The debate over Victory Day versus Remembrance Day is surreal. Certainly, there should be a day of remembrance for all those who died in the war. The problem arises when it is confused with Victory Day and worse still the latter is renamed as Remembrance Day. Why should anyone’s feelings be hurt by the celebration of May 19th as Victory Day? It is the day on which the killing stopped, after 30 years. It is the day that peace dawned with the termination of the three decades war and the death of the man who commenced it – South Asia’s equivalent of Hitler. It is the day that peace prevailed over war and life triumphed over death.
It is the day that the legitimate armed forces of a legitimate democratic state won a war against a powerful terrorist, suicide-bombing militia which had assassinated more democratic political personalities than had any other terrorist movement anywhere on earth.
Is that not a victory worth celebrating by any universal human standards?
What kind of people would not find May 19th a day worthy of national celebration irrespective of ethnicity and religion? What kind of people would be sad about a day that the large scale killing finally stopped?
What kind of people would scrap such a Victory Day out of fear of offending anyone? Should anyone be anxious not to give offense to those who would be offended by the defeat of fascist terrorism?
How can Victory over fascism be commemorated instead as a common day of Remembrance in which the dead heroes who fought for the reunification of their country are remembered together with the fascists who slaughtered aged pilgrims in Anuradhapura 30 years ago?
How can one fail to commemorate the defeat of the forces of an evil terroristic totalitarianism, the worst of its sort seen in South Asia? What kind of people can fail to do so? How can one fail to commemorate the victory of the forces of comparative good over the forces of radical political Evil?
As for the argument that political reconciliation will be adversely affected by a celebration of May 19 as Victory Day, it must be pointed out that without Victory Day there would have been no elections in the North and no possibility of any political dialogue, still less reconciliation—just as Europe Day would not have been possible without V-E Day.
There have been many calls for postwar political reconciliation in this run-up to May 19th. They have been flawed, not for lack of nobility of motive, but for lack of recognition of the limits of the historically, politically and strategically possible.
Abraham Lincoln explained to Congress in his second address that given geography, there couldn’t be two nations in the USA. He wished to rule out the possibility of old Europe securing a beachhead in the US through a separated South. Lincoln was right. He was talking however, about a huge landmass, separated by an ocean from the seafaring European powers. Sri Lanka is a small island next door to South India from which invasions have occurred repeatedly, over millennia. We can afford to tolerate a claim of ‘two nations’ on this fairly small island, the only place on the planet with a large collective of Sinhala speakers, much less than Lincoln thought the USA could, given its geography.
When, for centuries, Britain thought that Scotland or Ireland would be manipulated by continental powers, be it the Catholic Church, France, or Germany, it maintained a tight pre-emptive or reactive grip.
Unlike Lincoln, we on this small island cannot afford a federal solution as a counter to secession or confederation. Geopolitics and geo-strategy determine that we must have a unitary state and can only concede devolution/autonomy within it. Yet these are not the only reasons. No country in which the peasantry is predominant, pressure on the land is likely, agriculture and irrigation cardinally important, and food security vital, can give any single province a veto over land, land utilization and irrigation. Such decisions must be taken with the entire island and the good of its entire people – the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’–as the overriding consideration.
This is why (as Mr. Bradman Weerakoon’s notes would show) at the All Parties Conference of 1990 to which I was a delegate, President Premadasa pronounced from the chair that “land is the patrimony of the whole people”.
Thus, contrary to the explicit invocation of Federalism by new US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Athul Keshap in a newspaper interview last June, by Prime Minister Modi to the Sri Lankan Parliament this year and President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in her Chelvanayakam lecture on April 25th, Sri Lanka cannot countenance a federal solution, be it de jure or de facto, as the basis of postwar political reconciliation.
There is another, more pressing factor—that of obtaining a two thirds majority in Parliament and winning a referendum. A shift from a unitary to a federal state or going qualitatively “beyond the 13th Amendment” is quite different from obtaining a consensus for a watered down 19th Amendment—and we know how grueling that proved to be. The reform of the Presidential system is a matter on which there had been a broad mainstream political consensus for decades. Going beyond the 13th Amendment towards federalism is a far more emotive affair.
Whatever the post-election parliamentary situation may prove to be, political reconciliation is feasible only on the basis of the avoidance of the need for a two thirds majority in Parliament and a referendum. In sum, the foundation and framework of political reconciliation remains what it always was since 1987: a negotiated reform of the existing politico-constitutional framework.