Two key events in the national life of our island republic took place this week. Both highlighted the soft fact and hardening perception that we are a people with often diametrically opposed views. First, at the beginning of the week, there was the avatar of Victory Day – or Remembrance Day, as it has been [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Choose how you should remember these days


Two key events in the national life of our island republic took place this week. Both highlighted the soft fact and hardening perception that we are a people with often diametrically opposed views. First, at the beginning of the week, there was the avatar of Victory Day – or Remembrance Day, as it has been renamed in this reincarnation of the time we mark the day the war ended. At the end of the week, unbeknownst to most and trumpeted by far less folks than heralded the war’s end, there was the old Republic Day.

V-Day or R-Day

On Tuesday, 19th May, many if not most Sri Lankans marked in some way the day the war ended. It had been a long, hard, and much-contested war. Long: The duration of which varied from 26 years (counting from the events of July 1983) in some estimates, to 37 years (reckoning from the declaration of Ceylon as a republic in May 1972; a contentious event that could have united but rather divided the people of the land through politics). Hard: In terms of cost in human lives, property and assets, national image and reputation, and development potential and opportunity to grow as a nation-state. Much-contested in that one demographic’s terrorist war is another polity’s liberation struggle.

So it is not much of a surprise that even after the war, nomenclature continues to divide people and their political parties and groupings.

On the one hand, the incumbent President and his coterie officially commemorated the event as ‘Remembrance Day’. Their rationale – and that of those they represented: the doves, the moderates, the hosts of democratic republicanism in general – was that it was more important to look back thoughtfully, and reflect meaningfully and sensitively, given the ravages of a decades-long conflict affecting all Sri Lankans of almost two generations. Those who attended the ceremony in Matara witnessed a spirit of gratitude for those who paid for the rest of the country’s peace with their lives. And the shifting of the spotlight away from glorifying war in any form or through the usual means of music, verse, and song in praise of so-called heroes.

On the other hand, the immediate past President and his cohorts unofficially celebrated the same event as the sixth ‘Victory Day’. The triumphalist raison d’etre – resonating with the sentiments of the war hawks, certain extremists, and armies of those supporting the previous authoritarian regime – was that it was imperative not to forget who won the war for us. Also be mindful of the machinations of conspiring enemies of the state. While putting on a pedestal some leaders in particular who led the charge against terrorism.

The present chief executive – who sees himself more as a chief servant than an executive – made constant reference to reconciliation as paramount, while holding the demands of development needs in tension with this paramountcy. As we had seen and heard on two occasions before – his Fourth of February speech, and his address to nation on the eve of 19A – Maithripala Sirisena’s speech was a head, hands, heart operation. We must think, feel, act Sri Lankan – together. That’s the strength of his appeal and the appeal of his strength. A plea in favour of pluralism. A fiat to eschew the polarization of people and parties and policies that have wracked our little island-republic for long enough.
The past commander-in-chief – widely hailed as one of the chief architects of the war effort and result – was to be found at the other end of the spectrum. His commemorative victory-day vigil dug up graves of the past and opened fresh wounds of fear and doubt. But even if the man of moments past did not rake the muck as much as his adulating compatriots who shared a stage with him that day, as in the past, the tone of his event was dulled by political one-upmanship. Where the timbre of such a commemoration could have risen above the level of the commonplace and petty, the complainingly partisan and cheaply political, the tenor descended into a litany of woes, fears, doubts. The spectre of separatism was summoned as if in a séance. Racism was a rogue element that was the skeleton at this feast of unreasonable conjuring of ghosts past. As if one deeply divisive and debilitating war was not enough for these warmongers that they craved more of the same rhetoric, at least.

That other R-Day

By the time Sri Lanka’s once much-vaunted but now hardly remembered Republican Day arrived, the battle lines had been drawn again. A week’s commentary on the rottenness of something old in the New Republic had soured the mood of a new beginning. And as the trumpeters of ‘victory’ and heralds of ‘remembering right’ girded their loins for a fresh conflict on political and ideological grounds, it seemed to yours truly that no one had elected to remember our Republic Day at all – leave alone remember it right. Even the morning’s newspapers on Friday, 22nd May, headlined the same drab and dull and dreary stalemate of ‘democratic republican’ versus ‘despotic regime’.

Be the political front as it may, the average citizen in this republic of ours continues to be confronted with a choice. Not so much which party or faction or coalition to vote for – though that’s vital when it comes down to the next polls – but which cultural and civilizational spirit to vote with your head, and hands, and heart, for. What will you choose to continue to commemorate, cherish, celebrate? A triumphalist victory which cost the nation so much and lost us an entire generation to pernicious conflict? Or a grateful end to all militaristic triumphalism and paranoid war- and fear-mongering that threatens the nation again, and the future of the next generation – to say nothing of your own?

By the way, this is a choice that you can make every day. It is up to you, not your elected representatives alone. So choose wisely how and what you will remember of the years gone by. Choose well.

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