Contested Memories: How Sri Lanka Dominates Tamil Ruins


Architecture is a physical representation of the history of a particular region, reign and the social groups that inhabit this space. It can form a group’s consciousness and longevity; it can also be turned into a physical projection of both the material and immaterial conditions of a social group. During periods of violence, architecture often falls victim to various forms of destruction that either intentionally or arbitrarily subjugate a space and its people to violent domination. It can mark a landscape with physical scars that serve as lessons and reminders for decades, centuries and generations to come; it can equally be quickly plastered over and manipulate a people’s sense of history, memory and self.    

The choice between removing, replacing, abandoning or preserving signs of destruction then becomes a highly political one. It reflects the political climate of an affected region and people. While some power agents may prefer erasing a violent past to eradicate potential traces of injustices, others may choose the contrary in order to celebrate acts of resistance or domination. Often, signs of violent destructions are also partially or fully preserved as warnings to deter future conflict or violence.

02 Destroyed Col Thileepan Statue
Destroyed Col. Thileepan statue near Nallur Kovil, Jaffna Town

Sri Lanka serves as an interesting example of the collision of multiple interests. A non-coherent solution post-war can be found, becoming the default everyday reality of people who inhabit highly violated spaces.

Since British Ceylon gained independence in 1948, the country has been dominated by Sinhala supremacist politics which culminated in a genocide against the numerically smaller Tamil nation. From anti-Tamil discriminatory laws to racial pogroms, up until an all-out war that killed hundreds of thousands, mostly Tamils, and displaced more than half of the Tamil population, Sri Lanka holds a rich history of anti-Tamil violence and suffering. Resistance to Sinhala supremacy gave birth to a strong independence movement that aimed at creating a separate Tamil state, Eelam. In 2009, however, the guerilla-led independence project was brutally crushed, after a 26-year war, by an overwhelming and internationally-backed Sri Lankan Army. Today, Tamil’s demand for self-rule, whether in the form of independence or through autonomy, remain largely stifled.

08 Pannai Causeway
House fragments near Pannai Causeway, Jaffna Town (2017).

In the past eight years, other technologies of oppression have replaced war activities and continue to detrimentally affect the well-being and future of the Tamil people. Despite reconstruction works, much of the Tamil homeland in the north and east remain devastated by the violence. It renders Tamil regions into a space not just ethnically, linguistically, culturally and religiously distinct to the rest of the island, but also economically, socially and architecturally. Scorched earth methods practiced by the Sri Lankan Army with the blessings of Sri Lanka’s highest authorities (incl. one of its Presidents who asked for Jaffna to be burnt to the ground) left unmissable stains across much of the Tamil homeland. As a result, war tourism remains a popular industry for outsiders who flock into Tamil regions.

State-led destructions of Tamil villages, towns, cities and monuments weren’t always arbitrary. They were often designed and intended. One of Jaffna’s most prominent buildings and victims of engineered destruction in Sri Lanka’s war and genocide against Tamils was the Jaffna Public Library. The Tamil institution was at the time one of the largest libraries in South Asia and home to more than 90.000 books, manuscripts and irreplaceable palm scripts on Tamil history. During an anti-Tamil riot in June 1981, the library became the target of an arson attack by Sinhalese police officers and paramilitaries. The building and its many books were eventually burnt to the ground. The destruction of the library became a turning point in the history of postcolonial violence. It deeply stained the Tamil psyche. The ruins of the library emerged as a constant physical reminder of the impossibility of achieving Tamil rights and equality under Sinhalese leadership.

03 Remains Of A Memorial
Remains of a memorial for Col. Kitu in Kitu Park, Jaffna Town.

In 2001, twenty years after the racist bibliocasm, the Sri Lankan government began to reconstruct the damaged building. The library was finally reopened in 2003 and, at least visually speaking, able to return to its old glory. Local demands to preserve the ruins and build a new library adjunct to the old one were however ignored by the Colombo government. It wasn’t in the interest of the Sinhalese state to preserve reminders of its many crimes committed against the Tamil community. The restored library today deceives us to believe in a prestigious past void of violence. Today, there is only one small, almost hidden image within the library that reminds visitors of the possibility of a violent past — if they are able to find it, which they purposefully shouldn’t.

07 Ruins2
A destroyed home in the Muslim Quarter of Jaffna Town.

The restoration of the destroyed Jaffna Public Library was a highly contested project aimed at whitewashing a history of genocide. It allies with acts of targeted destructions of symbols of Tamil suffering and resistance throughout Eelam.

To erase sites of remembrance and commemoration, including the twenty-eight cemeteries built for Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighters, serves as acts of destabilizing a Tamil sense of history and identity. It also exemplifies the physical domination and psychological subjugation of a people to Sinhalese hegemony. By displacing physical memories that challenge a state-centric and Sinhala-friendly reading of postcolonial Tamil history, a contested landscape is forcefully integrated into a hegemonic state that doesn’t allow for alternative Tamil histories to exist.

06 Ruin
Destroyed home in the Muslim Quarter of Jaffna Town.

The fact that many of the pedestals of former memorials remain sitting at their original sites while the statues that commemorated resistance have long vanished shows that the intent was never just erasure in itself. The Sinhalese state wants to instead confront the Tamil population day in and day out with the impossibility of autonomy of mind and land.

Signs of destruction have, however, not fully vanished from Eelam. Eight years after the end of the war, the landscape still carries many open wounds that development programs from the south were not able to paint over — yet.

04 Tamil Resistance Memorial
Damaged and restored Tamil resistance memorial at University of Jaffna, Jaffna Town.

Demolished and abandoned houses continue to decorate entire stretches of land and illustrate the tremendous toll the conflict has had on people across Eelam. The islets west of Jaffna peninsula, particularly Punguthitheevu, are a case point. Following intense violence, much of the local Tamil population has either fled or died. Today, the island is, just like Jaffna peninsula, largely depopulated. Unlike Jaffna, Punguthitheevu is too isolated and economically obsolete to become attractive for new migrants and potential resettlements. While Jaffna is experiencing reconstruction or demolition efforts that have replaced a lot of the formerly destroyed buildings, and while returnees and new migrants have taken up some of the vacant spaces in the region, the islets seem trapped in a time loop that provides testimony to how much of the region has suffered.

11 Ruins
Shelled and abandonned home in Pungudhitheevu, an islet west of Jaffna.

Many houses on the islets are often either fully or partially destroyed, or falling apart and being reclaimed by nature after being abandoned by their owners. Signs of decay are omnipresent on the islands and leave an almost haunting impression on both residents and visitors. Kayts provide an insight into the systemic nature of destruction which has shaped much of the Tamil homeland while displacing more than half its population. The area has, just as the rest of Jaffna, been under the Sri Lankan army of occupation since 1995. Ever since, many abandoned spaces have been claimed by the Sri Lankan Navy, which continues to have a large presence in the region.

In the absence of large-scale development programs, sites of destruction can be seen all across the Kayts. The Jaffna peninsula on the other hand has been exposed to a different form of post-war activity: with Colombo-led neoliberal development schemes, resettlement programs and rising property prices, much of Jaffna has seen a wave of reconstruction and demolition of ruins. Signs of destruction have shifted from the main streets into the backstreets, where they today sit in between newly-built or renovated buildings.

05 Bullet Holes
Bullet holes on the walls of a destroyed home in Ariyalai.

Much of Eelam, particularly the Vanni and Jaffna, today function as magnets for war tourism for Sinhalese and sometimes also white tourists. While seeking to witness suffering, foreign tourists, and this includes Sinhalese, don’t necessarily want to engage with affected people and their own histories and voices. They often rely on the most convenient and available narrative: the state’s provided by Sinhalese tourist guides or simply the military. State-designed destruction has indeed created an exploitive economy long after physical forms of violence have shifted towards psychological warfare.

09 Pannai Causeway
Shelled and abandonned home in Pungudhitheevu, an islet west of Jaffna.

Simultaneously, whilst war tourism is still at its height, physical traces of war outside of the most heavily and recently affected regions are slowly vanishing. Though much of today’s reconstruction efforts are driven by the Sri Lankan state with the intention of providing top-down development solutions as a way of deflecting from a political stalemate for Tamils, a large part is also the result of decisions made by Tamil home owners. Many simply want to move on, to return or to profit from the current property boom in the region. This fast-changing topography has led to pressing questions amongst many Tamil activists: who benefits the most from the reconstruction and demolition of ruined buildings? Is it Tamils or the Sinhalese state? And is there a need for and meaning behind the preservation of some war ruins? In face of a hegemonic state that smoothly overwrites Tamil history and landscapes in favor of its own Sinhalese narrative, dissent is growing against the re-engineering of Tamil lands. With a lack of ownership over land and narrative however, the space for political action seems relatively small. Memories remain contested in Eelam and Sri Lanka.