Burying History

by Sanjana Hattotuwa,’ ‘The Island, Colombo, November 18, 2017

article_imageOver four years ago, I wrote an article on mass graves in Sri Lanka that could be seen using Google Earth imagery, serving as a solitary, virtual witness to what happened on the ground. The article focused in and around Nandikadal – the sliver of land where the war came to an end in 2009. At the time, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) had published a report, unsurprisingly vehemently contested by the Ministry of Defence, highlighting both the level of shelling and through image analysis, where it likely originated from. My interest in the report focused on very specific geographic locations that had been very clearly identified as mass graves, and how these areas had changed over the following years.

As I noted at the time of writing, “three years after the end of the war, the mounds of earth for each grave have disappeared and there is scrub vegetation dotting the site. Without reference imagery from the past, it is impossible to determine that this is a grave site for hundreds looking at the imagery from 2011 alone”. There is another dimension I chose to focus on. In the years after the end of the year, war tourism reached its peak. Thousands from the South and other parts of the country went to the North – many for the first time. As these domestic tourists on sight-seeing trips captured selfies and other photos of the deleterious debris of war, they were on occasion walking, running or dancing very near, and possibly on top of, mass graves. Again, as I noted, “The imagery from Google Earth is a unique and sombre reminder of war’s human toll… Five, ten, fifteen years hence, with new development in these areas and the clearing up of war debris, it is unclear what will become of these grave sites and skeletal remains. They are already erased from the public conscience”.

All this is in the North, largely out of sight, out of mind for many in the South.

Yet, as recently as May this year, skeletal remains were uncovered by heavy earth digging machinery in a construction site in Colombo. That site is today the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo, ceremoniously opened by President Maithripala Sirisena last week. The site had apparently been used by the British as a cemetery and until 2012, was also the headquarters of Sri Lanka’s Army. News reports in May indicated that after a Magisterial inquiry, Police investigations were underway. Not a single update or word on the human remains found on the site has been published in the mainstream media since. It’s almost as if this story itself, like the bones beneath, was better buried.

As I noted on Twitter, “Quite remarkable how a 5-star hotel opened by the President, on site where human skeletal remains were found & the location of former Army HQ, generates not a single critical reference or question in media on ascertaining origin, date or fate of the buried”. Leading journalists from the domestic and international press present at the opening of the hotel with the President lost no time posting selfies on Facebook of themselves enjoying a free lunch at the hotel. Not a single article or question before, on or after the occasion even remotely referenced the skeletons discovered under the foundations of the Shangri-La Hotel.

The phenomenon of mass graves in Sri Lanka isn’t new or anchored just to the end of the war. A simple Google search for the uninitiated will suffice. Sri Lanka is dotted with known mass graves all over, dating back to the time of terror in the late 80’s. There is even a story around the discovery of a mass grave by a family as they were clearing out their garden. Brick and mortar establish above ground visual, tactile facts that over time, mask inconvenient, hidden truths buried underneath. In 2011, the new headquarters for the 51 Division of the Sri Lankan Army, in Kopay was unveiled amidst, as the Army’s website notes, “religious rites and rituals”. What’s tellingly not noted on the Army’s website but reported by the BBC at the time was that the new headquarters is built on top of an LTTE gravesite of around two thousand bodies and about twice as many memorial stones, razed to the ground after the war.

Architecture and construction is used here, and indeed, elsewhere, in the service of completely erasing what otherwise would have been very challenging to countenance by way of memorialising the dead who once fought against the Army. Trevor Grant’s book, ‘Sri Lanka’s Secrets: How the Rajapaksa Regime Gets Away with Murder’, expands this point and notes that ‘the desecration of graves continued around the North and East of the country after the war, with at least twenty-five Tamil war cemeteries, containing about 20,400 graves, [were] deliberately bulldozed by the Sri Lankan army’. In February 2014, the International Crimes Evidence Project published a report that citing eye-witness testimony alleged ‘systematic destruction of civilian mass burial sites in the post-conflict period’. The report went on to note that the ‘allegations are very serious and there is an urgent need for further investigation to determine their veracity’. To date, there is no information in the public domain around even a sham investigation by the State, under successive governments, into these disturbing claims.

What to many is commonly associated as a phenomenon that is prevalent in the North, or is anchored to the UNP-JVP’s time of terror in the late 80s, also now colours the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo. Renowned artist Jagath Weerasinghe, lamenting the destruction of ‘The Shrine of Innocents’ – a memorial for the lives lost between 1998-1991 in the South of Sri Lanka – to make way for what is now Diyatha Uyana and the original location of The Good Market, cogently captures Sri Lanka’s inability to really remember the horror of mass killings. “We murdered thousands of innocent people for political reasons in this country; and then we built a memorial for them, and then we ‘murdered’ the memorial too. A society bent on amnesia, and blinded by the chimera of consumerism needs no memorial to remember victims of its recent history; it only needs monuments for rulers, kings, politicians, heroes and vulgar consumerism.”

As journalist and psychologist Daniel Goleman notes, ‘societies can be sunk by the weight of buried ugliness’. The very foundations of Colombo’s beautification and Sri Lanka’s development writ large is a violence the magnitude of which isn’t taught in school, isn’t recorded in history, isn’t memorialised in any way, isn’t respected or treated with dignity or empathy, isn’t subject to robust criminal investigation and isn’t really important or urgent, to anyone in power. Truly countenancing the macabre nature and horror of what lies beneath gleaming tower, luxury hotel or Army camp is an existential challenge many deeply fear and thus, unsurprisingly, create, believe in and vehemently promote any fiction to avoid.

It is a fiction that gravely risks the country revisiting the horrors of the past.

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