An eerie art installation near an idyllic Sri Lankan beach symbolizes many of the contradictions of this post-war society, comprising a sculpture of a man carrying his brutalized daughter, an old suitcase full of clothes and a small ‘graveyard’ punctuated by tiny stones.
The core sculpture was inaugurated on May 18, 2016 – the seventh anniversary of the end of the decades–long civil war, which the Sri Lankan government celebrates as a day of victory over the Tamil insurgents.
One year later, police obtained a court order preventing Father Elil Rajendram, the Tamil Jesuit priest behind the project (and an activist and co-spokesperson for the Tamil Civil Society Forum), from presiding over a ceremony to add some stones bearing the names of people who had died during the war.
The following day, after a legal challenge mounted by Kumaravadivel Guruparan, head of the law department at Jaffna University, the court decreed that the ceremony could only take place within the premises of the nearby church. The name-bearing stones have since remained out of public view, while Father Elil was questioned by the authorities on four separate occasions.
The police claimed that some of those memorialized might be members of the banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatist group, better known as the Tamil Tigers, although Guruparan argued that commemorating the names of deceased LTTE members was not banned under any Sri Lankan law.
In the event, the police proved unable to confirm that any of the names were actually those of LTTE members: they were simply acting on suspicion.
Mullivaaikaal, the beach in question, lies at the heart of ‘the cage’, a narrow isthmus where the remnants of the Tamil Tigers were slaughtered by the Sri Lankan army in the bloody culmination of a long-running civil war in May 2009. Tens of thousands of people were killed in what the government still refers to as a ‘humanitarian’ operation.
Sri Lankan security forces have erected numerous monuments to celebrate their victory and to recognize their war dead, but no such privilege has been accorded to those from the LTTE, nor to the Tamil civilians who perished during the fighting.
In refusing to allow ordinary families to honor or even to remember their dead, Sri Lankan authorities claim they are responding to pressure from hardline Buddhist groups who insist that brutal terrorists are not entitled to such decencies.
The outspoken Chief Minister of the Northern Province, former Supreme Court Justice Canagasabapathy Visuvalingam Vigneswaran, has been the one of the loudest elected voices for the Tamil cause in recent years.
This writer asked why he couldn’t erect a memorial to the Tamil war dead right in front of his office (there is a handy patch of waste ground right next to the gate), but he answered rather melodramatically that if he pushed too hard on this issue, even he could be taken into custody: the government has made holding meetings about memorials hard enough, let alone building them.
I later had chance to ask a senior military commander why the memorialization issue was so sensitive. While acknowledging that during many years of fighting the army had developed ‘a bit of an arrogant mindset’, he insisted that negative sentiments of people and politicians in the South were now the main obstacle to any memorial to Tamil victims or LTTE fighters, rather than military obstructionism.
Nevertheless, he personally believed such memorials should be possible in the future. Meanwhile, he noted, progress had been made – until recently, even private memorial ceremonies were banned, not just public commemorations.
The 30-year civil war in Sri Lanka remains a subject of intense controversy. But since the more compromising and pragmatic President Maithripala Sirisena assumed power in early 2015 with the support of the country’s Tamil minority, reconciliation has figured prominently in public discourse.
The incoming government established the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), chaired by the redoubtable former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
Numerous worthy unity and reconciliation projects have been initiated, focusing on areas such as youth exchanges, vocational training, agricultural livelihoods and the construction of new homes for those displaced during the conflict.
Yet in the Northern Province – an overwhelmingly Tamil region where much of the fighting took place – local people remain skeptical about development-oriented, top-down reconciliation projects that are largely conceived and implemented by the bureaucracy and security forces. Among recurrent local concerns are missing persons, military land occupation and memorialization.
Critical observers, such as human rights activist Ruki Fernando, argue that until these core issues are addressed, token projects will do little to assuage Tamil frustrations with the state. He argues that rather than exercising leadership, the Colombo government has become the captive of the military and Buddhist hardliners.
During the civil war, huge numbers of people were driven out of their homes in the North and East of the country. When they tried to return after 2009, many found their land occupied by the military. In the Jaffna peninsula alone, the military currently holds more than 10,000 acres of land, around half of it used for bases.
The military points to progress in releasing occupied land, but insists that for security reasons the process has to be incremental.
In recent months, there has been a mushrooming of protest encampments by villagers seeking the return of their property from security forces. These round-the-clock vigils illustrate a remarkable opening up of political space in Sri Lanka: they would have been unthinkable during the time of hardline former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Yet while they have attracted some attention from the media and Tamil political parties, and in a few cases have won concessions from the military, most of the protests are being quietly ignored. Similar vigils have been established in other locations to demand information about those who went missing during the war.
Since 1994, the government has received more than 65,000 complaints relating to missing persons: in the absence of death certificates, their surviving relatives face serious problems over access to bank accounts, inheritance and re-marriage.
A major government initiative is needed to resolve these issues, but so far efforts to address them have been piecemeal; the president only finally approved the establishment of a long–promised Office of Missing Persons on July 20.
Land, missing persons and monuments are important examples of reconciliation-related issues. All highlight the importance of granting agency and authority to victims in a post-war order like Sri Lanka’s. Similar challenges have dogged other post-conflict societies such as that of Northern Ireland: education and development projects can only go so far, if sensitive core concerns remain unaddressed.
While the international community is now pressing for large-scale transitional justice initiatives in Sri Lanka, neither a hybrid tribunal nor a truth commission will be easy to realize. In the meantime, displaying the names of some Tamil war victims near a Northern beach might be one small place to start.
Duncan McCargo is the author of Tearing Apart the Land (2008), a study of the Southern Thai conflict