Martyrdom in an Asian struggle for Life and Dignity
Dr. S. J. Emmanuel
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
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
the governing structures and the higher strata of society in these
countries enjoyed fellowship and recognition as enlightened democrats
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 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, they die because they do not want to betray the good values of their ancestors, their forefathers and their religions preserved, because they want to defend the God-given land and heritage to 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 not counted in history.
Asian struggles becoming the matrix of a new victimhood and martyrdom,
going beyond the “catholic concept” towards a widening concept that
will recognize other forms of martyrdom will serve the growing need for
religions to join hands in fighting the common threats to life and
dignity of the human being.
is with this interest a case study could be made of the long Struggle
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.
The Tamil Struggle in Sri Lanka
reveals that by successive migrations from the Indian sub-continent
beginning before 2000 years, the south and west of this island were
inhabited by the Sinhala people who were Buddhists and the north and
east 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 colonizers, also
found a place in the religious niches of the island.
a result of many south-Indian invasions and feudal wars among the
Singhalese and Tamils, there emerged three kingdoms -
two Singhalese kingdoms with their capitals 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, including all three kingdoms, 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 equality of rights.
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.
the three waves of colonialism( Portugese, Dutsch 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 imperialism. The last
50 years have witnessed the Sinhala-majority Government using a
majoritarian democracy to pass laws
and oppress an ethnic minority by plundering its rights, denying
their identity and their homeland.
Ethnic Discrimination, mob-violence and State-violence leads to
counter-Tamil violence and War against the State
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 and finally 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 were not only aerial bombings and artillery shelling, but
also 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.
the other 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. Thousands of innocent Tamils
were victims of aerial bombing and artillery shelling of schools,
churches and temples. 800,000 Tamils have fled the island for survival
and an equal number are internally displaced destitute.
human and material loss incurred by the 20 years old war and the
bankruptcy of the governmental coffers to continue a war have finally
forced both sides to a cease-fire and direct talks have begun towards a
political resolution of the conflict.
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 the 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 militants, the LTTE, against
State-Terrorism are facily labeled as mere Tamil terrorism and thus
indiscriminate killing of Tamils is justified.
Hence a dispassionate reading of the struggle and the
struggling people - their aspirations, convictions, motivations and
mindset of the people who are struggling as victims and as self-giving (that-kodai)
martyrs has to be
Many of the Tamil Christians forced to live as
victims under aerial bombings, artillery shelling, economic blockades,
horrorible 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. Out of these experiences when they cried
for better understanding and justice, they were labeled as rebels and
supporters of terrorism.
The Religious view of Tamils about their Victims and Martyrs
All Tamils, be they Hindus or Christians, 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 (thali eluththu) and in
present suffering caused by 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
against 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 against the oppressor.
While we Christians believe that it is only by the
removal of sin, the root cause of suffering, that we can overcome
suffering, the Christian leaders may not do enough to fight evil on
behalf of the people. The Saivites believe in the 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 the Tamils to two focal commemorations – one on
Victimhood and another on Martyrdom.
Victimhood and Martyrdom:
Commemorations of the Tamil Liberation Struggle
the 23rd. of July 1983, thousands of innocent Tamils,
including 53 Tamil prisoners in the state prison at Welikade, 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), honouring 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 helped foster 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 Sri
Lankan Army and the Indian Peace Keeping Forces
Satyagrahis – namely, Annai Poopathy and Deleepan)
Both Hindus and Christians participate actively in
these commemorations honouring their dear ones as self-sacrificing
heroes of Tamil liberation. Though the majority of the Tamils are Hindus
and it is customary in Hinduism to burn their dead, those who die in
combat are given burials with due military honours 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 damages to innocent lives.
Repeated Tamil pleas not to air-drop bombs on the
civilian population under the pretext of targeting terrorists went
unheard for years. Air attacks were carried out even on refugee camps,
churches, temples, schools and hospitals. What reaction could be
expected on behalf these victims? Not having any plane or a bomb to
retaliate in a similar manner (as in the case of war between two
states), in 2001 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 Kfir jet planes which had bombed their brethren for
days and nights for years. This was done without killing a single
Struggles bring out the best in human beings. And in the case of the Tamil Struggle one good thing is that it had motivated Tamil Christians to better inter-religious solidarity in suffering along with the Hindus, to greater awareness of injustices inflicted on the Tamils and to recognize values such as self-sacrifice, heroism and patriotism beyond the boundaries of their churches
phenomena of victimhood and martyrdom unfolding within the liberation
struggle of the Tamils,
though condemned by its opponents, ridiculed
by the media and abhorred by modern society as mere terrorism,
still raises 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.
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 the major powers of the world
tend to strengthen a coalition of oppressors who have an absolutist
stance about order and justice in the world.
The western world, proclaiming its “new world-order” and wielding its political and financial power, tends to absolutise its own interests, form of democracy, human rights and international laws, easily accuses struggling people with their own definitions of terrorism, seeks to justify their hidden power-seeking acts of horror and bulldoze over the genuine aspirations of people dying for their convictions.
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 powers!
Unfortunately, the religion founded on Jesus Christ
the Prophet to question the partiality of the rich and the powerful has
succumbed to some of the world views of the major powers, taken over
uncritically the vocabulary and judgments of the oppressor, and
gradually weakened and silenced itself to be part of the establishment.
But the majority of humanity suffering and struggling are relying more
and more on the cries of their 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.
It is up to religious institutions like the church to
stand out as advocates of these struggles and cry halt to oppressions,
injustices and mass killings.
 Concilium 1983 – Martyrium Today p.11
 Of the 70 million Tamils all over the world, over 60 million live in Tamil Nadu of India. The others are in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa and Myanmar. The struggle we are here speaking of is about the Tamils on the island of Sri Lanka.
 Racial Discrimination: The Record of Sri Lanka published by South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre ISBN No: 81-87379-09-X http://www.hrdc.net/sahrdc/
 With the Norwegian Government as mediators the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE entered into a cease-fire agreement in Feb.2002 and started Talks on 16.09.2002 to find a just and peaceful solution of the ethnic conflict.
 By reducing, if not denying, the 50 years long ethnic conflict and 20 years of war to mere fighting of Tamil terrorism was a ploy by the State to win finance and weapons from the international community.
 The author, having led an academic community of the major seminary of Jaffna for ten years of the struggle 1986-1996, had the privilege of voicing the aspirations and sufferings of this oppressed people at various international meetings including the UN sessions on Human Rights in Geneva.
 For the majority Sinhalese and their Government, the LTTE is merely a Tamil terrorist organization and those who are killed should not be respected but despised. In Dec 1995 when 500,000 Tamils left the Jaffna peninsula under the threat of the Sinhala Army, the latter occupied Jaffna, destroyed all monuments of commemoration in the peninsula and also bulldozed the largest war-cemetery of the Tamils.
 The Christians though a minority (7%) vis a vis the Buddhists (67%), Hindus (18%) and Muslims(8%), have the unique strategy of counting membership from both the majority Singhalese and from the minority Tamils. They had a key role to play in arresting the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic conflict becoming a war, but are gradually losing this strategy by their apolitical stance and diplomatic silence bordering on connivance with injustice. Their stakes for a future active role in overcoming conflict and building peace are weakened.
 President George Bush (Sen.& Junior)
from Concilium, an international theological journal, first volume of 2003