The Debate | Opinion

Against the Memory Police: War and Remembrance in Sri Lanka

The recent destruction of a memorial for Sri Lankan Tamils massacred during the civil war raises important, difficult, questions.

Against the Memory Police: War and Remembrance in Sri Lanka
Credit: Flickr/Climatalk .in

In a troubling development on the island nation of Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan authorities destroyed a monument at the University of Jaffna on January 8. The monument had been established by university students to pay tribute to thousands of Tamils killed by the Sri Lankan military in Mullivaikkal in 2009. The vice-chancellor of the university, S Srisatkunarajah, stated: “There was already a war memorial at the campus. But this new one was erected recently during the 10th anniversary of ending the Sri Lankan war… (it was) installed without permission from authorities.” Moreover, he stated that the memorial is remembering a war, not peace. This argument, however, is wrong: the Sri Lankan government has built countless memorials celebrating the war victory rather than post-war amity. The demolished construction, moreover, makes no reference to igniting or glorifying war, as it monument depicted outstretched hands rising from the earth.

Why was this memorial erected? What was the Mullivaikkal massacre? These would be two dominating questions for anyone unfamiliar with the recent incident in Sri Lanka. During the last stages of the war, Tamils who were on the territory of the Tamil Tigers fled to Mullivaikkal, which had been declared a no-fire zone, to seek shelter from the aerial bombardments of the Sri Lankan military. Yet, this no-fire zone was also bombarded. Until this date, the Sri Lankan government insists that this area was not targeted as it served to spare civilian lives. It repeatedly denies that it has fired on safety zones or targeted hospitals. However, the United Nations, through its Report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, had verified and ascertained that in fact this no-fire zone was targeted by the Sri Lankan government, leading to large-scale civilian death.

But why this aggressive action on January 8? Is it the fear that the memorial would serve as a rallying point for Tamil Tiger supporters who aim to revive the organization? Is it because the memorial was erected without the approval of a government? Not at all. It is rather the majoritarian propensity to control the narrative of a war in this multi-ethnic country. Isn’t it true that the government has erected and even – it is appropriate to use this word – littered the country, especially in the northern and eastern part of the island, with war memorials to amplify the victory of the governmental army against the Tamil Tigers? Isn’t it true that a genuine reconciliation process has not taken place, but was rather replaced by a re-telling of history from the victor’s perspective?

It is in fact, as Ambika Satukunathan writes in a recent article on the demolition of the memorial, the Sri Lankan government that reignites the memory of the Tamil Tigers, by maintaining a status of fear in post-war Sri Lanka. By doing so, the antagonisms of the war are present, the victor’s narrative permeates every fiber of society, and the public’s awareness is driven by the existence of an invisible enemy. In fact, a war needs two sides. The Tamil Tigers have committed grave war crimes and have also terrorized their own people. The University of Jaffna monument, however, was a tribute from the young Tamil students, the next generation of leaders of the Tamil people, to the ones who have been abandoned in a common journey towards a future for all. As Pablo de Greiff, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence, mentioned after his last visit to Sri Lanka in 2017: “Memorialization can have a reparative effect provided that it is even-handed and not used by anybody as part of a zero-sum game in which the basic task is to reaffirm a single-sided narrative. Spaces are needed for communities to mourn and remember those they have lost, especially those sites across all regions where civilians died.”

However, the silence about Tamil victims (whether they be fighters from the LTTE or non-combatant civilians), is juxtaposed with the deafening noise of the Sri Lankan military which glorifies its victory and exerts its nationalist megalomania, silencing the victims’ cries in the darkness. The glorification of victory on the large scale robs and removes the memory of all those who lost in the war: civilians of both sides, children who lost their mothers and fathers, women who lost their loved ones, and persons who were dragged into a war that was doomed to cause catastrophe.

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The Sri Lankan government is forcing upon the international community an erasure of memory while asserting and maintaining its own narrative of majoritarian victory. The existence of memory for the minority poses, in the view of the government, the possibility of a revival of terrorism. It is also about dominating public discourse which should cater towards the future of a majoritarian state in which Tamil are permitted to stay – if they remain within prescriptive legal and ethnic parameters.  But what the government repeatedly does not understand is that their ill-calculated actions cause anger and frustration. The fact that it chooses to ignore is that a postwar society needs memory of the past to avoid repetition and endow dignity upon the lost ones.

Memorials are needed not only to end war, but also emotional conflict. A conversation through memorials must trigger an honest conversation about death. To this end, Tamils must accept loss in order to begin to overcome it. The people “cannot forget their loved ones, and the pain of the loss will always be there, and will always hurt, but people must acknowledge the death in order to move on.” Finally, the students of Jaffna University attempted to democratize memory. This democratization of memory enables marginalized groups the very rare chance to have their narrative recognized. A memorial for the victims is a site of conscience which refuses to close its eyes to a meaningful debate about the past. People anywhere suffering in silence in the aftermath of war need a constructive and thoughtful societal conversation, linking relationships between past, present, and future.

It is against this background that it becomes important to stress: let the people mourn in public, instead of in the darkness of marginalization. Empower them to debate the reasons, ramifications, and losses caused by vicious wars. And let us all engage in an inclusive process of accountability, reconciliation, and dignity.

Dr. Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan is a lecturer for public international law at Griffith College Dublin since 2017. Prior to this lectureship at GCD, he worked as a Fellow at the Irish Centre for Human Rights in Galway, Ireland. His first book “Sri Lanka, Human Rights and the United Nations” was published by Springer last year.