No Space for Memory? Monuments, Memorials and the Residues of the War in Sri Lanka’s North

The monuments are impossible to miss. Rising from the flat and otherwise featureless Vanni—the broad, scrubby northern region so different from the dense, fertile vegetation of the island’s south—these official markers to the end of the civil war project a story that is unashamedly heroic, triumphal and militaristic. In this story of good versus evil, of Tamil terrorists versus Sinhalese protectors of the nation, there is little room for multiple narratives or recognition of civilian suffering—or apology or contrition. The monuments are reminders that the war, though it officially ended on 18 May 2009, continues in new forms—not least through the narrowing of space for remembrance and mourning of those who did not support the winning side. The proliferation of state war monuments has, in fact, gone hand in hand with army surveillance of civilian-led commemorative events and a deliberate destruction of non-state memorials and cemeteries. And yet, if the eleven years since the formal end of the conflict have shown anything, it is that dissonant memories are not so easily erased.

In early March 2020 (a pre-COVID-19 era that already feels like a lifetime ago) I visited sites of memory from Jaffna to Killinochi to Mullaitivu; the latter is where the army unleashed its crushing assault on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. In what were once fiercely contested battlegrounds between these opposing sides, official war monuments now abut freshly built Buddhist temples, large fenced-off areas of army-owned land, army checkpoints, army camps and battalions. Guarded and well maintained by the Sri Lankan army, most of the monuments relate to the fourth and last phase of the war, and especially to its final, most brutal months. Official interpretative signage describes this period as a ‘humanitarian operation’ to destroy the LTTE ‘terrorists’ who, through ‘callous and vicious’ acts of violence, used civilians as human shields and threatened the territorial integrity of the nation state. Absent is any mention of the civilians who died as they, along with the LTTE, were progressively herded into a smaller and smaller ‘no-fire zone’ into which the army  repeatedly fired. Also erased is any reference to the thousands of LTTE combatants and civilians who disappeared after surrendering to or being captured by the army in the final months of the war and in the days after its official end was declared. Tellingly, most of the signage is in Sinhala and English, addressing the busloads of Sinhalese tourists who regularly visit from the south to pay their respects to war heroes and give alms at the temples.

At Elephant Pass, 51 kilometres south of Jaffna, is the towering statue of Corporal Gamini Kularatne of the Sri Lankan Army. Now known as the Hasalaka Weeraya (Hero of Hasalaka), Kularatne is described by the monument’s signage as a 25-year-old soldier who sacrificed his life in 1991 to rescue hundreds of fellow soldiers who were under siege at the Elephant Pass Sri Lankan Army garrison. He climbed into an LTTE tank and disabled it by throwing two grenades into it. Near the statue of Kularatne, and parked within the memorial area, the imposing tank still stands where it stopped that day.While it was quiet when we visited, the Centre for Policy Alternatives has observed that this memorial site is often crowded with Sinhalese tourists, who walk barefoot around the memorial area as they would walk around a revered Buddhist temple and buy plastic flowers to place at the feet of the statue.

Further down the road, at Killinochi—a former LTTE stronghold and capital in the last years of Tamil Eelam—stands a black-granite cuboid penetrated by a projectile that blossoms into a lotus flower. Attached to this discordant combination of war and peace symbols is a plaque describing the monument as erected in memory of the ‘magnificent victory’ by the Sri Lankan Army, which engaged in a ‘gallant operation to annihilate savage and brutal terrorism which has terrorised this land over 30 years’. The projectile is described as symbolising the ‘sturdiness of the invincible Sri Lankan army to blossom forth a lotus of peace enwrapped in the fluttering national flag that proclaims the splendid majesty of the nation’s glory’. 

Turning off the main highway to head towards Mullaitivu, we reached the government’s information centre at Puthukudiyiruppu. Here, posters depicting the shrinking areas controlled by the LTTE in the final months of the war are displayed alongside maps and photos of the army providing medicine, food and water to civilians. Adjacent to the centre, rising from a lake, is the Victory Monument. It depicts a soldier brandishing a rifle in one hand and the Sri Lankan flag in the other. Around the base of the monument are four carved stone lions representing each army division involved in the last phase of the fighting (the 59th, 58th, 57th and 53rd divisions.) A stone plinth that lists the names of all the army commanders at the time of the conquest includes those of present-day political and army leaders, among them Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sarath Fonseka and Kamal Gunaratne.

Our last stop was Mullivaikal, the narrow strip of land between the Nanthikadal Lagoon and the Bay of Bengal where thousands of civilians took shelter and were repeatedly shelled by the army in the final weeks of the war. A faded sign standing next to the Wadduwakal causeway bridge that links Mullivaikal and Mullaitivu describes the bridge as having been destroyed by ‘LTTE terrorists’ to prevent the Sri Lankan Army from advancing towards Pudukudirippu during its ‘humanitarian operation’. It tells a heroic myth of how, despite these obstacles, the ‘brave soldiers of the great army’ were able to ‘conduct themselves stealthily across the lagoon from the west and east’ and dislodge the LTTE without harming  the ‘approximately 10,000 innocent civilians’ held by the LTTE. The causeway is thus constructed as a significant feature in the history of counterterrorist operations. 

There is something unsettling about this sign, whose faded declaration of bravery and victory over terrorism stands in the desolate landscape of Mullivaikal beach. Even though there are few physical reminders of the civilian suffering that occurred here, and few residents left living here to recount stories of those final weeks, ghosts of the past remain. The wreck of the Farrah—the Jordanian ship that was taken by LTTE fighters to use as a firing pad against Sri Lankan navy boats—slowly rusts in the shallow water just offshore. Wrecked and corroded machinery and vehicles—an old truck, wheels, pieces of rusty iron—lie scattered in the sand. The nearby army camp is a physical reminder of the ongoing surveillance of the Mullivaikal population.

Postwar national imaginings and anxieties

These official spaces of postwar memorialisation, and the closely entangled militarised and Sinhalese-Buddhist spaces, reveal much about contemporary imaginings of the Sri Lankan nation. The portrayal of army leaders as war heroes and the construction of the final phase of the war as a humanitarian operation designed to eradicate terrorism and bring peace is the ultimate expression of victor’s memory. Carefully cultivated for political gain, this narrative is given force by the way in which the war came to an end: there was no peace agreement, no negotiated transition, between the army and the LTTE, just a crushing counter-insurgency victory of one side over the other. At the same time, the sheer number of official monuments, their overbearing presence, and the rigidity with which they portray the events of the war and draw lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’ speak to an underlying anxiety about the fragility of the postwar political order. While the violence entangled with the founding of this order is repressed, it remains the shadow side to official memory that continually threatens to disrupt it. Why else would it need to be performed so aggressively?

This victor’s anxiety is revealed in the considerable labour that goes into the denial of allegations of army war crimes. There is by now a plethora of credible reports by journalists and international and domestic human rights organisations painstakingly documenting the nature and extent of these crimes. Yet, during the government led by Mahinda Rajapaksa between 2005 and 2015, questions about the targeting of civilians by the army, and the tens of thousands of people who were disappeared or went missing (and whose bodies remain unaccounted for), were deflected and denied as nation-building efforts took the form of investment in massive infrastructure projects and the celebration of war heroes. The United National Party government, which was elected in 2015 promising good governance, seemed to signal a new approach. New prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and president Maithripala Sirisena agreed—after significant pressure from international and domestic human rights organisations—to co-sponsor a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution on transitional justice committing the Sri Lankan government to establishing an accountability mechanism, an Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and an Office for Reparations. Discussions of the accountability mechanism remain off the table, and even the government’s relatively modest progress on missing persons and reparations may prove to be short-lived. Since the November 2019 election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa (brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa and a former army officer and defence secretary closely associated with the violent suppression of the LTTE), the government has declared its withdrawal of support for the UNHRC resolution and announced that the legislation establishing the OMP will be reviewed.

The fragility of the postwar political order is further revealed in the ongoing repression of minority ethnic groups’ grievances against the state. The vision of the peace-loving nation promoted after the war is rhetorically inclusive of Muslims and Tamils, yet, as Bhavani Fonseka and Uvin Dissanayake observe, this vision rests on the negation of their ‘particular concerns, which have emerged out of their specific experiences as minorities’. When it comes to the Tamil minority, which makes up around 12 per cent of the population, the government reassures them that it will serve the ‘whole country’ and urges them to join the building of the nation, yet it dismisses unresolved grievances regarding political representation, autonomy, language laws, discrimination and state violence as illegitimate and destabilising. Fonseka and Dissanayake write that these demands are framed as ‘being the result of manipulation by Tamil politicians and Western aligned interests’. The collective ‘we’ that is being constructed in the aftermath of the war is not only ethnically Sinhalese but religiously Buddhist, a twinning reinforced through the delivery of political speeches at significant Buddhist sites and, as David Lewis has noted, the zealous construction of Buddhist stupas after the war and the ‘discovery’ of new Buddhist pilgrimage sites around the country, especially in the predominantly Hindu north. This Sinhalese-Buddhist ‘we’ was on display during Sri Lanka’s Independence Day celebrations in February 2020. Newly elected president Gotabaya Rajapaksa delivered a speech that on its surface promised to be inclusive of all ‘peace-loving’ Sri Lankans, yet observers could not fail to notice other messages. Conspicuously adorned in his war medals, the president delivered an especially powerful message by permitting the national anthem to be sung in Sinhala only, rather than in both Sinhala and Tamil, as it had been sung during the previous presidency. This message of Sinhalese-Buddhist majoritarianism was also delivered during the president’s swearing-in ceremony at the Ruwanwelisaya Buddhist temple in Anuradhapura on 18 November 2019. While standing at this significant Sinhalese-Buddhist site, the president recognised that his victory had been due to the unprecedented level of support from the Sinhalese population. As he stated, ‘The main message of the election is that it was the Sinhala majority vote that allowed me to win the presidency’.

Narrowing space for dissonant memories 

The unyielding and overbearing force of official memorialisation discourse narrows the space for the expression of memories of the war that diverge from the prescribed narrative.While local Tamil communities and religious leaders in the north have constructed a few memorials to remember those who died as a consequence of the actions of the Sri Lankan army these are situated far from main highways and out of the public eye, and are under constant threat of erasure. Commemorative rituals at these sites are subject to heavy army surveillance. The state’s one-sided narrative and its violent suppression of dissenting memory cultivates, in turn, expressions of counter-memory that can be equally uncompromising and one-dimensional. Duncan McCargo and Dishini Senaratne note that, as emphasis is placed on narratives of Tamil victimhood, questions of agency, including the crimes committed by the LTTE, are rendered invisible. Occluded too are the experiences of other victimised minorities—for instance, Sri Lankan Muslims. 

The small memorial tucked away near the Mullivaikal church attests to the precarity of civilian-led memorials. Built by the local priest and parishioners, this small stone sculpture depicts a civilian man carrying a woman in his arms. A small child stands next to them, hands clasped. All three wear clothes that are little more than rags and have a look of desperation in their eyes. Constructing the memorial on the grounds of the church affords it some protection. Unlike kovil (Hindu temples), which are almost exclusively associated with the Tamil minority, connections exist between churches in the north and the south—Sri Lankan Christians, who compose around 8 per cent of the population, are both Tamil and Sinhalese. Yet even this modest memorial remains incomplete. Stones inscribed with the names of the dead lie unused in a small pile near the church. The priest has been prevented from incorporating them into the monument’s structure, as the government argues that some of the dead might be LTTE combatants.

When it comes to the remembrance of former LTTE combatants, more aggressive forms of disruption and erasure are taking place. In the north and east a significant number of LTTE burial sites and cemeteries—known as maaveerar thuyilum illam (great heroes’ resting places)—that contained the bodies of former LTTE cadres killed in combat, and memorial headstones to the dead and missing, have been destroyed. Bulldozers have reduced headstones and graves to rubble. Many were obliterated by the Sri Lankan army as it gained ground during the war. Human rights activists Ruki Fernando and Amalini write that some sites have now been incorporated into the foundations of recently established army camps in the north.

As Fernando and Amalini argue, the army’s destruction of the thuyilum illams is an attempt to ‘deny the defeated LTTE any focal points for resurgence’. Given that the cemeteries and associated rituals were used as places from which to ‘promote and disseminate a violent form of Tamil nationalism’ (in the words of anthropologist Malathi de Alwis in a 2010 Guardian piece), it is not surprising that the army—acting according to the logic of counter-insurgency—would wish to demolish them. Yet, at a deeper level, these acts represent a form of violent desecration and desacralisation of sacred space. During the war these cemeteries were one of the few places where families could remember and honour their dead and missing. As de Alwis puts it, their obliteration ‘deprives the kin of the dead a place to commune with their lost loved ones’ and evinces ‘a callous disregard for both the dead and the living’. 

What the example of the cemeteries brings home with full force is that the discourses and practices of official memorialisation not only constrain and narrow possibilities for public commemoration but also disrupt intimate processes of mourning and recovery. This is especially so if the dead were once members (or suspected members) of the LTTE. Memorialisation in these cases remains furtive and fearful even within the home. Many Tamil families do not display photos of their dead and missing on their walls if they are dressed in LTTE uniforms. They are also reluctant to undertake private rituals of mourning and remembrance lest they receive a visit from the police’s Criminal Investigation Department.

Rituals of counter-memory

Despite the violent attempts to narrow and destroy space for memory, the need to mourn and honour the dead remains. Not only is the work of remembrance a ‘face of justice’, in the words of James Booth, grounded in a debt to the past, it is also integral to the remaking of community, place and identity in the aftermath of war. Because of this, people will continue to search for ways to come together in invented rituals to remember their losses, even where bricks-and-mortar memorials and cemeteries are obstructed or destroyed.

Some LTTE cemeteries that have not been incorporated into army sites have been refashioned into new, albeit tenuous, memorials to the dead. This was the case with the former LTTE cemetery I visited just outside Killinochi. In the centre of a large, desolate field, rubble and cement fragments, and a few of the headstones that remained intact, had been gathered and piled into a large mound. Remnants of flowers lay next to the headstones, suggesting that small acts of remembrance were still taking place.

An especially creative, collective practice of remembrance was initiated by civil-society groups in the north on 18 May 2019, the date marking ten years since the official end of the war. It involved the cooking, sharing and eating of Mullivaikal kanji (porridge). This simple rice porridge was consumed by hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the war in the north during its final few months. For some, it was all they had to eat. Over time, the kanji became increasingly watery and was often eaten without salt. On 18 May last year, elderly mothers cooked and collectively ate Mullivaikal kanji with their families and local communities. Young people travelled by truck with kanji pots to serve the porridge in the streets and in public places in the northern province. The North East Coordinating Committee has written that civil-society groups are now calling for people across Sri Lanka to eat Mullivaikal kanji for one meal on 18 May as an act of solidarity with the war dead, missing and disappeared, and their families.

While monuments, memorials and cemeteries can directly conflict with official memorialisation due to their perceived permanence, their public visibility and their defined—and largely fixed—narratives, the ritual of eating Mullivaikal kanji demonstrates that community-led memory projects can work in more subtle ways that make space for diverse interpretations and experiences. Those who participate in this ritual are not required to declare an ideological or political position on the war (indeed, some army personnel in the north accepted bowls of kanji in 2019). In its avoidance of fixed narratives, the ritual of eating kanji also avoids the promotion of polarising identifications of ‘us’ and ‘them’, including claims to the exclusive ‘ownership’ of suffering by any one ethnic group. That this ritual can be performed both publicly and privately and does not depend on gathering in a particular place also lends it a flexibility and fluidity that enables it to adapt to changing political circumstances and elude the army surveillance that surrounds public commemorations. 

Perhaps most importantly, the eating of kanji works directly through the senses and is shared. Versions of this rice porridge are consumed by Sri Lankan Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese. Its familiar smell, taste and texture taps into, and provokes, intimate and embodied childhood memories and memories of religious festivals, as well as memories of the war, with its shared hardship, loss and deprivation. That kanji is familiar across ethnic divides opens up the possibility that this recently devised memorialisation ritual might provide a space for genuine engagement between different communities, where each can acknowledge their deep trauma and empathise with that of others.

The ghosts of the past

Even when organised expressions of counter-memory are impossible, reminders of the past continue to surface and haunt the present. Memories reverberate through the landscape and in the objects, spaces, dwellings and ruins left behind after war. They exude affects that, as Yael Navaro-Yashin writes, ‘linger, like a hangover’, emerging as unexpected sensory experiences as people go about their daily routines.

The rusting machinery at Mullivaikal beach and the absence of people; the bullet-marked buildings and the Jaffna neighbourhoods full of abandoned houses; the once-productive farms now overtaken by secondary forest—as artist Thamotharampillai Shanathanan observes, the landscape of the north speaks to successive waves of violence and displacement. The uninhabited houses of Jaffna—now little more than ruins overtaken with vines—are especially poignant. As I drove around the empty neighbourhoods on Jaffna’s outskirts with Shanathanan (whose work powerfully engages with themes of memory, loss and displacement), these houses evoked a strong sense of melancholy. It was hard not to imagine them as they may once have been: cared for and full of life, noise, families and neighbours, with well-maintained gardens and abundant fruit trees. The atmosphere on these silent streets, with their ruins and overgrown gardens, discharges a sense of the uncanny—of haunting, abandonment, loss and deep sadness.

Even spaces that have been reinvented through the deliberate destruction and erasure of memories reverberate with layers of meaning that are not necessarily visible to all. The desolate fields or freshly built army barracks and camps that once contained LTTE cemeteries do not signify the obliteration of what was there before; as de Alwis writes in ‘Trauma, Memory, Forgetting’, they continue to remind the families of the dead and the local residents who pass by them of their former lives.

The past speaks through narratives and monuments and through sensory encounters with spaces, objects, ruins and landscapes. Memory’s multivalent quality means that inconvenient truths will not be so easily expelled by the Sri Lankan nation state’s reinvention of history. Just as memories of massacres during the frontier wars against Indigenous peoples persist in settler-colonial Australia, so too will memories of the army’s violence in Sri Lanka. Experiences of the disappearance of loved ones, of displacement and deprivation, and of former homes, communities and cemeteries will linger in landscapes and objects, and in the narratives passed to and reimagined by new generations. Relentless attempts to suppress inconvenient memories eat away at both coloniser and victor, giving rise to whispers of anxiety, and corroding and diminishing possibilities for imagining the nation.

References

Malathi de Alwis, ‘Sri Lanka Must Respect Memory of War’, The Guardian, 4 May 2010; available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/may/04/sri-lanka-must-respect-war-memory, accessed 15 May 2020.

Malathi de Alwis, ‘Trauma, Memory, Forgetting’, in Sri Lanka: the Struggle for Peace in the Aftermath of War, in Amarnath Amarasingam and Daniel Bass (eds), London: Hurst, 2016, pp 147–61.

James Booth, ‘The Unforgotten, Memories of Justice’, American Political Science Review 95(4), 2001, pp 777–91.

Centre for Policy Alternatives, ‘Selective Memory: Erasure and Memorialisation in Sri Lanka’s North’, 23 November 2017; available at https://www.cpalanka.org/selective-memory-erasure-memorialisation-in-sri-lankas-north/, accessed 26 May 2020.

Ruki Fernando and Amalini, ‘Sri Lanka LTTE’s “Great Heroes Day”: No Peace in Rest, Sri Lanka Brief, 20 October 2018; available at https://srilankabrief.org/2018/10/sri-lanka-lttes-great-heroes-day-no-peace-in-rest-ruki-fenando-amalini/, accessed 15 May 2020.

Ruki Fernando, ‘May 18 and Mullivaikkaal Kanji’, LankaNewsWeb, 27 May 2019; available at https://www.lankanewsweb.net/69-featured-news/43789-may-18-and-mullivaikkaal-kanji, accessed 15 May 2020.

Bhavani Fonseka and Uvin Dissanayake, ‘Sri Lanka’s Recent Political Challenges and Prospects for the Future’, Centre for Policy Alternatives, 13 March 2020; available at https://www.cpalanka.org/sri-lankas-recent-political-challenges-prospects-for-the-future/, accessed 15 May 2020.

David Lewis, ‘Sri Lanka’s Schmittian Peace: Sovereignty, Enmity and Illiberal Order’, Conflict, Security and Development,20(1), 2020, pp 15–37.

Duncan McCargo and Dishini Senaratne, ‘Victor’s Memory: Sri Lanka’s post-war memoryscape in comparative perspective’, Conflict, Security and Development 20(1), 2020, pp 97–113.

Yael Navaro-Yashin, ‘Affective Spaces, Melancholic Objects: Ruination and the Production of Anthropological Knowledge’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15(1), 2009, pp 1–18.

North East Coordinating Committee, ‘Memorialisation on May 18th: From Politicisation to Peoplisation’, Groundviews, 19 May 2019; available at https://groundviews.org/2019/05/19/memorialisation-from-politicisation-to-peoplisation/, accessed 15 May 2020.

Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan, ‘Art as Placemaking, an Artist’s Narration’, Journal of Material Culture 20(4), 2015, pp 415–28.

About the author

Lia Kent

Lia Kent is an Australian academic currently based at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She has written extensively on post-conflict peacebuilding, memorialisation and transitional justice.

More articles by Lia Kent

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.

Leave a Reply