Commemorating May 19
May 19 was a day of commemoration in Sri Lanka—though we are not exactly sure what we were commemorating. For some of us, it was a day of remembrance, for others it was a day of victory, and for still others (e.g. in Mullativu) it was a day of mourning. Our inability to agree on the exact significance of such a nationally important day underlines the gulf that continues to exist between communities well into the sixth year of the end of the war.
What is the exact significance of May 19? Six year ago to the date, the Sri Lankan state was able—after 30 long years—to establish its authority through its entire territory. This is a significant achievement for any state and one would expect all citizens to rejoice. But how come not all Sri Lankans seem inclined to celebrate? How come there is variation in the degree of ownership shown towards achievements of the state? While it is easy to point fingers and accuse the holdouts of being disloyal, the fact that they fall neatly along ethnic lines (not just a random couple of misfits) suggests the problem is more about the state’s inability to win loyalty.
The loyalty to the state is generally formed around three elements. They are 1) its functional authority i.e. ability to project power over all its territory and enjoy a monopoly on legitimate use of force, 2) its administrative capacity i.e. degree of institutional capacity to deliver goods and services and to collect revenue, and 3) its political legitimacy i.e. the citizens’ belief/trust in the state’s right to rule. The events of May 19, 2009 only secured the state’s ability to project power throughout the territory i.e. first element above. Arguably, since then, the Sri Lankan state may also have advanced element two—administrative capacity—to some extent as well. But clearly, what it seemed to have failed to secure throughout its territory is political legitimacy. Though all citizens may submit to the Sri Lankan state’s authority and benefit from its administrative capacity, not all of them seem to find its authority legitimate. This, to a great extent, underpins the variation with which different Sri Lankan citizens regard the achievements of the state—as manifested on May 19.
This highlights the abysmal failure of Sri Lanka's post-war reconciliation process. A true nation-state entails the perfect coincidence of the territorial boundaries of a state with the cultural boundaries of a nation. But it is clear that our political leaders have failed to build an effective political roof over a unified ‘national’ cultural head. Instead they have found it more politically expedient to campaign along existing societal cleavages without trying to bridge between them. They have not made any attempts to establish an overarching ‘Sri Lankan’ identity, which supersedes our narrower group-based identities. Such narrow-minded politics of our leaders—simply aimed at furthering their petty political ambitions—has only ruptured the social fabric even further.
Though thousands upon thousands of average Sri Lankans were called upon to sacrifice their lives to create a unified ‘Sri Lanka’, none of our greedy politicians have shown any inclination to moderate their political ambitions even a tad, to give real meaning to that sacrifice. The contrasting emotions surrounding the commemoration of May 19 highlights this.