May 19 will mark the 4th anniversary of the end of Sri Lanka’s three decade long civil war, but with absence of a joint commemoration to remember all who lost their lives in it as recommended by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). The end of the war has greatly improved the lives of people, as they no longer fear bombs and large scale loss of life as in the past. But the country has yet to deal with the collective grief that accompanies any civil conflict. The LLRC recommended that a separate event be set apart on National Day in which all those who lost their lives in the war would be remembered.
The National Peace Council regrets deeply that very important recommendation of the LLRC to heal wounds of war and win hearts and minds are not being followed for the second year in succession after the publication of the LLRC report. Instead the day the war ended will be celebrated by the government with military parades and a display of military hardware. There are posters claiming that it is the country’s Second Independence. However, this manner of celebrating the day as a Day of Victory will also bring painful memories to the country’s Tamil people. Many of them had relatives and friends who did not come out alive at the end of the war even though they were civilians.
The National Peace Council notes that the victory celebrations have been boycotted since their inception by the majority of the country’s elected Tamil political leadership and seen as yet another sign of the political insensitivity of governmental leaders to the sentiments of its multi-ethnic population. The whole nation needs to better understand the Tamil perspective, that they lost their material assets and families but gained nothing from the war victory. The areas where they lived are destroyed, and many of the population have yet to restore their lives.
The American Civil War (1861-65) was one of the most ferocious wars ever fought. The war produced a casualty toll of over 620,000 soldiers on both sides and 50,000 civilians. But President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that it was a war of brother against brother. General Robert E Lee who led the Confederate armies surrendered and was treated with the utmost respect. There was a common cemetery for the war dead of both sides. The defeated Confederate soldiers were treated leniently. It was by conciliatory measures that Southern Confederate nationalism was overcome and the defeated State pledged allegiance to the Union. The conciliatory approach of the American government saw the achievement of the main war goals as realized in 1865, when each ex-rebel state repudiated secession and ratified the Thirteenth Amendment
Four years after the end of the war in Sri Lanka the political solution that the leaders of government promised during the time of the war has yet to materialize. The Northern Province, where the first gunshots of the war were fired and where the last of the rebel fighters fell, has still to enjoy the right of elected provincial governance even to as limited an extent as the other eight provinces do. A government ally has filed action in the Supreme Court calling on it to abolish the system of devolution of power for the entire country. This is not the way for reconciliation and for winning the ethnic minorities over to a Sri Lankan nationalism. It shows a lack of foresight that defines statesmanship. In this context, we call on the government to ensure that the promised Northern Provincial Council elections in September this year will take place.
The National Peace Council also calls on the entire national polity to recognize that although the civil war ended in 2009 the country has yet to find its path of reconciliation through an inclusive process of political negotiations and a sincere effort to heal the wounds of war. We believe that if the recommendations of the LLRC appointed by the President had been followed, the government could have changed course last year. Government leaders would have ceased to further engage in ethnic triumphalism and instead focused on commemorating all victims who lost their lives in the senseless conflict. They could have utilized the occasion of May 19 to resolve that never again would such bloodletting be permitted to take place. This would have been a commemoration that all Sri Lankans, respecting multi ethnicity, equal rights, and the safety and dignity of all people living on the island could have taken part in as a united Sri Lankan nation. Instead on the day that marked a watershed in the modern history of the country, people will be divided in their grief. There will be no collective remembrance of loss, but a reinforcement of the separation that has overshadowed the post independence era.
On May 19, even while giving thanks that there is no more war in our land, and blessing our country to have long lasting peace and reconciliation, religious leaders in the country can take the lead in remembering in silent thought or prayer in their temples, kovils, mosques and churches, all those who died in the conflict. We also call on all the people to light a lamp or candle or perform some other symbolic act with their families in their homes to remember all those who died during the course of the war. Perhaps where the government has failed civil society can make what effort it can to bind the people in their remembrance.