Torrential rains and floods shattered the prospect of two rival war hero commemorations. It also relived the horror and trauma of the war, unleashing a wave of destruction that wiped out villages, burying many dozens in unmarked graves and causing mass displacement. Finally, the government held the official ceremony at the Parliament grounds sans its predecessor’s usual display of military hardware and parades. (The ex-president had postponed the rival event to some unknown date in the future).
Soldiers and military assets were better deployed to salvage the survivors buried in landslides and trapped by rising flood waters. At the ceremony held in front of the Ranaviru statue, President Sirisena honoured the men and women in the security forces who sacrificed lives and limb to save the country and civilians who died in the vicious war. He spoke about challenges in peace-building and promoting interracial harmony.
In Mullivaikkal, Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran and several councillors commemorated the civilians who perished in the last leg of the conflict. He was categorical that he and the others were commemorating civilians, and not terrorists, the latter was annihilated there in the final decisive battle. In the Jaffna psyche, drawing that distinction between the terrorist and the civilian is not easy. The dead Tiger cadres, all of them, were someone’s sons and daughters, siblings and spouses. On Mr. Wigneswaran’s part, it is courageous to make that difference -- it is a bit unusual though, especially since he more than any other Northern Politician has sought to capitalize on perceived grievances of the Tamil people, to the extent that some sensible people in the South fear that he is undermining reconciliation efforts.
On the other hand, it is disingenuous for the South to decide as to on whom the Tamils could mourn and not. More so, when the Tamil civilian victims were forgotten in the war heroes commemorations in the past and reduced to a footnote at the present. Such an omission makes Tamils bitter and complicates reconciliation. What Sri Lanka as a nation ought to do is to commemorate all the war dead and help reintegration, and possible reparations to all victims of war. The war was a monumental tragedy and many thousands from both sides who perished in it, and were condemned to life-long suffering were unwilling victims of that vicious conflagration. War created conditions that consumed all and left no choices for its victims.
And empathy towards civilian and militant victims of the conflict does not devalue the military victory which brought an end to a brutal conflict, rather it helps translate the military victory to a sustainable peace.
The problem with the previous regime was that it failed to do that, and rather choose to perpetuate a self -defeating and mutually acrimonious culture of post war triumphalism. It was not so much about as to how the war was won. The fight against a maximalist terrorist group had to be conducted ruthlessly, if it were to be effective. Civilians who were long trapped in this vicious conflict and held as human shields perished in considerably high numbers. Sri Lanka’s is not the only war in which it happened; from Chechnya to Israel and Iraq to Vietnam, civilians have paid a heavy price. However, this was the only war that was brought to an end, and the terrorists were conclusively defeated -- and more significantly, not a single bomb has exploded since then. That is quite an achievement. It is a shame that the previous regime failed to translate those military gains to a just and lasting peace. Instead, like an ancient monarch who derived a mandate from heaven, ex-President MR schemed to derive legitimacy from the military victory to perpetuate his familial rule.
He refused to take an objective look at the conduct of the war and to investigate, even nominally, some of the excesses (which happen in any war) and went to monopolise the credit for defeating one of the most egregious terrorist groups that ever walked on the earth. His regime’s penchant to use extra judicial measures even after the war left a bad taste even for the Sinhalese who cherished military achievements. Through its conduct, the former regime discredited the military victory both at home and abroad; his post-war conduct emboldened only the fringe sections of the diaspora.
The new government has sought to atone for the ills of its predecessor. However, it seems we will not be left to ourselves by self-righteous international busybodies lecturing us as to how we achieve our reconciliation. The frequency of unsolicited advises are gradually declining though. Canadian Premier Justine Trudeau was the only Head of the State to do that this year.
There are limits that the new government could go -- no matter how genuine they are in devolution. However, it could push boundaries, rightly so, as the existential threat in the form of LTTE has long been extinguished. And the Southern opinion is evolving to the better and the ultra-nationalism has beaten a retreat in recent times, after the fall of the former regime. However, a polarized South would find it hard to agree on the sort of solution it was offering to the Tamils. It has been the case in the past, though no solution short of a separate State might have satisfied the LTTE. That made the military solution the only solution to the terrorist aspect of the Tamil problem.
Now that the terrorists are vanquished, that handicap has been removed. However the polarization in the South remains a problem. A rival war hero commemoration of the Joint Opposition is a case in point. Sometimes, the government’s conduct itself is not helping bridging the Southern divide.
Why the Rajapaksa acolytes wanted to hold a rival event was partly because the ex-president was not invited to the official event. Exclusion of MR does not sound like a sensible decision.
After all, albeit all his other misdemeanours, it was his regime that defeated terrorism. He surely has a share in that glory, though he wanted to monopolize it.
It would be hard to reach a Southern consensus on reconciliation and, more importantly on devolution without the ex-president and his followers, there are still quite a lot of them.
The government should co-opt them in the search for a solution. By trying to exclude them, the government would only cause self-harm.
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