Bill Rolston examines the one-sided narratives that come through in contemporary public displays in Sri Lanka, following the ending of the three-decade-long war.
In 1832 New York senator William Marcy coined the phrase ‘to the victor belong the spoils of victory’. In war and conflict one of these spoils can be the monopoly over the narrative of the conflict and its outcome. Nowhere is this more obvious than in contemporary Sri Lanka. The ending of the three-decade long war in Sri Lanka was unusual. It resulted from an outright military victory rather than a stalemate or peace treaty. The separatist organization, the LTTE (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), was obliterated and the path was clear for the state and military to propagate its narrative with little challenge.
In January 2020 I travelled through the north and east of the country, through places intimately connected to the war. It was in these areas where the LTTE had most influence. And it was also here that the final showdown came in April 2009. Central to the military victory was the concentration of a large number of Tamil civilians, along with LTTE fighters, into one coastal section of the north east around Mullivaikkal and Mullaitivu. The army declared the area a ‘no fire zone’ and corralled people there. At the same time, the LTTE seized the opportunity of protection from a large population of human shields. As the harrowing award-winning documentary by Callum Macrae ‘No Fire Zone’ reveals, the military bombardment of the area was intense. There is no precise figure of the number of casualties; estimates of up to 70,000 have been quoted. As the military repeatedly reduced the size of the zone, the concentration of suffering increased. As one example: medical staff struggled against gargantuan odds to treat the injured. They were so short of supplies that at times they transfused blood from dying people for use for those who might survive. They released coordinates of their makeshift field hospitals to the Red Cross who informed the Sri Lanka Army so that they would avoid hitting medical facilities by accident. When it became clear that this information was being used to target the hospitals, they requested the Red Cross no longer to share this information.
Not much sign remains of this death and destruction. There are some rusting tanks and bullet-holed buildings near the beach in Mullaitivu. Most of the evidence, including the house of the leader of the LTTE, Thiruvenkadam Velupillai Prabhakaran, in Valvettithurai, for a time after the end of the war a popular tourist destination, has been obliterated. There is one particularly poignant memory visible in Kanakapuram, near Kilinochchi. It is the remains of a cemetery of LTTE combatants. It has been totally destroyed. The concrete gravestones and broken plaques with the details of the dead fighters are piled in a mound several metres high. Activists have returned to re-erect a few of the least damaged gravestones, but otherwise the site is unrecognizable as a place of rest and respect for the dead (see figures 1 and 2).
Equally poignant is a statue in Mullivaikkal, within the ‘no fire’ zone. A man carries the body of an injured or dead woman while a traumatized child stands alongside them (see figure 3). All look emaciated and are in threadbare clothing. This monument, erected in 2016, is a rare public acknowledgement of the victims and survivors of the final bombardment. The material is concrete, a brutal material, but yet the effect is human, a stark difference from some of the brutal concrete monuments erected by the state.
The virtual silence about Tamil victims, whether combatants or not, is contrasted with a veritable noise about the military. There are numerous army camps, some apparently makeshift and others clearly permanent. In addition, there are numerous monuments relating to this final phase of the war.
There are two narratives which come through in these public displays. The first is that what happened in the final days at the end of the war was not a massacre, but a humanitarian intervention. This is the term used in the Sri Lankan government’s own account of the final days of the war. Or, in the words of Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka, it was ‘the world’s largest hostage rescue’. To take one example: in 2006 a Jordanian ship, the Farah, got into mechanical difficulties in the sea near Mullaitivu. The LTTE boarded and captured the ship and proceeded to strip metal from it for armour on vehicles and for building bunkers. Some rusted remains of the ship can still be seen a few metres offshore, as well as the wreck of one LTTE armoured vehicle. A government information plaque nearby notes that the ‘Sri Lanka Army captured this ship during the Wanni Humanitarian Operation.’
The second narrative relates to the prowess of the military. Near Kilinochchi a massive and brutal cube of concrete celebrates the army’s victory in 2009. The concrete is pierced and cracked, but not demolished, by a massive rocket (see figure 4). In flowery and archaic language an adjoining information board notes ‘the gallant operation to annihilate savage and brutal terrorism which has marked this land over thirty years is marked by a cuboid and the projectile which is penetrated this cuboid symbolizing the sturdiness of invincible Sri Lanka Army to blossom forth in a lotus of peace enwrapped in the fluttering national flag that proclaims the resplendent majesty of the nation’s glory’. If nationalism is, as Anderson states, an ‘imagined community’, then clearly the defeated Tamils are excluded from that imagination.
There are other triumphalist memorials which manage paradoxically to combine glorification of military might with contradictory appeals to peace and reconciliation. At Elephant Pass there is a sculpture showing hands holding Sri Lanka skywards. On the plinth are depictions of various sections of the armed forces in action (see figure 5). The monument was dedicated one year after the defeat of the Tigers and celebrates the ‘opening of the way for the free movement of North and South citizens in this land of victory’. A further plaque goes on to elaborate: ‘Mutual acquaintance, friendship and fraternity, surviving from time immemorial, shattered into pieces. With the objective of engarlanding the reconciled persons, the valiant, heroic and valorous troops of 57th and 58th Divisions approached diligently, courageously with might and main and without a wink of sleep from the Southern direction and traversed scrubs, impassable moats, quagmires and demolishing dreadful traps and the troops of 53rd and 55th Divisions advanced from the Northern direction, converged on this historical place of Elephant Pass and liberated this long path of brotherhood with a magnitude of force, annihilating terrorism and eliminating social disparities on the tenth of January two thousand nine. Establishment of peace through the achievement of military victory is a basis for the restoration of friendly relations and brotherhood to take the initiative of a perpetual peace journey amidst playing trumpets and tom tom beating.’
There is of course another possible narrative which stresses military excess to the point of massacre and perhaps even genocide. Central to this narrative are the actions of the Rajapaksa brothers, Mahinda, who was president from 2005 to 2015, and his brother Gotabaya, Secretary of Defence during the same period. (A third brother, Basil, was a senior advisor to his brother the president during the war.) Allegations of war crimes have been made in relation to the leadership of Mahinda and Gotabaya and in late 2019 legal moves were at an advanced stage in the US to prosecute Gotabaya. In late 2019 Gotabaya was elected president and is thus currently beyond prosecution. The case against him rests not simply on the fact that as defence minister he oversaw the brutal final stages of the war, but that he was personally involved in war crimes. He is alleged to have directed artillery attacks on hospitals treating Tamil victims. In response to the bombing of a hospital, he stated in a television interview: ‘… to crush the terrorists there is nothing called unproportionate.’
Nor did the killing cease with the ending of the bombarding of the ‘no fire zone’. A major screening process began of those leaving the zone, resulting in summary executions and disappearances. For example, the head of the LTTE’s political wing, Balasingham Nadesan, and the head of the Tiger Peace Secretariat, Velupilai Pulidevan, were among 300 people who emerged from the zone carrying white flags early on the morning of 18th May 2009. Through interlocutors they had received assurances from the President and the Defence Secretary that their surrender would be accepted. Gotabaya had even specified the exact route they were to take. Nadesan and Pulidevan were found dead shortly afterwards. In the same month, Balachandran Prabhakaran, the twelve-year old son of the LTTE leader, was executed while in army custody.
There is no hint whatsoever in the government sponsored public displays of such contentious matters. Amidst the posturing and nationalist excess, nothing of this murky picture is on public display. Instead there is crass monumentalism. Take the victory memorial in Puthukkudiyiruppu (see figure 6). A much larger than life-size bronze-coloured statue of a Sri Lanka soldier, severed at the waist, emerges from a concrete plinth which in turn is built on a cairn of stones. The stones are engraved with the names of various army regiments which took part in the final battle. The soldier brandishes an automatic weapon in one hand and the national flag in another. His mouth is open wide as he screams, presumably a cry of victory. There is no subtlety or nuance in the artwork or the message. This is a triumphalist celebration of military victory – that is, death and destruction – without any indication of that death and destruction. To complete the narrative, a plaque notes that the memorial was unveiled by the Rajapaksa brothers, Mahinda and Gotabaya, in 2009.
Beyond this official memorialization of victory, there are numerous popular displays in the form of murals. They appear on walls around schools and hospitals in towns and villages, mainly outside of the north and east, that is in the areas where the Sinhalese population is in the majority. Bus shelters appear to be a particularly popular site for these murals; there they have a captive audience as passengers wait for the bus to arrive. There are murals about children and education, about climate issues, even one I saw urging ‘respect for women’. But by far the palette is dominated by two themes. First, there are portraits of heroes. Sri Lanka soldiers appear in silhouette, with helicopters and tanks (see figure 7), or are shown armed and posing with either a serious look or a grin of satisfaction. In one case a concrete statue on a soldier rests on top of a bus shelter (see figure 8.) Many of the soldiers in the murals sport bandanas rather than regular army attire and could have easily come from a Sri Lanka remake of ‘Apocalypse Now’. While many of the portrayals are not of actual soldiers, some are. For example, one shows General Priyanaka Fernando (see figure 9). He was a senior officer in the days of the final confrontation with the Tigers and later was Defence Attache of the Sri Lankan High Commission in London. In 2018 he was caught on camera responding to Tamil demonstrators outside the High Commission. He pointed to the army badge on his arm before then drawing his finger across his throat twice in a cutthroat gesture. Although he was temporarily suspended from his job as a result, it is clear that the mural painter had no intention of criticizing his actions.
There is a second set of murals which also depict armed men, not contemporary warriors but historical ones. They refer to precolonial battles between Sinhalese and Tamils. The images would not be out of place in a comic or animated film (see figure 10). But the message of these murals is not simply ‘historical’ in the academic sense of the word. There is a contemporary synergy between the depictions of battles and warriors old and new. For example, on one wall a historical hero brandishes a sword, while directly alongside a contemporary soldier proudly salutes the national flag (see figures 11 and 12). Although the message of the historical murals is oblique compared to that of the murals of contemporary heroes and indeed of the government monuments, it is ultimately identical: we won, you lost.
1. A substantial number of the 9% minority Muslim population also live in this region. Their story is a separate and specific one, and one that has been dramatically affected by the reaction to the bombings in Sri Lanka at Easter 2019 which left 259 people dead.
2. For a comprehensive ‘tour’ of memory sites in Sri Lanka, see Alan Keenan and Julie David de Lossy, ‘Picturing Sri Lanka’s Undead War’, May 2019: https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/sri-lanka/picturing-sri-lankas-undead-war
3. Ministry of Defence, Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, Humanitarian Operation Factual Analysis, July 2016 – May 2009 – July 2011; http://slembassyusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Sri-Lankan-Humanitarian-Operation-Factual-Analysis.pdf
4. United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, 31 March 2011, p. 48; https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/POC%20Rep%20on%20Account%20in%20Sri%20Lanka.pdf
5. Skynews, 2 February 2009; quoted in United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, 2011, page 26.
6. ‘Handed a snack, and then executed: the last hours of the 12-year-old son of a Tamil Tiger’, Independent, 18 February 2013
Bill Rolston is emeritus professor and former director of the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University. Among numerous other issues, he has had a long-term research interest in political wall murals. He has documented the republican and loyalist murals of Northern Ireland, and produced four books of pictures and text, all entitled Drawing Support. His focus has not solely been on the political murals of his own place; as a result, he has published articles on murals in Colombia, Chile, Sardinia, Gaza, the Basque Country, Orihuela in Spain, and Iran. Details of all these publications, along with photographs, can be found at his website.
All photos: Bill Rolston