Why should we remember and why should we allow others to remember?

by Rev. Jude Sutharshan Mahendren, May 2020

Reconciliation has been understood as a better way for living together in a divided world. Sri Lanka ended its civil war in May, 2009. Post-war Sri Lanka is expected to work for sustainable reconciliation. In working for reconciliation, we need to work on the past wrongs. Those who have traveled through pain and suffering need to deal with the dangerous memories from their past in order to have trust that can make a better future together. Dealing with the past involves the difficult process of reconciliation; there is no detour around it. People may argue that reconciliation is not about the past, it is about the future, however, looking at the past could make sense if it helps to construct a better future. Further dealing with the past should not be toxic or revengeful if it is to move on to a better future. Therefore, memories of the past should be remembered in the right way. Any attempt to ignore or hide or suppress the memories of suffering cannot bring any good.

Dealing with memory is one of the main topics in a post-war reconciliation process. Dealing with past memories influences long-term intergroup animosities. Tamils became more aware of their rights and the importance of memory. The Tamils’ memory was understood as collective and individual. The memorial observances of Tamils on May 18 were obstructed in Sri Lanka. New war memorials and narratives around them have been constructed and they reflect a particular history, which claims victory to the government and portrays others as terrorists. This history of victory was highly influential in political campaigns especially during elections. On the other hand, Tamil political parties and diaspora organizations remembered this memory separately. Tamils within themselves could not practice a unified memorial event. The obstruction on ‘memory of unanswered suffering’ plays a huge role in developing a new personal and social identity of Tamils as victims.

Yesterday May 18, 2020, in the northern province, there were many Tamil political and civil groups organized observances of remembrance at different places on a small scale as per the precautions of COVID-19. These were obstructed by using governmental law and order bodies. Many politicians and activists, who organized memorial observances, had to face threats. 11 persons of Tamil political party leadership, who were active in organizing memorials, were given a quarantine order under the Covid-19 situation by a court in Jaffna, and the next day it was lifted on appeal. On the other hand, the government celebrated the war victory day formally. On May 18th, I witnessed a clear dichotomy on social media, where few of my fellow Sinhala Christian clergy friends posted greetings to the military who celebrate the national victory day while my Tamil friends shared memories of ‘Tamil genocide.'

It is hard to impose social amnesia by forcing a community not to remember. It is believed that memory, both individual and collective, is deposited in human DNA. It goes around and long. Trauma is transmitted through successive generations on the ground and through the diaspora. If people are left behind with a sense of victimhood and this sense can become a barrier to any peace efforts. Repressed memories of suffering can create and sustain conflicts. Imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, murders, the disappearance of family members, cruel deaths, seeing speared human bodies, humiliation, hardships, abuse, economic ban, hate speech, discrimination, legal sanction for evil, the omnipotence of evildoers – all these are kept in deep memory which has the potential to reactivate conflicts after many generations. Often in the historical memories of suffering, the perpetrators never accepted that what they had done was harmful; instead, they made their own narrative of victory. During the context of suppression of painful memories, it has been revealed that the recovery of the historical memory of truth is crucial in order to create hope for reconciliation. The negative examples such as repression of memory etc. live longer in collective memory than positive examples.

For Christians, remembrance is a sacrament, a holy act in worship. During Eucharist, we remember the suffering and death of Christ. That reminds us that the suffering of victims in front of the omnipotence of evil and the importance of non-violent, peacemaking society. Furthermore, in the Eucharist, we witness the second coming of Christ, which shows the hope for the final victory of the victims and redemption of victimizers. Christ’s way of doing justice is not mere retributive. Christ helps individuals with broken humanity to be cured. Christ will embrace both victim and victimizer at the end. This is the genuine love of Christ over humanity. It doesn’t mean that God covers all the injustice up, but God’s genuine love encourages all of us to ‘repent and forgive and reconcile’ among us. Therefore, our remembrance can’t be a toxic act of revenge that leads to another terrible cycle of violence. Our remembrance can’t simply ignore the suffering and mass killings and name it as a victory. Christ on the cross is a clear example of a victim, Christ healed Himself as well as he is helping his victimizers to be healed even though they do not realize the need for healing. It is hard to resonate with such eschatological hope amidst pressing questions of current historical reality. As Christians, we are called to witness the eschatological hope and the final victory of goodness.

When you stop me from remembering, you make me fight with God. I fight with God on ‘why did this happen to me?’ ’How come God allowed this to me?’ ’Do I ignore the memories of my loved ones who were killed unjustly and/or made to disappear and so on?’ My desperate cry will demand God to act on behalf of the victim. God cries louder and It is your responsibility to listen to the cry of God for justice. If you recognize my pain and allow me to remember, find truth and find consolation, that action will be considered as a clear sign of reconciliation.

• We need to remember because we need to memorialize the memories of our loved ones.

• We need to remember because we need to know the truth (at least) about our loved ones.

• We need to remember because our memory protects us.

• We need to remember because victims’ memory serves as a shield from being exploited further.

• We need to remember because our memory of dehumanized past will guard all against future atrocities.

• We need to remember because our memory can lead all of us to redemption.

• We need to remember because we cannot forget and no one can do it.

We can do one thing - we can take the option of not remembering when we have the freedom to choose it. In other words, we can do selective remembering in order to forget something. When we are assured with the right to remember, we would work on remembering rightly. We should work for a reconciled narrative and a reconciled memorial observance for our dear ones. We all should remember that if we cannot walk on the path of genuine reconciliation, we choose to distance and suspect others. If we cannot allow others to remember their historical memory of pain, we add more toxicity to their memory.

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