Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Democratic Sri Lanka? A Parody

An Observation through the prism of Hebrew text

by Fr. Chandi Sinnathurai, February 4, 2006

Once the goal of a free and fair society is well established within our borders, then, of course, we have truly emancipated ourselves not only from the tyranny, suppression and exploitation of “internal and external” forces, but also have recovered the humanity of our Sinhala neighbours.

Sri Lanka has had an appalling human rights record since its independence on February 4th 1949.  It is tragic that an Orwellian prophesy is being fulfilled in this island, especially when it comes to freedom of thought and expression.  Sri Lanka functions within a framework of racist sectarianism couched in a façade of duplicitous democracy.  We, therefore, pen this piece, under the real threat of a police state, while death squads are meting out collective punishment to a marginalised civil society.

Sri Lankan soldiers 2005Terror

Cycles of violence have overtaken the country on both sides of the divide.  The East: Tirukonnamalai (Trincomalee), Mattakkalappu (Batticaloa) and the Ampara District, in particular, have been transformed into largely under-reported killing-fields.  Involuntary disappearances, gang rapes, torture and extra-judicial killings are conducted routinely as part of a well-planned program with genocidal intent.  The strategy of the state, however, is to divide the Easterners from the Northern Tamils.

I rang one of my relatives in Mattakalappu a week after the senior Tamil legislator’s murder in the Cathedral.  He conveyed to me that the people in Batticaloa are living in constant fear: “Any moment any thing can happen – this is worse than the trauma of the tsunami,” he shuddered.  Why don’t you write about these atrocities in the newspapers and let the whole world know, I urged him. “If so,” he enquired “are you willing to conduct my funeral?” Such frightening reality is an open secret. Naturally, no one wants to even whisper a word about the calculated tragedy which civilians are caught up in.


During my post-tsunami journey to the East in January – March 2005 I was in conversation with a fellow priest in the Ampara district. His 19 year old brother Ravi (not his real name) was abducted by the notorious STF [Special Task Force] in the latter part of October 2004 and was kept in their Camp for nearly two weeks. Not only did the STF torture Ravi mentally, emotionally and physically, the STF, in a drunken stupor, did not hesitate to sodomise him by gang rape – an ultimate indignity to a Tamil man!  When Ravi’s parents ‘secretly’ met with the local-commander; they were informed that their son was kept for interrogation as a “suspected terrorist.” When they protested their son’s innocence, they were reluctantly told that they would be permitted to take Ravi home provided:

1) They agree to sign a document that he was released in perfect health     [obviously a proof copy of which was not issued]

2) Never to utter a word about this matter with anyone

3) Should not take the young man to any hospital!

Surely the parents were overjoyed to hear that their son was alive. They promptly signed this “official document” without any objections.  When two soldiers in balaclava brought Ravi from an underground ‘cellar’ the parents noticed: ‘Ravi hardly could walk or talk, he was bent down owing to repeated battering on his spinal cords his private parts were swollen, his face was disfigured with cigarette burns -- he had been beaten 'black and blue.’  The parents and relatives literally carried Ravi to their village Pariyari [local medicine man], who was also sworn to secrecy. The state of Ravi hardly improved; even several months after the trauma, the parents wouldn’t take him to a Government hospital, fearing for their lives.  I urged Ravi’s mother: "Amma, why won’t you now report this odious incident to the authorities…" I struggled to contain emotions of pain and deep anguish when I heard this noble lady’s tearful response. “Pothagar, I’ve chosen to forgive these men.” She continued; “I will not allow them to steal my humanity (manuseekam); they have at least given back my son’s life. I’m grateful for that.” Amma raised her face delicately and patting on her chest firmly and said: “We will keep our word of honour. We won’t talk to anybody about this incident; it’s a disgrace (avamarnam).”[1]

The tsunami was, however, a blessing in disguise to Ravi.  He received medical attention from Médecins Sans Frontières and his health greatly improved.  However, the doctor prescribed anti-depressants and recommended that Ravi should be seen by a psychiatrist because he diagnosed post-traumatic depression and a suicidal tendency. In fact, Ravi’s amma used the word “Uyir picchai” in her conversation, which translates that the ‘powers that be’ have chosen to offer them as a favour ‘an alms-giving of her son’s life’ owing to their incessant “begging.” Amma wanted to be grateful. “Grateful?” Yes, that is precisely what she said. As we ponder now, it conjures up stark images and naked emotions! Such is the obscene breach of inherent birthright and the real threat of state terror that gag our fellow beings!

Even as I write under the Palmyra hut, we are hearing stories of the abduction of 10 TRO (a humanitarian Organisation) staff in Batticaloa.[2] None are safe. 


Rabbi Sacks, in his exploration into the concepts of the moral basis of fundamental rights, explains that a human right is like a cheque: It has value, he underscores, ‘only if there is a bank and an account against which it can be drawn.’ Without that, he concludes, it is mere expectation without delivery. May I venture to suggest that the Rabbi’s analysis fits the moral bankruptcy and depravity of Sri Lanka perfectly?

It is against this backdrop that we wish to briefly focus our attention on the following couple of ideas from the Hebrew text.  These ideas conceptualise different forms of justice practised by the ancient Hebrews. The moral undergirding of justice is arising from the theology of justice and peace, which emphasises that one keeps the way of the Lord by doing that which is right [Tzedakah] and just [Mishpat] (Genesis 18:17 – 19).  Such governance, no doubt, produces both a righteous and a just society.  The Buddhist might call such social ordering a Dharmista society. The Tamils would invoke the ancient Dravidian dictum: “Tharumum thalai kakkum.” [3] 


Mishpat means redistributive justice or the rule of law.  Law governs all free society. By impartial administration of law, the guilty are punished (in a restorative sense); the innocent acquitted; and, in due process, human rights secured.  In a just society people ought to be concerned first for economic justice and only then in political order.  The tsunami calamity taught us all a good lesson in this regard.  The GoSL [Government of Sri Lanka] failed to address the economic rights and welfare of the Tamil survivors because it did not adher to the commitment made in the so-called joint mechanism which would have administered, in all probability, an equitable distribution of international aid.

Overwhelming evidence would suggest that the GoSL not only trashed the aid commitment, it also chose to breach the CFA [Ceasefire Agreement] by surreptitiously engaging its Military Intelligence Wing in numerous post-tsunami assassinations, including escalating violence primarily targeting civil society.  

Now, with such credentials, it is reported, that the GoSL is proceeding in February to Geneva in order to commence talks with the LTTE on political order. One would think getting the order right in terms of priority - economic justice for Tamils - should have preceded any peace-building initiative, rather than the other way round.  One is alarmed whether even the ‘talks on peace’ are folding into anything but a virtuous cycle.

Redistributive justice focuses especially with those who, because they lack power, or even a ‘voice,’became victims of injustice and inequity:  The Hebrew Psalms speak of God as having a “preferential option” for the oppressed. God is portrayed by the psalmist as follows –

    He upholds the oppressed,
    And gives food to the hungry
    The Lord sets prisoners free
    The Lord gives sight to the blind
    The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down
                                                  The Lord loves the righteous
                                                    The Lord watches over the stranger
                                                    And sustains the fatherless and the widow
                                                    But He frustrates the way of the wicked. (Psalm 146:7-9)

The aforementioned text seemingly projects a “correct vision” of God – the essential character of God, who identifies with the down-trodden in particular, acting as the voice for the voiceless.  Most social scientists, including both socio-political theologians and behavioural psychologists agree, at least theoretically, that the vision portrayed and projected as an object of worship (our religious universe) does indeed impact our moral universe. 

Put it differently; the vision that we adhere to inevitably mirrors on our nurture and nature; value systems; the way we respond and inherently react to socio-moral issues.  Hence, scholars agree that the right view of God /or the right understanding (or perception) of the object of worship is essential.  Even for an atheist, an idea or a philosophy could be the object of ‘worship.’ The corollary of a deviant theology / a flawed system of thought, they rightly argue, would eventually lead to defective moral choices and ethical stance.  Such a position has a way of ultimately impacting ground realities.

Tragically, in Sri Lanka, however, the fundamental issue is locked within the defective theology of politico-Buddhism. Such a belief system is underpinned by an emotive sectarian idea that the Buddhist Sinhalas are a divinely chosen-race ordained to be the ‘sole sons of the soil’ (Pumi putras).   This lethal ideology finds its articulation in the flawed formula of Sinhala supremacy!  The Buddhist Sangha, acting as the guardians of state religion, comprehends the ideology of ruling “apey ratte” [our promised land] as their divine right.  Such a divisive priestly mandate results in rhetorical violence and ideological strife which ensues against the Kalu Demelu [dark-skinned Thamils] - who are viewed as “traditional adversaries.” 

Obviously, in the scheme of things, the Tamil right to co-exist is on a collision course. Schalk nonetheless, in his deconstruction of such ideological pillars, concludes that racism was made part of Sinhala consciousness in the “post-vamsa tradition,” in the 19th and 20th centuries, and Tamils were excluded as a result of their race. Racism in Sri Lanka, Schalk points out, “was an ideological expression of a policy of segregation.”[4]

Influential scholars in political science, as well as policy analysts and opinion makers in the field of international relations, are only now beginning to accommodate the principle of self-determination for Tamils within the idea of a viable autonomous Tamil Eelam.  The primacy of reason suggests that that is the intelligent way out of this quagmire. Therefore, instead of focusing on the gathering momentum of shifting paradigms -- should the adherents to the Oslo overture play the second movement on the ruggéd tune of ‘exploring federal systems,’ it would not help anyone’s desire to win the Nobel peace prize!

What our Hebrew texts insist is this.  There is a “shared graciousness” of the community which should be an in-built element in order for society to be fair and just.  However, a free society cannot be built on Mishpat, the rule of law alone.  There needs to be, in a wholesomely peaceful shalom society, tzedakah -- a just distribution of resources.  That also incorporates, all would agree, a basic human right. 


Tzedakah often signifies what is generally termed in modern times as social justice. Every section of society has the right to a dignified life and to be equal citizens.  The text of the covenant code quotes God’s liberation manifesto as follows:

Do not ill-treat a stranger [a foreigner] or oppress, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.

Do not take advantage of a widow or orphan.  If you do, and they cry out to Me; I will hear their cry for sure…

If you lend money, charge no interest…

If you take your neighbour's cloak as a pledge, return before sunset, because that cloak is the ONLY covering for the body [points to the depriving poverty]. (Exodus 22)

Our text presents a caveat to any society in which the few prosper but the many starve. 

Absence of constraints, however, Isaiah Berlin argued, only will produce, a ‘negative liberty.’  On the contrary, true liberty would mean much more than the absence of coercion/violence.  It should ideally put an end to all forms of violation.  The moral dimension of tzedakah would propose that all sections of free society must have access to good education, health care, and other essential amenities without any racial, social, creedal, caste or colour discrimination.

The concept of Tzedakah is, therefore, is an antidote to the systematic social deprivation, adverse poverty, and intolerance that thrives in a repressive state like Sri Lanka. 


The dispossessed Tamils, including the hill-country Tamils, have been struggling for their emancipation for more than half-a-century.  One cannot be duped by thinking that the national question can be solved within a unitary constitution.  Colombo’s strategy is buttressed by a “no-war-no-peace” policy. Such posturing, they wrongly assume, would trap the Tigers into a stumbling illusion.

From the stand point of interested foreign players, the peace-concession is designed to consign the Tamils into a limbo-state indefinitely, while their own geo-political/mercantile interests are achieved. History is fraught with such examples, the most recent one being Iraq. Such tactical prolongation, on the one hand, would permit, in the reckoning of peaceniks, contradictory interpretations which might act as a contributing factor to divide Tamil public opinion both here and in the Diaspora. On the other hand, while the US is sending mixed signals, India and Sri Lanka are engaging in joint patrol of the high seas and are ‘protecting’ all harbours, Tirukonnamalai in particular. In this contemporary environment one cannot totally disregard submarine warfare!

It is imperative, therefore, unlike previous ‘beating about the bush’ talks, that the current negotiations must advance the principle of autonomy without any ambiguity as a quid pro quo. If push becomes a shove, as the case might be, the Tamils have the right to be prudently involved in the Oslo overture only to state their case convincingly before the international community.

Failing which, no doubt, disaster is always a single bad decision away.

One can only hope and pray that the emerging modern State of Thamil Eelam will be a place where the concepts of Mishphat and Tzedakah – “right and justice” would make their home comfortably.  Once the goal of a free and fair society is well established within our borders, then, of course, we have truly emancipated ourselves not only from the tyranny, suppression and exploitation of “internal and external” forces, but also have recovered the humanity of our Sinhala neighbours.  That will indeed be the humanitarian dimension of our liberty and freedom.

It is only in such transformative context that the Tamils can freely dialogue about beating swords into ploughshares: And the pen will be mightier than the sword, plough and the ploughshare!

Truth must be told -- with tact perhaps, however brutal it is.


[1] Must be read in conjunction with footnote 3. “avamarnam means dishonor; Marnam is a core value of Dravidian culture. The ancient wisdom-couplet carried the meaning beautifully “Mayir neepin varlak kavarima annar; Uyir neepar marnam varin” Marnam, Chapter 97 – Kurral 969. Thirukurral.

[2] Reports are emerging that two abducted staff have been released with a ‘gag-order’. 02/02/06

[3] Honest and honourable charitable /humanitarian/righteous deeds would in the end protect your “head” – meaning safeguard your honour – marnam.

[4] Schalk, Ilam<Sihala? An Assessment of an Argument: Uppsala University, 2004. p.198.

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