In the west, particularly in North America, we have a very limited perspective when it comes to the concept of royalty. We think about star-studded royal weddings, fabled fairy tale princesses, and of course, the dystopian deeds that take place on Game of Thrones, where royalty is embodied by a volatile and ruthless struggle for power. Though such themes often prove entertaining, they also fail to acknowledge the many modern day monarchs whose primary goals relate to public service and more intimately connecting with their people than anything else. Raja Remigius Kanagarajah is one of those monarchs. Coming from the Royal House of Jaffna, he and his family report ties to the 13th century kingdom of Jaffna, a ruling body in Northern Sri Lanka until the 1600s, when the kingdom was disbanded while under Portuguese colonial rule.
Well after the time of their direct rule, the greater Jaffna family continued to play an active role in Sri Lankan life throughout the occupation of three different European colonial empires, as well as into the present day. Each generation imparted traditional royal customs and values onto the next — something that Raja Remigius holds closely to his heart. His public service work in Sri Lanka has flung him across the globe, and several times even put his life in danger. Despite living in exile, he is still warm, positive, and eager to participate however he can in support of human rights in Sri Lanka at this very critical time in the country’s postwar history.
- What was it like for you growing up in Northern Sri Lanka as a member of an historic ruling dynasty? What did being a royal mean to you as a child?
In keeping with tradition, my parents ensured that I was raised in accordance with strict royal protocol which, as many people will know, instils a high degree of responsibility to others and a readiness to put the interests of others before one’s own. As such, I did not have the freedoms most people enjoy and have had to always respect the consequences of what I say and do as a public figure.
- Can you tell us a bit about your family history as it relates to the royal family, and the other royal families of Sri Lanka?
My ancestors of the Arya Cakravarti dynasty began to rule the Kingdom of Jaffna from the thirteenth century right down to the early seventeenth century. The center of power of their kingdom was the Jaffna Peninsula of northern Sri Lanka, from which the kingdom derives its name, populated predominantly by the ethnic Tamil people. While archaeological evidence reveals that the Tamils have lived in Sri Lanka since pre-historic times, their language and culture originate from Southern India.
Though its political boundaries shifted with its changing fortunes, the Kingdom of Jaffna generally embraced the limits occupied by the Tamil-speaking people, bordered by the Sinhalese kingdoms to the south. Hence, interchangeably the Kingdom of Jaffna is also referred to as the Tamil Kingdom. More importantly, it began a separate existence as one of the political entities of the island and entered the struggles with the other kingdoms for political power.
At the height of its power and prosperity under the Arya Cakravartis, the Kingdom of Jaffna was the dominant and most powerful kingdom on the island, both on the sea and land. During this period, Sri Lanka was divided into three main kingdoms, with the Kingdom of Jaffna in the north, the Kingdom of Kotte in the southwest and the Kingdom of Kandy in the central hills. To this day there still exist descendants of the Kandy Royal Family living in Vellore and other parts of India and they remain even today in regular contact with the Royal House of Jaffna.
The Portuguese, who came to the east for conversion of Christianity as well as for spices, were the first of the island’s western conquerors, and called the whole island Ceilao, which was transliterated into English as Ceylon. The Arya Cakravartis lost possession of their ancestral kingdom in 1621 to the Portugese, and the last king of Jaffna, Cinkai Arya Cakravarti Cankili (II) Cekaracacekaran, was beheaded in 1623. Thus the Kingdom of Jaffna became a province of the Portuguese colonial Empire in the East, up until its capture by the Dutch in 1658.
The Last King’s Statue
- For how long was the island a colony under European rule?
The Portuguese ruled the maritime settlements in Ceylon for 153 years (1505-1658), the Dutch for 138 years (1658-1796) and the British for 152 years (1796-1815), the British became the sole rulers of the island and administered the country for 133 years (1815-1948). All three colonial powers had administered the historical three kingdoms separately until 1833, when the British combined the three kingdoms under one administration, naming this new, unified colony “Ceylon”. In the 20th century, Sri Lankans demanded independence, and it was this unified colony spanning the entire island that on February 4th, 1948 gained its independence from British colonial rule. On 22 May 1972, with the adoption of a new constitution that ended the “Dominion Status”, Ceylon became a republic within the Commonwealth, and the official name of the country was changed to “Free, Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka”, changed again 6 years later to the “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka”.
- For people who are unfamiliar, can you tell us about the demography, as well as the different ethnic groups in Sri Lanka?
The people of Sri Lanka comprise several different ethnic groups whose conflicts have sadly dominated public life since the nineteenth century. Sri Lanka is a multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-religious country with Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils, Muslims and the Burghers (descendants of the European settlers).
The Sinhalese represent the majority group on the island and dominate the country’s politics and economy. They reside in the south and west of the island. The Sri Lankan Tamils, the second-largest group, have resided predominately in the north and eastern regions of Sri Lanka.
- How did the conflict between Singhalese and Tamil begin?
The first island-wide ethnic riots (known as 1958 riots) targeted the minority Tamils in the Dominion of Ceylon, 10 years after independence. The riots lasted from 22nd May until 27th May 1958, although sporadic disturbances happened even after the declaration of emergency on the 1st June 1958. The event has been generally called an ethnic riot, but in some geographic locations in its scale of its destruction, it was a pogrom.
The Sri Lankan Tamils, represented by the Federal Party, launched a Satyagraha (nonviolent protest) that resulted in a pact between S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and S. J. V. Chelvanayakam. The agreement provided a wide measure of Tamil autonomy in Northern and Eastern provinces. It also provided for the use of the Tamil language in administrative matters. The Bandaranaike Chelvanayakam Pact also promised that “early consideration” would be extended to Indian “plantation” Tamils on the question of Sri Lankan citizenship.
But the pact was not carried out because of a peaceful protest by Buddhist clergy, who, with support from the United National Party, denounced the pact as a “betrayal of Sinhalese-Buddhist people.” In May 1958, a rumor that a Tamil had killed a Sinhalese civilian sparked riots nationwide.
The estimates of the killings based on recovered body count range from 70 to 300. Although most of the victims were Tamils, some majority Sinhalese civilians and their property were also affected: both by Sinhalese mobs who attacked the sympathetic Sinhalese who provided sanctuary to Tamils, as well as retaliatory attacks by Tamil mobs in Batticaloa and Jaffna.
The riots left a deep psychological scar between the two major ethnic groups. As the first full-scale race riot in the country in over forty years, the events of 1958 shattered the trust the communities had in one another and led to further polarization. The government declared a state of emergency and forcibly relocated more than 25,000 Tamil refugees from Sinhalese regions.
Major anti-Tamil riots started again on the August 12, 1977, less than a month after the United National Party came to power. Over 300 Tamils were killed during these riots. 1981 marks the burning of Jaffna Library; with the loss of over 100,000 books, irreplaceable artifacts and palm writings of the Tamil civilization in Sri Lanka were lost forever. Some police and army soldiers were accused of collusion in the riots. I would like to say that of course not all Sinhalese people were so racially antagonistic.
In 1983, civil war broke out between Sinhalese and Tamils, which, after 26 years of bloodshed, finally came to an end in May 2009.
- How have you come to live in the Netherlands?
In 1987, India agreed to establish order in the north and east through a force dubbed the “Indian Peace Keeping Forces”. The (IPKF) was the Indian Military contingent performing a peacekeeping operation in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990. It was formed under the mandate of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord signed between India and Sri Lanka that aimed to end the Sri Lankan Civil War.
In 1987, I was sent to Jaffna as a representative of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society. Later, I was appointed by the Indian Red Cross as a Coordinating Officer (Administration) for the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. There were different Tamil militant groups at that time and there were a few assassination attempts against me, but they all failed. The reason I had to leave Sri Lanka and live in exile was because of a growing number of threats, and it was clear that my life was becoming more and more in danger.
- How has your relationship been with the people of Sri Lanka ever since the official end of the 26-year conflict there?
From the day I left my country, my mind and my heart remained in Sri Lanka. Since the start of my exile I’ve been aware of the ongoing situation in Sri Lanka. I keep myself up-to-date in the news and daily happenings in my country. During the war it was not that easy to get in contact with people, but since 2009 it has been easier, also due to technological advancements, Sri Lankans more and more are communicating using e-mails, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, Viber, Whatsapp etc.. I am in constant contact with everyone, including also the government authorities. Many people from Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans living around the world contact me daily on different issues.
The structure known as the “Manthri Manai” (Minister’s Abode) is a heritage site and a surviving section of the Royal Palace Complex
- What do you believe about the work you are doing now? What responsibilities do you feel to yourself and to your country? Are you optimistic that you can fulfill them?
Well, my royal duties keep me occupied. Once you are born a Raja you have to work hard for others, put their interests before your own and always remain accessible. Fulfilling these responsibilities is a great honor, and I am happy to do so.
At present my duties are meeting with dignitaries, attending charity events, overseas visits, ceremonial occasions and attending dinners, all the time promoting peace to the dispersed Tamil people of Sri Lanka and to unite them as one nation. I’m also a member of the International Monarchist League in London, as well as the Southeast Asia Imperial and Royal League, which promotes friendship between Royal Families of Southeast Asia. We’re dedicated to the improvement of social and charitable work within our home nations, and we also meet at a “diplomatic level” in order to improve political relations and issues within our countries.
I want to make it very clear that I am not asking to rule or to somehow take advantage of the people but to make it known that I am here to serve my country and my people. We must encourage the younger generation to come forward and take important roles in Sri Lanka. Teach them that the only way to ensure a bright future for our country is to be united. We must give an opportunity for the Tamil people to speak freely and to fulfill their hopes with equal rights.
I will help to develop the economies in the north and east, but also down south. I will bring back the rich heritage of the Tamils. I am sure that some day the glorious days previously enjoyed by the Tamil people will return.
During the time my ancestors reigned, they would greet their loyal subjects from the palace balcony. But today things have changed, and because Sri Lanka is a democratic country I cannot abandon my place with the people. It is time to serve the people, to be with the people, listen to their problems and help them. I seek to provide invaluable guidance and support them all. I ask from God to give me power and courage to help all the people of that island to live in peace and to help them fulfill their needs and hopes.
- Do you believe that you will have a chance to return home?
Of course, yes! Many royals who had lived in exile have been permitted to return to their homelands. The exiled royals who have returned have made good progress in the country by working together. Again, my mind and my heart are still in Sri Lanka. Life is an eternal struggle for all of us and I have been struggling for so many years to get back. Although I know I am only able to return to Sri Lanka if my personal security were assured, and if the Sri Lankan government authorities were to grant permission for my arrival, to bare the full responsibility for my safe arrival and stay in the island. As of right now, any anonymous group or individual could put my life into danger, with no one taking responsibility.
- What do you think of the current political landscape of Sri Lanka?
Let me first of all congratulate the President and the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. A new era has dawned, people of Sri Lanka wanted change, and now they have elected a new President. The new government’s programs to rebuild the country within 100 days were a success.
Raja Remigius in the Netherlands
- What work is there still to be done in Sri Lanka?
The country needs a strong administrative system with a disciplined cabinet and a strong opposition. I feel they are heading in the right direction, and the government has said that they will restore democracy. The new government has made positive changes: they have lifted a ban on foreign travelers visiting the northern part of Sri Lanka, and now they have appointed a non-military civil servant as the governor of the Northern Province. The government has promised to ensure press freedom and the lifting of censorship on dissident websites, and the Army and Special Task Force (STF) has been disbanded.
The new Prime Minister has said that government will implement the 13th Amendment to its Constitution within a unitary state.
There are many issues to be addressed in northern and eastern part of the island, and the new government has just now assumed office. There’s the old saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, and we cannot expect change to come overnight. But, still, the problems of the Tamil people need to be addressed within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. I feel this will be a good opportunity for both sides to return to the negotiating table in order to solve the Tamil ethnic conflict without any further delay. The government should also ensure that all private lands in the northern and eastern part of the country should be returned to the rightful owners. I kindly request all Tamil leaders of the county to work together in one spirit towards a common goal.
As I have mentioned before in my messages, I believe that communication is the best way to deal with conflicts. As long as you don’t communicate, you cannot find a solution.
It is time to stop talking about the war and labeling people as terrorists, extremists and separatists. The war is over, and due to that war people have lost their way of life, loved ones, and their culture. We need to give some space for the people affected by the war to return to their normal lives. There is a great deal that still needs to be done for the people, and it will take a lot of time before all their wounds are healed. To reestablish their livelihoods, we must first commit ourselves sincerely to continuing the rehabilitation, reconstruction and redevelopment efforts for the affected people and affected areas.
The new government has outlined plans for a wave of anti-corruption investigations. Corruption is one of the critical issues around the world, especially in underdeveloped and developing countries. If people stop paying bribes, then corruption could be eliminated. The laws related to corruption should be made strict and the punishment for corruption should be very severe. Those who are involved and found guilty of corruption should be punished by law.
The government should conduct new investigations into the murder of politicians and journalists.
It is also time to stop using the term “minority”. All the people of Sri Lanka should be treated with dignity and respect, and everyone should be able to live in a truly equal multicultural society.
The present is our chance. It is the best time for everyone to come forward and build a harmonious Sri Lanka. In order to achieve peace and unity in our country, we have to work together. Therefore I urge all Sri Lankans to come forward and join hands for the happiness of the whole country.