The right to remember

Thursday, 25 November 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Memorialisation after a conflict is a contentious issue. In all wars, belligerents kill each other and often cause enormous misery and carnage. The narratives of heroes, victims, enemies, aggressors, defenders, rebels, terrorists, etc. are often relative and depend on individual, communal or national vantage points. Therefore even when conflicts have long ended, remembering those who died, served or were victims will naturally be contentious and often contested. However, reconciling such differences and bridging gaps that caused divisions that led to conflicts in the first place are an essential part of reconciliation.

Sri Lankans face such moments of contention each year. On 18 May when most of the south celebrate the ending of the conflict, with the recognition of the contribution made by the security forces in life and limb to keep the country from being divided, many on the Tamil side of the ethnic divide mark this day as a culmination of the civilian suffering, death and destruction that was caused during the final phase of the war, which by even the most conservative estimates is in the range of thousands of lives. 

Equally contentious is the remembrance of fallen LTTE cadres who are commemorated in November during the week that is called Mahaveerar Naal. Since 1989 the LTTE designated 27 November as ‘Heroes Day’ to commemorate its members who had perished in battle. By its own estimates that number was close to 30,000 by the end of the conflict in 2009.

Naturally, the commemoration of the LTTE, a designated terrorist organisation that committed many atrocities and caused great harm to civilians and the country is a painful matter. It is emotive not only for victims of LTTE violence but to a vast majority of the citizenry. However, it is also necessary to reach beyond the primal binaries and see opportunities to reconcile loss at a human level. 

A vast majority of LTTE cadres who died in battle were themselves victims of circumstances, born in the wrong time and place, and sometimes conscripted into the guerrilla force. Almost all of them belong to poorer segments of Tamil society, often joining the organisation as minors, whether by coercion or voluntarily at an age when under normal legal tenets they would not be considered to have agency to make such decisions. Whether misguided, coerced or joining a cause they believed to be just and worthy, all those who died on the LTTE side of the conflict were also Sri Lankan citizens, and more importantly part of greater humanity. It would be an act of cleansing for those who saw and continue to see them as mere terrorists and enemies to start seeing these people as human beings who also have loved ones they left behind.

Such reconciliation would not be a first for Sri Lankan society. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which was responsible for two bloody insurrections against democratically-elected governments also caused great human harm in their activities in 1971 and in the late 1980s. Yet today those who fought and died for that cause are commemorated by the party in April and November each year.

There is certainly justification in the argument that the commemoration each November should not be a glorification of the LTTE and its conduct. But there is also a good reason to allow loved ones to remember their dead, even if they did once hold membership in a terrorist organisation. Preventing such a primal human need will only create further dissent, anger and animosity among the communities. LTTE loyalists and followers around the world may choose the day to glorify the LTTE and keep the dream of a separate state alive. However, in Sri Lanka, most families of fallen cadres might only wish to remember their loved ones. 

Lighting a lamp, remembering the dead and commemorating their lives are fundamental human functions like breathing, eating and feeling. Denying that would be inhumane. As Sri Lankans, we need to reconcile with our bloody past. Showing compassion and humanity towards the suffering and loss of another, even those once considered enemies will be an important starting point in that process. It will make this country a better place for all of us.