November 26: Forbidden grief and a story of resistance

Peter Ilanchelian was getting ready to pay his respects to his younger brother who was killed among thousands eleven years ago.

He hoisted four flags displaying the red and yellow colours of the Tamil nation on the dull parapet wall in front of his modest house before setting up a plastic chair to be covered in a clean white cloth with a maroonish border. A camphor filled pot partially blackened by soot was positioned on top of three granite stones. The camphor was to be set aflame later in remembrance of his younger brother, Antony Jeyaraj Christy Ilanchenthan.

Peter respectfully placed a garlanded photograph of the younger brother on the cloth.

The entrance to the earthen road a few yards away leading to their home in Manakudiyiruppu was almost blocked by scores of armed military and policemen. They were stationed there to stop Tamils collectively remembering their dead on Maveerar Naal, November 27.

Graveyards demolished

Tamil Tigers honoured their fighters who died in the battle field by laying them to rest in 25 cemeteries known as Thuilam Illam (resting place) spread throughout the north and east.

Since the Sri Lankan military completely captured the land from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, more than 20,400 tombstones that marked the burial places were razed to ground. Visuvamadu Thuilam Illam with more than 2700 headstones was known to be the largest of them all. The Ellankulam army camp in Uduppiddi, Jaffna is built on the land demolishing 795 tombstones. The largest in the Jaffna peninsula was in Kopai with 1832 headstones. Today it is the site of Jaffna command headquarters. Another 795 burial places in Kodikamam were bulldozed to erect an army camp. Among the other notable burial grounds are Mulliyavalai that is the resting place for 2575 and Kanakapuram with 1968 tombstones.

For the last five years, Peter used to visit the Mullaitivu beach on every Maveerar Naal with thousands of Tamils who have lost their loved ones in a three-decade long war that ended in a bloodbath. Many others visited the ruins of the burial grounds. They found strength in each other when paying respects to their dead with other Tamils in the north and the east. This year was different.

Peter and tens of thousands of Tamils were denied their communal mourning.

'No mourning'

Courts in Mallakam, Chavakachcheri, Trincomalee, Mannar, Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Batticaloa banned the annual remembrance event.

Police and judicial authorities convinced judges to ban Maveerar Naal remembrance events on the basis that the collective mourning would carry a health risk in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The attorney general’s office made this submission in court less than two weeks after the president and prime minister flew out from the locked down capital to a religious festival in Anuradhapura to commemorate the first anniversary of the second Rajapaksa regime. 500 Buddhist monks from all over the country congregated to invoke blessings on the Rajapaksa’s and the country at large.

To impose the Tamil remembrance ban, military and police were deployed in the streets in full force. Armed teams of eight wearing black riding on powerful motorbikes flashing their lights became a common sight in the north and the east.

Community leaders and politicians in the north and east were forced to urge fellow Tamils to remember their loved ones in private.


The Mullaitivu town where Peter had a shop was closed for business to pay respect to their fallen heroes. Intelligence officials have been making phone calls since morning urging businessmen to open. Many saw this as a threat.

“Who are you to tell me when to open or close my business,” Peter Ilanchelian had told those who called him “This is intimidation. We will shut down our shops and commemorate our great heroes. You can go to court to see whether that is illegal.”

Antony Ilanchenthan had made the ultimate sacrifice in March 2009 when Tamils pushed to a sliver of land in the north eastern were bombarded by Sri Lankan armed forces in the final push to capture land held by the LTTE. Popularly known as Chenthan, he was a lead constable in the police force operating within the LTTE run de facto state. He was 22. Peter was not ready to forget him.

While the police and military was looking on Peter scattered pink and white flowers around Antony’s photograph. He lit the camphor and prayed into the rising flame.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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