Possessing memories, designing cemeteries - Part II

Read 'Possessing memories, designing cemeteries' - Part I

Ceremonies of possession

The end of the no-prisoner war and the defeat of the LTTE as the largest embodiment of Tamil resistance against an authoritarian and neo-colonial Sri Lanka state left a void in the Tamil territorial and social landscape. The complete destruction and the subsequent absence of Tamil war memorials post-war is in itself not just an act of violence, but also an act of humiliation and subjugation of a people and nation. The contested pieces of land were reclaimed by taking possession of the grief and memory of its people. With the destruction of war memorials, the sovereignty of the Sri Lankan state was bound to be re-established. Tamil war memorials as challenges and contestations to the majority Sinhala state’s narration of the past and readers of the present were successfully erased from the war-torn Tamil homeland and people. With the disappearance of thuyilum illams and other sites of Tamil memories of oppression and resistance, the representations of the past, the narration and visualizing of history, personal and collective, private and public that spell the desire for holding onto the familiarity of landmarks of the past that are disappearing and securities that are unsettled, completely vanished post-war  for Tamils in Sri Lanka.

To integrate the spatial and racial periphery of the Sri Lankan state and prevent a potential future rebellion by Tamils, the highly centralized state re-introduced policies of ‘Sinhalisation’ of land and people. As part of it, the destruction of Tamil war memorials was followed by the construction of massive monuments dedicated to the military victory of the Sinhala victorious side.  These Sri Lankan state or effectively also Sinhalese war memorials, dedicated to the almost mono-ethnic Sinhalese Sri Lankan Army, are constructed in often highly symbolic and strategic locations. They ensure the central state’s grip over land and people. The SLAF’s main war memorial is, for instance, situated in the former LTTE run de-facto state of Tamil Eelam’s capital Kilinoichchi. As a conquered (former) capital with great historic, strategic and symbolic significance, the city has post-war transformed into a SLAF garrison town with an ever increasing flow of Sinhala war tourists flocking into the recaptured Tamil periphery regions of the state20. The central war memorial in Kilinoichchi is one of the major sites of triumphalism to visit on Sri Lanka’s post-war tours through the Tamil North. It was inaugurated by Sri Lanka’s President Rajapakse in an ostentatious ceremony soon after the end of war and consists of a concrete block that signifies the LTTE rebellion. The concrete block is a spatial anomaly that violently interrupts the carefully crafted landscape planning surrounding the monument. The rebellion in the form of the block is crushed by a bullet, which represents the SLAF’s successful military victory against the Tamil uprisal. The crack created by the bullet releases a lotus flower21, which neutralizes the spatial anomaly in regards to the surrounding green landscape of the site. The lotus can be interpreted as a symbol  of peace, which could only emerge through the SLAF’s military victory. It is, however, also a motif heavily connected with Buddhist mythology symbolizing purity and progress. The lotus can thus also be regarded as a sudden interruption of hostilities and marker of a cease of hostilities through the ideological purity of its devout carriers – the Sinhalese Buddhist majority people and its military extension, the Sri Lankan Army. The memorial park itself ‘sits in a lush green park which in itself seems like an abomination on the dry, arid landscape of Kilinochchi’ and used to be a children’s playground and part of former LTTE political leader Thamilchelvam property22. The park consists of an installation of a number of Sri Lankan flags, which have virtually flooded the recaptured territories, and an empty room with the picture of Sri Lanka’s President Rajapakse, who is simultaneously mentioned at the adjacent tablet to the memorial. The tablet reads in reference to the Sri Lankan President: ‘born for the grace of the nation’23.

Just few kilometres away from Kilinoichchi, on a sandy beach in Puthukudiyiruppu in the Vanni, a beach strip that witnessed the lethal end of the war, another war memorial has come to disrupt the tranquil region and its bloody memories: a jubilant soldier posing on a base of granite rocks, holding a gun in one hand and a Sri Lankan national flag in the other. A pigeon is hovering over the soldier’s gun to symbolize the peace that has been achieved thanks to the might of the gun24. The granite base is decorated at each corner with a lion, which is not just the Sri Lankan state’s national animal, but more importantly connected to the Sinhalese’s (translated the ‘lion people’) identity and mythical origin as a people and nation. The mere symbolism of lions, symbolic and literally, standing on a piece of land that has become the burial ground for thousands of Tamils is not just problematic, but equally horrifying. The langue of geography and space is evidently one of violence and racial supremacy.

These are just two of the many war memories that were built and continue to be build all over the recaptured Tamil lands.  By continuing the intrusion into the territory, the contested space is forcibly reintegrated by reinterpreting its landscape and with it, its history and its people’s memories. In light of the denial to the right of memory and memorial for the tens of thousands of Tamils who died in the last stages of the war, the construction of Sinhala-centric memorials on top of violated bodies and landscapes is just another extension of the state’s rejection of the dignity of the living and the deceased.

Cleansing culture and people

The Sri Lankan war against Tamil demands for equality, justice, nationhood and sovereignty was effectively a war against Tamil people, culture and as part of it also against Tamil architecture. Tamils’ status and longevity as a nation was unsettled by the state’s attempt to dismantle its social fabrics, political structures, territorial integrity and cleanse its culture. As the Tamil community and nation was historically painted as an antagonist group to the well-being and future of the Sinhalese community and nation, they were constructed as an enemy population, whose very presence and positive development was a direct challenge to the majority Sinhalese population’s prosperity and monopoly. To deactivate the ‘Tamil threat’, the group’s present and past needed to be violently subverted.

By hijacking the past of a people, its very present becomes negotiable. The destruction of Tamil war monuments as acts of reordering newly won land does not stand in isolation, but correlates to historic episodes of deliberate and targeted violence against Tamil architecture on the island. These policies have continued over different regimes and postcolonial periods and indicate to a deep rooted pattern of racism and racial violence within the seats of power, which enabled the ethnic cleansing if not genocide of the Tamil nation in the country. Architecture is thereby only one playing field among a diverse set of arenas where such destructive policies can be tested.

During the war, and in Sri Lanka also during the post-war period, architecture was (and is) not just architecture, but also a physical manifestation and representation of a community. As cultural buildings, such as libraries, galleries, museums, schools, temples and churches are a cache of cultural memory, they form a community’s consciousness and identity by linking it to its past and by helping to legitimize its present. They are therefore not just mere buildings, but also material culture which carries greater meaning for a group’s consciousness and longevity. Throughout Sri Lanka’s short postcolonial history, targeted attacks against Tamil cultural institutions as, for instance, the Jaffna Library or the Viswanatha Sivan Temple in Trincomalee, amounted to active and deliberate attempts to erase architecture and thus the culture of the community. By eradicating the past of a community, its presence as a cultural group with a cognitive memory becomes destabilized and vulnerable to targeted attacks. The physical erosion of the past of a group through the destruction of its material culture can in fact even be seen as a first step to opening the floodgates to genocide.  As Bevan says, “the link between erasing any physical reminder of a people and its collective memory and the killing of the people themselves is ineluctable”.

Sri Lanka may seem to be innovative in its actions but follows in fact a long list of nations who have submitted other groups and nations to cultural as well as physical genocides such as Christian missionaries in Latin American, Serbs against Bosnian Muslims, Germans against Polish or Han Chinese against Tibetans. The fact that the Sri Lankan state still continues to interrupt and redesign the architectonic landscape of Tamils by destroying its collective memories of resistance and resilience post-war indicates to the continuance of a more silent war and genocide against the Tamil nation. The heavy weaponry used during the zenith of war may be silent, but the war against the people and their culture continues in more subtle forms hidden under the mask of ‘development’, ‘progress’, ‘reconciliation’ and ‘securitization’ of the newly conquered land and people.

Dominant memories vs. subordinate memories

The symbolic nature, language and lack of memory of Tamils in conjunction with the virtual absence of Tamil visitors to the Sri-Lankan state’s war memorial leads to no other conclusion but to Sri Lankan war memorials being memorial monuments of the Sinhala nation placed within the Tamil homeland. The intrusion into the landscape and sentiments of Tamil people is symbolically represented by an avoidance of Tamils of Sinhala war memorials and the ever increasing procession of war tourism duck walking from the Sinhala south into the Tamil north and east25. With the help of post-war tourism, the racial and spatial flow of people has almost reversed in proportion and direction. Whilst Tamil migration from the war torn and socioeconomically depressed areas to the capital Colombo and abroad dominated the people flow over several decades, today, post-war tourism, neoliberal projects and the increasing neo-colonial settlement of Sinhala soldiers, monks and settlers in Tamil areas has proportionally changed the direction of the migration flow26. Sri Lankan sovereignty over its Tamil regions and people thus finds its expression through forms of dominance embodied in architecture, migration and settlement.

Part of the process of post-war domination is embedded in the ‘ethnic dominant system’ which has coined much of Sri Lanka’s postcolonial history by producing a dominant and dominated social group. Symbolically speaking through the paradigm of war memorials, the state has post-war introduced ‘dominant sites of memory’ that dominate the dominated group’s places of commemoration27. The desecration and destruction of Tamil war cemeteries by the SLAF was often followed by the construction of state institutions such as military cantonments and police stations upon the very same pieces of land. On March 7, 2011, for instance, the new military headquarter of the SLAF in Jaffna opened its doors after being built upon the Koopay tuyilam illam, which was flattened twice with bulldozers by the SLAF in an attempt to eradicate the Tamil perspective on the past28.This falls in line with the GoSL’s announcement to replace ‘homes of LTTE leaders (…) with hotels and resort’ and free the land from memories of the ‘LTTE and the violence which affected the public during the war (…)’29.By doing so, the GoSL produces dominant forms of memories of one side that often quite literally dominate those of the marginalized group by constructing upon their deads’ ashes and memories. The role of memorials as ‘repositories of memory, suffering and grief’ as means to’ translate the unthinkable to the thinkable’ is thereby completely ignored whilst Sri Lankan state memorials are inaugurated time after time in ceremonies of possessions over Tamil land and people30. By destroying LTTE and Tamil memories, the space and right for Tamils to grief and remember as individuals and as a collective is denied, whilst being consciously exposed to the subjugation and humiliation of a state and its executive that forcefully tries to impose its narration of past, present and future to its alienated Tamil citizenry.

The GoSL’s attempts to eradicate traces of the LTTE serves further as an attempt to eradicate injustices and oppression committed by the state which gave rise and legitimacy to the LTTE as a force of resistance against a hegemonic state.  The state is imposing its war narrative upon a conquered people and is thereby actively suppressing the collective memory of a besieged population. As the Tamil National Alliances’ (TNA) MP Sumanthiran puts it, ‘the tragic irony is that the act of suppression removes the past memory from the past and places it firmly in the present’’31. As a result, Tamils are not just unable to forget and move on from the past, as it is conditioned by the Sri Lankan state-led reconciliation mantra, but unable escape the memories that still haunt their present lives. The Sri Lankan state narrative denies legitimate grievances of the Tamil citizenry by taking away their rights to space and memory. With the destruction of public sites of memory, Tamil war commemorations have been re-transformed from the public ceremony it was established as during the height of Tamil armed resistance to the private ceremony it has traditionally been reduced to prior to the insurgence. The removal of memories from the public and the visible is another displacement into the ‘private imagination where they can be neither checked nor measured only stirred’32. This displacement follows suit with thousands of displacements the community has faced over the decades and has, unfortunately, come to be a Tamil way of being. 

Reconstructing cemeteries, redesigning landscapes

The iron fist of the current GoSL is uncompromising in its attempts to stir the individual imagination by intruding the intimacy of private remembrance: post-war, severe prohibitions, restrictions and state violence is repeatedly inflicted upon Tamils all over the country on November 27, the LTTE’s marveerar naal.  The GoSL aims to prevent them from actively mourning and remembering their war dead and Tamil resistance to Sri Lankan state oppression33.Neither the ringing of temple bells nor the lightening of traditional deepams (oil lamps) are allowed to mark respect on this meaningful day in temples and churches all over the Tamil homeland. Private or public assemblies are violently dispersed and warned against. Last year, despite an army and police clampdown prior to ‘marveerar naal’, Tamil students lid oil lamps in the premises of the University of Jaffna campus to mark the day of commemoration. Their non-violent activities were, however, soon met by a brutal terror campaign of the Sri Lankan Police and Army to suppress their right to remember.

Similarly as to the failure to accommodate Tamil rights and grievances in November, May marks another symbolic period of the year when the state’s interpretation of history and politics clouds over any hopes of possible ‘reconciliation’ under the current system of power:  in May, when the Sinhalese majority starts to celebrate in a notoriously triumphalist mood and lavish as well as decadent fashion the end of war, Tamils are actively prevented from publically or privately, individually or collectively mourn for the thousands of Tamil causalities that occurred during the final months of the war34. Instead, the state imposes patriotism lessons upon its Tamil citizenry, which includes the distribution of flags and forced participation in end of war celebrations35.

Sensitivities of one seemingly trump another’s, just as memories of some are meant to eradicate memories of another. Both days essentially mark the failure of the process of racial and spatial reconciliation of the island and embody the polarization and distance that continues to persist and rise between Tamils and Sinhalese. Neither Sri Lanka’s regained territorial integrity nor its strengthened sovereignty aided in the process of reconciling of what remained to be separated. The nation that never became a nation found itself with the end of war in a historic position to rewrite its path ahead, but also the one left behind. Instead of reconciling and healing wounds of a fatal, blood trenched past, the GoSL chose to silence upon the narrative of oppression and suffering of its Tamil citizenry by denying it any legitimate right to grief and memorize its sacrifices and human losses. With the absence of Tamil war memorials and the imposition of prohibitions and restrictions for public and collective signs of Tamil grief and memory, Tamil past and present grievances seem to continue to be delegitimized and externalized within Sri Lanka, as well as recapitulated into the present by being reproduced into the current post-war context.

With the criminalization of Tamil memories and memorialisation in relation to anti-state resistance and civilian causalities, the island state is actively invisibilizing and externalizing Tamil’s history, but also putting their position and relation to the state into question. Tamils’ continuance of remembering their dead relatives and fighters, despite a virtual clampdown and stigmatization enacted by state authorities, has thus risen to become a clear act of disobedience and resistance against the state’s diktat of Tamil amnesia. To create safe spaces to memorialize that alternate from the violent landscape of Sri Lanka, diasporic Tamils have in recent times increasingly resorted to the internet as a platform for political mobilization. As a relatively anonymous entity, the virtual world helps to create a de- criminalized environment where a widely dispersed and displaced transnational population can become the interpretant, architect, and participant in commemorations and memorialisation of their dead.  With the emergence of projects such as the Canadian based www.maaveerarillam.com, the tulliyam illam that were razed to the grounds in the Tamil homeland find themselves today reconstructed in a virtual landscape. By doing so, the memories and memorials of the dead that are illegalized in Sri Lanka find a new home and safe space in an increasingly fluid and shifting space that provides the freedom for alternating narrations of the past as well as present.  As the recent uprisal of Tamil students in Jaffna and the concurrent violence against them has, however, shown, the memories of the past cannot be eradicated without provoking the ghosts of the past.

Image: LTTE Heroes War Cemetery (Maveerar Tuyilam Illam) in Selvanagar, Kilinochchi, 27 November 2004


Sinthujan Varatharajah graduated in 2012 from the London School of Economics and Political Science in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies. Interested in migration, diaspora and critical race theory, he wrote his thesis on conceptions of caste under migration and refugeehood. He now works as a research intern at the Institute of Race Relations in London as well as a researcher on Islam and Muslim communities in France, Belgium and Switzerland for Harvard University’s and CNRS France’s joint academic research network Euro-Islam. The author can be followed at twitter.com/varathas


20. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-14183579

21. http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2010/09/26/monuments-of-war/

22. Ibid

23. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-14183579

24. http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/near-site-of-lttes-last-stand-a-victory-memorial-that-tamils-dont-visit/article4019705.ece

25. Ibid

26. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-14183579

27. Evans, M., Lunn, K. (ed), 1997.War and Memory in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Berg.

28. http://www.dailymirror.lk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=10199&Itemid=425&utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

29. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/may/04/sri-lanka-must-respect-war-memory

30. Ibid

31. http://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/gsl-constructed-a-war-memorial-in-pudumattalaan-its-purported-design-is-similar-to-maaveerar-naal/

32. Ibid

33. http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=3998

34. http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=33956

35. http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2010/09/26/monuments-of-war/

More articles by Sinthujan Varatharajah:

Why a cultural and academic boycott is necessary?
Temples, Rose Petals and Guns


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