Photo courtesy of The Statesman

Maaveerar Naal, otherwise known as Heroes day, is celebrated on November 27 to remember those who lost their lives fighting for the LTTE. While this day has come to be a highly politicised one, what us as Sri Lankan citizens must remember is that ultimately it is a reminder of the loss of life because of war.

Memorialisation and reconciliation sound like heavy words. In Sri Lanka these words are sometimes synonymous with being “desha drohi”. To speak of the past, to speak of reconciliation, of transitional justice and the like is to err on the side of anti-nationalist Western propaganda, as a betrayal to the peace and harmony of the country.

Let’s put it like this now: “Let’s remember every Sri Lankan’s pain so we can empathise, forgive and make peace with one another”. That doesn’t sound too anti-Sri Lankan does it?

Memorialisation in essence is a process by which citizens of a nation can reflect, remember and reconcile with memories of the past. However today in Sri Lanka and across the globe memorialisation for reconciliation and healing, if not viewed as anti-nationalist, is implemented as a one-sided affair often controlled by the victor, the powerful.

At the national level, with government endorsement, memories of those we lost from the military are preserved, events of massacres committed by the LTTE have their remembrance days – such as the Aranthalawa massacre – and the victory of the war is impressed upon by war memorials. These war memorials also do a poor job of remembering a war that was fought between Sri Lankans – a war where Sri Lankans killed Sri Lankans. Some verge on the brink of being eyesores.

Background of terrorism

This year in September the remembrance of Lt. Col. Thileepan was banned, causing an uproar among diverse Sri Lankans; no, not just Tamils and not just in the North. While I cannot attest to the life and truth about Thileepan or what he stood for, what can be agreed by all of us is that the LTTE was one of many armed groups that came in to being in the 70s. Why? Because Tamil rights were being stripped away.

Tamils began to lose not just their language but also their jobs, employability and their right to education, and by the 80’s they began to lose their identity. Tamil women were persecuted for their adornments (pottus in particular) and everything was about to change. In 1983 the LTTE, which consisted of only around 100 members, carried out an ambush in Palali, taking the lives of 13 Sri Lankan soldiers. As tensions mounted between families and the government on where the bodies should be buried, emotions overflowed among the people. One cannot begin to imagine the pain that must have taken over the nation. As mobs took to the streets and violence erupted, instead of creating a path for justice and healing, the government led by J. R. Jayewardene allowed the massacre of scores of innocent Tamils, many who had never even heard of the LTTE. As the government continued to turn a blind eye, many young, innocent Tamil boys and girls were attacked and chased out of their homes, where the only safety they say they found was, “in the hands of the LTTE” (Voices of Peace, 2018). Some who had romanticised a life of serving the government ended up fighting for the LTTE for nearly three decades.

Since 1983 the LTTE grew exponentially to a force of 10,000 recruits, a majority of whom had no choice (Voices of Peace, 2018). Many were subject to the LTTE leadership’s ruthless recruitment procedures but many were also pushed by their own government and their fellow countrymen. Persecuted in their hometowns and exiled, those without money fled to the North. “We had no choice… If I had money, I would have left to London. The rich were able to leave…They could escape. The rich had a choice, but for the poor, joining the armed groups was the only way out. Ultimately, it was the poor who fought for the Tamils. I am one of those people…What would you have done?” (Storyteller, Voices of Peace, 2018)

No one can downplay the LTTE’s violent means and its complete disregard for human lives and rights. It is erroneous and conflated to believe that most Tamils sympathised with the LTTE. Even some who fought for the LTTE were victims of the system. There are many Sri Lankans, including Tamils, who have suffered in the hands of the LTTE. That is why the LTTE is a terrorist group. A government and its military however cannot, and should not, be measured by the same yardstick. Because they did it, it does not make it okay for us to retaliate in the same way. As citizens it is vital to understand that we shouldn’t justify a government’s actions or inactions to violence against innocent citizens of their country because a terrorist group is doing or has done the same.

Remembrance days

Memorialisation can take many forms. It can be private or public. It can take over a physical space or an emotional space. It can include archiving, storytelling, war memorials, monuments, museums, religious rituals and also commemorative ceremonies like a remembrance day. When it comes to remembrance days related to the LTTE, most often remembering the lives lost – the brothers, the sisters, the mothers, the fathers, the children – is too often conflated with justifying, heroizing and celebrating the LTTE and the atrocities committed. This happens from two sides: those who oppose the remembrance of lives lost on the side of the LTTE and those who promote the remembrances for the wrong reasons. The latter who fixate on the idea of heroes, their efforts are ultimately counterproductive and further strengthens the narrative held by the opposers who believe the LTTE should be given no place in the Sri Lankan memory. In fact it makes it harder for that mother, father, daughter or son who simply wants to remember their lost loved one. In the words of a former LTTE cadre, “Like the JVP has a day, they should allow us to remember our loved ones without making a big deal. Then eventually, in a few years people will not bother. If you tell us not to do it, we will want to do it more. It’s like telling a child not to touch something – then they want to do it more. It becomes a problem because it’s forbidden. What is worse is that Tamil and Sinhalese politicians use this issue to further their own political agendas.” (Storyteller, Voices of Peace, 2018). What needs to be remembered first, by both camps, is that the lives being remembered are Sri Lankan lives. Those in the North who light a lamp do so not because they justify atrocities committed but because they miss their loved ones. Because they want to remember them. Honour them.

The JVP who took up arms against the state have long been allowed to mourn their dead publicly in the Viru Samaruma, their dead never being labelled as terrorists. However, the dead of the North between 1983 to 2009 are called terrorists, even those elderly women and men who have never drawn a weapon but were killed by artillery fire. That has led to much confusion even when it comes to remembrance efforts of the lives lost in Mullivaikkal in May 2009. In 2017 some efforts were restricted by the police due to the misconception that all those being mourned were LTTE cadres. The reality is that many were stuck between a rock and a hard place. It is one thing to be attacked by a terrorist group but another to be attacked by your own government and its military.

Yes, with Maaveerar Naal the focus is on cadres who fought for the LTTE, and thus the hesitancy to allow for such a day can be understood. But we do remember our soldiers lost due to the 30-year long conflict. They might have all wielded weapons, shot at others and got shot at but first and foremost they were all human. If we are sincere about reconciling, if we are true to the words when we say “never again” we must comprehend that while there were two sides fighting a war, ultimately they all belonged to one motherland. They were all Sri Lankans. It is important that victims and perpetrators are remembered; defining the enemy is not an easy task because so often one man’s enemy can be another man’s hero. It is important that all sides affected by the 30 years of bloodshed are given a chance to remember and mourn. Remembrance days are a stark reminder of the avoidable loss of life due to war and compels us to ensure that it never happens again. It is vital that the three decades of war and the three decades before the onset of the war are enshrined in our memories including the Sinhala Only Act, the Citizenship Act, the burning of the Jaffna library, the Aranthawala massacre, the Central Bank bombings, Elephant Pass, Black July and so on, so we understand that there are always causes and consequences and make sure never to repeat the same mistakes. “If we close our eyes to the past, we remain blind to the present.” (President Richard Won Weiszacker, 1985).

As it stands today

Maaveerar Naal, as with the Rana Wiru Commemoration Day celebrated on the May 18, presents an opportunity for us to come together as a nation and remember the Sri Lankan lives lost due the long and bloody conflict. Both days, however, have been politically hijacked and used as tools to further divide us. The Rana Wiru Samarum Ulela dubbed as Victory Day and Maveerar Naal as Heroes Day makes it difficult to bring together the two sides that stood opposite each other on the battlefield. It makes it difficult for the nation to come together as one and remember the dead. Both days largely overlook the purpose of commemoration days, which is to remember the absolute cost of war – in Sri Lanka’s case the loss of lives. Unlike with independence day what we need to remember on May 18 is that we were not fighting a foreign invasion. It was not freedom from oppression. We were fighting our own flesh and blood. To call it a victory is to forget the beginnings of the war and to dehumanise and criminalise an entire Sri Lankan community.

In an interview in May 2020, Minister Namal Rajapakse stressed upon understanding the beginnings of the LTTE, he impressed upon the lack of representation for the Tamil community, the divisions that were exacerbated and politically motivated, the dangers of marginalising and discriminating Sri Lankan communities and people.

However today, by way of court orders and petitions that cite the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), the government has banned the commemoration of Maaveerar Naal and ordered the prohibition of any ceremonies, further marginalising a community that has long been made to feel like outsiders in their own country and carrying forward the same mistakes of our past. This attempt at erasure of history, of a people lost due to war, is a bid to deprive younger generations of the lessons that can be learnt. The government has missed the opportunity Maaveerar Naal presents – an opportunity to integrate a community, an opportunity for Sri Lankans to come together as one and remember the ultimate cost of war, an opportunity to reconcile, and a reminder for us citizens to never repeat the same cycles of violence again.

Those who fought for the LTTE, who we so wish we could just ignore and erase out of the memory of this  country, were also our own citizens. Many who died and are being remembered didn’t join the LTTE out of bloodlust or out of some demonic desire to get rid of innocent citizens. Many who joined, joined not out of choice but because their rights were being stripped away and they were left vulnerable. They joined because of poverty. They joined because they were forced out of their homes. They joined because their own government failed to protect them. While we should not be heroizing murderers, we should also not be demonising all LTTE cadres and their families. When the lamp is lit, we are forced to remember that just like us they have family too, loved ones they hoped to return home to. We are forced to remember they are human. We must remember their stories. We must remember the “why”. We must remember the loss of life. We must remember that they were all Sri Lankans. That way we can ensure we never force another Sri Lankan to take up arms against their own.

Let us remember together, as one nation, let us remember and heal.