Illusory independence

“Under the current regime, with their urge for development the neglected Shrine is being erased. As its designer, I really don’t know what to say! I don’t know if I should say anything against what’s happening to the Memorial now, because it makes no sense as such; it was an orphan from its very beginning! The erasure of the Shrine is actually a process of enacting an abstract MONUMENT for our collective amnesia, and for our opposition mentality! I’d say that this – the presence of an absence/ the presence of an erasure – is a more pertinent monument for us in the South. If I have my way I’d imprison the broken narrative of the Shrine in a new memorial to commemorate the Shrine of the Innocents. We murdered thousands of innocent people for political reasons in this country; and then we built a memorial for them, and then we ‘murdered’ the memorial too.

A society bent on amnesia, and blinded by the chimera of consumerism needs no memorial to remember victims of its recent history; it only needs monuments for rulers, kings, politicians, heroes and vulgar consumerism.”

Jagath Weerasinghe, The Disappearance of the ‘Shrine’, 26 January 2012

Growing up in the 80’s, when the only choice in TV programming was how high the volume was set at, I enjoyed it when the family gathered around our Sony Trinitron to see the live broadcast of the Independence Day parade on the morning of the 4th. From the kitsch floats and disharmonious singing to the crooked lines of the marchpast, the parade was entertainment designed to appeal to the lowest common aesthetics of Sri Lankans. Any excuse for a holiday was welcome, and if as a child this included TV time in the morning, it was doubly exciting.

I’ve not watched or listened to any Independence Day parade live for over 15 years. In looking at a country critically and choosing to celebrate precisely that which is not represented in the parade, the pomp and pageantry gradually lost meaning, and interest quickly waned. During the war, under increasingly heavy security, the event became so exclusive that people tuned in not so much because they were patriotic, but out of a voyeurism to see a world that what if they wanted to in person, they could not. The customary Presidential address morphed into cheap theatrics of jingoism and falsetto fear mongering. The day became more about what a President and government wanted to say and do, rather than what Sri Lanka was and could be. Post-war, with the independence day celebration for the second year in a row taken out of Colombo, more people than before will enjoy a day of fun with family, in a carnivalesque atmosphere. The venue and form have changed, but what of the content? Does the day now celebrate a country more than the sum of its government?

Leading up to Independence Day this year, I was appalled to read Jagath Weerasinghe’s commentary on the destruction of his art installation in Embilipitya to commemorate the murder, abduction and disappearance of tens of thousands of Sinhalese children and youth in the South during the terrible years between 1988 and 1991. It is a period of violence largely forgotten today. Jagath’s piece on how the lack of political support for the monument contributed to its present fate is a study of the futility of meaningful remembrance in a partisan society and polity. The government destroyed LTTE cemeteries in the North to widespread support and cheers. It was seen as vital and necessary. The government is now destroying a monument in the South that was intended to serve as a check against forgetting a violent period in the South as, if not more bloody than the end of the war.  There is widespread silence. Is this how we see independence today?

So much of Sri Lanka today holds verdant promise. So many Sri Lankans, not unlike those featured online recently in filmmaker Kannan Arunasalam’s stunning Longing and Belonging series, are returning from the diaspora to help, as best they can, people in regions ravaged by war rebuild and recover. One sees more smiles today than during the war. And yet Independence Day continues to showcase only our hard power – the victory’s story of the vanquished. It’s a fairytale for adults too, enjoyed with the willing suspension of disbelief. It is a matter of public record that thousands of schools in Sri Lanka are at risk of closure, yet we are fine with an ever-growing tamasha. The country’s soft power – its literature, ideas, innovation, resilience, small science and grassroots entrepreneurship, inter alia – is not even remotely acknowledged, leave aside celebrated. Not unlike Jagath’s monument to what should never be forgotten but is today so callously erased, who and what is marginal, absent and silent on Independence Day define Sri Lanka far more than what is paraded and placed on pedestals.

Until the calibre of our independence is celebrated and measured not by bore, but by a self-assured remembrance how and where we failed as people, community, identity and country, we are shackled to a fiction of emancipation that will forever take us back, when so much of Sri Lanka today yearns to move forward.

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Published in The Nation on 5th February 2012.

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One thought on “Illusory independence

  1. Jeyamurugan says:

    when i was on the way to school-Jaffna Hindu College in 1984 ; on the top of old wall at the corner of the school gate, i saw the poster; It was a simple poster; it says – what: Missing , age : 36 ; Name : Independent Place: Sri lanka.

    What a meaningful message. Your story reminds me again and says the poster is still valid to publish .

    with Peace,
    Jeya Murugan
    International Civilian monitor,
    Mindanao , Phillippines.

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