Erasure & memorialisation in Sri Lanka’s North
by Centre for Policy Analysis, Colombo, November 23, 2017
Viewable on picture rich Sway at https://sway.com/tErHAnhIQWtGz43d
Prehistory; the kings of old and all the tanks, temples and kingdoms to their name; Dutch, Portuguese, British colonization; the struggles for freedom; Independence; the achievements of the first Presidents and Prime Ministers post-Independence; the shift in the agricultural economy.
Sri Lankan history, as laid out in the local education system, cuts off here. The insurrections of the 1970s, the riots of 1983 and the 30-year conflict – all which have immeasurably shaped the country’s history and have far more reaching consequence for its future – are glaringly absent from the lessons. The last update of this syllabus was brought into use in 2015, and will run for eight years.
Textbooks are one way of teaching history and memorialisation. So too are the physical expressions of history and of memory, in the monuments we have built to tell the stories of our past. As with the lessons that we teach the younger generations, the Sri Lankan State’s practice is selective here too. From schoolbooks to statute and statues, this erasure of the country’s violent recent history is reflective of deliberate State amnesia on the part of successive governments and a convenient approach to dealing with the past – without confronting its horrors – by way of denial.
The atrocities witnessed, especially by those living in the combat zones of the Northern Province, and the drastic losses faced by the communities have been reduced to monuments that tell only one, partial story – that of the glorious victories of the armed forces.
The monuments do not account for the multiple narratives and truths around experiences of the conflict. The State-sponsored memorials were not built with any consultation from the communities that live in the immediate vicinity. Communities whose histories are linked to these places and what they were before the conflict, and whose everyday realities are linked to these places and what they are after the conflict. These monuments have also helped fuel a wave of patriotic ‘tourism’, that involves visitors from the South travelling from each of these sites to the next, for the purpose of seeing narratives that capture the victory of the Armed Forces and the defeat of the LTTE.
For these tourists, and for people from the South in general, it may be difficult to understand why these memorials are so out of place and violent. Sinhala-speaking Southern tourists don’t usually interact with residents of the region and these concrete structures are often their only points of contact with the North. For the people living around them, the monuments are a living reminder of the painful recent past which prevent them from ‘moving on’ in any sense.
The impact of these memorials is inextricably linked to the patterns of militarization and land occupation that remain in the Northern Province, eight years after the conflict came to an end. Taking into consideration the ground realities that persist for residents of these areas, issues that have gone unaddressed by several governments, sustained marginalization of this nature, if left unaddressed, has the potential to fuel renewed cycles of conflict.
Crossing the causeway into the Jaffna peninsula, the first marker one is met with is the memorial for the ‘Hasalaka Weeraya’, by the side of the A9. Corporal Gamini Kularatne is hailed for sacrificing his life in 1991 to defend the Pass from a tanker strapped with bombs. He was 25 years old at the time.
The captured tanker, at which Kularatne is said to have hurled grenades, is parked within the walls of the memorial area. It has become almost a pilgrimage site for Sinhala tourists from the South, buses of visitors walking barefoot around the memorial space. The monument is closer to a shrine to him, with plastic flowers for sale, that visitors may place at the feet of his statue.
To the side of the tanker is a small museum of sorts, filled with bits and pieces from Kularatne’s life as a soldier – clothes, ration cards, wage slips, even plates and cutlery. Nestled randomly amongst the items are the most poignant parts of the memorial: several letters from him to his mother. In neat handwriting, he asks about his relatives and progress on the family home, and warns his younger siblings not to be naughty.
These letters capture another side of the war that is little remarked upon; the individual and personal lives of combatants, removed from the conflict and its excesses. In doing so, they are a reminder that the official accounts of the conflict and all the memorials, for all their repeated assertions of bravery and humanitarianism, rarely talk about the actual people involved in the war, on any side.
While the surrounding land is dusty and water bodies in the region are slowly running dry, the area once known as Chandran Park remains green. A monument now stands where children once played, and an impassive army officer is always on guard.
A concrete block, pierced with a bullet, whose faultlines run outward, gives rise to a lotus flower. There’s an entrance to the concrete block from behind where – save for two giant photos of Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa visiting the monument – it is revealed to be completely hollow.
If you ask the army officer about the monument, he’ll give you a proud answer that parrots the patriotism carved into the plinth at its foot. The Army’s strength invincible even when faced with the force of the LTTE, and their victory that gave way to blossoming hope and peace.
The lack of local buy-in for these memorials is most apparent in these interpretations, seeing how residents of the area ascribe meaning to the monument. It is a stark contrast from the soldier’s answer, and from what’s laid down as the symbolism in the structure. A gentleman who had once been the Principal of a school in the area said he sees the monument as a daily reminder of all the children lost, who used to play in the park without care, entire classes of students that he lost to the combat.
Set in the middle of a shallow lake off the Paranthan – Mullaitivu highway, the Puthukudiyiruppu Victory Monument is one of the many war-related tourist sites that are scattered around the Mullaitivu district.
A soldier, frozen presumably in a cry of victory, a rifle and the Sri Lankan flag make up the monument while a traditional moonstone and guardstones lead up to its base. The names that adorn the plinths and dedications at these sites are ones that surface, time and time again, in the media and civil society conversations around corruption, human rights and war crimes especially during the last years of the conflict. Sarath Fonseka, Jagath Jayasuriya, Lalith Weeratunga and of course, Gotabhaya and Mahinda Rajapakse.
Located nearby is the Puthukkudiyiruppu war museum, where if one were to visit, would find on display a range of ammunition and vehicles used during the combat. Further into the jungles from here is a swimming pool used by the Sea Tigers, now within the confines of a small army camp. Further afield is a large yard displaying the remains of Sea Tiger submarines and equipment.
The purpose of these war museums seems to be to underscore the scale of the military’s ‘victory’ by emphasising the Tigers’ military capacities. Tourists extend their ‘pilgrimage’, arriving in buses and wander the surroundings with morbid curiosity, taking in the physical, alien evidence which confirms that the spectre of the Tigers that so hung over their lives was indeed real.
Aside from this jarring kind of attraction is the nature in which the history of the region is being rewritten by the state. New signboards completely wash over atrocities experienced by the people – specifically in the late stages of the war in 2009 – to tell a story that revolves around the accomplishments of the forces in carrying out the ‘Northern Humanitarian Operation’ and their subsequent ‘victory’ in May 2009.
The State’s reinforcement of one particular narrative of the conflict is matched by its efforts to prevent people from the region from remembering the conflict in their own ways.
On 18 May 2017, a memorial was organized by citizens in a church close to Mullivaikkal beach. The Rajapaksa government had placed an outright ban on citizen attempts at memorialization, which the community assumed would ease with the change of government. The particular memorial took the form of a group of stones carved with the names of several individuals who had died during the conflict, especially during the last days of the war, placed next to a statue commissioned last year.
The day before they were scheduled to commence the activities, the Mullaitivu District Court issued a stay order on any memorials scheduled to be held at Mullivaikkal, on request of the Mullaitivu Police. Members of the Police visited the area, threatening anyone taking part in any memorialization activities with criminal prosecution, while intelligence officers were seen filming the gathering. The organiser of the memorial, Father Elil Rajendram, in addition to being questioned prior to the memorial was summoned three times afterwards by the Police, and requested to submit a list of all names that were to be included in the memorial (to be sent to the Terrorist Investigation Department in Colombo).
The injunction was issued on the assumption that some of the rocks might bear the names of dead LTTE cadres, and this was an issue on the grounds of national security. In court, Rajendram raised the concern that ages of the deceased, marked on the rocks, included individuals who were two, four, and seventy-four years of age, and questioned how such individuals posed a threat to national security.
It was ultimately ruled that memorial services could continue, although restricted to the church premises. Nevertheless, the struggle over the Mullivaikal memorial shows the state’s deeply vindictive reactions to memorialisation it has not sanctioned, especially when they come from citizens affected by the conflict. Their reaction in this instance is particularly notable as it was directed at a memorial that was to be semi-permanent in nature (and not a temporary memorial). It sends a chilling message: brick and mortar memorials of the war will carry only imagery that the Government approves.
Attempts to memorialise dead LTTE cadres have always been met with active resistance from the State under successive governments. However, once stripped of political motivations, the person is ultimately someone’s father, someone’s daughter – just another human being. Amongst those who died are those who were forcibly recruited. They too deserve dignity in how their bodies are disposed of and buried after death. Their families have a right to mourn. Their cemeteries should not be destroyed by the State. And yet, efforts at memorialising these dead are labelled by the State as threats to reconciliation. In contrast, activists question why then the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) are allowed to, very publicly and regularly, commemorate their dead who also took up arms against the State.
The ground realities of Mullaitivu district help contextualise the extent of this erasure and the fear it instils in residents. It has one of the highest incidences of poverty in the country, but due to the small population in the area, the statistics and conversations around this don’t capture the harsh situation on the ground. Residents comment that the post-war economic and infrastructure development drive was concentrated along the immediate vicinity of the A9 highway and the Jaffna town, Mullaitivu remains forgotten by the state. The South looks at these as indicators of progress in the North, unaware of the ongoing struggles.
The presence of army, police and intelligence officers is pervasive to a level unimaginable anywhere else in the country, and certainly in the South. A recent report estimates that at least 25% of the country’s active military personnel are stationed in Mullaitivu, a district that accounts for only 0.6 % of the national population. This amounts to a jarring ratio of 1 soldier for every 2 civilians in the District. A total of 1,551.089 acres of non-alienated and alienated state land remain occupied. The Army has built and operates a hotel on the shores of the Nandikadal Lagoon, one of its many properties across the North and East, that has raised concerns with activists for ethical tourism.
Aside from the many camps that dot the landscape, citizens live under constant scrutiny. Army personnel drive through villages and turn up on their doorsteps for the occasional ‘check’. CID officers in plainclothes are also present, most recently at the ongoing protest by families of the disappeared, and have gone as far as intimidating one of the key organisers of the protest. Women whose husbands were suspected to have been in the LTTE are harassed – through phone calls and home visits – by the CID. They find themselves constantly changing phone numbers and houses, and leads to them being ostracised by a society that assumes they are being investigated for some wrongdoing.
This runs contrary to the statements made by officials in local and international human rights fora and the praise the Government’s ‘progress’ is often given. More importantly, it is contrary to the promises the state makes to affected communities. Truth and justice are delayed to victims, and those accused of wartime atrocities are not held accountable for their actions, despite promises to act and assurances of progress. These call into question the Government of Sri Lanka’s repeated assertions of its ongoing commitment to reconciliation.
These physical reminders of a traumatic time also speak to its inability to build trust with these communities and regions, even eight years after the conflict came to an end. The denial of their simple right to properly remember lost loved ones is the final indignity forced on these people.