On November 27th candles were lit in an unprecedented number of events, commemorating those who died taking up arms for the Tamil liberation struggle. The events, in locations across the North-East, were on a scale not seen since the armed conflict ended more than 6 years ago. Braving state reprisals, many honoured the memory of lives lost in daring acts of public remembrance. Many more though were forced to keep their remembrances secret. Yet, every lit flame and bowed head symbolised a deep resistance to Sri Lanka’s repeated attempts to quash the memory of the dead. It was a reminder that Tamils, wherever they are in the world will continue to remember the legacy of their heroes, especially in the Tamil homeland, the very soil where these thousands of men and women are embedded and the root of the struggle for liberation remains.
Though the change of government earlier this year has been hailed as opening up democratic space, Colombo made clear that any public Tamil commemoration of the dead would not be tolerated. Military presence had been increased, with the army offering to “ensure law and order is maintained” and twenty-seven Tamils detained the night before Maaveerar Naal. However, as demonstrated by the scale of events on Friday, the will to remember and resist could not be suppressed. Unlike in previous years, the Sri Lankan government was forced to ensure a rash military reaction did not follow. Eager to be accepted by the international community, it is acutely aware that it cannot unleash a violent crackdown or arrest all those who commemorated the day, for it would be repugnant to all the commitments of ‘good governance’ it has made. The fact that as Tamils lit candles, British Prime Minister David Cameron was discussing implementation of a UN Human Rights Council on accountability with Sri Lanka’s president, would not have gone amiss. US Ambassador Samantha Power’s visit to the North-East just days ago, signifying the importance given to the region and the ongoing scrutiny Sri Lanka faces, also ensured security forces had no choice but to remain reined in.
However, the announcement that security is to be withdrawn for the Northern Provincial Council is a stark reminder that on an island plagued by violence, such acts of defiance are not without consequence. Alongside attempts to stifle commemorations with military intimidation, such menacing acts are not only deplorable, but they undermine any confidence this government attempts to build in its liberal credentials. Those who mourned their war dead must not be criminalised or threatened for it.
Indeed, despite the Sri Lankan government’s much hailed change in tone towards the Tamils, its actions have done little to reflect it. The opening of an imposing military monument dedicated to Sri Lanka’s armed forces in the Vanni for example, was a move that served only to further Sinhala triumphalism. Unveiled just days before Maaveerar Naal, it explicitly dehumanised the very men and women the Tamil people were preparing to mourn. And in the former LTTE stronghold no less. Given the complete destruction of the thousands of graves of Tamil fighters, it was particularly callous, calculated to flaunt the dominance of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in the Tamil heartland.
Such moves shatter any confidence that beleaguered victims are meant to have in the state’s willingness to build a genuine reconciliation. Instead, these actions demonstrate the intransigence of Colombo’s leaders to challenge the fundamentally ethnocratic nature of the state. Whilst Sinhala Buddhist order remains undisputed and the lack of tangible reform in the North-East continues, seemingly progressive rhetoric alone will not be enough to power through the reforms the island so desperately needs. Sri Lanka will be judged by its actions, not its words.
Meanwhile, the North-East has displayed a strengthening of resolve, rising up in protests repeatedly; from demanding an international investigation into mass atrocities, to the release of Tamil political detainees. This sustained desire for freedom was witnessed last week with the tragic suicide of an 18 year old Tamil student. The death was all the more poignant as it occurred just before Maaveerar Naal, a day more than any other that the Tamil nation is acutely aware of how much each life lost means. As the nation joined hands to mourn its dead again this year, the devastating consequence of repression was once again brought to the fore. Yet, it is in remembering, with every candle lit and every prayer muttered, in public and private, that we resist that oppression. It remains an unchanging reality, encapsulated on Friday when Tamil youth laid upon the destroyed grave of a Tamil fighter - a gloriosa lily, a lamp and the flag of Tamil Eelam.