S R I L A N K A C A M P A I G N
Memorialisation, Kumanan Kanapathippillai

The Politics of Truth & Memory: The Right to Light a Candle

May 17, 2024 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

The 15th anniversary of the end of the Sri Lankan civil war brings reminders of the horror that unfolded, particularly during the war’s final months–of the Mullivaikkal massacre on May 18, 2009. Tamil civilians were trapped into shrinking so-called ‘No-Fire Zones’, with the final zone located on a strip of beach in the Mullaitivu District. Over 100,000 civilians were forced into this three-square kilometre strip of land and faced indiscriminate shelling. During these months, the armed forces targeted hospitals, and areas of refuge, while some members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) held Tamil civilians as hostage for cover and shot those trying to escape.  After the defeat of the LTTE, government forces executed or forcibly disappeared LTTE fighters and suspected civilian supporters. The UN initially provided a death toll of 40,000 Tamil civilians, but now has found evidence that 70,000 were killed. Almost 147,000 are thought to be unaccounted for and presumed dead.

In the wake of this unspeakable suffering, remembrance should serve to honour the memory of those who were killed and to confront the truth of the past. Yet, for Tamils, the right to commemorate their loved ones and find solace has been systematically denied. Rather than acknowledge the immense pain endured by civilians, the state has chosen to suppress remembrance and has designated instead a National War Heroes Commemoration Day.  This day is marked by grand military parades and monuments that glorify the security forces as heroes. Meanwhile, Tamils are not allowed to so much as light a candle to remember the lives of their families and friends who were taken from them.

In the run up to May 18, security has been tightened, as it is every year in the North and East regions in Sri Lanka where most Tamils reside. For the past 15 years, schools and universities have been closed and arrests have been made to prevent any form of public commemoration. In 2020 and 2021 COVID-19 regulations were selectively applied to restrict remembrance services. In late November 2023, the authorities stormed a peaceful commemoration vigil for Maaveerar Naal in Batticaloa, in the Eastern Province and confiscated all red and yellow flags in the area. At least nine people were arrested      under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which is used to arrest and detain people, largely Tamils, with little justification.

Now in 2024, there are reliable reports that Tamil civilians and journalists have been harassed and military presence has increased in preparation for preventing events to commemorate Mullivaikkal. This week, Sri Lankan police deployed the paramilitary Special Task Force (STF) to ensure a court ban on serving kanji was adhered to. Kanji, a type of porridge of rice and water, was the only food available to Tamils in the ‘No-Fire Zones’ during the war as food and medicines were heavily restricted. At least 4 Tamils have been arrested and violently dragged away from their homes this week for distributing kanji and the STF have threatened Tamil activists for honouring victims. At the time of writing this article, we anxiously await reports of further arbitrary arrests and violence by the State.

The Right to Memorialisation

Memorialisation refers to a range of processes to preserve the memory of past abuses for present and future generations in culturally meaningful ways. This includes commemorative ceremonies, rituals, monuments, memorial museums, sites of conscience, and can even be as expansive as the establishment of truth commissions and trials. This desire to honour the deceased and acknowledge wrongdoing has resonated with societies throughout time and across the globe. Dating back to ancient Greece, battlefield memorials were constructed of wood deliberately to allow for erosion, symbolising the possibilities for reconciliation between former enemies.

The UN report ‘Memorialisation Processes’ states that memorialisation is geared ‘not only towards the past (recalling events, recognising and honouring victims and enabling stories to be related), but equally to the present (healing processes and rebuilding of trust between communities) and the future (preventing further violence through education and awareness-raising)’.  The search for truth following conflict embodies a fundamental human right that is acknowledged by international law. The right to know is defined as not only the right of individual victims or close relatives to have the right to truth on what happened to their loved ones, it is also a collective right drawing upon history to prevent recurring violations.

One way in which memorialisation can be future-oriented and involve truth-seeking, is through reparations. Within the framework of the Principles on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights through Action to Combat Impunity, reparations can be manifested in symbolic or concrete forms. Symbolic reparations may comprise official apologies, establishing museums and memorials or designating official commemorative days. Concrete and tangible forms may encompass financial compensation, educational support, restitution for lost or damaged property or providing access to medical and health-care services.

States that re-write narratives delay the process of reparations. They use memory to further their own agenda, imposing their own definitions of perpetrators and heroes and establishing differing categories of victims. Nationalist propaganda may be used to manipulate symbols and whip up emotions from the past, turning memorialisation into a political and sometimes physical battleground. Memorialisation can only have a reparative effect if it is not used by actors as part of a zero-sum game to reaffirm single-sided narratives.

The State Changing the Narrative in Sri Lanka

The enforced silence of Tamil victims stands in stark contrast to the deafening force of the Sri Lankan government, as it erases memories and asserts its own narrative of majoritarian victory. There has been little to no accountability for the mass violence, torture, and enforced disappearances of Tamils by Sri Lankan security forces and paramilitary groups. Nor has there been any recognition by the State of the continuing rights violations, such as sexual violence in detention camps and rehabilitation centres, and persistent harassment inflicted on Tamils by security forces today.

Instead, the government has removed any public memorials in Sri Lanka that commemorate Tamils or highlight the atrocities committed, and State war memorials have been erected in their place. At least 27 Maaveerar Thuyilam Illams (‘Heroes/ Martyrs Sleeping Houses’) for LTTE members were destroyed by the Sri Lankan military during and following the civil war. Some have been built on by the Army, while others have been flattened and left with broken headstones. Makeshift memorials have been constructed with the rubble by relatives but remain at risk of destruction by Government authorities.

In 2021, a monument at the University of Jaffna commemorating the lives of young Tamil students killed in Mullivaikkal was bulldozed by Sri Lankan authorities. The sculpture depicted hands, with bones exposed and extending out of a body to portray the heat of bombs raining down on students. The hands reaching out also symbolises appeals to the international community for help to end the ongoing issue of human rights violations and the state narrative that the war was a ‘humanitarian operation’. The university campus has replaced the monument with a similar sculpture, but concerns remain on whether authorities will also destroy this monument.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government has designated May 19 the National War Heroes Commemoration Day/ Remembrance Day. This Memorial Day celebrates the narrative of victory over the rebel LTTE and putting an end to the war and suffering. Commemorations for the LTTE’s dead are not permitted. The day is marked with speeches and military parades in the streets with tanks and artillery guns, and fighter jets flying overhead. A moment of silence is also held at the Cenotaph in Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo, one of many memorials in Sri Lanka for military personnel.

Original University of Jaffna Memorial before its destruction in January 2021 by authorities
The Cenotaph War Memorial where a moment of silence is held to commemorate military personnel on Remembrance Day

The Sri Lankan government’s victor narrative permeates all fibres of society and maintains a status of fear and ethnic tension post-conflict. A genuine reconciliation process has not taken place and it is evident that Sri Lanka is yet to adopt a culture of memorialising atrocities against civilians.

 

Call to Action

UN

At the international level, Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice (SLC) is working with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Sri Lanka Accountability Project (SLAP) in Geneva. This independent mechanism utilises a victim-centred approach to collect evidence and develop strategies for accountability processes for violations of human rights in Sri Lanka. SLC is working with our partners to advocate the renewal of SLAP ahead of the vote on its funding at the September Human Rights Council session later this year. SLAP has published a report this week, which includes the importance of the right to memorialisation.

UK Government

At SLC we argue that the UK should use its influence as a member of the Sri Lanka Core Group to support the renewal of SLAP, to defend the right to memorialisation, and acknowledge the salience of accountability. Very few perpetrators of human rights violations have been held to account in Sri Lanka, and none has been subject to sanctions by the UK. We argue that the UK must follow the lead of the US and Canada on imposing sanctions on Sri Lankan officials accused of war crimes, such as the Chief of Defence Staff Shavendra Silva and former Presidents Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa. This has been echoed recently by Elliot Colburn, MP for Carshalton and Wallington, and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils who argued the UK must draw a red line concerning the crackdown on memorials in Sri Lanka and use its influence over the island.

Sri Lankan Government

The Sri Lankan government must allow the right to memorialisation and stop the continuous harassment of Tamils during the annual commemorations of Mullivaikkal. The ban on serving kanji must be lifted and those arrested for involvement in memorials should be released. The new domestic bill on Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation proposed is not enough for true reparations. SLC advocates that the Sri Lankan government holds perpetrators of war crimes accountable, removing them from governmental and military positions.

Individuals

As we commemorate the 15th anniversary, here are steps you can take to advocate for justice and accountability.

— Raise awareness. Share information about the atrocities committed during the Sri Lankan civil war and the ongoing suppression of memorialisation by the State. Use social media, organise educational events and engage with local communities leading up to and following Mullivaikkal. Educate yourself on the root causes and dynamics of the conflict, starting with our reading (and watching) list.

— Lobby your representatives. Contact your local MPs to advocate the right to commemorate Mullivaikkal and to call for accountability in respect of the widespread human rights violations in Sri Lanka that occurred during the conflict. Showing a united front in the UK is necessary ahead of the vote on the renewal of SLAP at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

— Support civil society. Stand in solidarity with grassroot organisations and Tamil activists. Amplify their voices and advocate for their protection.

As we reflect on the horrors of the past and honour the memory of those who were killed, we must look to the future with a commitment to justice and accountability. The ongoing suppression of memorialisation by the Sri Lankan government only underscores the importance of our collective action. Together we must ensure that the victims of the Sri Lankan civil war are never forgotten, the narrative is not re-written, and civilian voices are not silenced. Across the globe, everyone deserves the right to light a candle for their relative or their friend, without fear of repercussions.