Rev. Jude Sutharshan Mahendren

Sri Lanka ended its civil war on the 18th May 2009. Reconciliation has been understood as a better way for living together in a divided world and post-war Sri Lanka is expected to work for sustainable reconciliation. In working for reconciliation, we need to work on the past wrongs, healing painful experiences and memory as well as designing a new future. Those who have traveled through pain and suffering need to deal with their dangerous memories in order to have trust in the process of reconciliation and hope in this life and for a world filled with peace and justice. Dealing with the past involves a difficult process of reconciliation but there is no detour around it. Victors may argue that reconciliation is not about the past but the future. However, looking at the past could make sense to victims and it helps them to construct a better future without the toxicity of the past. Allowing communities to look at their past grants those who live with despair hope. Therefore, the past should be remembered in the right way. Any attempt to ignore or hide or suppress the memories of the suffering mass cannot bring any good. It will only create animosity.

Mullivaaikaal memory

Mullivaaikaal has become a symbolic representation of the end of the armed struggle and a huge human carnage was created ‘to end terrorism’. At the tenth anniversary of Mullivaaikaal in 2019, representatives of the civil society organizations from the 8 districts of North and East provinces elected a 16-member team (2 from each district) to observe the Mullivaaikaal remembrance in an orderly manner. It was also decided that the local people of Mullivaaikaal must be given preference in conducting memorials. However, in 2019, after the Easter bombing etc., since some civil leaders feared to take up leadership, the clergy spontaneously came forward to continue the task without fail.

Obstruction of memory

On the night of the 13th of May 2021 news broke out about the disturbances caused to the priests who came to Mullivaaikaal for the memorial arrangements and the destruction of the peoples’ simple memorial and the disappearance of the newly prepared tablet which includes four resolutions adopted by those who gathered in Mullivaaikal in 2019 to commemorate the end of the war. It created shock waves everywhere. These actions showed that even a small cement structure in memory of Tamils cannot stand on this soil. While the victims of Easter bombings were allowed to have ceremonial memorials with the military security and former armed fighters from the Sinhala working classes were allowed to remember their brethren, the ethnic Tamils are not allowed to remember their fallen and disappeared persons in any peaceful manner. The attempts to control the memory of the people has created shock and a momentum of animosity rather than helping the people to come out of historical enmity. In the same region, there are many military memorials built and maintained very well, but the Tamil people are obstructed from remembering their dead and the disappeared.  Even their simple memorial structure has been destroyed.

Last year, May 18, 2020, in the Northern Province, there were Tamil political and civil groups that organized remembrance events in different places in a small scale as per the health advisory issued in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. These efforts were obstructed by the state with the law-and-order mechanisms of the country. Many politicians and activists, who organized memorial observances, had to face threats. 11 persons from a Tamil political party, who were active in organizing memorials, were given a quarantine order under the Covid-19 situation by a court in Jaffna, and the next day it was lifted on appeal. The government, on the other hand, celebrated the war victory day formally without any consideration about the Covid 19 advisory. I witness a clear dichotomy on social media, where few of my Sinhala Christian clergy friends posted greetings to the military for ‘the national victory over terrorism’ while my Tamil friends shared memories of ‘Tamil genocide’.

Request to humane society

Dealing genuinely with the painful memories of the past helps minimizing long-term inter-ethnic animosities and creates trust and hope. Religious and cultural practices associated with grieving are vital for the ‘healing of memories.’ Healed memories will not give room for revenge. Denial or obstructions on remembrance events in any form leads to disaster, destructive behavior and loss of hope. The military war memorials and glorified narratives around them pose a threat to reconciliation and coexistence. They reflect a particular history, which claims victory to the state and portrays others as terrorists. This narrative of victory is used as political investment.  On the other hand, Tamil people try to remember their dead and disappeared through their simple acts of memorialization. Tamils understand their memory of war both as individuals and as a collective. They have become aware of the importance of memory when it is systematically obstructed. Remembrance is a human right and the Tamils who suffered the war firmly upholds this view. Allowing people to remember their dead ones and the tragedy they faced as a community is a humane act. A country that nourishes a humane society should allow its people to remember and accept the past as it is.

If people are left behind with a sense of victimhood by continuing oppression, this sense can become a barrier to peace efforts. Repressed memories of suffering can create and sustain conflicts. Imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, murders, disappearance of family members, cruel deaths, seeing speared human bodies, humiliation, hardships, abuse, economic ban, hate speech, discrimination, legal sanction for evil, omnipotence of evildoers, use of people as human shields, conscription of children to the war, forcible recruitment, assassination of people who hold alternative political views – all these are kept in people’s deep memory and have the potential to reactivate conflicts even after many generations. Often in human history, the perpetrators never accept what they do is harmful; instead, they make their own narrative of victory and force others to accept it. During a context of suppression of painful memories, no one can create hope for meaningful reconciliation. The negative examples such as repression of memory live longer in the collective memory of the people. Therefore, actions against peaceful memorials generate mistrust, animosity and hopelessness in the deep consciousness of the Tamil people. In the meantime, it is important for humane society to condemn such negative drives and foster the forces of sustainable peace in the country.

Can Religions help us?

Since I am a student of Christianity, I render some interpretations from Christian sources in reflecting upon the question of memory and reconciliation. I humbly expect people of other religions to do the same drawing upon narratives from their own faiths. In Christianity, remembrance is a sacrament, a holy act in worship. During Eucharist/Holy Communion, we remember the suffering and death of Christ. It reminds us of the suffering of victims in front of the omnipotence of the evil and the importance of building a non-violent, peaceful society. Furthermore, in the Eucharist, we witness the second coming of Christ, which points to the hope for the final victory of the victims and redemption of the victimizers. It doesn’t mean that God covers all the injustices up, but God’s genuine love encourages all of us to ‘repent and forgive and reconcile’ among us. Christ’s way of doing justice is not merely retributive. Christ helps individuals with broken humanity to be cured. Christ will embrace both the victim and the victimizer at the end and help them to restore relationships. This is the genuine love of Christ for humanity. Therefore, our sacred remembrance in Eucharist plays a vital role reminding us of the above truth.

Christ on the cross identifies himself with victims and therefore we are called to listen to or at least allow the victims to cry for hope. That would slowly allow the victims to heal themselves. Christ healed Himself as well as he is helping his victimizers to be healed. It is hard to resonate with such eschatological/final hope of reconciliation amidst the pressing questions of the current historical reality. As Christians, we are called to witness and work for the eschatological/final hope and the final victory of the Good.

In the context of suppression of memory, creating obstacles to memorialization becomes a spiritual problem too. When you stop me from remembering, you make me fight with God. I fight with God with questions like ‘Why did this happen to me?’ ’How come God allowed this to me?’ ’Do I ignore the memories of my loved ones who were killed unjustly and/or made to disappear and so on?’. My desperate cry will demand God to act on behalf of the cry of the victim. God cries louder and it becomes our responsibility to listen to the cry of God for justice. If you recognize my pain and allow me to remember, find truth and find consolation, that action will be considered a clear sign towards reconciliation. 

On the day of May 18th,

  • We need to remember because we need to memorialize the memories of our loved ones.
  • We need to remember because we need to know the truth (at least) about our loved ones.
  • We need to remember because that is our duty to our loved ones. Remembering helps to re-member our loved ones.
  • We need to remember because our memory protects us.
  • We need to remember because victims’ memory serves as a shield that protect us from being exploited further.
  • We need to remember because our memories of a dehumanized past will guard all of us against future atrocities.
  • We need to remember because our memory can lead us all towards redemption. Those who do not remember the past are condemned to re-live it.
  • We need to remember because we cannot forget and no one can do it.

Therefore, it is the duty of the all the religious and humane society to work seriously towards making steady progress towards healing and reconciliation by recognizing the right of memory of the Tamils.