Legitimacy of Commemoration
The Mullivaikal Commemoration on 18 May 2018 is touted as a memorial for all those civilians massacred there. Few can quarrel with that. The army thinks it is to honour the Tiger fighting forces that were massacred. That again is legitimate since however brutal the Tigers were, those who loved them have a right to mourn and certainly find out what happened to them.
Game of Threats and Lies
When reports initially emerged of the extent carnage and the use of cluster bombs and chemical weapons from people I know who experienced it first hand, the government tried brute force to suppress these accounts. Doctors present at the time on the ground and had testified to the atrocities were arrested by July 2009 and paraded on TV where they contradicted their earlier statements, now saying deaths were fewer than 700. We were shaken.
Following the February 2011 Census, the government “put the death toll in the north of the country during the final phase of the war at 9,000.” The Tamil doctors who deserved medals for their dedicated service under intense shelling stood vindicated. No one believed our government any more.
Then came the UN report to Ban Ki-moon by eminent authors Marzuki Darusman, Steven Ratner and Yasmin Sooka.They reported that up to 40,000 of the 330,000 Tamils trapped in a narrow strip of land in and about Mullivaikal were killed. They described the bombings of hospitals and designated refugee shelters. Even before their report reached us there was hysteria in Colombo based on leaks. The BASL Executive Committee had a resolution by Jayantha Gunasekera, PC, dated 23 May 2011 condemning a report we had not seen. At the time, Gunasekera had argued (Sunday Observer, 24April 2011) that he condemns Navaneetham Pillai on the grounds she is a Tamil who has to side with Tamils because “[a]fter all, blood is thicker than water.” After the report’s release, the BASL dutifully condemned it unanimously atmeetings on 30 April and 7 May – since blood is thicker than water, as Sinhalese, they had to condemn the report.
Instead of addressing the issues raised in the report, the state pushed back. President Mahinda Rajapaksa made the extraordinary claim that his “troops went to the battlefront carrying a gun in one hand, the Human Rights Charter in the other, food for the innocent displaced on their shoulders, and love of their children in their hearts.”
The Sinhalese communalist Juggernaut moved, driving fear into anyone who tended to believe that report. Douglas Devananda and the army forced people going about the streets in Jaffna town to sign a statement that nothing happened in Mullivaykal.
To ward off the seemingly inevitable accountability over its murders, promises of reconciliation were liberally made in Geneva. But nothing was done. Indeed, locally these promises were denied.
Then Charles Petrie, a former UN Official, was mandated by Ban Ki-moon to review the conduct of the UN during the last days of the LTTE in May 2009. He confirmed that “Events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN.” It accused the government and the LTTE of war crimes and according to the BBC “very much reflects the findings of the [earlier] panel.” A large majority of deaths were caused by government shelling, whereas the government has repeatedly denied shelling civilian areas.
Dead Silence: Lord Naseby Seeds Doubt
With government inaction on war crimes, prevarication on casualties, and reports of continued torture, few within Sri Lanka dared say that such crimes had occurred.
Then came along Lord Naseby. He has compromised his own integrity by asserting “the truth that no one in the Sri Lankan Government ever wanted to kill Tamil civilians.” His tentative figures are up to April 2009 and say little of the killings in May when Channel 4 had clips of executions by Sri Lankan forces after the LTTE collapsed. His information really means little. For example, “It is not possible to distinguish civilians from LTTE cadres as few are in uniform” says nothing of the death toll; likewise “IDPs being cared for in Trincomalee. Welfare appears to be overriding security considerations.” Similarly, “Then on 20 January they say,‘no cluster munitions were used’, does not mean they were not used on other days. What he writes is for the converted.
In contrast I have met people who lived through the shellings and say all they saw was an unending series of flashes from explosions. My secretary testified how they were directed to go to a place to collect milk for her grandchild and the government then rained shells on them. I met one man whose entrails came out because of the shelling but survived. The arbitrary shelling made Rev. Anuhoolan lose his pickup although he escaped.
Despite all that, the climate of fear with continuing reports of torture has silenced most of us. Even today I received reports of three attempted hits over the past week on a former LTTE armour and weapons maker in Mannar settled in civilian life. As the press mounted its attacks on war crimes claims, even the TNA was largely silent here but went to Geneva. Two friends who were active in recording the terrible events of 2009 told me not to push the 40,000 figure. I began to wonder if Sinhalese communalist propaganda was right after all. But surely, the government would never have agreed to UNHCR Resolution 30/1 unless the atrocities really happened.
Benefit of Mullivaikal Remembrance
My friend NPC Member Thambyrajah Gurukularajah organized the 2015 anniversary. He had constructed a metallic memorial. About 200 turned up. By afternoon the police had removed his memorial. Likewise, 2016 and 2017 saw may be 300. As this Remembrance Day approached there were worries of military suppression as in the past. Already the police had told people in places such as Ilavalai that their planned celebrations will not be allowed.
Then suddenly the light shone on the truth again. Army Chief Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake completely undercut Lord Naseby’s credibility (The Hindu, 12 May, 2018) by acknowledging “there may have been individual excesses.” Government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said after the last cabinet meeting “There is nothing wrong in having events to commemorate those who died during the final phase of war in the Northern Province. [,,,] They are also our children. Sometimes, our own children were killed by the heroes. […] No war in the world had been waged with zero damage to civilians.”
Claiming Communalist Leadership
That green-flagged the commemorations where the different political forces, with identity politics in mind, tried to claim the mantle of communalist supremacy.
Joint Opposition MP Dilum Amunugama found fault with Senaratne who he claimed, untruthfully, described the last phase of the war as genocidal and had declared the freedom of people “to celebrate the fallen LTTE cadres.”
In Jaffna University students had planned their celebrations and were denied permission to use the Kailasapthy Hall. For this, Tamil Congress’ K. Guruparan (Head/Law) had scathingly criticized the Senior Student Counsellor Dr. Ainkaran.
In the meantime, the NPC had asserted its authority to have all celebrations under its wing – “others may give their cooperation” insisted the Chief Minister. Today, Friday 18 2018, there will be a massive commemoration at 11:00 am. University students fell in line and promised to parade to Mullivaikal on motorbikes.
All the School Principals of the Northern Province had been requested to observe a moment of silence and hoist the Northern Provincial flag at half mast at 11.00 a.m. in commemoration of Tamil civilians who died during the war.
Leaders of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) including its leader R. Sampanthan, Gurukularajah Mavai Senathirajah, and Sritharan took part in the event in the prearrangement inspection a little earlier. As reported by Global Tamil News, Mr. Sampanthan has stated
“Mullivaikal is the soil where enormous numbers of Tamils were brutally killed by the Sri Lankan armed forces and where many of our Tamils were disappeared. This is the soil where Tamils burnt themselves for the liberation. Thousands of freedom fighters and people have sacrificed their lives with the dream of liberation. … Tamils should gather unitedly in Mullivaikal on May 18. To light the lamp of remembrance and to pay tribute to our deceased relatives.”
He had spoken up at long last asserting that murders did occur. However that part about thousands of freedom fighters and people sacrificing their lives with the dream of liberation was misleading insofar as no one volunteered to be massacred – the LTTE had corralled civilians as a shield. As the UN and Channel 4 reports now make clear, the LTTE shot those who tried to leave and the government shelled into oblivions those who stayed. Sampanthan speaks carefully. I doubt he said this.
The Mulivaikal Event
I decided to go with Gurukularajah today. He also gave lifts to Nimal who lost both legs when a shell landed in his bunker. He has rebuilt his life as a musician and will perform in Oslo next month. Also with us were a war-widow and Sivathasan who was Pass Officer for Kilinochchi!
The fever of excitement had caught on. We arrived by 10 am. A crowd of 2000 was there but by the scheduled 11 am it had built up to 10,000 at least. Forty buses had brought crowds. University students’ parade had perhaps 25 motorbikes. Everyone participated. Even former EPDP strongman Chandrakumar came with a large crowd.
For such a large gathering with potential crowd control issues, there were only 2 policemen who came with the Chief Minister. But the police, however irresponsible, were there. Men in civvies taking photos had their pot-bellies giving them away as policemen.
Next to the grounds are two caste-based schools, officially called Vellaam Mullivaikal and Karaiyaam Mullivaikal. The principal of the former told me that the CID had called first to ask if he was flying the flag at half-mast and then to ask if he had not gone for the event. The police seem to have painted themselves in a corner and become a joke.
The event was well organized. We were to be in sheds with chairs while at the centre of the field the lamp lighting would take place. While waiting we could see clothing, plates, and cups popping out of the ground from the massacred people. But the crowd today walked into the field and all ended up round the flame. Gurukularajah had given some light music to be played while we waited. But LTTE supporters had taken it over, and played Eelamist songs. People we could not see for the crowds gave hysterical speeches about the day that their dreams of Eelam were snuffed out.
Promptly at 11 AM the main torch was lit by Vijitha Kesavan who lost both her parents and an uncle on 15.05.2015. Then the Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran spoke.
It was politically correct. He stressed that the massacres occurred after those of Bosnia and Rwanda but unlike them after the UNHRC was established. He challenged the international community to do something and resolved that
- Every May 18 be Genocide Day
- The International Community set up a strategy mechanism to ensure justice.
- It ensure a sustainable political solution for us.
- Designate our experience as a Mass Disaster and offer recompense.
- Recognize the need to withdraw the army from Tamil areas and not ask for compensation from resettlement funds meant for us.
He asked that note be taken that 18.05.2019 is the tenth anniversary.
It was all over by 12:15. Efficient!
The government has to establish inquiries so we may know the truth rather than argue about it, and offer us accountability. Or next year the problem will be bigger.