By Jehan Perera –
The 12th year after the end of the war falls this week. Not many people will be thinking of the war at this time unless the matter is consciously brought to their attention. It may have lasted for three decades but it is a receding memory for most. The war is far from the minds of most people as they live harmoniously side by side or separately in their different areas of the country. For those under 20 years of age the war will be no memory at all, unless they were living in an area where the war was fought or attacks took place. Other issues loom large in the minds of the people, in particular the third wave of Covid that confines people to their homes and makes the burden of the economic crisis weigh more heavily upon them.
However, despite the tendency on the part of the general population to forget, the anniversary of the war’s end is kept alive by several interest groups. The most straightforward are the ordinary citizens whose family members and other loved ones got caught up in the last battles and lost their lives. They will continue to remember them until their own lives come to an end. Another group would be those who have a larger social and political motivation to see that justice is done to those who lost their lives, to their families and to the larger community. There is also the government which takes credit for the war victory, reminds the people of this achievement and remembers the members of the security forces who made the victory possible by their own sacrifices.
Due to the different motivations of these parties the commemoration of the war’s end takes place on two separate days and not on one day. The date selected for commemoration by those living in the North and East of the country where the war was fought is May 18 while the date selected by the government and the people in the rest of the country is May 19. It was to bridge this division that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010 recommended that commemoration of all victims of the war should take place on a single day: “A separate event should be set apart on the National Day (4 February) to express solidarity and empathy with all victims of the tragic conflict and pledge the collective commitment to ensure that there should never be such blood-letting in the country again.” But so far February 4 remains a pageant of military might and not of remembrance.
It is worth quoting at length from the LLRC report at this time when views seem to be hardening on both sides of the ethnic and political divides. “The process of reconciliation requires a full acknowledgement of the tragedy of the conflict and a collective act of contrition by the political leaders and civil society, of both Sinhala and Tamil communities. The conflict could have been avoided had the southern political leaders of the two main political parties acted in the national interest and forged a consensus between them to offer an acceptable solution to the Tamil people. The Tamil political leaders were equally responsible for this conflict which could have been avoided had the Tamil leaders refrained from promoting an armed campaign towards secession, acquiescing in the violence and terrorist methods used by the LTTE against both the Sinhala and Tamil people, and failing to come out strongly and fearlessly against the LTTE, and their atrocious practices.”
Unfortunately, the recommendations of the LLRC, including those pertaining to commemorations, have been largely ignored that would otherwise have ensured more justice, accountability and reparations than exist at present. The period of the previous government saw an attempt being made with regard to recognizing the sense of loss and grief of those whose loved ones had either died or gone missing during the war. In 2018 it permitted a mass gathering of people on May 18 at Mullivaikkal where the last battles of the war were fought. Several thousands of people attended the ceremony of remembrance held there at the monument erected in memory of the civilians killed in the war. Politicians from the mainstream TNA who attended the event were not permitted to speak and instead university students and nationalist members of civil society groups took the centre stage. The only politician who addressed the gathering was Northern Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran, who has fallen out of favour with his party hierarchy. The chief minister moved a six-point resolution. These included declaring every May 18 in the coming years as “Tamil Genocide Day.”
The reconciliation process initiated by the former government has now come to virtually a dead stop especially after the withdrawal by the present government of Sri Lanka’s commitments made in terms of the co-sponsored UN Human Rights Council resolution 30/1. At the time of its withdrawal the government promised to come up with a nationally-led reconciliation process to replace the previous one which was denounced as an internationally-led one. However, so far there is nothing that is publicly visible of this national reconciliation process. Instead there are questions being asked on the government side whether it is necessary at all to have a reconciliation process when the country is at peace. On the other hand, in the North and East, there is a sense of being hemmed in and encroached on by the government, which is taking over land and building Buddhist temples in the North and East in places where the remains of ancient Buddhist shrines are discovered.
If national reconciliation is indeed the goal, the government needs to consider heeding the recommendations of the LLRC on the premise that conflicts between communities cannot be resolved by force but only by dialogue. The conflicting motivations in the commemoration events to be held on May 18 and 19 appear to be coming to a head this year. A few days ago, the Ontario Legislative Assembly in Canada resolved that Sri Lanka subjected the Tamil community to genocide during the armed conflict. The Catholic bishops of the North and East have formed a North-East Bishops Council. Recently they issued a statement referring to the 12th anniversary of the “Mullivaikkal genocide” for which they will join the people in seeking justice for crimes committed and calling on the people to pray on May 18. This corresponds to the mainstreaming of the view within the Tamil community that genocide took place in Sri Lanka.
The absence of a visible reconciliation process at this time together with pressure being put on the Tamil community by the government appears to have emboldened the nationalist forces within the Tamil community. A few days ago a group of civil society activists and religious clergy had unloaded a new monument in Mulliavaikkal that had words inscribed on it that referred to genocide having taken place there and the need to bring the perpetrators to justice before international courts. It is reported that this group had an argument with the security forces personnel on duty in that area with regard to the placement of the new monument. The following day the new monument was missing and the old one that was located there had been destroyed.
The claim that genocide took place in Sri Lanka has not evoked a favourable response from legal scholars for whom genocide has a technical meaning. But the passage of the genocide bill in the Ontario legislature is an indication that it may be successfully lobbied for politically, unless the issue is dealt with by the government through an appropriate response sooner rather than later. One of the commitments made by the former government to the UNHRC in terms of UNHRC resolution 30/1 was to establish a Truth-seeking Commission. This can lay to rest the truth of what happened during the war, in its last phase as well as what came before. In the meantime, the government could also make a promise that it will rebuild the Mullivaikkal memorial with the people’s participation in the same manner that the war monument at the University of Jaffna, which was similarly destroyed in January this year, was soon rebuilt with the participation of the students.