What a nice Independence Day. Other post-war I-Days have been North Korean style military parades. This time it was a much more peaceful affair. The ceremony also featured something which Mahinda Rajapaksa should have done a long, long time ago. This year there was an official declaration of peace.
“Today our beloved nation is at a moment of unprecedented opportunity. Terrorism and violence have ended.
“The time and peace required for healing and building sustainable peace and security for all, is upon us. It is now for us to seize this opportunity to ensure the fruits of democracy and citizenship can be equitably enjoyed by all.
“As we commemorate the 67th Independence Day of our nation today, we pay our respects to all the citizens of this country, of all ethnicities and religions, who lost their lives due to the tragic conflict that affected this land for over three decades, and for all the victims of violence since Independence.
“On this solemn occasion we pledge to adopt consensual approaches through democratic means, to advance national interest, national reconciliation, justice and equality for all citizens. We shall do this in a spirit of tolerance, accommodation and compromise and uphold the unity and territorial integrity of the nation for the progress and development of our pluralistic society.
“We pledge to protect freedom and democracy, promote amity, cooperation between the diverse communities in this country, and at all times strive to walk the path of peace. We pledge our collective commitment to ensure that never again will we allow for this land to be traumatised by the shedding of blood of her citizens.” (news.lk)
Sri Lanka’s general policy towards people that died violently – from the JVP insurrections to the Eelam wars – was to basically ignore them. This is terrible, because it leaves their families utterly alone. We’re saying that their loved ones deaths didn’t matter and that we, as a nation, don’t really care.
In perhaps the worst example, Mahinda said that there were zero civilian casualties in the latter phases of the war. Zero is a silly number to quote because even one casualty makes you wrong. And there were many. I went to overflowing hospitals near the north and there were dead children that were definitely civilians.
You could say that the civilian casualties were proportional to the objective (ending a 30 years war) and that would hold up under international humanitarian law. Instead they just lied in a way that no one could believe. What Mahinda seemed to be saying was that everyone involved was a terrorist and that they didn’t matter.
After the war a few honest and compassionate words could have made him the leader of the whole country. Instead he just lied and hoped that the pain would go away.
That’s why this declaration of peace means so much. There is obviously more to do than just acknowledging loss, but you can’t really do anything until you do. That’s why this simple paying of respect is the foundation of a lasting reconciliation between the people of this island.
On a concrete level, the moves to re-open Jaffna to tourists, to start giving back military held land, to appoint civilian governors in the north and east, and to work with Tamil politicians are all positive signs. Continuing to give the military police powers is not, but this government is at least generally moving in the right direction.
They’re also making the right noises. This Declaration Of Peace is a simple thing, but it’s a very good step. It reaffirms their commitment to national unity and territorial integrity but makes clear that it’s not a unity imposed by military might. They’re talking about actual unity, based on a representative government that cares for all of its citizens, and mourns all of its dead. After so much war, it’s nice to finally have a Declaration Of Peace.