By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The usual polarised debate is on again, on the issue of the Victory Day commemoration. This time there are three sides, not the usual pair of suspects.
One side denounces the commemorations as divisive, upholds the right of the Tamil people to commemorate their dead and calls for a national day of remembrance or mourning.
Another commemorates the Tamil side, uses the occasion to denounce as ‘genocidal’ the Sri Lankan state, government, leadership, armed forces and the climax of the war itself.
The third side commemorates the victory of May 18th and arrests or justify the arrests of those who celebrate it as a day of mourning.
A positive historic event must be celebrated irrespective of developments further downstream from that event. To reiterate, however negative subsequent developments may be, a historically positive even must be commemorated. This is why the Fourth of July, America’s Independence Day must be celebrated irrespective of slavery, segregation and the Vietnam War. It is why July 14th Bastille Day must be celebrated irrespective of the Great Terror or the Battle of Algiers. It is why the October Revolution must be celebrated, irrespective of the Gulags. It is why our Independence Day Feb 4th must be celebrated notwithstanding July ’83. It is also why it is right and necessary to commemorate our war victory of May 2009, despite the erroneous path we have taken in the postwar years.
As a country we were resurrected, even reborn on May 2009. That month blessed us with two broad consensuses. One was national, local, domestic: the relief and celebration over the victory of May 18th. The other was international, external and took place ten days later in Geneva. The Sri Lankan government has frittered away the international consensus while the Sri Lankan Opposition and the Tamil nationalists never bought into and stood aside from the domestic consensus. That is our crisis.
No Sri Lankan citizen or concerned observer of Sri Lankan affairs should fail to observe the photographs of the demonstration in London on May 18th. Described as the largest since May 2009, the pictures showed thousands of Tamil demonstrators denouncing the events of May 18th 2009, which in and of itself, may be said to be fair enough. What cannot fail to escape attention is that the demonstration was replete with Tiger flags; not one or two or a few dozen, but hundreds. The event was addressed by members from all major British political parties. (It was also addressed by video by a member of the TNA and another of the joint opposition alliance Vipaksha Virodaya). If they had any problem with the ubiquity of Tiger flags, they didn’t say so.
The demonstration wasn’t a figment of the imagination of the Sri Lankan state. Nor did High Commissioner Chris Nonis pay the bill for it.
While it is true that the political behaviour of the Sri Lankan state and government has kept open and even widened the space for pro-Tiger activists the world over, Colombo can only be held responsible in the most indirect sense for what happened on the streets of London on May 18th this year. This is because there were similar and actually far larger demonstrations on the same streets in the last months and weeks of the war in 2009. Therefore, the demonstrations and the Tiger flags are not the result of what took place after the war or even what happened on May 18-19th. I know. I was there when Geneva traffic was snarled up by tens of thousands of Tiger flag bearing demonstrators and a 21 year old man from London immolated himself in front of the Palais de Nations.
Neither in 2009 nor in 2013 have any of the significant Tamil nationalist political formations or frontline political personalities condemned the demonstrations for bearing the Tiger flag (with the 33 stylised bullets). This is why, in the eyes of the Sinhala majority and the armed forces, they are not devoid of the taint of collusion with separatist terrorism and may prove incapable of not behaving as proxies, if push comes to shove.
This is also why the entirely justifiable criticisms that Tamil parties and public personalities make of the post-war policies of the Government, do not carry the full moral weight that they otherwise might.
It is difficult to occupy the moral high ground when you are blind to the atrocities of the worst of the perpetrators and to their continued presence in the ranks of offshore politics (in Tamil Nadu and the Diaspora).
As for the Southern liberal/pacifist critics of the State, their often justifiable criticisms are morally vitiated and lack resonance, when these criticisms are devoid of any stronger or even corresponding criticism—and in some cases any criticism at all—of the LTTE flags, and the pro-Tamil Eelam slogans issued on May 18th. It sometimes seems as if they have more of a problem with Mahinda Rajapaksa than they had with Velupillai Prabhakaran and have with those who carry his effigy.
What do those flags show? The most charitable interpretation is that these mobilisations are uncritical of the LTTE. The more realistic explanation is that they are essentially pro-separatist; even pro-Tiger. What does the presence of British politicians prove? The fact that they fail to insist on an absence of Tiger banners if they are to address a gathering shows that they are either uncritical of or tacitly supportive of the cause of Tamil separatism.
These are not merely enemies of the Rajapaksas. If they were they would limit themselves to issues of governance, human rights, a critique of nepotism and oligarchy and post-war policies in the North. No, these are enemies of the war and our common victory; they are enemies of our armed forces; they are enemies of the very idea of an independent, united and sovereign Sri Lankan state; of Sri Lanka as a single country.
The vast majority of the people of this country will never regard the Rajapaksas as greater enemies than those who brandish Tiger flags in London and Chennai. The people are right not to do so. It is both shame and folly that there are those who seem to regard the Rajapaksas as the greater enemies.
Those who fail to recognise Sri Lanka’s enemies and take a stand in defending the country from them, will fail to convince the people and will therefore discredit their own valid arguments on other issues. A viable opposition to the Rajapaksas can only issue from within a defence of Sri Lanka and the war against the Tigers; from the ranks of those patriots who continue to oppose the Tigers and the Tamil separatist project.
What then of the Tamils’ right to mourn? The matter is easily resolved. The Sinhala hardliners are wrong when they refuse to allow the Tamil people to mourn those who died in the war, including those who died while fighting for the other side and opposing cause. Sophocles’ Antigone has established the case in universalist moral philosophy, though few if any, of the Sinhala hawks would have heard of, let alone read, the classic tragedy. Perhaps Prof Rajiva Wijesinha should be invited to give the Govt parliamentary group and MoD bureaucracy a lecture on it.
There is however, a crucial point that needs making. The Day of Mourning or Remembrance cannot and must not be May 18-19th. Victory day is just that: it commemorates a historically significant triumph over a cruel foe. It commemorates the heroism of the armed forces and our citizens who did not capitulate to terrorism and separatism. It celebrates the spirit of resistance of our nation. It salutes the memory of the sacrifices of the soldiers, sailors and airmen, and the families and communities from whose womb they emerged. It was a glorious day of liberation and reunification of a divided state, an island country. It needs celebrating down the ages. It must be a stand-alone event. In that sense May 18-19th are sacrosanct.
There is an element of forgetfulness or subterfuge in the attempt to commemorate May 18th as the day of National Mourning. There were no significantly high Tamil civilian casualties on that day. May 18-19 were the days in which the army closed in on and finished off Prabhakaran and his praetorian guard, in the Nandikadal lagoon. What’s there to mourn? What’s there not to celebrate? By then, the Tamil civilians had for the most part been liberated by the soldiers who sacrificed life and limb to break through the impressive bunker-bund complex of the LTTE. Those Tamil civilians, who had died, as collateral casualties or by design, had done so in earlier weeks and days. Those horrific episodes of a few Tiger captives who may have been executed after the conflict –because 11,000 surrendered of which 10,000 have been released—were not, by definition, ones which involved civilians. Therefore there is no logic by which May 18th should be declared a national day of mourning or remembrance, or anything other than Victory day. I correct myself: there is such logic; one which mourns the end of a Tamil secessionist war by the defeat of the Tigers and the victory of the Sri Lankan armed forces. That logic will never be acceptable to the vast majority of the Sri Lankan citizenry.
The same goes for November 26/27th, so-called Mahaveera Day. It is not a day for commemorating the Tamil dead or those of all communities who have died. It is the day on which the LTTE commemorated its fighters, including terrorist suicide bombers. Such commemoration on that day must not be permitted on Sri Lankan soil.
A Day of Tamil Mourning or Sri Lankan Remembrance is a necessary catharsis. Perhaps it should be July 23rd or 29th. It should just not be on Victory Day, May 18th.