COLOMBO: In contrast to the past, public participation in the annual Great Heroes’ Day observances in memory of the dead cadres of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was noticeably high this year.

Reports from various parts of Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority Northern Province said that public participation was “unprecedented”, if one compared it with Great Heroes’ Day (Maaveerar Naal) observances since the end of the war in May 2009.

The Tamils of Sri Lanka’s Tamil-dominated Northern Province appeared to have come out of their shell, as it were, to boldly grieve the death on the battle field of thousands of their kith and kin in the 30-year war for an independent Tamil Eelam.

November 27 had been designated by the LTTE Supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran, as the day to commemorate his dead cadres.

This year, thousands of Tamils, not just the families of the dead, gathered at numerous public places to perform traditional memorial rituals.

Special rituals were conducted in Hindu temples and churches. Ornate memorial torches were lit at many places and people gathered around them to worship. Wherever the LTTE’s cemeteries existed earlier, people lit lamps at makeshift representations of graves and prayed in silence.

Yellow and saffron flags (representative of Sri Lankan Tamils) were hoisted, as propaganda songs of the LTTE blared from loud speakers.

For the first time, posters with a picture of Tiger chieftain Velupillai Prabhakaran were pasted on walls in several places. But the “Tiger flag” of the LTTE was noticeably absent, perhaps because it would have been too provocative to the Sri Lankan authorities.

Distinguishing Features

There were two distinguishing features of this year’s Maaveerar Naal observances: The organization of the observances was not in the hands of politicians. Politicos had been coming under flak for using the occasion only to further their narrow partisan interests. The organizers this time round were non-political persons, students and the families of the dead cadres.

The second distinguishing feature was the freedom with which people observed the occasion, which, earlier, had been treated by the Sri Lankan government as an anti-national act and banned. The Sri Lankan army, which has a huge presence in the Northern Province, was confined to the barracks. The police were there, but only to control the unprecedented traffic on the roads and not to stop people from performing their rituals or putting up flags and memorials.

Under the liberal regime of President Maihripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickemesinghe, Sri Lankan Tamils are able to mourn the war dead and even extol them as “heroes” instead of suppressing their sentiments. They could not do this when the Sinhalese nationalist, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was President between 2005 and December 2014.

Northern Province Chief Minister

The Northern Province Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran in a statement issued on Tuesday said: “ The Tamils have realized their strength, their power. They have awakened.”

He acknowledged changes for the better in the political climate in Sri Lanka after the advent of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime in January 2015. But he was quick to add that the Tamils are coming out now to express themselves also because they fear that if they do not express themselves in forceful and poignant ways, they may not secure their rights at all. The Sri Lankan government would take no notice of them and their demand for devolution of power.

The bold observance of Maaveerar Naal this year is a display of the Tamil people’s commitment to the cause of securing provincial autonomy if not an independent Eelam.

Stalling Betrayal

Wigneswaran further said that the Tamil people fear that present day Tamil leaders could betray them and settle for a diluted political arrangement. The high profile observance of the Maaveerar Naal is meant to convey to the Tamil leaders, in no uncertain terms, that they cannot abandon the Tamil cause for crumbs thrown to them by the powers-that-be in Colombo.

Given the efforts of hardliners in the majority Sinhalese community to scuttle the current Sri Lankan government’s efforts to change the constitution to accommodate the Tamils‘ demand for autonomy, the Tamils fear that their demand for provincial autonomy may not be met.

Repeated statements by President Sirisena that he will not go against Sinhalese-Buddhist hardliners led by the top echelons of the Buddhist clergy, have generated an apprehension that the government may renege from its election promise to give a fair political deal to the Tamils.

The Tamils feel betrayed also because they had voted en masse for Maithripala Sirisena in the Presidential election of January 8, 2015.

The government’s promise to the Tamils and the UN to punish perpetrators of human rights abuses during the war, remains unfulfilled. A credible Judicial Accountability Mechanism is yet to be set up. The Office of Missing Persons has not started to function yet. The draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act is yet to be replaced by an internationally accepted anti-terror law. And the army still occupies large tracts of land in the Northern Province.

The war-torn Northern Province does show signs of prosperity with shopping malls, leasing companies and banks doing brisk business. But the economic condition of the Tamil hoi polloi has not improved. There is a scarcity of jobs at the local level. There has been no move to encourage local entrepreneurship. Rural roads and infrastructure continue to be neglected though good highways have been built.

While the elected Provincial Council should be blamed for not showing any initiative to improve the economy and generate jobs for the poor and the middle class, the government in Colombo has also failed in its duty to promote development in the North. Whatever has been done in terms of infrastructural development and renewal, was done under the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government has allowed the Northern Province to languish where it was when Rajapaksa quit office on January 8, 2015.

International Community Disappoints

The Tamils, who were pinning their hopes on the international community represented by the UN and the Western democracies to nudge the Sri Lankan government to address war time accountability issues, now feel let down by the world.

They feel let down by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and other Tamil parties too. The general complaint is that Tamil politicians, like their Sinhalese counterparts in Colombo, have taken them for a ride.

It is frustration with the state of affairs that made the common Tamil man observe LTTE’s Heroes’ Day in a conspicuous way this year.

It is a pervasive sense of disappointment which led the Education Minister of the Northern Province, Dr.K.Sarveswaran, to refuse to hoist the Sri Lankan national flag at a school function.

Commenting on Dr.Sarveswaran’s act, Chief Minister Wigneswaran said that while he would not endorse the disrespectful act, and would have liked the minister to express his anger in a different way, he could understand the reasons for the minister’s frustration with the Sri Lankan State.