Mullaitivu (Sri Lanka): It was 10.35 am when the women wearing black headbands began to wail. They hugged, cried, and consoled each other, after lighting a flame as a tribute to loved ones lost in the Sri Lankan civil war.
Some called out loudly to the departed, looking up at the sky as they did so. It was a high-pitched piercing cry, as at a funeral for someone who died just hours before.
But it has been 13 years since many of the Tamils standing in Sri Lanka’s Mullivaikkal village Wednesday lost their loved ones — husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, or sisters — in the war between the Sri Lankan army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who demanded an independent Tamil state in the north-eastern part of the country.
The bloody events of Mullivaikkal — in May 2009, tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were trapped and killed here — were part of the last leg of the offensive by the Sri Lankan military against the LTTE, concluding the nearly-three-decades-long civil war, which continued from 1983-2009.
Every year, on 18 May, Tamils gather in a large open space near the Vadduvakal Bridge here, to take part in a collective memorial, or Remembrance Day, for family members who disappeared or were killed during the war.
The gathering this year, of more than a 1,000 people, came after a gap of two years.
In 2019, the Easter bombings had led to a tense Remembrance Day, and the subsequent two years were clouded by Covid-19 protocols that prevented any public memorialisation.
Local residents said this gap gave miscreants the opportunity to destroy the small memorial built on the land — which portrays hands coming out of the sand, signifying the deaths witnessed in Mullivaikkal.
“I lost my son here, she lost her brother, he lost his son, she lost her son …,” said Ambalam Kanagayya, 61, pointing at his friends. The group of senior citizens had driven two-and-a-half hours from Kayts, at the northernmost tip of the island, to take part in the memorial.
This year, the memorial comes in the backdrop of the economic crisis that has engulfed the island nation, sparking protests against the Rajapaksa family at the head of the country’s government and leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The protests are seen to have brought in a hint of solidarity among different ethnic groups.
“The Tamils are sucked dry from years of difficulties, and it is only now the Sinhala people understand what that feels like,” said Kandasamy Thavabalan, a 67-year-old, also from Kayts district.
He was referring to the ‘GotaGoGama (Gotabaya go village)’ in Colombo, where protesters have staked out Galle Face in a bid to unseat President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “We gave our lives for survival, and people in the south are protesting to keep their lives the way it is.”
Eighty-four-year-old A. Yesudasan, who lived in London for 15 years but decided to move back to Sri Lanka four months ago, said the ‘GotaGoGama’ protests felt like “it was happening in some other country”.” He said he was part of the Tamil struggle, his son had been a soldier with the LTTE. “I am a proud Tamil, all the Tamil people are my people,” he said.
Former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was president during the events of Mullivaikkal, while Gotabaya oversaw the war as defence secretary.
The protests raging in the country’s south, observers feel, have provided a democratic space for people in the north, who have been under heavy militarisation for years, to express themselves. While Tamils are concentrated in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka, the country’s south is dominated by the majority Sinhalese population.
On Wednesday, member of parliament from Batticalao, Shanakiyan Rasamanickam, raised in parliament the issue of police in the district’s Gandhi Park allegedly asking Tamils to remove banners for 18 May.
“Memoralisation and remembrance are very important parts of healing in a country that has faced war,” he told ThePrint, adding that a trend to disrupt such proceedings should not continue and all citizens should have equal rights.
Peaceful memorials for those killed in the last stages of the war and in #Mullivaikkal are happening around the country, including at #GGG. However, Police in Batticaloa have tried to disrupt the event by asking for the banners to be removed. pic.twitter.com/DwGHmxUtmv
— Shanakiyan Rajaputhiran Rasamanickam (@ShanakiyanR) May 18, 2022
‘Rains every year after we light the lamp’
At the memorial event on Wednesday, families stood behind thin iron poles pitched into the sand.
A small pink plastic bag, containing camphor, hung from the poles. On the ground was a young thenai maram — a coconut seed that families would take back home to plant in their gardens. Priests from various churches across the northern provinces of Sri Lanka were also there to show their solidarity.
By 10.25 am, a group of young men sporting ‘May 18’ headbands, who had taken out a rally of 100 bikes from Kilonochchi town, had found their spots to light the memorial flame. Among them were K. Kartheepan, Y. Nimalan and T. Nivas, who were posing for selfies after the event.
“We were 13 or 14 years old when the war ended, even today I can see those images clearly in my mind,” said 27-year-old Kartheepan, who works as a carpenter.
Under trees, women served kanji made of rice, water, and salt.
“During the war, kanji was the only thing that kept us alive,” said V. Sulochana, who said her son had disappeared during the war. He had been 14 at the time. Dressed in a black saree, Sulochana, did not participate in lighting the fire, preferring to hang back and watch the proceedings. “Even if I fall down and die here today, it is ok,” she said, with a smile.
Around 12.30 pm, the rain — which had been falling in short bursts before — started beating down hard.
“Every year, it rains after we light the lamp,” said Nirmala Arulraj, who had come a day earlier to clean the memorial space with other men and women. Depending on who one asked, the rain was interpreted as “tears” for the departed, a “curse” on the oppressor, or “good fortune” for the families.
On the eve of Remembrance Day, the community gave a fresh coat of paint to the memorial, and pulled out weeds from the ground using rakes.
People discussed a report published in The Hindu on 13 May, which quoted Indian intelligence sources as saying that ex-LTTE members were “regrouping to launch attacks on the island”.
“Did you see that news report? I am sure it was purposefully timed to stop us from going through with the 18 May event,” said a young man, who didn’t want to be named. “At the end of the day, we are the ones who live here. These politicians will plant stories and our backs will break because of it.”
‘Acts of solidarity seasonal’
Also among those gathered at Mullaitivu Wednesday was 35-year-old Karikaalan, who was quietly painting the concrete mould of a palm (part of the memorial) with white paint. He said he had served in the LTTE for three years towards the end of the war, and now runs an NGO in the northern provinces.
Like many other Tamils, Karikaalan, too, referred to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was sworn in after Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation, as a “nari (fox)”. “He is like a political Chanakya, he will tell us one thing and not follow through,” he said. “Tamils have struggled for years, and nobody has ever supported us in the south.”
As news of a remembrance event at Galle Face in Colombo trickled in, Jaffna resident and researcher Anushani Alagarajah, who was part of Wednesday’s event in Mullivaikkal, tweeted:
“I don’t know who needs to hear this, but if you are serving kanji today but afraid to say the words Mullivaikkal or Tamil or war crimes or genocide, might as well not do it no?…”
She called for people to amplify events and voices from the north and east of Sri Lanka.
I don't know who needs to hear this, but if you are serving kanji today but afraid to say the words Mullivaaikkaal or Tamil or war crimes or genocide, might as well not do it no? Performative activism for relevancy doesn't get anyone any far (1/2)
— Anushani Alagarajah (@Nachchellai) May 18, 2022
“There is a huge polarisation and a deep sense of disappointment among many Tamils,” said human rights activist Ruki Fernando, who was in Mullivaikkal Wednesday. “People in Colombo are looking for gas, petrol and electricity, and here they are looking for their children and husbands. There is a huge difference.”
With the country in deep political turmoil, the Tamils in Mullivaikkal Tuesday seized the opportunity to confront security forces, who they felt were needlessly stopping vehicles and checking licences of those coming to the memorial site. The next day, ThePrint saw security forces hanging back and watching the proceedings from behind a large tree, but local residents did not complain of any interference.
Ahilan Kadirgamar, a senior lecturer at Jaffna University, traced back this change in attitude to the regime change in the south in 2015 when Maithripala Sirisena was elected as Sri Lanka’s President. Analysts at the time had thought it was the strong voter turnout among the Tamil and Muslim minority communities, which resented Rajapaksa and saw Sirisena as an alternative to the long-time leader, which had led to his win.
“The difference between the years 2014 and 2015 was like night and day, somehow the climate of fear had gone,” he said. “After the war, the Rajapaksas had kept the north heavily militarised, the room for independent protests was over. They eliminated dissent and kept the Tamil community silent,” he added.
But things did shift after 2015, “if you are talking about a democratic space, if space opens up in the south, it also opens up in the north”, he said.
“The bigger question here is, ideologically, what is happening? Are we still focused on saying ‘We are Tamils, they are Sinhalese?’ or should we use this space to rethink Tamil politics and self-reflection within the Tamil community?” he asked.
Colombo-based political analyst Dinidu de Alwis thinks “acts of solidarity are ‘seasonal’ and isolated”.
“There is an entire generation that has grown up thinking ‘their side’ is right. Sinhala kids in Sri Lanka wouldn’t know that the military had a habit of randomly killing groups of Tamil civilians, and Tamil kids growing up overseas have no idea that the LTTE would come into Sinhala villages and randomly massacre children,” he said.
“We do tend to highlight acts of solidarity at times like this because it makes us feel good, but we won’t really achieve true solidarity,” he said. “When the current generation eventually dies, we will just move on.”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)