Scores of people on Wednesday gathered in Mullivaikkal village, in Sri Lanka’s northern Mullaitivu district, to remember the tens of thousands of Tamil civilians who were brutally killed in the final stages of the civil war in May 2009, when the armed forces crushed the LTTE.
Simultaneously, dozens came together expressing solidarity in a rare public remembrance event in capital Colombo, at Galle Face, the ocean front where citizens’ groups are protesting for 40 days now, asking President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to quit over the economic crisis stifling the country.
Although small, the commemoration in Colombo assumed significance, amid sharp divisions in how the Sinhala-majority south and Tamil majority north perceive the civil war’s end.
While the UN has recorded at least 40,000 civilian deaths in the final stages of the war, many in the island’s south are yet to confront hard questions about the Sri Lankan military’s alleged human rights abuses at the time, that too targeting civilians reportedly directed to a ‘No fire zone’. Their popular narrative conflates the LTTE with Tamil civilians, hails soldiers as “heroes” for crushing the outfit, and celebrates the end of the war as the military’s “victory”.
The divide has starkly manifested in the war anniversaries observed since 2009 – with some citizens reliving the enormous pain of losing their loved ones, and others cheering Sri Lankan troops marching down the very same Galle Face promenade in “victory day” parades.
Today, the stretch in the international spotlight is for other reasons. Citizens, mainly Sinhalese, are mounting unprecedented resistance against the Rajapaksas, who they blame for the economic meltdown. The ruling clan, once revered for “defeating” the LTTE in war, is now widely detested. But President Gotabaya Rajapaksa seems determined to stay in office, despite other resignations including that of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who stepped down as Prime Minister on May 9.
In a ‘War heroes’ day message on Wednesday, President Gotabaya said there is “no doubt that various local, foreign groups and individuals are trying to use” the economic and political crisis “as a pretext to influence” national security. “We must defeat it together. Only then will the courageous war hero’s commitment to the country be preserved,” he said in a statement.
“Let us remember our Tamil brothers and sisters who died, or were forcibly disappeared on this day in Mullivaikkal,” said Fr. Jeewantha Peiris at the remembrance event at Galle Face, where participants drank kanji or porridge in coconut shells, as many Tamils did while living precariously amidst indiscriminate shelling. Participants made speeches in English, Tamil, and Sinhala, as they expressed solidarity with the victims and their families.
“This is a very significant moment, as some Sinhalese have also joined this event in solidarity with Tamil families in Mullivaikkal remembering those killed during the war. Conversations about how we address our troubled past, how we confront questions of justice and accountability are just beginning,” said lawyer Swasthika Arulingam.
Tamil lawmaker from Batticaloa Rasamanickam Shanakiyan termed the commemorative event in Colombo “a great leap” in reconciliation efforts.
“The memorial held at #GGG [Gota go gama or village] to commemorate the lives lost & families affected in #Mullivaikkal 13 yrs ago today is a great leap in the reconciliation efforts as it acknowledges the pain Tamils in Sri Lanka went through during the war.
We are hopeful about an equal and just future,” he said in a tweet on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Tamil families commemorated their loved ones in Mullivaikkal, offering flowers and lighting lamps in their memory. In the 13 years since the war ended, Tamils have frequently raised concerns over heightened surveillance and intimidation around memorial events. Last year, a plaque erected in Mullaitivu was found vandalised, while authorities bulldozed a memorial on the University of Jaffna campus.