By Dharisha Bastians –
The double-edged sword that is ‘Victory Day’
Beside the aquamarine seas of Keerimalai, at the island’s northernmost tip stands a Hindu holy of holies. One of five Sivan kovils in Sri Lanka, the unique convergence of land, sea and freshwater have etched the significance of the Naguleswaram temple into the Hindu psyche for millennia. For Hindus, the waters here are doubly sacred. The devoted believe freshwater springs at the site have divine curative properties and the ocean waves lapping at the temple grounds aid the passage of departed souls. For centuries, Northern Hindus have travelled to Naguleswaram to scatter the ashes of the deceased into the seas of Keerimalai. Until the death ritual is complete, Hindus believe deceased souls remain restlessly in the mortal world, and the pollution of death remains with those left behind.
In May 2009, caught in a vicious crossfire on a shrinking stretch of beach in the Mullaitivu District, thousands of people – even by the Sri Lankan Government’s own count – could spare no thought for final rites. Shallow graves that were no more than mounds of earth had to compensate for the complex rituals. Sometimes, there were no graves at all. As scores of families fled for cover, they were sometimes compelled to leave the dead behind. Those are the scenes doctors and eyewitnesses on the scene in that final theatre of Sri Lanka’s bloody 26 year civil war have described.
The brother of slain UNP Parliamentarian and Tamil activist, T. Maheswaran, Thuwarakeswaran had planned to address this omission last weekend. He had obtained the services of 50 Hindu priests and ordered lunch for 1000 pilgrims. Offering them transport if it was required, Thuwarakeswaran had invited families of those killed in the war to Keerimalai for a collective last rites ceremony. The UNP Member had decided to purchase offerings for the rites ceremony on behalf of the families. His reasoning was simple. He had decided to reach out to people, largely from the Wanni who may not have been able to perform the rites and undertake the journey to the sacred waters of Keerimalai on their own accord. He had hoped the ceremony would offer the families closure, remove the stain of death from their lives, even five years later.
Cutting off access to Keerimalai
Unfortunately, the politician picked the wrong day. When Sunday morning dawned, security forces personnel blocked the Kankesanthurai, Manipay and Alaveddy Roads – all three access routes to Keerimalai’s sacred temple. Thuwarakeswaran had to abandon his plan and put off the rites ceremony.
The Government may have long since abandoned its ‘zero casualty’ claim, but it is determined to keep public memory and consciousness focused on the military victory, rather than its human cost. The trouble is that five years have passed. And along with it, a great deal of water under the bridge. With the Government facing a UN inquiry into major rights abuses committed during the past seven years of the war – the most controversial of which will be the bloody final phase – the myth of the humanitarian operation to liberate the Tamil people has been debunked, try as the Government might to prevent it, even in the minds of ordinary Sri Lankans.
By 18 May 2014, half a decade after the LTTE was crushed, in the former battle zones of the North, remembrance had become the sworn enemy of the Sri Lankan state. On Sunday morning, President Mahinda Rajapaksa told the nation Sri Lanka would never forget the sacrifices of the troops who had rid the country of the scourge of terrorism. “We will never betray you, we will remember you forever, we will celebrate this victory forever,” a defiant President told large crowds gathered in Matara for victory day celebrations.
Moratoriums on grief
Hundreds of miles away in the North, the military was laying down the law on how people could grieve. The ban on public mourning or memorial events had been announced the previous week, and coincided with the closure of the Jaffna University between 16-20 May. The military announced that people could hold memorials in the privacy of their own homes, but no outward demonstrations of grief would be permitted, since it could be construed as attempts to glorify the LTTE and its Leader slain on Victory Day, Vellupillai Prabhakaran. On Saturday, reports emerged from Jaffna that the authorities had instructed Catholic priests that only a single candle could be lit on Sunday in memory of the dead. On Sunday, the army stepped up security, blocking both access routes to the Uthayan newspaper offices in Jaffna town, where top commanders said they were ‘expecting trouble to implicate the army.’ Armoured cars and troops had been moved to Martin Road, where the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) party office stands. TNA MPs had organised a sunset candlelight ceremony inside the office. Uthayan had held its own private ceremony on the morning of 18 May, with candles and a few moments of silence for the war-dead. The newspaper’s proprietor and TNA MP E. Saravanabhavan said there had been no speeches at the event, only silent collective grieving. “I saw three of our staffers crying quietly during the ceremony. It was only then that I realised they had lost people this month. Grief is a personal thing, you cannot tell people how to grieve and who to grieve for,” he told Daily FT from Jaffna on Sunday, as troops surrounded the newspaper offices.
But the paranoia was palpable, in the Northern town on Sunday. Police personnel initially attempted to prevent two funeral processions from entering the Jaffna town and Keerimalai cemeteries on 18 May. The funerals were allowed to proceed after officials realised they were not planned memorials but actual burial events for the recently deceased.
The military logic for the ban was rooted in trying to prevent any memorial for the slain LTTE leader or his fighting cadre. Northern Commanders argued that people should remember deceased family members on their death anniversaries, and logically, each of these would be different. Collective mourning on 18 May could only be construed as grief for Prabhakaran and the end of the LTTE. Jaffna Security Forces Commander Udaya Perera said such memorial was banned under the country’s Prevention of Terrorism Act.
The subtext of the ban, that nobody will acknowledge, is the Government’s refusal to accept that anyone finally trapped in the no-fire zone, fitted the technical regime definition of ‘civilian.’ It was the same rationale that was used when food and medical supplies were delayed to the area in the final months of the fighting, raising ICRC and UN concerns about the deteriorating humanitarian conditions. Mahaveer families – Tamil families who had given one or more fighting cadres to the LTTE, were believed to form the bulk of those the Tigers were using as human shields in the face of advancing Government troops. Those who died in the crossfire and shelling in those last weeks therefore were LTTE sympathisers. To remember them on 18 May, which the Rajapaksa administration considers the most triumphant day of its nine year reign, would be unthinkable.
Yet none of this explains why the police and military appeared to be equally determined to stamp out remembrance events before and after 18 May, a sensitive day for the Sri Lankan armed forces, given the cloud the troops are under as a result of growing international pressure on war crimes issues. On Friday, 16 May, police personnel broke up a lamp lighting ceremony in front of the Northern provincial Council headquarters in Kaithady, Jaffna. On Tuesday (20), military officials made valiant attempts to stop a planned memorial for victims of the ‘no fire zone’ in Mullivaikal at the Kailasapathy Auditorium at the Jaffna University yesterday afternoon. When the Jaffna University Teachers Association (JUTA) refused to call off the event, claiming they had obtained legal advice that the ceremony was not illegal, the Association’s president, A. Rasakamaran was served with a summons to appear before the TID at 10 a.m. on Wednesday (21).
‘National Protection Force’
The JUTA event went ahead as scheduled, with hundreds of people attending the memorial event. But defiance has consequences and Rasakumaran has been summoned to TID in Colombo, for further interrogation. Posters appeared around the Jaffna University yesterday, authored by a group calling itself the “National Protection Force”, issuing final warnings to several academics, student leaders and two Tamil journalists based in Jaffna. The posters name the individuals and issue a ‘final warning’, accusing them of aiding the resurgence of terrorism and promising to ease their journey into the next world.
The essential contradiction in the way Victory Day was celebrated in the South and the moratorium on grieving in the North points to administration’s failure to comprehend how much has altered in the public consciousness since May 2009. It is no longer just one year since the end of the war. It has been half a decade. The Sri Lankan military can no longer be sold as saviours alone. A mounting body of evidence that is being flagged internationally points to unspeakable acts committed in those bloody last days, in the legitimate process to defeat LTTE terrorism in Sri Lanka. Five years since the war ended, the 18th of May has come to symbolise much more than just the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers. There is also tragedy and a perception of impunity.
The fundamental failure of the ruling administration to address the conflict’s political roots in the five years since the war ended, have contributed to heightening Tamil nationalist fervour and entrenching perceptions of injustice and ongoing discrimination in the Northern Province. Blood donation campaigns and memorials for the dead do not necessarily need to be celebrated on 18 May, a day that the Sri Lankan Government has specifically singled out for victory celebrations. Such memorials do not need to be held on 27 November either, a day specifically designated by Prabhakaran as LTTE martyrs’ day. Mobilised by Tamil activists and politicians, sections of the Tamil community in the North appear to be seeking out avenues of defiance.
Victors and vanquished
With every passing year, there is a desire in the former warzone, to commemorate 18 May in a manner that is distinct from the militaristic celebration in the South. It has become about challenging the dominant narrative, showcasing the ‘two Sri Lankas’ – the country of the victors and the country of the vanquished. The suppression of grief and memorial by the authorities merely reinforces this perception.
None of these factors bode well for the prospect of reconciliation and post-war healing between communities.
That the continued celebration of Victory Day with a war parade and memorials for fallen soldiers alone would only polarise Sinhala and Tamil communities was recognised three years ago in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report. The Commission, established by President Rajapaksa, strongly recommended that the Government replace the military parade on 18 May with a ceremony to remember all victims of the armed conflict, but the Government has systematically ignored the suggestion every year. Staring down the barrel of a UN investigation into allegations that war crimes were committed by both sides during the final phase of the war, it would have been in the Government’s interest to change the tenor of this year’s Victory Day commemoration. Instead the show of muscle went ahead in the South, set against the crackdown on grief in the North, reinforcing international perception that the Sri Lankan state was still, five years after the war ended, prizing triumphalism over genuine reconciliation. The threat and intimidation against those merely trying to mourn their dead in the former war zones, added credence to the theory that what has unfolded in Sri Lanka half a decade since the Government ended the war, is quintessentially ‘victor’s peace.’
A lack of top envoys
The decision of several top diplomatic envoys based in Colombo to avoid the Matara parade stemmed from the realisation that the Government’s preferred method to commemorate the end of a brutal civil conflict, that had victimised people on both sides of the ethnic divide equally, was alienating an entire section of Sri Lankans and was ultimately damaging to the reconciliation process. With the EU Head of Delegation opting to skip the ceremony, heads of mission of the EU member states based in Colombo sent representatives in their stead. US Ambassador Michele Sison was not in attendance, but the Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission Bill Weinstein went to Matara. British High Commissioner John Rankin also skipped the Victory Day parade, being overseas last weekend. Several other diplomatic missions in Colombo including the Japanese Embassy and the Indian High Commission also sent representatives.
The release of new photographic evidence that purports to point to a military chain of custody in the case of the Tiger TV anchor Isipriya, who the army has consistently claimed was killed in combat looks to increase the Government’s international woes ahead of the UN probe in the next few months. The International Truth and Justice Project that collaborated on former UN expert panellist on Sri Lanka Yasmin Sooka’s recent report on sexual violence in Sri Lanka’s war, unveiled its report on a specially constructed website – white-flags.org on 18 May. Graphic images in high resolution appear in the report, among them a series of pictures showing Isipriya alive and allegedly in the custody of Government troops. More disturbingly from the Government’s perspective, the report reveals the content of several text messages, from a phone alleged to belong to Dr. Palitha Kohona who was Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary in May 2009. The SMS records indicate that Dr. Kohona and other members of the ruling administration may have had knowledge of the terms of surrender for LTTE leaders Nadesan and Pulidevan, who were later found killed. Details about the surrender plan and how it was communicated to top regime officials have also been unearthed by the unnamed ‘group of researchers’ who admit that the photographs contained in the report are yet to be independently authenticated. Details of the new report made no appearance in the Sinhala and English language press, but the photographs and new information were widely publicised in the Tamil media this week. The body of evidence building against the Sri Lankan Government, that will soon be assessed by UN investigators, with access to digital forensic experts and other resources to authenticate the material, should have provided the impetus for the ruling administration to change course, even this late in the game.
Yet it persists, not only in continuing to treat the Tamil people of the North like the war-defeated, with post-war policies that have focused on physical rebuilding over the need to win the hearts and minds battle. Between the abuses committed allegedly during the last phase of the war and the Government’s Northern policies in the five years since the war ended, the ethnic chasm has widened and deep mistrust and resentment has been building in the former conflict zones.
Five years after the bloody battles in Mullaitivu, the Government has continued its land acquisition policies in the Northern Province. It continues to maintain an oppressive military presence in the region that engages in heavy surveillance of the civilian population. Despite its constitutionality, the Government refuses to permit the National Anthem to be sung in Tamil in districts of the Northern Province. Lisping Tamil schoolchildren must instead belt out Sri Lanka Matha in a language they neither speak nor understand. Claiming LTTE resurgence has allowed a broad security crackdown in the North. It has been nine weeks since Tamil widow and disappearances campaigner Jeyakumari Balendran was arrested for harbouring an LTTE suspect in her home in Kilinochchi. Gopi is dead now, but Jeyakumari remains in TID custody in Boosa. Her 13 year old daughter Vipushika remains in the care of state officials, and has been cut off from access to neighbours and friends. For Northerners, it is shaping up to be some ‘peace’.
In the past five years, other groups have also been relegated to the ranks of ‘the conquered’. The long arm of state oppression has struck at the heart of dissent, pushing student activists, human rights campaigners, journalists and academics to the fringes of Sri Lanka’s post-war politics. Religious hate groups are threatening renewed and devastating conflict between communities. What the marginalisation of political, religious and ethnic minorities really means is that Sri Lankans are essentially living in a period between two wars. Consistently discriminatory and oppressive state policy will breed discontent in the Tamil dominated regions, a greater impetus for the rise of Tamil nationalism and militancy than any military training or funding from the Diaspora.
Yet as a supremely confident and powerful-looking President Rajapaksa surveyed his military machinery in Matara last Sunday, he sent a singular signal to all those who oppose his rule – in the North and the South. It is a message his Government has been sending for five long years. Woe, woe unto the conquered.
Courtesy Daily FT