The sixth anniversary of the final defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the watery graves at Nanthikadal lagoon was the first held without the architect of that victory, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, being at the helm of the nation – and it was a different event.
Previously, the anniversary had been celebrated on a grand scale and the emphasis had been on the defeat of the LTTE, leading to accusations of triumphalism being leveled against the government. The Rajapaksa regime though was keen to toe that line, being aware of its political advantages.
This year, there was still a show of military strength at the event held in Matara but that was followed by a more somber ceremony in Colombo. In addressing these events, President Maithripala Sirisena noted that reconciliation over the past six years has not been as successful as the war effort.
Rajapaksa, uninvited for these, although former President Chandrika Kumaratunga was an invitee at Matara, staged his own commemoration at Vihara Maha Devi Park in Colombo, where he paid homage to the fallen heroes of the war and pledged to protect the nation he liberated from terrorism.
In all the discussions that ensued in the run up to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and in all the deliberations that are now taking place regarding the 20th Amendment, the ethnic issue which blighted the country for thirty years, has been put on the backburner
In the North, Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran led ceremonies at Vellamullivaikkal, one of the final battlefields of the war. The former Supreme Court Judge was, in effect, defying a court order that banned ceremonies honoring the LTTE dead. He maintains it was only a commemoration.
All these events are a reflection of the current political culture in the country which is struggling to come to terms with what exactly it should do with its newly won freedom after being delivered from the scourge of terrorism. As May 19 demonstrated, the nation is still confused about it.
It will be recalled that soon after President Sirisena’s election victory, social media was buzzing with colored maps of the proposed Eelam and the electorates won by him which looked somewhat similar. The implied suggestion was that the new President had won through votes from ‘Eelamists’.
Rajapaksa added further fuel to the fire when he appeared at his Tangalle residence and said that he had lost because of ‘Eelam’ votes. It was true that the North and East voted overwhelmingly against him as they did in 2005 and 2010. Yet, he lost because of a palpable swing against him in the South.
Defeated but defiant, Rajapaksa is in the throes of attempting a comeback. He faces the daunting prospect of convincing the new leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that he should be accommodated yet again. An alternative looking increasingly likely is for him to contest separately.
When the others attending Rajapaksa’s commemoration ceremonies at Vihara Maha Devi Park are considered in this context, it makes more sense: those who gathered with him that day are also those who are disgruntled with President Sirisena and want Rajapaksa returned to power once again.
Rajapaksa is therefore persisting with the strategy that won him two presidential elections and lost the third: appealing to the more nationalistic sentiments of the majority community. The danger is that the thin dividing line between nationalism and inflammatory racism could be breached quite easily.
The same applies for Chief Minister Wigneswaran and the more rebellious elements within his party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). It is widely acknowledged that the TNA is a diverse alliance. Its leader R. Sampanthan is considered to be a moderate among the TNA leaders.
While Wigneswaran did acknowledge that the new government in Colombo was more reconciliatory, suggesting that working with it was a possibility, his deeds appear to pander to the more militant sections of his party who are demanding instant justice, resettlement and rehabilitation.
President Sirisena has made conciliatory gestures – such as replacing the Governor of the Northern Province – but more needs to be done to bridge the trust deficit between communities. And, with chaos in Parliament where the opposition has greater numbers, nothing decisive will get done.
It is no wonder then that, in all the discussions that ensued in the run up to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and in all the deliberations that are now taking place regarding the 20th Amendment, the ethnic issue which blighted the country for thirty years has been put on the backburner.
Political parties and their respective leaderships would also do well to realize that these issues will emerge at the general election campaign but more as political rhetoric for parties to score brownie points with the voters rather than as realistic long-term solutions.
Therefore, any meaningful debate over ethnic issues will have to await the conclusion of the general election, but until then, Sri Lankans are likely to be treated to a lot of verbal saber-rattling by politicians of all communities pretending to be saviors of their race.