The title of a news article that circulated the other day read ‘Government issues stern warning against heroes’ day remembrance’. The stern warning in question was intended at Tamils, living in Sri Lanka, especially in the north’s ex-battle ground. The ‘heroes’ in question were a range of Sri Lankan citizens, who, for a multitude of reasons, fought against the Sri Lankan state in the ranks of the now defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In the latter’s heyday, the ‘heroes day’ was primarily and near-exclusively meant at commemorating LTTE fallen cadres.
Over the last few years, collective remembrance in Tamil society, within and outside Sri Lanka, has gone to include the many hundreds of thousands of civilians, all citizens of Sri Lanka, who died during the 30-year-war. In Tamil collective memory, a special place is carved out for ordinary people who were caught in the crossfire during the very last stages of the final offensive, in which, acts amounting to violations of fundamental rights and crimes against humanity – and in several cases, of genocidal intent (e.g., shelling jam-packed and under-provisioned hospitals) – took place. Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka and in ‘Sinhala diaspora circles’ abroad tend to overlook the tremendous significance Tamils across the world attach to, and the deep emotions triggered in Tamil society by, the notion of ‘remembrance’. In Tamil nationalist circles, much has been said to oppose Colombo’s unfavourable attitude towards remembrance. Just like all news, the issue is raised in late November each year, and dies off until the following year. This article, written ‘after’ this year’s phase of media attention to the issue, is intended at highlighting the broader importance of this issue, which stems beyond petty politics and a doctored late November media interest.
In sum, the notion of mass remembrance in the Tamil community today includes remembering, and lighting a candle for the memory of a broad range of individuals. They include ordinary people who did not fight actively on either side. They also include a large number of people – especially youth – who, either due to a genuine commitment to a separate state, disillusionment, desperation, poverty or simply, fear of LTTE reprisals, joined the LTTE and fought on its behalf. Those remembered also include victims of state violence. In the latter category, the most poignant examples include the brutal murder (and the subsequent pathetic cover-up) of Tamil political prisoners in the post-war years. Not even the West’s newfound sweetheart, the Sirisena/Wickremesinghe joint regime, has raised a finger to address the plight of Tamil political prisoners who are still being held without trial. Having installed a pro-USA regime in Colombo that suits Washington DC’s strategic interests in the South and Southeast Asian region, the West no longer cares about issues affecting Tamils, especially those who are citizens of Sri Lanka and living in Sri Lanka.
The decision to issue a warning against people commemorating relatives, friends and loved ones by lighting a candle is absolutely pathetic, unacceptable, appalling, shameless and requires outright and unequivocal condemnation. Ludicrous decisions of this nature have the potential of causing severe discontent, prompting post-war generations to continue an antagonistic attitude towards the Government of Sri Lanka and her institutions. It is also a decision that encourages people of the North to assume that Colombo is not really ‘their’ government, and that those in power in Colombo, irrespective of political parties, are thoroughly disinterested in issues of vital concern to them.
Remembrance is an important concept to people, irrespective of who they are. It is a right that needs to be guaranteed to all communities, and in the Sri Lankan case, to all ethnic and religious groups. Interpreting an act of remembrance as a threat of any form to national sovereignty is puerile at best.
No reconciliation can take place with such rigidity and no forward path, be it in terms of economic empowerment of people of the North, enhancing educational facilities, investment promotion in the ex-war zone/s, can take place wholesomely when people are desperate, made to feel secondary beings, with their fundamental rights curtailed, and kept under a veil of surveillance for no reason. Colombo has to do away with its patronising and contemptuous attitude towards Sri Lankan citizens in the country’s northern peninsula, who happen to be Tamil and who were directly affected by a brutal war that lasted thirty years. In the absence of a sensible and understanding approach, Sri Lanka (despite hypocritical praise from Western warlords and the euphoria among some NGO folks in Colombo whose only concern is how much money they can grab from Western sources of funding) cannot and will never take off, in any viable sense of the term.