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Remembrance and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

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The ethnic divide in Sri Lanka is ingrained in all aspects of life, even mourning the dead. The conflict between Tamils and the Sri Lankan state has cost over 100,000 lives, the vast majority of which are Tamil. The 18th of May, the day the armed conflict ended, has become one of the most important days in the Tamil calendar. Tamils across the world, including relatives of the tens of thousands of those that died, commemorate this day, in private or in public gatherings. However the rest of Sri Lanka celebrates this day, as the day the ‘terrorists’ were vanquished and Sinhala Buddhist rule securely extended throughout the entire island.

These deep ethnic divisions are clearer on this day than most others. While thousands of Sinhalese celebrate, Tamils were threatened and in some cases arrested for mourning their dead. Just a day before May 18, the Vanni commander of the Sri Lankan army, Major General Boniface Perera, said that those commemorating ‘terrorists’ will be arrested. Despite these threats, Tamils in the Northeast marked the Remembrance Day with vigils in several locations, resulting in several arrests and questioning of organisers by security forces. Meanwhile, Colombo saw a huge military parade, with over 30,000 service personnel taking part under the auspices of President Mahinda Rajapakse. Several more events, celebrating the ‘Victory Day,’ were organised by the military in the Tamil homeland.

However it is not the state alone that is responsible for the triumphalist celebrations and deliberate disdain towards the Tamil nation’s desire to mourn their dead and remember the genocide. The silence of the Sri Lankan media and general public, surrounding the arrests of TNPF activists marking the anniversary, was deafening. Only a few weeks ago the arrest of Azath Salley, a Muslim politician, caused uproar in Sri Lanka and beyond. He was arrested for allegedly telling an Indian magazine that Muslims in Sri Lanka should take arms if the attacks on their community don’t cease, and for a few days his imprisonment dominated Sri Lankan headlines. Southern civil society activists were vocal in calling for his release, showing that that the Sinhalese, unlike the Tamils, can be openly critical of the government, with effect, if they wish. Salley was released after President Rajapakse revoked his detention order.

In contrast, Gajendran Selvarajah of the TNPF has been repeatedly summoned for questioning because of his involvement in organising remembrance events. With next to no media coverage and no public outrage at this repeated intimidation of a Tamil activist in the Sinhala South, it becomes clear that the very idea of remembrance of Tamil deaths is something that the Sinhala polity as a whole wants to suppress and vilify. TNA MPs, who held an event in the town of Vavuniya, were also questioned by the Sri Lankan CID. Most questions were centred on whether the event was held to commemorate the LTTE and where the funding for the party came from.

Sri Lanka is quick to crush any public display of Tamil grief as commemorating ‘terrorism’ and the demise of the LTTE. This criminalisation of mourning is central to the systematic efforts to erase Tamil identity. The government is trying to shape Tamil memory in ways it deems unthreatening to the Sinhala Buddhist nature of the state. The Tamil population’s frustration, albeit largely muted due to oppression, is growing. The destruction of Tamil war cemeteries by the government is designed to show the Tamil nation that Sinhala Buddhist hegemony is to remain in the Tamil homeland and no signs of the Tamil nationalist struggle will be allowed to exist.

The contradictory interpretations of May 18 tellingly reveal why reconciliation in Sri Lanka is practically unobtainable. Reconciliation means mutual recognition and acceptance between previously conflicting parties. However this is not how the Sinhala polity understands it. Sri Lanka expects the Tamils to meekly recognise the Sinhala supremacist order and passively reconcile themselves to the on-going structural genocide. For the Tamil nation, reconciliation means recognition of genocide and the right to collective and territorial self-rule.

The conflicting meanings of May 18 for the Tamils and Sinhalese express therefore the deep and entrenched ethnic conflict. Given this reality the international community can no longer afford to just demand reconciliation without making clear what reconciliation means. Do international actors think that the Tamils should silently reconcile themselves to structural genocide or do they want the Sinhalese to finally recognise and reconcile themselves to the Tamil nation’s right to exist and flourish on the island? International actors’ continued insistence on reconciliation, without elaborating what this might mean for Sinhala expectations of supremacy and the Tamils’ experience of genocide, facilitates Sinhala supremacist policies and thereby also fuels Tamil nationalist resistance. This dynamic, so evident on May 18 this year in the starkly contrasting acts of Sinhala triumphalist celebration and Tamil sombre mourning and remembrance, is certain to be visible again on May 18 2014; a reality that all who talk of reconciliation must now recognise and accept.

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