by Shalomi Daniel

Mullivaikkal Memorial

The right to life, the right to be treated equally, the freedom to express oneself, and especially since the onset of the pandemic, the right to quality healthcare are all rights and freedoms that are part and parcel of quotidian vocabulary. However, one right that is perhaps less discussed and yet equally important, and even sacred, is the right to remember.

The right to remember one’s departed loved ones; the freedom to engage in religious rites and observances in their memory; the yearning to collectively memorialize those who have gone before us, is an intrinsic right and something very close to the human heart. It may not always be articulated as a right and may not even be found in domestic lawbooks. However, remembering the dead has been part of human life since its genesis, a thread that weaves together the past and the present, stretching out into the afterlife. The yearning to remember those who have left us, the almost reflex tendency to honour the memory of the dead, is part of what it means to be human.

Memorialisation can come in many different forms, shapes and sizes. They can range from towering monuments to a humble shrine in the house, from a community vigil to a tree planted in memory of the dead. The right to remember and mourn those they have lost, enable the grieving loved ones, to find closure, to find healing and to keep moving forward in their lives. In a post-conflict context, amidst competing narratives and raw wounds, memorialisation has the power to be a soothing balm – to acknowledge each other’s griefs, respect the other’s loss, and honour the memory of the dead.

As Aristotle said, human beings are by nature, social animals. We tend to crave community and companionship. This is especially so in South Asian cultures, where celebrations and mourning are done in community – hardly in isolation. It is not in the least unusual for family, friends and neighbours to come together either in preparing for a celebration, or in providing comfort and support in mourning. Therefore, community memorialisation efforts are not only a basic right, they are also part of the South Asian DNA. Hence, especially in a post-conflict era, where communities hold shared memories and experiences, it is natural for communities to want to come together to remember those who have died and been disappeared.

For Tamils in Sri Lanka, especially those whose loved ones were either killed or disappeared during the course of the three decade war, and especially at the latter stages of the war in May 2009, exercising this right, has been fraught with controversy. Since May 2009, Tamils especially in the North and East of Sri Lanka have been facing mounting challenges to remember their dear departed. Every year, as they anticipate an opportunity to remember and memorialize, they are often met with opposition, surveillance and hostility.

Many confuse memorialisation with accountability and blame. Many conflate the cause of the conflict, and the conflict itself, with the right of the individual, family and community, to remember their loved ones. What many forget is, that for these families, it is the death of a son or a daughter, a husband or a sister, a parent or a grandchild, that they mourn. A day to remember them, to offer prayers and blessings, to honour their memory, are therefore essential for these families to heal and to move forward. Denying them this, is to deny one of the most basic human needs, let alone human rights.

A candle vigil in memory of the war dead

The right to remember, has now become the struggle to remember. Much opposition has been mounted since 2009 against the Tamils’ right to remember. This trend continues, and has in fact been exacerbated with the onset of the pandemic. In May 2020, law enforcement officials obtained court orders to prevent the memorialisation efforts in the North and East under the guise of public health concerns. While the order was later revoked, the attempt to prevent memorialisation was a stark reminder that the right to remember continues to be under siege.

In contrast however, ‘war heroes’ day was commemorated in May 2020 by state officials in memory of the armed forces personnel who lost their lives in the war, with no attempts being made to curtail the event under the guise of pandemic regulations.

Since the conclusion of the war in May 2009, grieving families have been engaged in several battles of a different nature – the battle to remember; to memorialize. From being prohibited in 2017 from holding remembrance events at a place of their choosing and being dictated as to where such events may be held, to memorial monuments and plaques being destroyed overnight in 2021, the basic right to remember the dead continues to be an uphill struggle.

The most recent attempt at curbing such memorial events was in May 2021. On 12th May 2021, a mere six days prior to the ‘Mullivaikkal remembrance day’ yet another memorial in Mullaitivu, was found vandalised, and a new memorial plaque that was to be erected the following day, was nowhere to be found. One of the monuments, a pair of outstretched hands, lay helplessly on the soil, as though endeavouring to grasp the basic right to remember that continues to remain out of reach. Several attempts were made by the police once more to obtain court orders prohibiting any memorial events. Despite this, a court order was obtained allowing the families to remember their dead. However, on the night of 17th May 2021, three police divisions in the Mullaitivu district were isolated on the grounds of curbing the spread of COVID-19.

Successive governments have also repeatedly mounted opposition to ‘Maveerar day’ commemorations – the day on which families in the North and East remember their fallen who were part of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE). Governments have argued that allowing such memorialisation would revive the LTTE, and pose a threat to national security. However, for the families of the young boys and girls who died, it is a day to remember the vacant place at the dinner table, the missing face at family gatherings, the memories of someone they loved and cherished.

In contrast, members of the Janatha Vimukthi Perumuna, a leftist party in Sri Lanka, to which youth insurrections in the 1970s and 1980s are attributed, were able to remember their fallen comrades. Though the insurrections saw innocent blood being brutally shed on both sides; yet another dark period in Sri Lankan history characterised by enforced disappearances, torture, killings and political upheaval, the right to remember those who died in furtherance of their cause, was honoured in this instance. Memorials in memory of the youth who lost their lives in the insurrections are common in State Universities across the country.

Why two different approaches to the same issue, one may ask. It is a question that has remained unanswered for decades, one may respond. For years to come, generations of Sri Lankans may continue to debate the finer points of politics, of historical grievances, of rights and wrongs, of who threw the first stone. However, for the families of the dead and the disappeared, their grief unassuaged, their wish is quite simple – to remember those they love.

Shalomi Daniel is a lawyer practising in Sri Lanka.