I went to the place on May 18th around 10am, where we had the commemoration last year thinking that security would be eased and space given for people to commemorate the tragedy of May 18th. To my surprise there was no arrangement done and just a few who had braved the harassment were trying to fill in the low ground after it had rained the previous night. I asked them why people were not there to organise the event and they replied in chorus, ‘people are scared to contribute due to the recent abductions’. I had to join them organising the event though there were multiple events organised by various groups to mark the massacre. Youth, after my arrival, reluctantly came to prepare the event thinking that my priestly presence would give them security though I am not sure that’s the case. I recall that Fr. Frances Joseph who facilitated the surrender on 18th May 2009 disappeared, Fr. Praveen was arrested under PTA, and Fr. Jim Brown was abducted and killed. As in 2015 we had the intelligence groups photographing us and asking various questions from those who organised the religious observance.
A few security personnel provided security without our permission, reporting to headquarters about our movements. It took me a while to understand why the intimidation happened again and why people were prevented from reaching Mullivaikal where the wrecked ship is. Erecting a monument had to be done at last moment and I had to request some clergy and friends from the South to be with us in order to reduce the harassment. It was dark when we erected the monument and we had unwanted visitors immediately, who appeared in the vicinity asking queries about the monument. The three uninvited visitors took photos to report back on us.
Those who were deployed seemed to have had the details of everyone who was there. They already knew what I was planning that day. They also requested the local Gramma Sevaka official to provide all the details of those clergy who attend the religious observance in order to file an intelligence report.
‘Does collective remembrance of a troubled past impede reconciliation?’ is the debate taken forward by the International Centre for Transitional Justice in which Pablo de Grieff, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non recurrence, states that an ‘unacknowledged past breeds manipulation and fear’.
Seven years after the end of war, victims who undergo daily threats and harassment do not have space to mourn their dead but braved the monitoring, surveillance and intimidation to commemorate May 18th. The day was polarised as everything else. For the South it is a victory day and for the North and East a day that marks immense loss of lives though the numbers are contested.
Past abuses and crimes need to be acknowledged. The quest for justice is a path they victims will take however long it proves. Rawlinian justice is not even taken into account where the parity of power is highly polarised in Sri Lanka’s post-Mullivaikal history. The space for memory in the post-Mullivaikal world is dominated by the triumphant discourse, which deny space to an alternative narration making truth the looser. Men who perpetrated crimes at the expense of the lives of Tamil civilians are praised as heroes without realising that history will not forgive them.
The victory monuments erected along the A9 road and inside the former war zone promote the justification of the killing of civilians trapped in ‘No Fire Zone’ declared by the GoSL. The holocaust, the Rwandan genocide and the Bosnian genocide are commemorated annually and these commemorations help the victims rewrite history and give space for victims to have their stories expressed as they endured untold suffering in the 21st century. Similarly in Sri Lanka the UN failed to protect when the GoSL refused to protect its own citizens.
The ‘memory entrepreneurs’ are the victors who have their own project of building a collective memory. It is crucial to understand who articulates the collective memory project in a given time and space so as to understand what motivates them and what they do to try and achieve their aims by erecting victory monuments in the former war zones. They promote triumphalism, exuberant about the defeat of the Tamil people and paint our struggle as terrorism.
Remembering is not only re-writing history from a victim-centric perspective as opposed to a triumphalist construct but deconstructing the tainted picture, to gain a ground where victims articulate the truth as they witnessed it in order to pursue justice, to regain their dignity and individual and collective identity that was shattered due to torture and so called “rehabilitation”.
The debate goes back and forth between these binaries of triumphalism and defeat. Mobilisation of commemoration in the pursuit of justice and truth needs to be endured individually and collectively. Shrinking space for commemoration of the victims even seven years after the end of war is a manifestation of the state’s denial of atrocities. It is monopolizing the space of commemoration with its unitary narrative and doesn’t want to move forward.
Erecting the first monument at Mullivaikal is the beginning of the rewriting the history by the victims.
Resisting the state’s version of truth is another struggle victims wage; there should be space for victims’ narratives that help in constructing truth and eventually historical memory. Historical memory is collective. The monument portrays the suffering and perhaps more importantly the struggle people endured for their rights and hegemonic resistance.
Today victims still need to struggle to remember their dead ones in spite of intimidation and surveillance. Why would there be extra deployment of military, police and other intelligence services on the day of mourning. The previous regime did the same and the current has not changed. On the verge of national consultations if people have no space for memorialisation, how would there be a space for free expression of what people need in terms of a justice mechanism. Civil societies especially from the North and East have already raised concern over the process of transitional justice and the content of the offices being set up without the participation of victims and organisations that are working with the victims. They are worried that the transitional justice project itself has been hijacked and led by the state, divorced from the victims.