By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Cabinet spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne informed the media that “May 19, which was celebrated as ‘Victory Day’ during the Rajapaksa era will from this year onwards be observed as ‘Remembrance Day’ to recall the sacrifices of all those who had fought to maintain the unity and integrity of the country irrespective of their ethnicity”.Towards this end, it would be of interest to briefly examine Remembrance Day and Victory Day in Europe held to commemorate men in uniform who fell during the military conflicts of WWI and WII.
Remembrance Day (Poppy Day)
In the United Kingdom, remembrance poppies are sold by The Royal British Legion. This is a charity providing financial, social, political and emotional support to those who have served or who are currently serving in the British Armed Forces, and their dependents. Therefore this day and event has significant importance to those men who gave their lives during WWI.
Victory Day in Europe
Generally known as V-E Day, VE Day or simply V Day was the public holiday celebrated on 8 May 1945 (7 May in Commonwealth realms) in UK to mark the formal acceptance by the Allies of World War II of Nazi Germany‘s unconditional surrender of its armed forces and the day the surrender instrument was signed in Berlin.
Over six million Jews who lost their lives during WWII are not part of this commemoration.
Russia (former Soviet Union) celebrate Victory Day with a massive military parade on 09 May, the day recognized by Joseph Stalin.
It is regrettable that our politicians are unable to adopt a unified stand even in so important an issue. It is also proof that the Sinhalese are a majority in Sri Lanka with a severe minority complex.
At the outset, it must be stated that until today, 19 May Victory Day was held to celebrate the military defeat of the LTTE, an internal terrorist group albeit one of the most ruthless in the world, by Sri Lanka’s Armed Forces .
The decision to change 19 May Victory Day to Remembrance Day has possibly arisen from a desire to vilify the former President. Nevertheless 19 May Victory Day should not be used for such a purpose. What is necessary is an acknowledgement by all political parties and all communities of the role played by the Armed Forces in defeating the LTTE which besides being a military victory is also a victory for the people of this island over terrorism.
To even think that 19 May Victory Day is limited to the Sinhalese community is a fallacy. It need be understood that it was a victory for the Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher and other communities. The writer vividly recollects the freedom enjoyed by all communities throughout the country (North and East included) in our day to day lives prior to July 1983. Members of all communities were not stopped on the road for inspection of our NICs nor our vehicles searched at check-points. We could enter any government office without NICs and body checks. We left home in the mornings with the certainty of returning home unless due to an involvement in a traffic accident. We could check into hotels without producing our NIC. Our houses were not checked in the middle of the night without a search warrant by members of the Armed Forces. Members of Sinhalese and Muslim communities could live in the North and East. These are a few basic freedoms which we lost shortly after July 1983 and regained after May 2009. Besides this freedom, with the advent of LTTE terrorism, members of the Tamil community living in the North and East lost the freedom for many other activities in their day to day lives. Those lucky enough were able to escape and obtain asylum in Europe, USA, Canada and Australia. Those not so lucky came over to Colombo thus increasing the Tamil population in Colombo from 130,215 in 1981 to 231,318 in 2012 due to higher level of security they enjoyed in Colombo than in the North and East. Those unable to escape overseas nor to Colombo unfortunately had to remain in the North and East and live under the yoke of LTTE terrorism.
A key factor in the issue is members of the Tamil community who remained in the North and East. Most lost their livelihood. With an ongoing conflict between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military, the ordinary person lost the right to give their children a decent education. They had no choice but to surrender their children of a certain age to the LTTE war machine or to make arrangements to have them smuggled overseas or to Colombo. As the situation grew worse, even minors were not spared and taken as child soldiers. Those in the North and East lost most of their land commandeered by the LTTE, who were eventually evicted by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces. Even those members of the Tamil community living overseas were not spared. Some were compelled to pay ‘blood money’ into LTTE coffers under threat of their kith and kin living in the North and East being harmed. Land owners living both abroad and in Sri Lanka had given up any hope of ever regaining their land. This is now in the process of being rectified. The Armed Forces rescued over 300,000 Tamil civilians in May 2009, who were being moved around and finally used as human shields by the LTTE.
Suffice to state that many politicians including those who regularly voted in Parliament against Emergency Regulations and those holding high positions in successive administrations surrounded themselves with members of the Armed Forces for protection whenever they stepped outside their abodes. The fate of at least some of them might have been similar to those of Mr Lakshman Kadirgamar and Mr Appapillai Amirthalingam if not for members of the Armed Forces.
Last but not least, all those who have visited Sri Lanka since 19 May 2009 including the likes of David Cameron, Narendra Modi and John Kerry and have given unsolicited advice on “Human Rights”, “cooperative Federalism” and “to work with the ICRC and the UN in order to investigate missing persons” would not have set foot in this country if not for the eradication of terrorism by the Armed Forces.
This is the freedom we have regained thanks to the Armed Forces. Former US President John F Kennedy once said “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan”. Notwithstanding the many claiming credit for the 19 May victory, it is an undeniable and inalienable fact that it was the Sri Lankan Armed Forces who paved the way to this victory. The beneficiaries and thus by extension the victors are the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burgers and all others in this country.
Critics will no doubt raise issues such as injustices, indignities, atrocities and the shameful 1983 pogroms suffered by the Tamil community which is understandable. The writer concedes that the former administration failed in moving forward on a political solution after the eradication of the LTTE. In brief, the former administration won the war and lost the peace. However, such issues belong elsewhere and not in the context of 19 May Victory Day.
Not to acknowledge the contribution by the Armed Forces by discontinuing the 19 May Victory Day is an injustice to the Armed Forces and an act of an ungrateful nation similar to the act of the imprisonment of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. The contribution by the Armed Forces should not in any way be devalued due to attempts by former President to use the military triumph for personal glorification. The military is not at fault for the lack of a lasting political solution acceptable to all communities subsequent to the military victory. It lies with our worthy politicians.
If all communities were to accept the contributions made by the Armed Forces as they should, in restoring peace in the country after 30 years, 19 May Victory Day would enhance national reconciliation rather than be an impediment.
Besides contributions made by the Armed Forces in fighting the LTTE from 1980 till 2009, let us also not forget their contributions in 1971 and during the 1987-90 period.
One of the recommendations by the LLRC, ignored in their wisdom by the former administration is for the declaration of one day to commemorate all those who died during the conflict. This could be easily implemented in the form of a ‘Remembrance Day’ or ‘Reconciliation Day’ on an alternate date
That is the least that could be offered by a grateful nation to the memory of those who ‘gave their tomorrow’ and those who were ‘willing to give their tomorrow’ for the peace dividend currently enjoyed by each and every one in Sri Lanka today, regardless of race, religion or political affiliations.