Monuments and Reconciliation
Did the demolition of the monument to those who died in the war at the Jaffna University premises by authorities on January 8th serve the purpose of reconciliation among communities? After the destruction of the structure, the Chairman of the University Grants Commission, Professor Sampath Amaratunga stated that it was a hindrance to the peace among the North and South, asserting that the country needs peace memorials and not war memorials. Thus he seems to be of the view that the demolition serves the purpose of reconciliation.
In absolute terms or from a poetic perspective, the country needs peace monuments and not war memorials, which we lack. We have a war memorial near the parliament and many others erected by successive governments around the country, including in the North and the East, where the war was fought. We also have another set of war memorials built in the North by the Tamil community. But we have no peace monuments anywhere in the country due to the fact that we don’t enjoy real peace here. The absence of war does not necessarily mean that we have achieved peace. The very controversy over the monument at Jaffna University attests to this.
One cannot reject the highly sensitive fact that thousands of people in the North, as well as the South, lost their loved ones in the thirty-year long war. Despite relatives of the combatants on both sides endorsing or supporting the cause of those who laid down their lives in the war, the fact that their love towards the latter is something undeniable. Hence, they weep over their dead, pray for them, and want to have something in their memory.
Contrary to the arrogant contention that there is no ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, the three-decades-long war created a deep polarization among communities, even if there was no such a phenomenon previously. The sentiments that filled the minds of people in the South and North when a soldier or a LTTE cadre was killed during the war were diametrically opposite. Thus, when the guns were silenced in May 2019, two sections of the Sri Lankan society were seen constructing separate memorials for the two belligerent parties of the war.
We cannot build the nation and march forward without respecting each other’s sentiments. We would not be able to persuade a Northerner to salute the statue of General Denzil Kobbekaduwa erected in Vavuniya or a Southerner to light a candle at the foot of the Thileepan memorial in Jaffna. We would not be able to have a common memorial for all those who lost their lives in the war, as proposed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). But, if we are able to respect each other’s right to shed tears over our respective loved ones, that would be an initial step towards reconciliation.