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Sri Lanka: The memorial monument of monumental fallacy

Without genuine accountability for crimes against humanity took place during the war a monument will only be a waste of money. ( Image of grieving mother at a Tamil memorialisation 2023  by Sampath Samarakoon)
What sort of justice a monument in Colombo can serve for the people who have suffered decades of systematic and perpetuating injustices both in the North-East and in the South is a question that the Government should ask itself before spending several millions of Rupees on this monument.
The Cabinet of Ministers has granted approval to build a monument in Colombo to commemorate all civilians, including members of the armed forces and the Police as well as ex-combatants, who lost their lives in armed conflicts, political unrest or civil disturbances since the country’s Independence. According to Cabinet Spokesman Dr. Bandula Gunawardana, it has been understood that any type of conflict based on race, religion, caste or political opinion is unhealthy to the country’s journey to achieve development, and that is why the Government had felt that there is a need for a common memorial to be constructed to commemorate those victims.

 

While the concerns behind the Government’s decision are understandable, the Government has clearly failed to figure out what sort of solutions are needed to address those concerns. It is true that people of diverse ethno-religious backgrounds, political opinions, genders, traditional and cultural identities, and social strata were victims of the said incidents, and commemorating them is not an offence but also a right. However, when we look at history, especially the period following the end of the war in 2009, it is evident that more than taking tangible and effective solutions, what successive Governments focused on was commemorations, which have resulted in a plethora of issues remaining unaddressed to this day. In fact, even the commemorations that those Governments allowed were selective. When commemorations of members of the armed forces were held under the aegis of the Government, the commemoration of deceased Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militants was banned even when those commemorations were nothing more than remembering a deceased member of a family or a community.

Even as a symbol, the said monument is unlikely to have any considerable value or bring about any tangible change. According to the Government, the proposed monument is to be built within the Municipality of Colombo, which itself calls into question the extent to which minority communities, whose commemoration of loved ones has been frowned upon since the end of the war in 2009, would benefit from this monument. While the commemoration of deceased family members who happened to be LTTE militants has been restricted in the North and East for over a decade, they have no reason to believe that such commemoration would be allowed in Colombo. Quite recently, when such a commemoration was held near the Borella Cemetery, the severe opposition it faced could be the most recent example for it, while the past decade saw many incidents where law enforcement authorities took various measures including preemptive court orders to restrict similar commemorations in the North and East.

The Government must understand the simple reality that monuments have merely a symbolic value, and to those whose human rights, lives and dignity were severely affected by the said incidents, monuments are insignificant. In other words, a monument does not substantiate the much-demanded justice for war and other forms of alleged crimes and human rights violations, achieve reconciliation between people of diverse ethnic, religious and other forms of identities, and find effective and sustainable solutions to social and political issues. What the victims and their families demand are not monuments, but proper actions against perpetrators, adequate compensation for their suffering and steps to prevent the recurrence of the said incidents.

What sort of justice a monument in Colombo can serve for the people who have suffered decades of systematic and perpetuating injustices both in the North-East and in the South is a question that the Government should ask itself before spending several millions of Rupees on this monument. It should understand that even after the building of this monument, war crimes related allegations, forced disappearances in the South, the muzzling of journalists and activists, ethnic rifts between Sinhala and Tamil and Muslim communities, and international obligations to achieve reconciliation will still remain matters that the Government has to deal with.

Editorial. The Morning 25.05.2023

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