One war, many memories | Sunday Observer

One war, many memories

The battlefields of the Vanni, in May 2009, were the site of a military victory between state armed forces and the forces of an ethnic minority secessionist insurgent movement. Histories - scholarly, popular, apologetic and triumphal – are being written about the war that ended on May 18, 2009, with the overrunning of the final enclave held by the Liberation Tigers of Thamil Eelam.

Stories of valour are the inspiration of nations and communities, while stories of loss and defeat help in social reflection, community solidarity and revival. All wars have produced many such narratives.

Days of ‘remembrance’ are rituals that punctuate such narratives with their symbolism and public discourse - speeches, reflective commentaries and community recollections. Most importantly, such days are moments of emotional solidarity with those grieving human loss – Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and other citizens.

Last Friday, President Maithripala Sirisena, in his speech at the Remembrance Ceremony of the Armed Forces, emphasized both, the need for a nation’s military strength as well as the need that is expressly symbolised by the remembrance of this particular war – the need for inter-ethnic reconciliation after a war over inter-ethnic problems.

The ethics and political professionalism of a governmental leadership that directed the armed forces in the final years of this war may be questioned. After all, the Rajapaksa regime – while thriving on massive corruption partly benefiting from armaments – adopted a crude, simplistic strategy of ultra-nationalist ethnic mobilization that focused on the military defeat of the insurgency without any political management of the motivations of those Sri Lankan citizens active in the insurgency or who supported it. The resultant defeat of an insurgency fought by and supported by a section of the citizenry, while certainly being a heroic success for the Sri Lankan armed forces, is more a challenge to the nation as a whole rather than simply a ‘victory’.

That is why Remembrance Day is one of remembering the human sacrifice and bravery rather than a celebration of a victory.

For our men and women of the armed forces, police and civil defence, any battle successfully concluded – whether it is defensive or offensive – is a victory: a moment that celebrates sacrifice, bravery, professionalism, determination and commitment to duty. Such achievements are high points in their function as members of the institutions that defend the nation and its law and order.

For national leaderships and for society as a whole, a war is more than just the sum total of battles. It is, on one side, the failure of civilian politics in resolving the problem. On the other, it is complex task of managing society engaged in large scale violence of which the outcome must result in, at least, the groundwork for a peaceful future, hopefully not too constrained by the massive social and economic triage caused by the violence.

In the Sri Lankan case, the task is doubly difficult because it was an ‘internal war’ that pitted the state against a section of its own citizens – not just a handful of marginalized individuals, but a large social and political movement that represented an ethnic community, or a section of a community.

Today, the effort to bring together the ethnic communities on both sides after their militaristic mobilization during those final, bloody, years of war is an almost impossible challenge as compared with a situation of a negotiated end to the fighting. On both sides are ethnic communities harbouring enmities arising from immediate human loss, losses that are attributed, due to their ethno-nationalist mobilisation, to the rival ethnic community.

The minority community, whose insurgent secessionism was violently defeated without alternate remedy, lies distraught, demoralized, hugely incapacitated by military destruction, embittered. Many remain almost inanimate, unable to recover from the shock of loss of life and limb, and also lacking an alternate inspiration to the ethno-centric secessionism that motivated them. Some in their midst may even attempt to revive those old aspirations of ‘independence’. Others may indulge in opportunism and crime in desperation for survival.

Thanks, however, to the continuation of Sri Lankan democratic practices of elections and representative governance, many in the Tamil minority have seen the value of working within existing frameworks to re-establish social foundations for the future.

The majority community, meanwhile, has been misguided by the many propaganda misrepresentations of the ultra-nationalist mobilization during the Rajapaksa regime. This has served to worsen attitudes among the Sinhalese who have suffered from the secessionist insurgency, not just in terms of individual human loss but also economic hardship due to the stagnant economy. The social bitterness and fear arising from the war that permeates Sinhala society will also take time to fade.

The Northern Provincial Council, fractious though it may sound to those in the southern provinces, is a success in stable post-war governance – a success in representing Northern provincial needs and interests in an articulate manner that exploits civilian institutions to the maximum, thereby avoiding the failures that, at one time in the past, led to war. How the central government as well as the other provinces respond to the Northern Province will dictate the future success of devolution as the means for national unity and, genuine, nationwide prosperity.

If President Sirisena, as head of state, remembered the heroism and loss of the war, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s crucial meeting with political and social leaders of the Northern Province last week addressed the challenges of the post-war future.

Such parallel action is an essential ingredient of comprehensive political management. How quickly the National Unity coalition regime can pick up the tatters of a nation left behind by the Rajapaksa ‘government’ will be decided not just by the politicians but by all communities, community leaderships and by citizens eager to put the past behind and build the future.