Explained: Why a demolition in Jaffna recalls Sri Lanka’s civil war and the unaddressed Tamil question

The demolition triggered protests by Sri Lanka’s Tamil community in the North and East, and condemnation by Tamil diasporas and human rights groups, and from politicians in election-bound Tamil Nadu.

The sudden demolition of a memorial on the Jaffna University campus in northern Sri Lanka to remember Tamil civilians killed during the LTTE’s last stand against the Sri Lankan Army in 2009, has brought attention to the simmering and yet unaddressed issues of post-war ethnic reconciliation, justice and accountability, as well as a political resolution of the Tamil question.

The demolition triggered protests by Sri Lanka’s Tamil community in the North and East, and condemnation by Tamil diasporas and human rights groups, and from politicians in election-bound Tamil Nadu.

The widespread outrage, and a hunger strike by students on the campus, seems to have taken the government by surprise. On Monday, three days after the demolition, University Vice-Chancellor S Srisathkunarajah visited the site and promised to rebuild the memorial. The online portal of the Sri Lankan weekly Sunday Times said “he led the students to the destroyed memorial and laid a symbolic foundation stone for the new monument with religious prayers”.

The Vice-Chancellor had earlier explained the demolition as execution of “instructions” received from the “authorities” — Defence and Education ministries. and intelligence officials.

The demolition took place a few hours after External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar departed from Colombo after a three-day visit, during which he impressed on his hosts the need to get on with ethnic reconciliation and a political settlement to the Tamil question.

The memorials on campus

Set up in 2019, the demolished memorial was a sculpture of several hands rising out of water, a symbolic representation of the people who were killed in a village called Mullivaikkal in Mullaithivu district on the north-east coast. The village is a narrow strip of land between the sea and a lagoon.Tens of thousands had gathered there as the Sri Lankan Army had earlier declared it as a No Fire Zone. However, the last battles were fought there, sending thousands of people rushing into the water to escape the shells as they landed. Estimates of the dead range from the Sri Lankan government’s 9,000 to 40,000 by the United Nations, and much higher by others.

Sri Lanka has resisted an official count of the dead, and attempts by the Tamil community for group remembrance. During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s consecutive second term as President from 2010 to 2015 — the LTTE was crushed in his first term, with his brother, now President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa leading the Defence Ministry at the time — there was a strict clampdown on such commemorations by Tamils, irrespective of whether those remembrances were for combatants or civilians.

From 2015, when Rajapaksa was voted out, the situation eased somewhat, and remembrance ceremonies in the north-east began to be allowed under restrictions. In 2018, around the 9th anniversary of the end of the war, the Jaffna University Students Union began a campaign to erect a memorial on campus in memory of civilians who were killed in the 2009 battles. There was a prolonged dispute with university officials over the site within the campus, as the students wanted to locate it next to another memorial for fallen LTTE combatants, “mahaveerar” or martyrs.

In May 2019, the memorial came up overnight, next to the mahaveerar memorial. It had been sculpted by students. Jaffna University insiders say it was designed by a student who was witness to the massacre at Mullaivaikkal.

The mahaveerar memorial has existed on campus for nearly 25 years. Although there is no specific reference to the Tigers on it and, for all apparent purposes, it memorialises students and faculty members who were killed during the war, the association with the group was inevitable. Mahaveerar recalls the LTTE because of the Mahaveerar Day that it celebrated annually on November 27, the day the Tigers first lost a cadre in 1982.

A third memorial at the campus came up in 2002, during the ceasefire between the LTTE and the government, during a period of heightened political assertion by the LTTE in the north-east through events called “Pongu Tamizh” (or Tamil uprising) — mass Tamil rallies organised by the LTTE’s political wing, at which participants swore allegiance to the goal of Tamil Eelam. For 17 years there was only a plaque to indicate the place where it was held. In 2019, it got a permanent structure.

University during the conflict

Jaffna University began in 1974. Rajan Hoole, who has taught at the university for many years, and was a founding member of the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR), a group that provided independent and systematic coverage of developments in the North and East from the 1980s onwards, has written that many of its faculty had Marxist leanings, until the LTTE began silencing all dissent from 1986 onwards.

The Tigers also physically occupied parts of the campus as their operational headquarters. Jaffna University was the site of the IPKF’s para helidrop on the night of October 11, 1987, an operation that went horribly wrong — 29 soldiers were killed and one was taken hostage — and gave the LTTE its first big win over the Indian Army.

In the post-2009 phase, the university’s student body has been at the forefront of the Tamil demand for the remembrance of the dead in the brutal take-no-prisoners ending to the war.

Remembrance, Memory vs Erasure

In a Facebook post soon after the demolition, Jaffna member of Parliament M A Sumanthiran wrote “memorialisation creates a common and dedicated space for communities to come together to mourn and remember those that they lost in the war…Memorials are also living history lessons…” that allow people to learn from past mistakes.

Memorialisation is problematic around the world and, as India’s own experience shows, more so in polarised communities, societies, and nations. In Sri Lanka, right through the war, who gets to remember and who may not, were contentious and divisive issues. After last week’s incident in Jaffna, some Tamils and others pointed out that the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which led two major insurrections in southern Sri Lanka and whose cadres were drawn from the Sinhalese majority, was allowed to mourn its dead through memorials in Colombo and elsewhere, but not the Tamils.

In the post-war period, Mullaithivu district, once a stronghold of the LTTE, became the site of several war memorials built by the Sri Lankan army, including a huge monument to the soldier, which the Tamil people saw as another kind of assault on them. A memorial to Indian soldiers of the IPKF came up in Colombo in 2008, after much persuasion by India.

Since 2015, members of the Tamil community have gathered every year on May 18, in greater or smaller numbers depending on the political situation and the numbers of military checkpoints and personnel deployed, at what is now described in maps as the Mullaivaikkal Memorial Grounds on the beach strip where a lot of people were killed. There are two memorials there: one a pair of hands rising towards the sky from a plinth; and another a man carrying a wounded or dead woman, with a child next to him.

But as the Sri Lankan citizen journalism website Groundviews reported in 2019, “Civilian memorial activities have in the past been met with legal injunctions; authorities were concerned they were a threat to national security, having assumed that the memorial was for dead LTTE cadres. Civilians attending May 18th memorials have been called in for questioning.”

The Sri Lankan government’s approach to the events of 2009 has been a persistent refusal to address them. Under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka has also informed the UN Human Rights Council that it will no longer be party to the commitments made by the previous government to address these issues under resolution 40/1. Its commitments as a co-sponsor of the resolution end this year.

The conciliatory gestures by Vice-Chancellor Sriskantharajah — who has made it plain that he is only acting on the government’s orders — are being seen as a tactical retreat in the face of international criticism, possibly even to ensure it does not become an election issue in Tamil Nadu. The V-C and other officials have been reported in the media as saying the need of the hour was “memorials to peace, not war”, and that “a monument to peace” would be constructed at the site.

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