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Triumphalism is no way to remember civil war

Sri Lanka now needs peace, not parades

  • Dr Jehan Perera, Colombo
  • Sri Lanka
  • May 17, 2013
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May 19 will mark the 4th anniversary of the end of Sri Lanka’s three decade-long civil war. The government will celebrate with military parades and displays of the weapons of war. 

The proceedings will be broadcast across the country so the people have an opportunity to remember the victory that was once deemed impossible by many. 

However, the lead up to this Day of Victory will also bring painful memories to the country’s Tamil people, many of whom had relatives and friends who did not survive the national bloodletting.

Since the end of the civil war on May 19, 2009 – the day on which the LTTE ceased to exist as a military force – the victory of the Sri Lankan government over the rebel forces has been a polarizing factor in the country’s politics. 

The victory celebrations have been boycotted by the majority of the country’s elected Tamil political leadership and seen as yet another sign of the political insensitivity of government leaders to the sentiments of its multi-ethnic population. It has also served to deepen the polarization in society.

What actually happened in the last phase of the war, culminating in the total destruction of the LTTE, remains shrouded in controversy. 

There were no independent witnesses to what transpired on the battlefield at the time the defeated LTTE leaders belatedly offered to surrender. The international media and humanitarian organizations were not permitted to stay. The government ensured that they evacuated the area 'for their own safety.' It was therefore a war’s end without independent witnesses, which has given rise to varied accounts of those final days.

Judging by the government’s past celebrations of the anniversary, this year’s event will also focus on the valor of the armed forces and the chain of command that reached the level of the presidency. 

There is a potential danger in this, however, as allegations of war crimes can also reach up through the chain of command.  But the political rewards of claiming victory are too rich to renounce. The past fortnight has seen a build-up in the mass media to remind the people of those days of blood and bombs and how it all has ended. The contrast with the peaceful situation of the present will continue to bring in the votes of a grateful nation.

But the unfortunate reality is that the support of the Sinhalese majority for the victory and the government’s celebrations will not be matched by any kind of equivalent support from the Tamil minority. 

They too have been beneficiaries of the peaceful situation that has followed the end of the war. They are now safe from the ravages of child recruitment and terror tactics that the LTTE brought to bear upon them. But they will wish to mourn their loved ones who are no longer with them and also the receding of the once powerful dream of enjoying equal rights in which they also have the right to decide.

Four years after the war, the political solution that government leaders promised has yet to materialize. The Northern Province, where the first shots were fired and where the last of the rebel fighters fell, has yet to enjoy the right of provincial governance even to the limited an extent that the other eight provinces do.  

A government ally has filed a case in the Supreme Court calling on it to abolish the system of devolution of power for the entire country. In this context, there is increasing skepticism whether the promised Northern Provincial Council elections in September this year will actually take place.

The Sri Lankan civil war may have ended in 2009, but four years later the country has yet to find its path of reconciliation and to heal the wounds of war. At the present time it also appears that Sri Lanka is moving backwards in terms of securing the rule of law. 

The impeachment of former Supreme Court chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake has weakened the rule of law and usurped the preeminence of the country’s top court as the interpreter of the national charter.

Further, it has had a negative effect on human rights protections and political accountability, including the release of politically influential suspects charged with crimes, the concurrent strengthening of a repressive law that increases the period of detention without recourse to legal counsel to 48 hours and the large scale transfer of judges.

Inter-religious tensions have also escalated as government allies fuel a growing Buddhist extremism that has targeted the Muslim community and taken on an open and confrontational approach.

Recent manifestations of anti-Muslim sentiment expressed by prominent Buddhist leaders bode ill for national reconciliation.

The continued militarization of the north has been accompanied by restrictions on civil society protests and political violence directed against the main Tamil party, possibly in anticipation of Northern Provincial Council elections. 

Other issues of concern include the arbitrary takeover of people’s lands for military and business purposes, especially in the Tamil-inhabited parts of the country. This is coupled with the misallocation of resources on a massive scale, as in the investments made on the national airlines. 

While the government has made considerable efforts to boost economic infrastructure and resettlement of most war-displaced persons, the actual conditions of resettlement, housing and livelihoods leave much to be desired due to this wastage.

Sri Lanka could have been a very different country today. If the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the president and released in November 2011 had been followed, the government would have changed course last year. 

They would have eschewed further engagement in ethnic triumphalism and instead focused on commemorating all victims who lost their lives in the senseless conflict. They would 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, irrespective of ethnicity, could have taken part in. It is tragic that the path of ethnic triumphalism will prevail instead.

We can only hope that in the near future, these lessons will finally and forever be learned and implemented.

Dr Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council. He received his law degree from Harvard University

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