Father Chandra Fernando, an outspoken Catholic priest and human rights activist, was gunned down in 1988 by suspected paramilitaries working with Indian military intelligence.
Before he was assassinated, he spoke to Jon Lee Anderson and Scott Anderson on the massacres and crimes taking place in the Tamil homeland, the lack of support from the Catholic Church and his view of the armed Tamil resistance.
Excerpts from that interview, printed in their book ‘War Zones: Voices From The World’s Killing Grounds’, have been reproduced below.
“Father Chandra, 44, is a Tamil Catholic priest in the city of Batticaloa. He is a beefy, powerful man with jaded eyes. Crowding the open doorway of his office next to St. Thomas’ Cathedral is a cluster of women waiting to speak with him. They are the wives and mothers of Tamil men who have been picked up by the security forces. The priest’s office is one of the stops they make on their daily rounds, seeking help and information.
You know the problem we have in the Church today? The Church in the south doesn’t know what’s really happening in the north and east. They have not come and seen. We want them to come and see with their own eyes what is happening here and talk to the people who have been affected. And let them go and see the camps and how the young men are treated there. They have never come. And when we go and tell them, they don’t believe all this is happening here. The Church is divided. We are completely separate now. The Tamil bishops of the north and east are one, the rest of the bishops are another. The Sinhala bishops condemn the bishops of the north and east. They don’t say anything, just keep quiet.
Even the Sinhala people don’t know what is really happening here. The policemen can come and kill anyone on the road, and they’ll not give the body and they’ll bury them and tell them, ‘I have killed ten terrorists’. There’s no postmortem, no inquiry, nothing.
Even at night, they go and knock at the door and rape the girls and women, and break their houses, steal their gold, jewelry, and arrest people. They have killed so many people. Here, today, no young man can live. Because between the age of, say, fifteen and forty, every man has been arrested from time to time. Even last night, they opened fire at five people who had dinner here. They were shot at, and they arrested two and released them in the morning.
They killed a sixty three year-old man who looked after this church and took the body. They never returned the body. Sixty three years old. In September. He was the watchman of my church. For no reason. They just came and shot him and took the body. We saw them do it, but they said, ‘No. That incident did not take place.’ Where’s the body? Nobody knows.
We have no one to complain to. There’s no civil authorities here. We have no Members of Parliament. So who can you complain to?
The upper ranks of the Special Task Force are very nice people. You will find the CO [Coordinating Officer] a very nice man. But the lower ranks, the ordinary police, are very bad. They go and arrest some people and come back and tell him, ‘We arrested so many people.’ He has to believe. He says, ‘I have to believe my own men.’
I told the CO one day. ‘You believe your men’s story, but one day you will know what the truth really is.’ At least before God, he will have to answer one day and give an account of what happened.
You know, they were sent here, specially trained men to fight against terrorism. And to fight against terrorism, you have to win the hearts and minds of the people. But they are not winning the hearts and minds of the people; they know only the hatred.
SA: So can you understand why some of the Tamils have turned to violence?
Chandra: Yes. We were taking up nonviolent struggle from 1956 to 1983. We were nonviolent; we were beaten up, arrested. And the number of communal riots we experienced… So they found, the young men, that nonviolence is something which cannot bring you anything. So they’ve taken up to arms.
SA: But the Church advocates nonviolence. If a militant came to you, would you counsel him to lay down his weapons?
Chandra: (pause) What about defending our own land, our own men? I have to see that also. Now, today, so many villages and so many people are defended only by them; otherwise, the whole family there would have been destroyed. If I advise them to put down their arms, who is going to protect the Tamils? I cannot be one-sided, because I am born and bred here, I live among my own men. In this situation, I can’t but support the young men here who are armed.
SA: Does it cause a conflict within you to go against the dictates of the Church in order to follow your conscience?
Chandra: Actually, I can’t preach violence in public. I can’t because of the teaching of the Church.
JLA: So what can you preach to the young men here?
Chandra: (long pause) Here, most priests will tell them to pray, pray, pray. Make sacrifices. Most all the priests are asking the people to pray. That theory can be popular. In some places, every Sunday, the people come and make a day of fasting. Actually, most of our people who are church goers are emotionally and sentimentally of that nature.
Actually, the work of the Church today is the work of the Red Cross. It doesn’t prevent, but it helps the people who have suffered, but the important work…It’s the Church all over the world; it cares for the affected people but never tries to solve the problem. Every time, all over the world, the Church plays a very safe game. It won’t decide. You will never see the Church standing up. The Church keeps quiet. They don’t make statements here among a majority of Buddhists, because the Church doesn’t want any problems.
SA: But, as a priest, how do you feel being put in a position where you are condoning violence?
Chandra: (smiles archly) First lesson, the Church doesn’t support violence. Of course, you find in the Bible, even the history of Church – you know the crusaders? – you’ve heard how they were against the Muslims, and the Church supported the killing of the Muslims? Through the history of the Church, you will find so many examples. But the Church doesn’t support violence; the Church is against violence…
But I am working here. They are my people. Their problems are my problems. So I have to work for them. All over the world, so many priests are taking up arms to help the people. I am for the people, so I stand with them in this.
JLA: Has it changed the way you look at your religion?
Chandra: Sometimes you go around about the existence of God, and you look at all these things, your own people who have worked for you and are killed and we could do nothing. Even last year, people were killed inside the Church, on the nineteenth of January last year. Three young men were working inside the Church; they were killed inside the Church. Even the bishop didn’t ask why they have done this. Sometimes you wonder whether God exists.”
Extract from War Zones (1988), Dodd, Mead & Co, New York.