An Impressive Day of Remembrance


Give it to the President of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, to do it right.

His Cabinet spokesman, Dr Rajitha Senaratne, informed the public recently that May 19, the day Sri Lanka emerged victorious from the 28 year civil war defeating the LTTE once and for all, was to be known henceforth as Remembrance Day. It was named Victory Day from the first anniversary of the peace won - 19 May 2010 - with the approval of the then President, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The new name is so much better than ‘Victory Day’ which has in attendance the corollary term ‘defeat’. We spent too much time, newsprint and public speaking on the defeat of the LTTE and to many people the LTTE came to connote Tamil. Sure the Tigers were Tamils, but they were a minor group that grew and was encouraged. In the end LTTE and Tamils were intermixed and seemed the same while very many Tamils opposed the LTTE and suffered under them. The most prominent and promising of them who rendered great service as Sri Lankans were killed by the LTTE – to name but two: Lakshman Kadirgamar and Neelan Tiruchelvam. Thus we find the new name Remembrance Day much more apt.

As opposed to the idea of war, fighting, victory and defeat, with death coming in, the new name for the day connotes gratitude, forgiving, reconciliation, coming together. These are the qualities and resolutions that need to be fostered and built up: - gratitude to those who lost their lives or their limbs and faculties like sight to save the nation; forgiving those who erred so viciously; reconciling with the people who fought each other and were divided by the war; and a coming together which this government fosters sincerely. Remembrance is a soft word connoting that which is good. It also connotes never letting a bad remembrance repeat itself.

The sixth year commemoration of the end of the war at Viharamaha Devi Park on Monday (May 18) organized apparently by the Dinudeshya Surakeeme Jathika Vyaparaya (to safeguard the Motherland, no less!) was held under the patronage of ex Prez Mahinda Rajapaksa and prominent in pictures of the event were his constant companion in public these days – Wimal Weerawansa. Also present were Gotabhaya Rajapksa, Dinesh Gunawardena and others. It gave the uncomfortable feeling that in the guise of showing gratitude to the armed forces, it was below the surface anti–reconciliation, anti-a coming together, anti–forgiving. It definitely meant rivalry among the Sinhalese themselves. I did not see the event on TV but to me what is in the newspapers is injurious. I quote from a newspaper news item: "Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday accused the government of undermining the peace and stability achieved in May six years back. It would be a mistake on its part to adopt policies at the expense of national security." Rajapaksa said his government had never betrayed national security. So here is the emphasis on victory and defeat and the constant fear of a lapse in security and laying open the country to another war or defeat by a resurrected LTTE. That war cry is getting really thin, and annoying now. It is he and the rally at the Viharamaha Devi Park that undermined unity and national security. He should have been at the parade at Matara.

Comments by a seasoned journalist

Tisaranee Gunasekera, (thank goodness she is writing again to this paper), very cleverly and succinctly voices what we have in mind about reconciliation and the shouts of those opposed to Sirisena and particularly Ranil Wickremesinghe. She writes: "The democratization project requires the replacement of this violent (strong is good, weak is bad) ethos with a different commonsense which places premium on compassion, justice and protecting the weak. The new Government’s decision to transform May 19th from a day of triumphalism to a day of commemoration is a necessary step in this direction. As Minister Karu Jayasuriya pointed out, allowing Tamils to personally mourn their dead is a basic act of civility." It was after the government of Maithripala Sirisena took over that a child’s birthday could be celebrated in Jaffna with family and partying, without getting the express permission of the army resident over there.

Tisaranee gives voice to our thoughts honestly and fearlessly. "It is the Rajapaksas who need a continuation of the binary ‘Us vs Them’ mindset and consequent militarist discourse…. Democracy in this country can flourish only if the various ethnic and religious groups living in it develop a democratic modus vivendi. An important precondition for this is an end to the habit of looking at everything always via an ethnic/religious lens."

We older people lived in such times when religion and race were collectively immaterial, being private businesses. We were first and last Ceylonese and then after 1972 Sri Lankan. It is the self seeking, power crazy politicians who emphasize race, religion and even social status in their bid to rule the land. A start was made in early January this year to unite the peoples of the land; the government to be just and humane; to work for the people and not those in power and politics and to be sincere and honest. It is an absolutely difficult task but those wielding power now have it in them to see social progress of all being realized. We ordinary Sri Lankans need to help in the way we are empowered to do – return decent people to govern us at the next election. President Maithripala, though appearing ‘soft’ has definitely shown his mettle and the Prime Minister seems to go on with programs to better the land, not taking note of the shouting that goes on around him, most of it foolish to the utmost and insanely self-centered. (We do not however, approve of the Central Bank debacle in which the PM is centre-staged.)

The Parade in Matara

The Remembrance Day commemoration on the beach road at Matara proved beyond all doubt that the President is determined to follow a path of forgiveness, reconciliation and the forging of unity among all Sri Lankans. His address to the nation was excellent, delivered without once looking down at a note or prompter, very calmly with no break in the flow of words giving expression to his well ordered thoughts, with not one mention of ‘me’ and ‘mine’. He started with a sincere ‘theruwan saranai’. The Sinhala language lends itself to emotive expression, to sentimentality even. But his speech was restrained, yet personal between him and his listeners with no triumphalism, no histrionics whatsoever. He was dignified in the way he stood, received the honours and in his manner of speaking. Not for him to march forwards as if a sovereign king. He gave first place to the armed forces and police that defeated terrorism, expressing deep appreciation and gratitude to them all, not forgetting to mention the leaders who led the country to win the war. (Wisely he mentioned no names!) He briefly traced the Island’s history since 1948 and surmised that though every race combined against British rule, soon after independence discord was introduced. Injured minds were not seen to. Remorse, hate, suspicion, doubt came in. A question of water and a humanitarian need for it blocked by the LTTE led to the fourth war and the last. Defeat of the LTTE was also at the water’s edge in Nandikadal. But through the experience of war we recognize what needs to be done, he said. Development and reconciliation will go hand in hand, he promised. He assumed responsibility to see there will be no more wars.

Emotions were crowding me. Pride in the parading armed forces including civil defence forces and veterans and pride in Sri Lankan youth both male and female marching, riding vehicles or parachuting down. There were animals too: the sniffer dogs and the Police mascot baby elephant. There was sadness remembering all those who died or were maimed of the government forces and Tamil youth. Hope was re-ignited that the leaders of the present, with no fanfare, no boasts, no excessive show and extravagance, were intent on rebuilding the nation with reconciliation and justice prioritized.

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