Memorialisation in Post-Conflict Sri Lanka: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Collective memory is a cornerstone to communal narratives, regardless of whether people have experienced a prolonged armed conflict or not. Monuments, public art, museums and ceremonies are some of the most popular outlets for this kind of memory preservation. Sri Lanka, a nation that experienced a civil war between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for nearly three decades, has a very strong presence of memory preservation. However, the public displays of remembrance by both the Sinhalese and the Tamils are executed in remarkably different conditions and ways. 

Following the end of the civil war in 2009, a wave of state-sanctioned victory memorials celebrating the triumphalism of the government sprang up across the Northern landscape of Sri Lanka, in places like Puthukkudiyiruppu, Kilinochchi, Kokavil and Elephant Pass. The construction of bus stops and the naming of streets to pay tribute to deceased military personnel is a common practice in Sinhalese-majority areas. In contrast, the museum at the Kattankudy mosque and the memorial at Aranthalawa bear testimony to LTTE violence against the Sinhalese and the Muslims. Interestingly, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna’s (JVP) annual events to commemorate the Sinhalese uprisings and slain members in 1971 and 1987-89 have rarely received backlash from the Sinhalese community. Although the then government brutally cracked down on the JVP on both occasions, the JVP made no official apology for instituting a reign of terror during the insurrections. The JVP commemorations face no serious objections because they have not posed a major threat to Sinhalese-Buddhist majoritarianism, while Tamil observances are generally viewed by the Sinhalese-Buddhists as attempts to resuscitate the LTTE, irrespective of whether the LLTE is celebrated not.

Immediately after the end of the civil war, the former president Rajapaksa urged the Tamil community to “forget the unpleasant past war experience,” amidst calls for an international investigation into the alleged war crimes. During the post-2009 phase, the annual remembrance events at the University of Jaffna have led to the arrest of student union leaders on several occasions. In a similar vein, the annual commemoration of the 1990 Sathurukondan military massacre was repeatedly discouraged by the authorities. Notwithstanding the authority of the government, the Tamils have continued to hold community-based programmes to grieve for the loss of their loved ones. For example, the Catholic priest Father Mary Bastian who was assassinated in a 1985 military mass killing was memorialized in Vankalei in 2006. Father Mariampillai Sarathjeevan, who died tragically while on his mission of accompanying refugees out of conflict areas during the last stages of the war, was honoured with a statue in Uruthirapuram in 2010. Apart from these, the proliferation of a range of digitisation projects of Tamil war narratives, such as Noolaham Digital Library and 30 Years Ago, is a reassuring development that reflects how the Tamil community has slowly but steadily contributed to the nation’s war discourse.

Father Bastian’s statues in Mannar  Photos: Dishani Senaratne

Father Bastian’s statues in Mannar

Photos: Dishani Senaratne

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In order to foster reconciliation, Sri Lanka must appease the emotional aspect of reconciliation which can be accomplished through portraying the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of the nation’s memory. Sri Lanka is increasingly losing the opportunity to win the favour of the Tamil community by means of holistic transitional justice mechanisms against the backdrop of 2019 Easter bombings. The 2018 interim report of the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) emphasized the need to address emotional dynamics of the war-affected. Similarly, the 2011 Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report recommended that government institutions should act as agents of change to foster freedom of expression especially in Tamil-majority areas. The Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM) has a greater responsibility to closely guide the numerous government bodies that focus on reconciliation in order to implement their individual mandates. Undoubtedly, permitting avenues of expression is of paramount importance to tackle issues that remain beyond statistics. The willingness to confront the horrendous past of Sri Lanka, rather than being in a state of denial to sanitize contested histories, is on course to have far-reaching impact on restoration of public faith. In the wake of recurrent anti-Muslim assaults, the rhetoric ‘never forget, never again’ quintessentially captures the optimal modus operandi to ensure non-recurrence of violence.

A marriage between memorialization and counter-narratives holds huge potential to facilitate national conversations on durable peace, regardless of whether the communities have been directly affected by the internecine civil war or not. In other words, a rich tapestry of memorialization both looking inward and outward to the nation’s past can be a powerful antidote to symptoms of hostile erasure of memories. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, however, has been embroiled in a power struggle since the 2019 Easter attacks, so much so that their commitment to long-term peace, helped by the construction of spaces of remembering the past, is at risk.

Dishani Senaratne is the Project Director of Writing Doves – a non-profit initiative that seeks to enhance intercultural understanding among children in Sri Lankan through trilingual narratives. She is also a published poet and a short story writer who has university experience teaching English in Sri Lanka.