Colombo, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Reconciliation

Celebrating war victory and banning commemoration of dead civilians: this is “home grown & indigenous” reconciliation and freedom in Sri Lanka?

Today, 18th June 2010, has been declared a public holiday by the government. Many Sri Lankans, especially Sinhalese from the South are expected to respond enthusiastically to the government’s elaborate plans to celebrating the war victory over the LTTE. For several days, citizens in Colombo had to put up with closed roads in preparation. How much of our – citizens – tax payer’s money will be spent for this celebration is something I don’t know and dare not think.

Some media had highlighted on the fact that the General who led the war victory is likely to be in detention and not invited to celebrate the victory he led.

What seems to be forgotten, and what I do know for sure is that tens or hundreds of thousands of Tamils, particularly in the North, will not be celebrating this victory. Many of them infact, will be grieving and mourning for family members and friends killed, injured, missing and detained in during the course of the war, particularly the final months of the war.

However, now, even grieving and mourning appears to be criminalized in the newly “liberated” North.

On 17th May, amidst heavy showers and floods in Colombo (which had compelled the government to postpone the victory celebrations), I was with a group of friends, at an ecumenical (Christian) event to commemorate those killed in the war. As we were starting the event, I got a call from a good friend, a Catholic priest in Jaffna, who told me that he had got several threatening calls asking him to cancel a religious event he had organized in Jaffna to commemorate civilians killed in the war. In addition to the telephone calls, senior army officers had visited his office and asked him to cancel the event. He was in a dilemma – he was personally not keen to cancel the event, but was concerned about the safety of his staff and families due to participate in the event.

Later, I came to know that this was not an isolated incident and several other friends were subjected to similar threats.

On the same day, 17th May, Nallur Temple area in Jaffna, where an inter-religious event was being held to remember those killed in the war was held, was surrounded by the police and the army. The people who came to participate were threatened and told to go away. Those who insisted on going in they were asked to register their names and other details with the police. Many went away in fear and only few had participated. Later on, the army had questioned and threatened a priest who was involved in organizing the event. The priest was even summoned to Palaly military headquarters in Jaffna for questioning.

In Vanni, an army officer had told a villager that he will shoot a parish priest and drag him behind his jeep, because he (the priest) was organizing prayer services for those killed in the war. Another priest was prevented from celebrating a holy mass to pray for those killed in the war on 19th May in the Vanni.

So, it is clear the army doesn’t want Tamils to mourn and grieve for their loved ones killed during the war. The thinking appears that all these events are to commemorate the killing of LTTE leader Prabakaran. Or that May 17th – 19th is a victory day, and thus, no mourning should happen, and everyone should celebrate, even if your own mother or child or husband was killed.

This seems to be the official policy of the government, with the Minister of Media and Information reported as saying that Tamil people only have a privately commemorate their kith and kin killed privately and not publicly. (See

Of course the writing has been on the wall for some time. Ever since the end of war, I had seen many monuments built in the Vanni celebrating war victories and in honour of dead soldiers. At the same time, memorials for Tamil militants built by the LTTE have been destroyed, in the Vanni as well as in Jaffna, denying family members the opportunity to light a candle or lay a flower. At one such destroyed memorial site in Jaffna, army officers told me not to take photos since that place is now earmarked to be an army camp. I was not allowed to even get near another such well known memorial in Kopay, Jaffna.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t see a single memorial built to remember civilians killed in the war. A priest in Vanni who was trying to build a simple and small monument for civilians killed was warned by the army to stop building it.

Beyond a moral and ethical perspective, these incidents raise serious issues about freedom of assembly and freedom of religion.

Just a few days after some provisions of the emergency regulations, including restrictions on public processions and meetings were repealed, the military had prevented peaceful religious events from taking place and threatened organizers and participants.

The army had also curtailed religious freedom, despite freedom of religion being a right that cannot be restricted in any circumstances in the Sri Lankan constitution.

So, we Sri Lankans will have to live with a type of homegrown reconciliation in Sri Lanka that doesn’t allow its citizens, and especially families of those killed, to light a candle, lay a flower, say prayer to mourn and grieve.

We will have to live with an indigenous “liberation” and “freedom” which doesn’t include rights of religion and peaceful assembly to have religious events to commemorate family members and loved ones killed.