By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Seven years ago to this day, guns in the north fell silent. LTTE terrorists who had ravaged the country for 26 years were defeated by members of this country’s armed forces and police. Over 25,000 members of Sri Lanka’s armed forces and police made the supreme sacrifice during this period, besides the many thousands who suffered serious injuries impacting the rest of their lives.
Commencing 2010, 18 May was designated Victory Day by the government of the day and was celebrated with an impressive military parade by members of the armed forces and police, speeches and a one minute of silence. The exercise may have been used by the former Head of State for self-glorification. Nevertheless, that in no way alters the significance of the victory achieved after 26 long years against a separatist group.
In 2015, ‘Victory Day’ was to be replaced with ‘Day of Remembrance’ in the name of national reconciliation by the new unity government, but finally changed to ‘War Heroes Day’ due to the intervention by President Sirisena. A military parade was part of the event.
The Minister of State for Defence in a recent media briefing has announced “National War Heroes Commemoration Ceremony 2016 will be held under the patronage of President Maithripala Sirisena at the War Memorial in Battaramulla on 18th May. The event is to be followed by a cultural show at the Independent Square in Colombo”. Funds spent in arranging a military parade is to be utilized on welfare initiatives for War Heroes and their families.
The Defence Secretary is on record stating such celebrations were a barrier to reconciliation the country was achieving as it would hurt the feelings of one ethnic group. Such a theory comes into play only if it is considered a conflict between Sinhalese and Tamil communities. One would imagine a greater barrier to reconciliation is the inordinate delay on the part of the government in returning land in the Northern Province, not essential for national security, to their legitimate owners.
Military parades are part and parcel of armed forces the world over and are held during all important events involving armed forces. Since 2015, two schools of thought have prevailed in relation to Victory Day and a military parade.
One school of thought refers to the conflict as a civil war fought between citizens of Sri Lanka belonging to two communities and not against a foreign enemy. As such, it is inappropriate to celebrate Victory Day with a military parade as it would be hurtful to the community to which LTTE terrorists belonged.
The other school of thought to which I contribute is, the conflict was not between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities in the country but between a group of terrorists fighting for a separate state and members of Sri Lanka’s armed forces sworn to defend the territorial integrity of the country. Victory Day was held to celebrate the military defeat of the LTTE, an internal terrorist group considered as one of the most ruthless in the world.
To even think that Victory Day is limited to the Sinhalese community is a travesty. It need be understood as a victory for the Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher and other communities in the country. I have no doubt these sentiments will be endorsed by kith and kin of the likes of Alfred Duraiappah, Lakshman Kadirgamar, Appapillai Amirthalingam, Neelan Thiruchelvam and Jeyaraj Fernandopulle to name a few, not forgetting over 250,000 civilians held hostage as human shields by LTTE till rescued by SLA forces. Also not to be forgotten are the many parents in the Northern Province who no longer have to fear for their children including those under age, being forcibly conscripted by the LTTE. It also gave an opportunity for foreign leaders and officials who, prior to 18 May 2009 did not dare set foot in the North and East to travel to Jaffna and give their two cents worth.
It is an undeniable and inalienable fact that it was the Sri Lankan armed forces and police who paved the way for the defeat of the LTTE. The beneficiaries of this peace dividend and thus by extension the victors, are the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burgers and all others in this country. Victory Day need be understood, appreciated and celebrated in such a context and not in one of a victory for the Sinhalese community over the Tamil community.
Some argue of the need to treat the JVP and LTTE, both guilty of terrorism, in a similar manner. That is to oversimplify the issue. Whereas the JVP fought their battles on an ideological platform to change a political system, the LTTE was a separatist organization demanding a separate state, thus challenging the sovereignty of the nation. JVP cadre convicted of terrorism were tried, convicted, jailed and released after a while to enable them to enter the political mainstream as done the world over in similar instances. Many LTTE cadre either captured or who surrendered have been rehabilitated and released without the benefit of jail terms as meted out to convicted JVP cadre, for the sake of reconciliation. The issue of a Victory Day parade as a result of crushing a separatist movement has no precedent in modern times for comparison. Sri Lanka was the first nation to defeat a separatist terrorist organization.
It is but also correct that Sri Lankans of all communities regardless of race, religion or political affiliations honor those who ‘gave their tomorrow’ and those who were ‘willing to sacrifice their tomorrow’ to enable all others ‘to have a tomorrow’.