Reconciliation, is it only a pipe dream? | Sunday Observer

Reconciliation, is it only a pipe dream?

Last week the country ‘commemorated’ the end of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) but if anything, these commemorations clearly demonstrated that while the war against terrorism may have been won, the nation has clearly lost the ‘peace’.

The commemorations were steeped in controversy. The day that signalled the end of the war- and the day that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s body was discovered in its watery grave at Nandikadal- was remembered at state level with President Maithripala Sirisena attending a military style ceremony at the war heroes’ memorial in Battaramulla.

However, similar ceremonies were held in the North, remembering those who died fighting for the LTTE- and this came in for a lot of flak in the South with the Government being blamed for not clamping down on these events.

Minister Rajitha Senaratne created a further headache for the government. The loquacious Cabinet spokesman, addressing a media briefing rose to the bait offered by a journalist and, in one of his less lucid moments, asked what was wrong with families in the North commemorating their loved ones. However, in doing so, Senaratne referred to Prabhakaran as ‘Mr. Prabhakaran’ and asked whether there was any difference between the LTTE leader and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna leader Rohana Wijeweera.

That is indeed a moot point. Both, Wijeweera and Prabhakaran led armed movements against legitimately elected Governments of Sri Lanka. Both caused the deaths of thousands of civilians, killed for no reason. Their difference was in the scale of their activities and the causes they fought for.

Prabhakaran operated on an international scale, his war was more sophisticated, it lasted three decades and he fought for a separate state. Wijeweera’s campaign was local, he spearheaded two relatively short insurrections and he fought to create the classical socialist revolution.

Are they different or are they, as Senaratne says, the same? After all, we haven’t heard anyone objecting to Wijeweera being referred to as Comrade Wijeweera, have we? We can argue about this till the cows come home and yet disagree.

Still, this debate led to a lot of vitriol coming Senaratne’s way. Social media exploded with ‘patriots’ making their contributions to condemn Senaratne. Senaratne does have a habit of opening his mouth and putting both his feet firmly in and we are not defending him in any way but here was a clear demonstration that the war may have ended nine years ago, but the country’s ethnic divide is as wide as ever.

It will be recalled that in the days of the previous Government headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa, May 19 was not commemorated; instead, it was ‘celebrated’ as ‘Victory Day’. That was a clear signal to triumphalism, where the majority community was in effect doing a ‘victory lap’ at the expense of the minority community. Needless to say, it didn’t help the cause of reconciliation.

With the change of Presidents and change of Government in early 2015, that too changed. Instead of celebrating May 19 as ‘Victory Day’, it was to be commemorated as ‘Remembrance Day’. This was in keeping with the new Government’s stated policy of reconciliation, in much the same way that it allowed the Tamil version of the National Anthem to be sung at Independence Day celebrations.

If that was all about winning the hearts and minds of the minorities and promoting reconciliation, it is a strategy that has clearly not been successful. The ‘patriots’ in the South have yet to get rid of their ‘we are superior because we won the war’ mentality. Similarly, there is still much anger, hatred and a yearning for Eelam simmering in the North.

Therefore, when there is some provocation, the protestors come out of the woodwork. It happened when Sri Lanka’s Defence Attaché in London made an inappropriate ‘throat slitting’ gesture at protesting LTTE sympathisers: social media was awash with those rising to his defence, although his conduct was clearly unbecoming of his designation. Come May 19, these ‘patriots’ were back in action again. As always, there are politicians waiting to take advantage. In the South there is the Joint Opposition (JO) led by the Rajapaksas which believes that majoritarian patriotism will be what seals the deal in its quest to return to power. In the North, there is Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran who never fails to take the chance to promote the separatist agenda. As long as these political forces are there to fan the flames of communal hatred, reconciliation in Sri Lanka will be a pipe dream.

That is not to belittle the achievement of defeating the LTTE. We can, and must, hold our heads high that we are one of the few countries in the world which have been successful in defeating terrorism. And, if anyone is still in doubt, Velupillai Prabhakaran is indeed a terrorist who presided over the killings of hundreds of thousands of innocent people- a significant proportion of whom were Tamils. We can, therefore, be justifiably proud that the Sri Lankan Armed Forces were able to defeat what was then the most ruthless terrorist organisation in the world.

Where those ‘patriots’ in the South err, however, is when this metamorphoses into triumphalism against the entire Tamil community - which lost more, if not as much, because of the LTTE. Those in the North still stoking the fires of separatism also err, when they re-ignite the Eelam dream for a generation that is only beginning to experience life without a war.

The controversy generated last week over the commemoration of the war dead is confirmation that we are only paying lip service to reconciliation: it hasn’t reached the hearts and minds of the masses. Come 2020, it will be time for national elections and you can bet your vote that communal politics will hold sway yet again and the rhetoric will only escalate.

It is a frightening prospect. After a war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives you would expect Sri Lankans of all communities to appreciate that communal harmony and co-existence would be better than internecine ethnic warfare. But then, as someone once famously said, if the lessons from history are not learnt, history has this habit of repeating itself.