By Jehan Perera –
May 18 has been a day of divisive sentiment since the year 2009. This was the day the war ended on the battlefields of the North. This meant the dawn of peace and an end to terrorism that had plagued the country for nearly three decades. But to the Tamils who had supported the campaign of the LTTE to separate the North and East of the country, it was the bitter end of a struggle that had gone nowhere. British Tamil Forum president Fr S. J. Emanuel framed the dichotomy as “The end of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE meant two entirely different things with different rationale to justify their actions. For the Government it was a victory over Tamil terrorism, end of a war and beginning of peace. But for the Tamils it was the culmination of another mass massacre of militants and civilians and the beginning of incarcerations and further militarization, robbing of lands and missing of persons.”
Remembrance can be an act of union or of division. The Victory Day event organized in Colombo on May 18 by supporters of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa titled “Protect the Motherland Liberated by Heroes” was to counter “efforts to undermine the service rendered by our valiant troops in liberating the motherland from terrorism” according to organizers of the event. The government of the former president made the victory over the LTTE the centre piece of its political programme. Its success in achieving victory over the LTTE was used time and again at election campaigns to generate nationalistic pride in the majority of people which translated into majority support at elections. May 18 became an occasion to remind the people of the war victory.
The decision of the present government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena to redefine May 18 a Day of Remembrance marks a significant break with this past. However, it is still not a complete break. The government’s decision has been to have a politically pragmatic event in the southern heartland of Matara which reflects continuity with change. This is to have 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 will be the main theme of this event. But on this occasion the government also announced that it would make the remembrance of all who lost their lives a part of the event.
The government’s decision to bring the loss of life during the war into focus on this occasion through a Day of Remembrance is welcome. The democratic space that has opened up under the government of President Maithripala Sirisena needs to be used to strengthen the reconciliation process and not be used for the purpose of gaining narrow political advantage by divisive political statements. The need for reconciliation between all communities must be foremost in the minds of all people and our political leaders. The genuine Tamil grievances that created conditions for the Tamil militancy need to be addressed urgently. The government’s redefinition of May 18 to be a Day of Remembrance is one of the steps forward in the process to national reconciliation.
The change in government that took place after the presidential election of January 8 has led to a new relationship between the government and Tamil polity. President Sirisena’s victory at the election was made possible by the large majorities he secured in all electorates where the Tamil and Muslim votes predominated. The president is aware that the ethnic minorities placed their trust in him. Following his election he, and key members of the government, have publicly acknowledged the multi ethnic and multi religious nature of the country and the need to govern the polity through democratic means.
Since his election, President Sirisena has ensured that some of the immediate Tamil grievances have been addressed, or are in the process of being addressed. He replaced the two governors of the Northern and Eastern provinces who were former military commanders with those who are purely civilian and with a track record of sensitivity to the aspirations of the ethnic minorities. Governor Palihakkara in the North was a member of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission which produced a road map on national reconciliation for the country which has received international support. Governor Austin Fernando in the East was defense secretary during the time of the Ceasefire Agreement with the LTTE which was the period when the hope of a negotiated end to the war was at its highest.
More recently, the government under President Sirisena’s leadership has also been releasing land taken over by the former government from the people in the North and East even though his good intentions have been slowed down by legal processes. There has been an opening of space for civil society activism and for the voicing of Tamil aspirations such as for a greater sharing of political power. In the context of May 18 and the declaration of Remembrance Day there has been resurgence in the resolve of civil and political groups in the North to commemorate Tamil losses in the war. This was a space that was denied during the period of the previous government. The commemoration of the dead in the North will necessarily involve LTTE cadre. They were kith and kin of the people of the North.
The challenge for the future is to ensure that the May 18 is not used for narrow and divisive political purposes. From 2009 onwards, the government did not permit the commemoration of the LTTE and cracked down on the public commemorations in the North and East, even of those events that were ostensibly to mourn everyone who lost their lives. This was on account of the inseparability of the LTTE and the civilian losses in the last phase. On this occasion too, the government has not been willing to permit the public commemoration of May 18 in the North, and took out injunctions from the courts to block such commemorations. There were plans to declare a “week of genocide” in the North by sections of the Northern polity and civil society.
One of the key recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the previous government was that there should be a Day of Remembrance in which all who lost their lives should be commemorated and the war be seen as a collective tragedy. All who lost their lives whether members of the security forces, LTTE or civilians were Sri Lankan citizens. Each group, and community, must remember the other when they commemorate May 18 whether in the North or in the South. Peace cannot be built by remembering victory and defeat. Peace can only be built on what we share. What the people of Sri Lanka share in common is that the war was a tragedy in which the sons and daughters of the country suffered and died, and we resolve that it will never happen again and there is a meeting of minds in the resolve to overcome the past and to have a shared future. The government needs to also address longer term Tamil and other minority grievances. This is the best kind of reconciliation.