17 January, 2021

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A “Victory Day” Sketch

By Dharisha Bastians –

Dharisha Bastians

Dharisha Bastians

Sri Lanka celebrated that very first victory day one day later than it has been marked in the four years since.

It was the 19th of May, 2009.

Vellupillai Prabhakaran had been killed the previous day. News of his death had to filter through before celebrations could begin. Ever since, Sri Lanka has marked his death anniversary as its most triumphal calendar day, with military parades and air-shows, chest-thumping speeches about patriotism and conquest.

It was early and I was standing on the sixth floor balcony of an apartment complex in Bambalapitiya. The Kathiresan kovil was across the road. I watched as a man stepped out of its tall gates, red and white marks on his forehead from an early morning pooja.

I was trying to digest the fact that for the first time in my 29 years, I had woken up in a country that was no longer at war. It was strange. And momentous.

I was not completely ignorant of what it had cost. It had cost me personally several times. An occupational hazard. But I also had a vague awareness that the end had come at the cost of something much deeper, something I could not put my finger on at the time.

I remember struggling to decide which emotion I was feeling. Joy that it was over? Rage, at how much it had cost? Sadness, at what had unfolded in those last weeks? Repulsed by the graphic images repeatedly aired on television?

So I focused instead on the man at the kovil.

The early morning streets were quiet, but there were sudden bursts of excitement. Cars, vans and tuk-tuks filled with people, waving the Lion Flag, singing and laughing. Some more boisterous than others.

He stood there, for the better part of an hour. I don’t remember which of us walked away from our respective observation perches first. It may have been me. I was eager to get back to the news cycle. The early morning stillness quickly gave way to a day of raucous merrymaking, papare bands, and incessant firecrackers. I could hear the cheering and hooting on the streets below. It went on all day.

Five years ago it was impossible to predict the kind of post-conflict future Sri Lankans -would begin to craft. Once the frenzied euphoria had ended, I thought the moment for introspection would come. I thought history and memory would demand it.

An entire generation of Sri Lankans had only known a country at war. That had been my generation. We were those kids. Our first toddler memories were of July 1983. Our school years had been marked by sudden shutdowns and bomb drills. There were surreal mornings on the basketball court, watching thick black smoke spiral up to the sky from some part of the city, moments after the ground had stopped shaking. We didn’t know a country beyond Anuradhapura – except on the map. Entire territories, landmarks, histories and people had been cut off from access practically since we were born.

But still, we were Colombo’s children. The distance from the fighting had kept us relatively safe. We were inconvenienced by check-points and schoolbag screening. After the explosions, we would watch our parents account for everyone we knew. Then we moved on. We had to.

Other childhoods had been trapped and blighted over the past 26 years, in much worse ways. There were other children of war hundreds of miles away, dodging grenades and bullets.

Post-war, life has changed for the better, especially if you live in Colombo. Hundreds of miles away, a lot has also stayed the same.

But you have to really leave the capital to understand that.

You need to get off the paved roads in Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu and look beyond the new bridges and parks to understand how differently ‘peace’ has played out there.

Look at signboards in the North and think about why you can read them, when most people there can’t understand what they say.

Ask yourself why we build gigantic Vesak pandals in an area filled with Hindus and call it reconciliation.

Sometimes all of that is just too much pressure. It’s easier to be grateful for the small mercies.

No more bombs. No more guns. No more counting the dead.

I’m just not sure that’s all peace is supposed to mean.

Five years later, it feels like we are still chasing ghosts. We are fearful of memory, paranoid about memorial, determined to dictate the terms of grief and remembrance. We need to reassure ourselves with displays of muscle and might and remind ourselves that paranoia is a security blanket.

So each year on May 18, when the Kfir jets are thundering overhead, I think about the man in the white veti.

The kovil ash on his forehead. The shawl on his shoulder.

The way he leaned against the temple wall, as madness and celebration erupted around him. The way they hooted at him from tuk-tuks and motorbikes that were flying past, carrying revellers and firecrackers.

I can’t remember a particular expression on his face. Only passivity.  And mute observation.

Five years down the road, I can’t help but feel that his experience on that first triumphant morning has come to embody the post-war experience of an entire community of people. If this is our day of victory, our day of liberation, why are thousands of Sri Lankans still on the outside looking in?

I know this victory was hard won. I know there is no war without casualties. I know peace and reconciliation and healing take time. I am relieved the blood-letting is ended. I am grateful for the silence of the guns.

But forgive me. I can’t bring myself to celebrate my freedom.

Not quite yet.

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Latest comments

  • 4
    3

    Celebrate “My freedom”???. It looks like here in Sri Lanka the freedom of the majority is born of then oppression of the minorities. That is how it has always been from as long as I can remember. The state has always responded to freedom with the force of arms even as it now does and the Sinhalese have always been swift with their ugly violence. Nothing has changed.

    In response Tamil has become Terrorist. The one is no better than the other.

    • 2
      3

      The current Government of Sri Lanka, is supposed to be celebrating a ‘Victory’ this week.

      How can the subjugation of Minorities in the same Country, be a Victory?

      Shouldn’t they instead, be Meditating on the Reasons for their Inability to keep the Peace between the different Ethnicities and Religions in the Country?

      Everyone except the Ruling Clan seem to know the Reasons!

  • 6
    8

    It is the calm before the storm that is called “peace” today in Silly Lanka where Sinhala Buddhist hegemony pervades.

    Let’s wait till the war crimes investigation and the conviction of the Maharajapakse junta and its military machine culprits:

    All hell will break out and the Sinhala goons will be let loose by the state and the regime on pogroms against the Tamils all over Sri Lanka as the military is besieging the Tamil homeland this time.

    Peace will come then again – that of the cemetery as it is now.

    The blood thirsty Mahavamsa poisoned Sinhala Buddhist supremacists will will not rest until the “others” are finished off like the native Indians of the Americas.

  • 5
    2

    Many thanks Dharisha for this moving and thoughtful article.

    Wish that the Sinhala Modayas who are celebrating Mahinda Jarapassa and his WAR CRIMED in Matara this day had more sense.. and were TRUE BUDDHISTS who practice – metta, muditha, karuna and upeka.

  • 4
    2

    End of the war and elimination of LTTE brought about peace! Well that was the thought we had until such time the Sinhala Buddhist extremism showed its true colours to the other minorities as MR declared ‘there is no minority in Sri Lanka’. He really meant it! Now the minorities, specially the Muslims have lost their hopes and do not know where to turn for protection. Either the good-hearted true Buddhists must come forward or do they ask protection from Almighty Allah?

  • 2
    2

    The purpose of rebuilding the Northerns roadways and railways with foreign aids and Indian donation has been established today. India has once more voluntarily paid for the military to have the pathways repaired so that it can freely travel in North.

    It has been repeatedly said from KIng’s government side that there was only 10,000 troops are in North. Nobody who observed today’s condition in Jaffna failed to describe that the entire Sri Lankan army forces is in Jaffna today. After wiping out the LTTE, Army has brought the North to stand still today for what?

    At least one this should be is true: King is celebrating today in the South only his crowning day as Gemunu, in reality LTTE is not defeated and there is nothing to celebrate of that or It was only and explanation that LTTE was fighting in the north so they had to fight, but the intention of the government in 2009 was to wipe out Tamils with military, without a trace.

    Otherwise, after LTTE is wiped out, in a day all the Island peoples are celebrating the peace, why only the North is in the Military grip?. What is the big explanation if the parents mourn for their lost children this day?

    • 4
      3

      had SL gov wanted to eradicate tamils, they would have starved them to death in 30 years, when gov had to feed and send almost everything to LTTE controlled area. Be thankful to MR no tamil die as a result of war, and tamils in south lead a better life without continuous checkpoints

  • 5
    0

    A clear picture which descries the events of the day. I would say a momentary celebration can be accepted after all as Dharisha explains most if us knew nothing but war. So when that damning war came to an end I think celebration on the day are spontaneous & unavoidable.

    This is where a smart leadership could have reminded the islanders that yes the war was won, but with a price which we can never recover. The opportunity should have been used to spread the message of peace that we should never fault again on to the same path.

    5 years down the line we are still celebrating, this is not celebration this is mocking at loss of life while paving the path for further state sponsored conflicts.

    • 4
      2

      Afzal

      “The opportunity should have been used to spread the message of peace that we should never fault again on to the same path.”

      Mere words alone will not spread the message of peace. Those empty words without any backing of substantial measures would fail, fail miserably as you witness now.

      A complete reconstruction of state which was long overdue could possibly have made the life of MR less miserable within and outside this island.

      On the other hand a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would have assuaged Tamils’ grief.

      Now MR, his clan and his armed forces are likely to experience the same old anxiety attack all over again, would remain an enduring features of their life.

      A stitch in time saves nine.

      • 1
        0

        Native Vedda and Afzal, Agree with you. When Mahinda Rajapaksa announced in 2009 that ” there will be no minorities” I assumed that he meant ” we are now all one and the same” Subsequent events proved that he meant ” the majority is all” What a great mistake he made being a national leader. As Afzal says Mahinda’s tensions have resumed. I would say the tensions of the citizens are greater and to our great regret we may never see the wonderful Sri Lanka we longed for. Somebody quoted from a statement a few weeks ago that “Sri Lanka never loses an opportunity to lose an opportunity” That sums up all.

    • 0
      1

      it was nice to celebrate the victory day in grand style

  • 2
    0

    Ms.Bastian:
    What a wonderfully understated and indeed subtle critique of the situation in the blessed isle.I am sure this will be more effective than the loud and at times intemporate and vulgar bleatings on these sites.
    KS

  • 0
    0

    All national ceremonies are organized by the Ministry of Home Affairs. For example Feb 4 National Day is organized by the Home Ministy. It means that shows a civilian involvement in the affairs of administration. Here, I feel the victory day is organized by the Military. Why a military involvement in the public affairs. Under democracy the final Commander of the forces is a civilain leader who is the head of state. He has the power to decalre war of peace.

    Here the military involvement is intensified gradually. The affairs in the north still under the grip of the forces. Even distribution of scholarships to year 5 students is done by the military why is this.

    It does not take place in any other parts of the country. WIll they tolerate such a military involvement here.

    What is the different between the military rule and the civilain rule. It is seen when one compare a simple ceremony that take place in the north and south.

    Military is involved in the religionj as well. Recently a foreign journlalist who had took part in a conducted tour to Wilpattu to see the affairs of Muslim settlers told me that there is a huge buddhist statue there near Muslim village. But no sinhala settlers. The worshipers are paid because they are soldiers. “What their duty is to upkeep the Statue” he quipped.

    I like your write up very much keep on writing. Since you are writing in English you are safe.It hardly reach the top of the govt

  • 1
    1

    Dharisha,

    A very poignant post. The Tamil man in verti coming out of a temple and standing on the street for an hour, observing what was unfolding around him, while drawing the attention of those celebrating,is represented today by a whole mass of people, belonging to various communities who are watching intently the manifestations of a nation being destroyed from within.

    We won our freedom from the British. However, we have to be yet liberated from a political system that has become a burden to us in manifold ways and is suffocating us.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 0
    0

    dharisha, i think you are a minority of people residing in srilanka who is not jingoistic and triumphalistic.we cant say the same for others.in 2009 tamil nadu did not really when war was going on in its last legs and not many shed tears for prabhakaran.but the scenario here is totally different.even a anti ltte jayalalitha is supportive of srilankan tamils shows how sentiments in tamil nadu has changed.change can be attributed to lack of sincerity in reconcilliation and non implementation of 13th amendment as agreed upon.even the northern provincial election took place only because of india’s insistence as a quid pro quo for its support to srilanka staging the commonwealth summit.if this situation continues i doubt india will support srilanka in future even though there is premature celebrations among srilankan policy makers that tamil nadu can no longer influence because jayalalitha’s party is no longer part of upcoming ruling coalition.i hope that srilankans reconcile and live in peace.

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