19 May 2016

The 18th of May 2009 and the battle over meaning

Thrishantha Nanayakkara once said ‘All wars have been fought twice; once in the battlefield and once down the alleys of memory’.  This is true.  The battle today is about remembrance.  It’s not just about commemoration but about meaning.  It’s about definitions.  It is about post-war language. 

The National Peace Council (NPC) issued a statement in 2014 with a nice line: ‘No wise country celebrates war victory after a civil war’.  Civil war, did they say?  Well, Pabalu Wijegoonawardane is not really responding to the NPC but he offers a valid observation: ‘ආ... දැන් අපේ එක සිවිල් වෝ එකක් ලු.... ඔසාමා බින් ලාර්ඩන් ට ගහපු එක 'වෝ ඔන් ටෙරර්' ලු... නඩුත් හාමුදුරුවන් ගෙ බඩුත් හාමුදුරුවන් ගෙ ලු...” (Alright, it seems that ours was a civil war…attacking Osama bin Laden was [part of] ‘the war on terror’… what this means is that things are defined as pleases the definer).


Whether the NPC likes it or not, whether the other NPC (Northern Provincial Council) likes it or not, whether those whose outcome preferences did not materialize like it or not, the 18th day of May, 2009 was historic.  

 It was a landmark moment in the history of the country and indeed the history of this century.  You can call what preceded a ‘civil war’ and that is up for debate mind you, but it would be hard to deny that what was defeated was terrorism and a terrorist organization. 


Now we can argue whether or not it is appropriate to mark that day with a show of military strength.  I, for one, believe that is silly.  However, in the politics of war-related language and literature, dismissing any celebration as a ‘celebration of war’ or a ‘celebration of killing’ or as ‘triumphalism’ is just that: political.  It is political and politically pernicious, because what that day signifies is not just the defeat of terrorism (a legitimate reason to celebrate, one can argue).


Sri Lanka did not suddenly transform into Paradise on the 18th of May, 2009, this is true. A lot of ugliness that ‘war’ had helped push to the margins of civic consciousness surfaced (naturally) once the blanket called battle was removed.  That too is a cause for celebration. And how was the right and space to celebrate such things was obtained? Why, by defeating the LTTE! Celebrate that!  


Of course there was much that was recovered that warrants celebration.  No more bombs.  Shouldn’t we cheer that?  No more fear for the fate of loved ones we say ‘bye’ to in the morning.  Cause for cheer?  No more wondering all day if when you get home you’ll received some bad news about a child or a parent or a friend.  Shouldn’t we be happy?  No more checkpoints, no more tension when traveling or when in crowded places.  No more having to wonder if every bag, briefcase, school satchel or even what looks like a lunch packet contains or is a bomb.  No more wondering if anyone around you is a suicide bomber.  The list goes on.


But what of those who are crying foul over people remembering and being glad about the military and political drive that gave us that day of relief? And what of the people they claim to represent?

Well, the likes of Wigneswaran, Sampanthan and the rest of the separatist core of the Tamil National Alliance, got their tongues unfettered did they not?  The democratic Tamil nationalist voice even if it prefers to utter chauvinistic and land-grabbing rhetoric have recovered voice.  How? Well, thanks to certain things that happened and which brought about ‘The 18th of May, 2009’.  They can be glad that their Tamil brethren are not being dragged hundreds of miles to provide a human shield for a bunch of thugs, can’t they?  And the children!  They aren’t being abducted and forcibly conscripted to kill and to die, are they?  They can be pleased that it is now possible for people to walk around without wondering if they would fall victim to a landmine.  The Tamil Nadu fishermen notwithstanding, the livelihoods of fisherfolk are now secured. 


There was none of this before May 18, 2009.  Thus there is cause for celebration, with or without caveat as dictated by political preferences. 


Of course if it were only about celebration and doing nothing about grievances (real) and aspirations (reasonable) or about real (as opposed to heavily politicized and therefore people-less) reconciliation, then it would certainly be a hollow exercise.  The hollowness notwithstanding, though, celebration is a right of those who believe there is just cause.  It can be belittled or vilified, as the NPC and the TNA and fellow travelers of politics that talked of talking to terrorists (read: submitting to terrorism) do, respectively, but commemoration there will be.  There’s thanksgiving that has little to do with political colors or personalities, some of it out of the limelight. 


Denying voice does not help.  The Tamils who wish to grieve or call for mourning have the right to do so.  By the same token anyone who believes that the 18th of May, 2009 brought relief, opened the space for democratization, greater freedoms and most of all allowed us to stop worrying about bombs and bullets, has every right to celebrate, one way or another.  


The children of this country are sleeping better now than they did before the 18th of May, 2009.  Parents are worrying less.  Sure, other nightmares and worries will trouble.  Sure, we cannot guarantee that there will be no more wars.  However, we do know that the 18th day of May in the year 2009 made a difference to all our lives. A positive difference, even if we may not have liked those who actually brought about that difference.  

This article was published in the Daily Mirror on May 19, 2016.  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene.
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