By Uditha Devapriya –
“Why is today so special?” the driver of the van I was in asked me, and I was stumped. A second later I checked myself; Sri Lankans seem to forget so easily that forgetting the commemoration of the (military) end of the Civil War seems a trivial omission in comparison. (After all we have representatives of popular culture who don’t even know when we got independence.) Moreover, we were caught in a deluge, and the entirety of that day, last Friday, we were assailed with one rainstorm after another. It seemed to depress the significance of May the 18th, until I realised that nine years ago, the day that Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed and Sri Lankans went out to the streets in joy was also a day in which the rains fell down as ferociously.
I remember much less than my parents do about the war. My parents remember much less than their parents do about the prelude to that war. History is cruel, unforgiving. It transforms the unity and the dynamism of one epoch to the shedding of blood of another. It records grievances and never lets them go. The end of the war in military terms, hence, was never going to be the end of the war in total. History is unyielding, compelling us to return to what we forewent on and pleading with us to do something, anything, to address those aforementioned grievances and the ruptures they cause. The more we and our politicians dawdle, the closer we get to the repetition of that same history. I was born to a twilight generation, which saw the conflict in full sway and its cessation also in full sway. I know what it is like to return. I do not want to return.
I remember a rather privileged childhood spent in the outskirts of Colombo and I remember going to school and coming back not knowing the dread my parents felt, or the doubts they entertained about seeing us return at all. Bomb squads, ambulance sirens, road enclosures, and the occasional yell by a random bystander: if this was the culture we of Colombo and its suburbs felt, imagine the fear of those who courted that culture as an everyday reality, in the maayim gammana of the Wanniya beyond Medavachchiya (the same Medavachchiya which, if I remember correctly, a politician from the then opposition party cruelly and unnecessarily conflated with Kilinochchiya in that supposedly most hallowed of all political grounds, the parliament). Imagine how afraid they would be if rumours of a return to the pre-2009 situation become a reality. Imagine how frustrated they would be if those fears remain unaddressed.
Those who dream of fragmenting this already fragmented nation, particularly those who call for independent homelands based on ethnic and religious backgrounds, and those who deny the right to commemorate, to reflect on, and to remember, with an admixture of joy and sadness, the significance of May the 18th, are those who flirted with the idea of fear in those blighted days. They are the people who sold peace and purchased war. They are the people who have lost their moral right to have a say in anything about the war after its cessation, if at all because they did everything in their power, and the power of whatever Dollars and Euros and Pounds they could get their hands on through their “efforts, to stall the path towards a definite military end to the conflict. For the truth of the matter is, our leaders (and there were a great many of them since that conflict “officially” erupted in 1983) had the greatest possible chance to bring together global efforts against terrorism and our need to end such terrorism on our own shores, once the West went through 9/11 and the War Against Terror it necessitated. Instead what did they do? They went around the capitals of the world, waltzed with leaders of the global community, and contended that we needed to talk to those terrorists. In the end the global community didn’t talk. We did. They bombed.
Moving on. Commemoration does not unconditionally entail celebration, but it doesn’t exclude it either. Commemoration means committing what one lost to memory, be it the 7,000 people the former government stated we lost at the final stages of the war or the 60,000+ people we all know we lost to the scourges of terrorism during the last 25 years. This begs the question, what is the figure we should account for? Does it include the 100,000 killed during the JVP insurrection, which in case you forgot was accelerated by the opposition to the dictated-from-above 1987 Peace Accord with India? Does it include the loss of human resources and the brain drain the conflict compelled? The international community will have their say and highlight a particular statistic. They will concentrate on what they want to concentrate on. But what of the other figures, ignored by those who have an axe to grind with the fact that we didn’t go through their process of approval when expediting the end of the conflict? Don’t all wars end in bloodshed, and if they do, how was this war any different? These are questions we ask, from completely different political camps.
Rajitha Senaratne, a politician I disagree with vehemently on almost every issue conceivable, finally said something I could agree with the other day. “They were dear to them just as our people are dear to us” was the gist of his argument when justifying his conciliatory attitude to the politicians of the North choosing to commemorate May 18 as a Heroes Day. True. In that sense Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sarath Fonseka, Kamal Gunaratne, and the other chief architects of the end of the Civil War are as dear to the Sinhala people as the former deceased members of the LTTE are to the people of the North. We cannot just ignore that reality and say, “They are commemorating murderers and we are commemorating the murdered!” Such simplistic dichotomies conceal one pertinent truth: those members were forced to believe in a cause higher than themselves. It didn’t matter to Prabhakaran whether they believed it willingly or not. Every Sinhala mother, father, and child and Muslim mother, father, and child they killed was killed out of an overwhelming fanaticism.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, who gave leadership to the war, forgot one salient detail: that celebration, while permissible, does not entail colourful pageants the likes of which might have been conceived in the mind of Jean-Bédel Bokassa (go ahead, Google him) decades ago. Such crudeness was, of course, permissible, because a vast majority of the country happened to hail from the demographic who wanted to celebrate. It was only later, after he and his brothers fell from grace, that they decided to reflect, rather than decorate (the May 18 of 2015, if I remember correctly, was commemorated as a quiet, reserved ceremony at the Vihara Maha Devi Park). But it was too little, too late. Such a ceremony was needed earlier. Much, much earlier. And now, with all the racist invectives and outbursts erupting every month or so, we need it more than ever before. Without, however, erasing or banishing the possibility of celebration altogether.
Kamal Gunaratne, remembering his schoolboy days in the first chapter of his Road to Nandikadal (a book we should all read), reflects on a set of verses and lines from a song we don’t get to hear that often on radio today: Abeywardena Balasooriya’s “Awasan Husma”. The song, a deshabimana gee, begins with these plaintive lines:
අවසන් හුස්ම පොද නොබියව හෙළන්නට
සිවු රියනේ හිත සතුටින් නිදන්නට
මිනිසකු විලස ඉපදුණු පල දකින්නට
පුළුවනි මරණ මංචකයේ වුවද මට
Gunaratne remembers the sense of pride, of sadness, of joy, that it compelled in him. That sense of pride and sadness and joy, for me, comes out from the next set of lines:
දහදිය දිය උනේ නෑ මාලිගා වල
කඳුළැලි වැටුනෙ නෑ නිවටුන් දෙපා මුල
ගත හැඩි දැඩි උනේ ළඳුවල කැලෑ වල
කරගැට මතු උණේ නගුලට උදැල්ලට
In short, what does the king and the emperor, what does the fool, the unpatriotic, the idle, know about the sweat and the toil of winning a hard won peace? It is the question May the 18th compels from us every day. And I think it is also the question which we should all ponder on the moment a debate about whether to commemorate or celebrate that day crops up. Once we realise that we have no real moral right to fight over such debates, once we realise that those who laid down their lives for us did not lay them down so that we could fight over such petty issues, we will understand. And fully.