November is the month of the annual Tamil Eelam Remembrance Day. During this month Eelam Tamils across the world hold events to remember and honour those who have sacrificed their lives for the Tamil struggle. The annual Remembrance Day events have become an important expression of the continued existence and strength of the Tamil Eelam national identity.
Remembrance Day events are an important part of the national identities of many countries. The Tamil Eelam national Remembrance Day falls in the same month as Britain’s annual Remembrance Day. In Britain, as in many other Allied and Commonwealth countries November 11, the anniversary of the formal Armistice that ended WW1, is marked as an annual Remembrance Day.
The most visible and memorable symbol of remembrance of these events is the red poppy which evokes the fields of poppies in which soldiers of WW1 lay buried. Although Remembrance Day traditions emerged in the wake of the enormous losses of WW1, November 11 is used to remember and commemorate the sacrifices made by British and Commonwealth armed services personnel in all subsequent conflicts.
Similarly for us November 27, the anniversary of the death of one Tamil militant is used to commemorate all those who given their lives in the struggle to secure freedom and justice for the Tamil people. The Tamil nation’s Remembrance Day events are moments for sober and dignified reflection and commemoration.
Remembering our dead on November 27 maintains continuity with the past and ensures that present and future generations live in remembrance of the sacrifices that were made on their behalf.
Ernst Renan, the nineteenth century French historian, understood well the importance of remembering common suffering. Sorrows he thought were far more important than triumphalism in solidifying national unity and purpose: “In fact, national sorrows are more significant than triumphs because they impose obligations and demand a common effort.”
The Remembrance Day events are therefore not just about commemorating the past. In remembering the sacrifices of the past we also reaffirm our commitment to the Tamil struggle. The sacrifices of the past impose obligations on us and command us to struggle to secure Tamil national rights.
This year in particular Eelam Tamils have a lot to remember, honour and commemorate. Over the past months the intensity of Sri Lanka’s oppression has plumbed new depths. The Sri Lankan has unleashed unprecedented violence in a ‘final solution’ attempt to annihilate the Tamil national identity. Tens of thousands lie buried in the fields and beaches of Vanni – their tally may never be known.
Still Sri Lanka’s oppression continues. It continues to incarcerate thousands and assassinates or imprisons Tamil intellectuals and political leaders. The state is also trying to erase the Tamil national identity from the island by changing facts on the ground. First with overwhelming fire power it dismantled the fledgling de facto state and now with political and logistical savvy it is attempting to change the demography of the Tamil speaking northeastern areas of the island.
But the crude brutality of Sri Lanka’s violence is offset only by the utter futility of these efforts.
Over a hundred years ago Renan understood that the nation was not a physical object made of buildings and identifiable borders. For Renan the nation was a shared principle: “To have common glories in the past, a common will in the present; to have accomplished great things together, to wish to do so again, that is the essential condition for being a nation.”
This shared principle Renan noted was far more important than any physical criterion: “to have suffered, worked, hoped together; that is far more important than common taxes and frontiers conforming to ideas of strategy.”
In the course of the Tamil struggle the Tamil nation has come together through work, hope and suffering. We have forged a shared past and are united by a determination for a better future for our people. This is what the brutal but inept Sri Lankan state will never be able to destroy, no matter how much it violently changes facts on the ground.
The annual Remembrance Day events that will be held across the Diaspora centres of the world are not just about the past, they are about the future. We owe it to all those who have sacrificed so much for the liberation of the Tamil nation not to forget them and to continue to strive for Tamil freedom. By keeping faith with the past we will overcome Sri Lanka’s oppression and ensure the Tamil people have their day in the sun.
The red poppy, worn as a mark of remembrance in Britain and many other allied countries is a symbol of the continuities of past, present and future. The use of the poppy as a symbol was inspired by a poem titled ‘Flanders Fields’, written by a Canadian physician and soldier Lt Col John MCcrae. The poem was written in May 1915 after MCcrae witnessed the death of his twenty two year old friend Lt Alexis Helmer.
The poem is a message from the dead to the living that evokes the poppies that grow on Flanders Fields ‘Between the crosses, row on row’. The dead demand not just remembrance but a continuation of the struggle for which they sacrificed. The last verse could well be speaking to the Tamil people as it sets out the obligations owed by those who live to those who have died for the struggle:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.