in Sri Lanka. She attends the Sessions of UN Human Rights Council and exposes the atrocities committed against Tamils by the Sri Lankan government.

She spoke to Mr. Shan Thavarajah, Co-Editor of Nilavaram, a fortnightly published in Switzerland.

Q: You entered into politics when you were an undergraduate. What influenced you? Were there any specific reasons for selecting the left ideology?

A: I came into social movement interactions even before I entered the Law College. During my exposure to Asian struggles through the Student Christian Movement (SCM) of Sri Lanka and the Asian Student Christian Federation, we realized the need for a social change. Even in Sri Lanka our experience of the JVP in 1971 has given us some challenges. Even though I was not enamoured with JVP politics, the word `struggle’ was written all over history. I had also done some theological studies during my student days and `Liberation Theology’ and the Sandinista struggle were inspiring. We read how, as a result of witnessing Jesus Christ, Bishop Helder Camara sacrificed his life. 

The demolition of the gap between the rich and poor was our social and political perspective. Having come from a working class background I had personal experiences about the hardships faced by students and youth. I know what it means to be poor and be looked down upon.

Since socialism spoke about struggling to achieve justice and equality I opted to work within that framework for social change.

Q: In 1994, you were one of the leftists who helped Chandrika Bandaranayake to become the President. Chandrika came to power with the promise of bringing peace. Did she really mean it? If she did, why did she fail?

A: I do not think it is necessary to explain the bckground of the politics related to CBKs ascending to power.  At that time, we worked against the violations of the then UNP regime and did lobbying in Geneva in the Human Rights Commission in the early 1990s.

CBK came to power with a grand coaliton with the left who (even though in fits and stances) articulated a political solution. I was very closely associated with the Nava Samasamaja Party (NSSP) at that time and we took our politics into the People’s Alliance campaign.   Given the fact that she was also the wife of late Vijaya Kumarathunge who stood up for Tamil struggle, I really had hope of our progressive forces that will take Sri Lanka into the path of peace. Remember how people went in a train to Vavuniya – the peace train and they were greeted by the people of Jaffna.

The Executive Presidential powers are corrupted and make one a despot any day.  The very minute I received an explanation from some close friends of CBK that she is not able to immediately do much as there might be a military conspiracy ( may be this was stated some time in 1995 even before the blast of the ships in Trincomalee), I had my doubts about the possibilities.

Now I realize more that the Sinhala leaders just wish to spend their time in power talking rhetoric and doing war for their existence and to spend the 6 years allocated to them in the Consitution to enjoy executive powers and also to amass large amount of wealth.

Q: The rift between Sinhala and Tamil communities is widened more than ever before. At this juncture, are there any possibilities that both these communities could coexist in future? For that what should be done?

A: I have confidence in the spirit of happiness and mutuality among the ordinary people, the Sinhala and Tamil communities and also with the Muslims. We are civil society activists who move with grassroots level people and I draw strength and courage from the friendships from those people.

I am aware that the State, the Sinhala State is carving out areas for it to make this a Sinhala – Buddhist country. The people in all the communities are petrified by the movements and repression of the State. Even the Sinhalese who want an end to the war, who wish for a political settlement, are “silenced” by the state. Those who speak out like me are called “traitors” and our names are published in the Defence Ministry website. This exposes us to dangers from the fascist forces. So there is fear psychosis generated by the state and as a result the ordinary citizens fear to interact.

It is the state that is transforming our relationships into a surveilance parading.  We need to keep our trust in each other intact. I work with Tamil colleagues, mostly women, to keep this bond together. We need to keep our friendships intact, not allowing the State to segregate us into small `enclaves’.

In the East, the State apparatus is merrilly making tensions between the Muslims and Tamils.  We, as people, should understand the divisive policies carried out and try to overcome them.

Q: The EU has decided to cut the GSP+ concessions to Sri Lanka as a result of the deteriorating human rights conditions. How is it going to affect the economy and the Sinhala workers?

 A: What I am told is that it is still under investigation. I approach this subject through another dimension.  GSP+ has not benefitted the ordinary workers. In fact, the Factory owners benefitted a lot, while the wages of workers remain the same and the working condition remain unimproved.

Has GSP assisted to generate more jobs? Have GSP funds been used to improve the health conditons of the workers?

According to health reports, around 60% of workers, who are women, working in the Free Trade Zones are either malnourished or having aneamic conditions. GSP concessions were not used to overcome such bad conditions. As we work closely with women’s organisations operating in the FTZ, we know the real situation. 

The women face sexual harrassments at work places as well, when they return home finishing the night shift. The street lighting is poor and public transport is hazardous for women who have to travel alone.

So what GSP are we talking about? The Concessions that was beneficial to the rich, and Ministers to remain in power?  What is the choice? Producing more malnourished women workers, or dead bodies?  I make no choice between either. 

Look at the manner in which we have increased the Defence Budget in a poor country. So, why are we asking for GSP?

The GOSL can give all the concessions necessary to the factory owners if they stop the war without making our country look like beggars with a begging bowl every time some talks about development or creating employment generation become an issue. 

I am not worried about the economic consequences.  We need to change the fear in the minds of the people. We need full democracy in Sri Lanka.

Q: Only a handful of you are voicing against the war against the Tamil people. What are the challenges that you face in this effort and how do you manage them?

A: My Student Christian Movement upbringing has taught me to work for peace. My political past made me stand up for the right of self-determination. We cannot speak of peace in the ‘air’. For peace to dawn in this country, we need to respect the aspirations of the Tamil people as well as create a negotiating environment.

We have been working with this theme for more than 30 years.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to mobilise these days. I have explained why earlier as the State has taken grips of our ‘space’.  People are cautious and not daring like many years ago.

The political polarization between the UNP and UFPA too has influenced our work.  Governments have come into power or been defeated in this process since 1994. Hence, working for peace has also become sort of taking sides. I find it extremely interesting to work with the opposition forces like UNP these days who I had shunned as `backward’ in my leftist analysis in the past. The UNP for its own class interest brought in a Cease Fire Agreement. 

These are some challenges that we face. Having to make choices with whom you work or not work, you either trust or you suspect.

Q: Most of the Sinhalese are of the view that a solution to the Tamil question only be found through military means. Do you expect a change in this attitude in the near future?

A: Present thinking is reflecting this mind set.  But, also remember how they all supported CBK and Ranil in the past. Also remember that 48 Lakhs of people voted for Ranil and we had a good proportion of Sinhalese among them.

The political process in Sri Lanka is so feudal that the Sinhalese would obey the leader – it is not their own choice.  Tomorrow if Mahinda Rajapakse says that he would make peace the people will say yes. (Only few would oppose)

Hence, the mind set of the people is so influenced by the benevolent leader. I am rather resigned to this ‘fate’ of the Sinhala mind.

Q: The Diaspora Tamil community is very much concerned about the grievances of the IDPs in Vanni. What is the real situation in Vanni?

A: I am very angry with this regime for the racist behaviour and genocidal tendencies.  Those like the Defence Secretary are pursuing a `zionist’ ideology against the LTTE and the Tamil people.  They are trying to shrink the will of the Tamil struggle by starving the poor in the villages in the North. 

Today I saw a picture of lorry loads with relief good stopped at Muhamalia.. they will now blame the ICRC for this that and the other.  The Military Commander and Defence Secretary are interfering with the humanitarian assistance process, violating all the international norms including the Geneva Conventions related to the situation of an armed struggle.

Q: The SLA has captured Poonariyan. It says that it would capture Kilinochchi in days. However, it is said that India is for an immediate ceasefire. In this context, what do you think would happen?

A: I am not a military analyst. Neither am I aware of the strategies related to what will fall next and what will be captured next.  We do not believe in such language as this country belongs to all. It does neither belong to Sri Lanka Army nor to LTTE. It belongs to all of us.

However, we need to create an environment for the people to govern their homeland territories. If we subjugate that right, then we speak about `liberating the areas’ from occupying army or invaders. So in that sense the Sri Lankan armed forces are transforming themselves into an occupying army inside their own country. 

I have always appealed to Indian civil society to get involved in our campaigns against violation of human rights during the last 2 years. I am glad to note that they are now raising their head to see the reality as the number of IDPs has increased.

In a way it is too late. Hope Indians are not playing politics for their own survival. Nevertheless, we need the support of India.

I have just returned back from Nepal and am aware of the significant role played by India to bring a ceasefire between the Maoist rebels and other democratic political parties.  This type of things will never happen over-night.

Q: There are some speculations of general elections. Is it possible in the coming months? If it is held, what would be the possible outcome?

A: Yes, Mahinda Rajapakse will decide how he will maneuver elections and other political parties as they have to continue for the next 6 years\ term. This has nothing to do with the resolution of the National question in Sri Lanka.  He will use the ‘capturing of Kilinochchi’ to bring victory in the next Parliament election.

Q: You always voice for human rights. Do you expect any improvement in the near future?

A: No, we are not able to make any differences to policies. We are only serving the people in their need to resist against these brutal violations. People disappear. Women are raped and unable to complain for fear of reprisals. If the community is not coming out, we also cannot work as we depend on their evidence and details for our advocacy.

Every day people die and disappear in the East which is called the `liberated East.’ In Colombo, journalists and media persons belonging to Tamil communtiy are taken into custody and detained. The latest violation is the powers given to the Defence Secretary to keep a person in detention for more than 100 days. This is a clear violation of our fundamental rights. This kind of thing should be dealt by the judiciary and not handed over to a civil administrator.

Q: What do you think about the recent upsurge in Tamil Nadu in favour of Tamils?

A: It is significant that civil society and political activists and actors in Tamil Nadu have come out in this manner. It is necessary for Sri Lankan civil society to join hands with them to form a greater South Asian solidarity for the struggle against the Sinhala state and to uphold democratic principles.


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