By Jehan Perera –
The war ended on the battlefields of the north seven years ago on May 19. The commemoration of this day is a divisive one. During the period of the previous government, which claimed ownership of the war victory, the commemoration took the form of a victory celebration, with military parades and narrow ethnic nationalistic speechmaking that catered to ethnic majority sentiment but injured the sentiments of the ethnic minorities. At the same time the government also took action to ensure that there would be no commemoration of the LTTE or even of civilian loss of life. This led to the prohibition of any form of public coming together in the north of the country where the last battles were fought, even within places of religious worship, for the purpose of remembering the dead.
However, a shift could be discerned last year, after the new government had come to power. Although once again the commemoration took the form of a military parade with associated speechmaking, it was conducted on a smaller scale and with less nationalism. The decision of the new government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena to redefine May 19 as a Day of Remembrance marked a significant break with the past. However, it was still not a complete break. It was accompanied by a military parade, as in the past, attended by the President. The sacrifice of the Sri Lankan security forces who ensured the territorial unity of the country, and the final military triumph over the LTTE and its separatist campaign, were the main themes of this event.
At last year’s May 19 event there was also reference to the general loss of life in the war by the President in his speech. This satisfied neither the Sinhalese nationalists in the south who wanted the war victory celebrated nor the Tamil people in the north who wanted their dead commemorated. However, there was an improvement in the flexibility of the government and the people in the north were permitted to hold religious services for those who lost her lives. These events even took place on the battleground where the last of the fighting took place. At one such event a multi religious commemoration took place with a Buddhist monk from the Jaffna district inter religious committee being present.
This year there is still a measure of uncertainty as to how May 19 will be commemorated. According to the Defence Ministry website the government has decided not to have a military parade this year. The government’s position with regard to the events in the north is that commemorations of those who died can take place, but the LTTE cannot be commemorated as it had engaged in terrorism and human rights violations on a large scale, including child recruitment and usage of human shield. The LTTE was also an organization that sought to divide the country. No government that is committed to the country’s unity, and pledged to govern according to the constitution in which separatism is legally banned, can permit the demise of such an organization to be mourned.
It is clear that the government is making a dedicated effort to take the country in the direction of national reconciliation. The excessive use of this anniversary to promote narrow ethnic nationalist sentiment amongst the Sinhalese people was criticized in the past as being detrimental to national reconciliation. The manner in which the war ended was traumatic to the Tamil people who were trapped in the war zones. I n the last months of the war large numbers of people perished, including large numbers of civilians. This led to allegations of war crimes from the Tamil people which put Sri Lanka in the dock of international opinion and to resolutions from Geneva by the UN Human Rights Council urging the country to account for what had happened.
Unlike war victories which are usually celebrated and which are between countries, civil war victories are more complicated. The victory of the Western allies over Nazi Germany and the victory of the northern states over the southern states in the US civil war are commemorated differently. What is commemorated in the US civil war is not the victory of the north over south, but rather the union over the confederacy and the end of slavery. A succinct example of how the US civil war is remembered in US government publications is “4,000,000 freed. 750,000 dead. 1 nation saved. From 1861 to 1865, the American union was broken as brother fought brother in a Civil War that remains a defining moment in our nation’s history. Its causes and consequences, including the continuing struggle for civil rights for all Americans, reverberate to this day. From the battlefields to the homefront, the cost of the war was steep…its lessons eternal.”
Likewise in Sri Lanka it is necessary to be sensitive to the fact that it was a civil war that ended, of citizen against citizen, and not a war against a foreign foe. The new government has been making a commendable effort to touch the hearts and minds of the Tamil people while also winning over to it the international support that the previous government so badly lost. Along with land and resources it has been restoring to the Tamil people the sense of confidence that they can speak their minds. Tamil nationalist opinion is being freely expressed by both Tamil politicians and civil society members even though it causes problems for the government in other Sinhalese dominated parts of the country where those views are not shared. By re-designating May 19 as a Day of Remembrance the government has also taken the right policy decision from the top down.
At the same time as the government moves to reach out to the Tamil people it is important for it not to lose the support of the Sinhalese people for whom the end of the war meant liberation from the terrorism and destruction of the LTTE. Due to the calamitous failure of negotiations between successive governments and the LTTE, it was finally the military victory achieved by the Sri Lankan military that prevented the country from being geographically divided. Bus stand shelters and community halls bear the names of fallen soldiers put up by their relatives and communities in gratitude for fighting to keep the country united. Their sacrifice needs to be recognized and valued and become part of the Sri Lankan commitment to ensure that such an internal war never again occurs.
The unity of the country is one in which all sections of the people, Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim can move forward together. May 19 is the day the war ended and also the day on which large number of Sri Lankans died. There will be a division between those who want the day celebrated as a triumph of the state over the LTTE and those who want to mourn the dead, and those who want to mourn the LTTE. These are difficult and emotional issues, and difficult to resolve, and so the government needs to start a dialogue with the people of all parts of the country as to how best these issues can be resolved. The first step is to create awareness and sensitivity in the general population on the issue that can pave the way for permanent change. This has yet to take place. The Ministry of National Coexistence, Dialogue and Official Languages could be mandated by the government to get the discussion going.