Remembrance and nationalist Tamil politics
A state ceremony led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa commemorated the fallen soldiers and civilian victims of war.
Pic - President's Media Unit
Last week, Sri Lanka marked the 11th anniversary of the end of a nearly 25 years-long civil war, which ended in a rare battlefield annihilation of a terrorist group. That was an extra brutal affair, the correlation can be found in the ruthlessness of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the global champion of suicide terrorism. High intensity of violence meant that collateral damage was equally higher. Civilians who were herded deeper into the inland, and then to a sliver of land in the coast by the Tigers ( and those who willingly trekked together with the group with a conviction or a suicidal wish) took the brunt of the viciousness of the fighting.
When the war ended, the leaders of the then government were all too occupied with personal aggrandising of the war victory. They simply overlooked to take a civilian death count. Later local and international organizations came up with the back of the envelope figures ranging from as low as 7,000 to as high as 146,000. The latter figure was so liberally cited by Navi Pillai, one time UN Human Rights Chief at a memorial event organised by the US Tamil Sangam last week.
The scars of the war on both sides have not yet healed. Every year, on the eve of the anniversary, these wounds are pestered. Last week, two competing commemoration events marked the end of the war. At one end, a State ceremony led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa commemorated the fallen soldiers and civilian victims of war. In the North, Tamils commemorated their loved ones who were killed, maimed and disappeared.
The remembrance of the dead is a fundamental right, even if it is not specifically mentioned as such, it is a customary right, acquired from generally consistent practice and custom. Tamils in the North have as much right as the government and the relatives of the military servicemen to remember their war dead, including the slain fighters of the LTTE. Each of them is some one’s son, daughter, parent or a spouse.
However, the despondency of the mothers, their sorrow and pain - and at times, pride - are exploited to prop up a destructive nationalist campaign. Both sides of the divide have the hallmarks of this strategy.
However, the North is more susceptible to the elitist manipulation of real and perceived grievances and can unravel disastrously. It indeed did so barely decades ago.
Take for instance the Mullivaikkal declaration which was read at the main event in Wanni. It is nothing but a continuation of the LTTE narrative, plus sour grapes for the loss of the Tigers.
It claimed of ‘our kith and kin who were murdered mercilessly 11 years ago’, castigated the voters for ‘electing a war criminal with only Sinhala-Buddhist votes’, lamented a ‘Mullivaikal Tamil Genocide’ and “advocated … to bring the genocidaire state before the justice.”
These are all fine, and could well be celebrated as free speech. But, if the hate keeps flowing in and piqued egos and war scars are exploited, these words would one day translate into human bombs.
If you think this is just a doomsday prophecy, look back to the 70s, the decade before the rise of Tamil militancy. The latter half of it was shadowed by runaway Tamil nationalism, inflated grievances and wholesale condemnation of Tamils who cooperated with the Sinhalese dominated Centre by the Tamil political parties. It set the pretext for the next level of escalation: the Vaddukoddai Resolution and not so subtle endorsement of an armed campaign.
The Vaddukoddai Resolution was an election ploy by the Tamil elites competing for the Tamil nationalist votes. The TULF stalwarts who passed the resolution went to Parliament in en masse in a nationalist frenzy and connived armed militancy as a bargaining chip. Within less than a decade, most of them were eaten by the monster they created.
Many local pundits lament the different pathways of ethnic relations in Sri Lanka and Singapore and attribute the relative stability of the latter to its perceived multiculturalism and meritocracy. However, a better explanation would have been how Singapore controlled and managed the ethnic narrative.
Passing Vadukkodai resolution in Singapore would have tantamount to passing a death sentence on once’ own.
It was the high retributive cost that kept the tribal impulses under check. Lee Kuan Yew hounded his opponents with hefty liable laws. J. Jeyaretnam, the opposition leader was forced to declare bankruptcy, stripped of the only opposition-held parliament seat and died a broken man.
The scars of the war on both sides have not yet healed. Every year, on the eve of the anniversary, these wounds are pestered
It was the disastrous combination of relative freedom and a weak government that fostered Tamil separatism and terrorism in Sri Lanka.
As Tamil parties are flaunting their nationalistic tendencies, and ‘ as D.B.S Jeyaraj wrote last week, were ‘ ‘traitorising’ their opponents for cooperating with Colombo and for not vouching allegiance to Prabakaran, the temptation would be to resort to self-destructive old habits.
It is something that the government should be vigilant.
There is another point.
The elaborate funerals and week-long remembrance of its war dead were a crucial part of ritualistic glorification of the martyrdom practised by the LTTE. Those were an integral part of LTTE’s organizational and enforced behavioural dynamic aimed at hyper radicalization and churning out of suicide bombers. The same dynamic could be observed in mass funerals of Hamas and Hizbullah.
In the post-LTTE era, that might not have a major bearing. However, radicalization is an incremental process.
None of these calls for the denial of the legitimate right of Tamils to remember their loved ones. Denial itself would foster an acute bitterness. Addressing legitimate grievances, including reasonable political aspirations are also important.
However, the government should watch out for elitist manipulation of these grievances.
Follow @RangaJayasuriya on twitter