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Remembrance and Resistance

Today the Tamil nation unites in an act of collective remembrance. From gatherings in diaspora locales to silent moments of thought in the occupied homeland, Tamils pause to remember all those who gave their lives in protracted struggle against the genocidal onslaught of the Sinhala state. What began as commemoration of those who fell in a war of liberation is today the defining moment of solidarity in the cause of national resistance. Marking not the finality of death, but the solemnity of sacrifice, the symbolism of this single day, like no other, is a thread that unites the Tamil nation across the world’s borders and reiterates at once its identity and its unyielding defiance in the face of genocide.

Sinhala oppression of the Tamils began at the moment of independence from colonial rule, and so did Tamil resistance to this chauvinistic project of domination and subjugation. After decades of peaceful struggle and decades more of armed struggle, the end of the armed conflict marked not the advent of peace but a new phase of intensified state oppression and renewed resistance. The hammer blows rained down on the Tamil people by the state as part of its military campaign against the LTTE’s armed struggle were intended to end, once and for all, Tamil defiance of Sinhala rule. They did not. Instead they galvanised Tamil resistance anew in the homeland, despite the state’s continuing repression, and in the diaspora, beyond its murderous reach.

It is in this context that the state has become obsessed with reminders of the long history of Tamil resistance. Since the war’s end, the state has sought to destroy the graves and tombstones of Tamil fighters, a desecration, like the mass atrocities of 2009, intended to remind the Tamils of Sinhala martial power, as well as monuments of non-violent resistance such as the statue of Federal Party leader Chelvanayagam. Even symbols of Sinhala triumph, such the LTTE leader’s bunker – and even his childhood home – have been hurriedly destroyed as Tamil resistance has manifest. At the same time, the state builds monument after monument to remind the Tamils of Sinhala conquest and military prowess. Most recently it unveiled a large archway commemorating a key moment of Sinhala supremacist mythology, Ellaalan being defeated by the Sinhala king Dutu Gemunu.

These dynamics exemplify the hollowness of Sri Lanka’s rhetoric of reconciliation. Being able to remember those who fell in combat is itself inherent to any process of post-war reconciliation. (It is worth noting that the JVP, which engaged in an intensely violent internecine war, annually commemorates its fallen cadres with large rallies). Yet despite asserting that everyone in the island is ‘moving on’, the Sinhala state is gripped by a gnawing anxiety that manifests most visibly in November, whereby even the lighting of candles and other individual acts of mourning trigger alarm. Despite its domineering presence in the homeland, the military felt compelled to again warn Tamils last week not to commemorate the day - a warning which itself has invoked acts of defiance in the homeland.

In this way, November 27 becomes not only a moment of national remembrance, but, in and of itself, one of Tamil struggle. This year, that day of remembrance is marked amid a context of deepening crisis for Sinhala supremacy. It is precisely its violent efforts to impose itself, in 2009 and since, that have now brought it forcefully under international scrutiny. Having long mobilised globalising liberal order through its rhetoric of ‘war for peace’, the project of Sinhala ethnocracy is now in unavoidable confrontation with it. The long running and deep-seated dynamics of majoritarian oppression and Tamil resistance thus now take place in historically novel circumstances. As Tamils pause today to commemorate the courage, determination and selflessness of so many compatriots who have stood defiantly against the genocide of their nation, we must commit to redoubling our struggle for liberation and emancipation from Sinhala supremacy.

Illustration by Keera Ratnam