The Great Heroes Day (Maaverar Naal) observances this year in the Northern Province was notable, and perhaps path breaking too, in two ways: Firstly, a record number of people participated in the various events in public places including Hindu temples and churches. Secondly, the government allowed the observances to take place, though the State Minister of Defense Ruwan Wijewardene subsequently stated that participants would be arrested and prosecuted because they had memorialized “terrorists” belonging to the banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), writes P.K.Balachandran in Daily Mirror.
Opinion is divided on what these might mean. Those of the “nationalist” bent of mind, mostly in the majority Sinhala community, fear that these might rekindle the fires of militant, armed separatism thought to have been doused by the annihilation of the LTTE’s military machine. And they might stymie efforts to bring about Tamil-Sinhalese integration. But others see it as a welcome development because mass public grieving helps bring out suppressed emotions in a non-violent manner which tend to get expended over a period of time. Or it could take up a “routinized” and therefore harmless form over time.
Such observances held in the open, calm the mind, and given time, prepare it to accept the adversary in a new light without anger and vengeance.
The most fundamental thing about tragic events like death and bloody conflict is that their memory cannot be erased, as historical experience shows. As the Roman orator Cicero said: “The life of the dead consists in being present in the minds of the living.” This is why loved ones, famous statesman, wars and massacres have been memorialized down the ages. It would be cruel to deny a person or a people the right to remember and grieve.
As Radhika Hettiarachcchi put it in her monograph: “Memorialization and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka”, public memorialization acknowledges the sufferers’ or the victims’ personal loss. It assuages them by building a connection between people through empathy and fellowship.
However, Hettiarachchi adds that memorialization cannot be an end in itself. It has to be part of a multi-pronged and prolonged process aimed at reconciliation between adversaries involving deliverance of justice, psycho-social healing, reparations, and rehabilitation.
She very correctly points out out that memory is “subjective and fluid”. It examines, reinterprets, and addresses the issues of the past, thereby helping the formation of new identities. Therefore, with the passage of time, the Great Heroes’ Day observances may acquire new meanings especially if accompanied by a multi-dimensional reconciliation process.
Something like this may be happening in Sri Lanka with the establishment of the Good Governance regime of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prim Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2015. Admittednly, the two leaders have been consistently saying that “war heroes” would never be allowed to be hauled before international tribunals for alleged war crimes (rejecting the Tamils’ demand that should be). And the Tamils’ basic demands are yet to be addressed. But regime has undeniably been kindly in its approach to the Tamils and other minorities.
One of the signs of this was the blanket permission given to the Tamils to observe Great Heroes’ Day in the manner the Northern Tamils wanted.
This was not the case between 2009 and 2014 during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. After the war ended with the annihilation of the LTTE’s military machine and the North and the East of Sri Lanka in May 2009, observances of the Maaverar Naal, begun by the LTTE in 1989, ceased, because the government would not countenance them.
The government razed the LTTE’s memorials, monuments, offices and graveyards to the ground. Prabhakaran’s underground house, which became a tourist attraction for a while, was dynamited. The State did not want any symbolic rallying point for a revival of the Tiger cult.
A psychological variant of the systematic destruction of the vestiges of the separatist armed struggle was the “rehabilitation” of 12, 000 captured or surrendered LTTE cadres. The year-long rehabilitation process was meant to cleanse the minds of the cadres of all anti-Sri Lankan and ant-Sinhalese thoughts instilled by the LTTE.
On Great Heroes’ Day this year, the Sri Lankan army remained confined to the barracks and the police controlled traffic instead of preventing people from indulging in public grieving. They looked on as propaganda songs of the LLTE-era were brazenly played over loudspeakers and posters bearing pictures of the LTTE Supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran were put up in some places. Red and White colored flags of the Tamils, popularized by the LTTE, were hoisted everywhere. Churches and Hindu temples performed memorial rites without let or hindrance.
Northern Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran put it in his message on this year’s Maaveerar Naal, the Tamil people were getting increasingly restive and itching to show “commitment” to their cause and also their “collective power”.
They also wanted to warn Tamil politicians in parliament that they should not abandon the cause of provincial autonomy and meekly accept the crumbs thrown to them by the powers-that-be in Colombo.
The Great Heroes’ Day observances this year was part of a new series of agitations to press the government to meet its election promises to the Tamils who had supported the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine in the 2015 elections.
The students of Jaffna University were the first to show restiveness. The Tamil Peoples’ Council (TPC) headed by Chief Minister Wigneswaran held Eluga Tamil (Tamils Arise) rallies on the lines of the Pongu Tamil (Effervescent Tamils) of the LTTE. The large scale observance of Maaveerar Naal followed logically
True, the junior Minister of Defense, Ruwan Wijewardene, warned of punitive action. But the Tamils reacted in a calm and understanding manner instead of getting provoked. The Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C.V.Wigneswaran, lost no time in allaying fears of arrest with a statement saying that a government which had permitted the observances will not arrest participants.
He appealed to the Tamils to understand that Minister Wijewardene had to threaten to arrest participants in order to placate the Sinhalese majority in South Sri Lanka, the political constituency all Sinhalese leaders have to address.
Wigneswaran then went on to cite another example of how Sinhalese politicians, who are friendly to the Tamils, have made similar statements only to smother criticism in their principal constituency, the Sinhalese majority. President Maithripala Sirisena, he said, is a good and well-meaning Sinhalese leader wanting to address the grievances of the Tamils. But he too had to repeatedly and publicly assure the majority Sinhalese that he would not allow Sri Lankan soldiers (“war heroes” in the eyes of the majority community) to be hauled up before an international court for “war crimes” allegedly committed against the Tamils. But being a “Good Governance” government Sirisena had allowed observance Maaveerar Naal this year, Wigneswaran said.
Indications are that the Maaveerar Naal would be allowed in the coming years too. The rituals and other observances conducted peacefully like this year, might get routinized and lose their cutting edge over time. The Sinhalese majority could get used to it and take it in their stride as another Tamil ritual. And when it does become routinized and gets generally accepted, Maaveerar Naal could pave the way to ethnic reconciliation.
( The featured image at the top is that of a senior citizen of Jaffna paying homage at the symbolic grave of an LTTE cadre)