On January 8, 2021, the Sri Lankan army conducted the bulldozing of the Mullivaikkal Memorial on the University of Jaffna in Eelam. This destruction is one of many against the markers of Tamil commemoration of the genocide, as Brintha Koneshachandra explains in this text.
The Mullivaikkal Memorial used to stand still in the garden of the University of Jaffna. From afar, Eelam Tamil students, professors, lecturers, staff members, and visitors could see the monument’s stone arms and hands reaching out from the soil. These were arms and hands of the tens of thousands of Tamil civilians massacred in the village of Mullivaikkal by the ethnocratic Sri Lankan government. Located on the North Eastern coast of Eelam, the village of Mullivaikkal was designated as a no-fire zone by the Sri Lankan government during the final stages of the war. In the first five months of 2009, between 70,000 and 140,000 Tamils were gathered and entrapped in this no-fire zone, before being executed by the Sri Lankan army. Mullivaikkal marked the culmination of the state-sponsored genocide targeting the Tamil population in the civil war roughly spanning from 1958 until 2009. The memorial structure was erected by family members of the victims to commemorate their lost and loved ones, who disappeared during the Mullivaikkal massacre.
Uprooted from their lands, a large part of the Eelam Tamil diaspora across the world have learnt to preserve memories of their people through commemoration days as their connection with their homeland is rendered difficult, if not impossible. Many stateless refugees left their homes bringing little to no personal belongings with them. For my family, my mother’s stories were our unique bridge to the homeland. In the past years, my personal connection to my heritage has also been fulfilled through yearly commemoration days. Commemorating Maveerar Naal, the Remembrance Day of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militants who fought for the liberation of Tamil Eelam on November 27, or Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day on May 18, was all that was left for me, an Eelam Tamil woman, living far from my community, to connect with my land, people and history. On these days, my body goes through a process of mourning for the pain and suffering that my people went through, and the intergenerational traumas of genocide that I also carry on my shoulders. It is a day where I remember collectively with my diaspora, it is a day of collective resistance against the past and current oppression of our people.
While the psyche of the Eelam Tamil diaspora is partly centered around these remembrance days, the Mullivaikkal memorial, erected in 2019 ten years after the last stages of the state-sponsored genocide, has also become part of the Tamil psyche in Eelam. Across the world, it is part of the Tamil identity, a symbol of Tamil suffering in the genocide, as well as resistance against oppressions through remembrance. Not even two years after its construction, the monument was deliberately destroyed by authorities with assistance from the military on January 8, 2021. In bulldozing the memorial, the right to commemorate and sentiments of the Tamil people was, once again, bulldozed as well.
Since its independence from British colonization, Sri Lankan political sphere has been dominated by a Sinhala supremacist vision, one that has materialized, and continue to materialize itself, through anti-Tamil violence and subjugation of Tamil existence, bodies and history to a Sinhala hegemonic governance. Even though war mechanisms of oppression and genocide ended in 2009, different methods of oppression against the Eelam Tamil population were elaborated upon and now well established in the country. War tactics of genocide and bombings were rapidly replaced by technologies of repression visible in space, in the built enviroment, through internal Sinhalese colonization but also by the constant systemic discrimination including surveillance, intimidation, arrest and imprisonment of Tamil people. These new technologies of repression continue to interfere daily with processes of memorializing struggle for the Tamil population in Eelam.
Regardless of practices being held in public or private, Tamil memorialization, as well as Tamil mourning, Tamil joy, Tamil culture, Tamil heritage is surveilled, policed, criminalized, and erased. In the past decade, the Sri Lankan government and authorities have removed, erased, replaced, and destroyed traces of Tamil history, traces of the injustices and genocide perpetuated against the population. Sinhala supremacism has taken a toll on dictating who can be remembered and how: the right of the Tamil population to commemorate is constantly being violated.
Attempts to remove and erase Tamil history and presence on the island have multiplied since the ‘formal’ end of the war. In postwar Sri Lanka, Eelam Tamils are not anymore massacred at a large scale, but remain supervised and surveilled while celebrating events like Thai Pongal, which is a Hindu harvest festival observed by Tamil Hindus and non-Hindus. The Scottish-trained Sri Lankan Special Task Force (STF) troops have also intervened during numerous private Maveerar Naal remembrance events, and destroyed memorial structures. Not a single memorial in memory of the Tamil civilians was constructed by the government. Meanwhile, violence resides within Sinhala monuments deliberately erected across the lands where the Tamil reside, and across the North and East, Buddhist temples are replacing Hindu temples — as was recently the case in the Kurunthurmalai region. A process of Sinhala colonization is at stake, one where Sinhala supremacists establish their dominance and hegemony spatially, materially and in the rewriting of history. One where Eelam Tamil monuments of commemoration are progressively being erased and replaced (see Sinthujan Varatharajah’s article in The Funambulist 11 Designed Destructions, 2017). The process of undoing and erasure is highly political as the government dictates and wishes to rewrite the course of history.
Tamil heritage is being subjugated at the hands of an ethnocratic state whose purpose is to remind the population that they will have no agency and autonomy over their own lands. Years after years, the resistance of Eelam Tamils performed through commemorational gatherings, or around memorial structures is being banned or erased, the ethnocratic state showing, once again, that they will have no agency and autonomy even over their psyche and collective memory making. The Sri Lankan state has firmly adopted a political choice going against memorialization, where there is no space given to honour freedom fighters, soldiers, and civilians. When a people’s right to memory is banned, a people’s right to memory is denied. The evidences of internal Sinhalization and active denial of Tamil memorialization all lead to the reality where the war genocide of Eelam Tamils has become replaced by a cultural genocide of the population in postwar Sri Lanka.
Indeed, removing and replacing the Mullivaikkal Memorial is part of the Sri Lankan government’s wider agenda to erase the injustices targeting the Tamil population and to erase this particular part of history, since the Sirisena Wickremesinghe regime and today continuing under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s despotic governance. Nevertheless, the genocide of the Tamil people is in fact eminently present in the Eelam Tamil collective consciousness and memory. Instead of working toward justice and reparations toward the victims and giving space for memorialization, the Sri Lankan ethnocratic government continues to adopt political positions of dominance over the Tamil minority.
A parallel needs to be drawn between the destruction of the Mullivaikkal Memorial at the University of Jaffna and the burning of the Jaffna library in 1981. The latter was one of the most prestigious libraries on the Asian continent, containing unique collections, manuscripts and archival sources of Tamil history. Prior to its destruction, Sri Lanka was in the midst of an election campaign and tensions had already risen. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) representing the Tamil community stood for the creation of an independent state. In order to gain control over the electoral results, the United National Party (UNP) commissioned officers of the Sri Lankan police force and the paramilitary to intimidate Tamil voters. On May 31, 1981, the day of the burning of the Jaffna library, Sri Lankan cabinet ministers Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake, sent officers of the Sri Lankan police forces to disrupt a rally organized by the TULF. Tension rose, confrontations started and three Sinhalese police officers were shot. Later on that day, and for two days, organized mobs of Sinhala supremacists set fire to the library, destroyed the TULF headquarters, attacked and destroyed many homes, shops, Tamil cultural centers and religious figures. This organized act of destruction was an ethnic biblioclasm against the Tamil people, the starting point of the decades of ethnic cleansing that followed. Symbolically, through this violent act, the Sinhala supremacists wished to burn to the ground and erase the presence, the history and heritage of the Tamil people from the island in 1981. Today, in postwar Sri Lanka, under Gotabaya governance, authorities continue to erase, remove and destroy the Tamil people and the Tamil history, from which the Tamil genocide is part of.
In the early 2000s, the library was reconstructed by state authorities. After days of hunger strikes and protests led by Jaffna University students, Jaffna University Vice-chancellor Sivakolundu Srisatkunarajah announced that a new monument will be rebuilt: a peace monument; one where memory is not allowed to live, one where the history of the massacre of tens of thousands of Tamils can not be honored. Today, a new memorial will be built to satisfy the Sinhala hegemonic vision and narrative of unity and peace, over the ruins of a memorial structure that was built in memory of the genocide of a people. ■