Martyrdom in an Asian struggle for Life and Dignity


Rev. Dr. S. J. Emmanuel


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[1].  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 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.


With 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.


It 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[2]. 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.


2. The Tamil Struggle[3] in Sri Lanka


History 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.


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 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.


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( 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.


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 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.


On 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.


The 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[4].


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 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[5]. 


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 undertaken.

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.[6]


5. 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.


6. Victimhood and Martyrdom:

Focal Commemorations of the Tamil Liberation Struggle


On 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  respectively ( 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.[7]


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 civilian.


An Overview


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[8]


The 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.  


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 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”[9] 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.


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 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. 

[1] Concilium 1983 – Martyrium Today p.11

[2] 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.

[3] Racial Discrimination: The Record of Sri Lanka published by South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre ISBN  No: 81-87379-09-X       

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] 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.

[9] President George Bush (Sen.& Junior)


from Concilium, an international theological journal, first volume of 2003