Tamil Resistance & Resilience in the Face of Genocide
A global photo campaign to commemorate the Mullivaikkal Massacre
The Colonization of the Island (1500-1948)
Demographics of the Island
The inhabitants of the island of Sri Lanka are 74% Sinhalese, the majority of whom are Buddhist; 13% Tamils, who are both Hindu and Christian; and 8% Muslims who are generally Tamil-speaking. Less than 1% are individuals of mixed Sri Lankan and European descent (or Burghers) and other communities. The Tamil people are concentrated in the North-East of the island, which many call Eelam (or homeland).
In the 1500s, European colonization began, after which some coastal areas were controlled by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the British, who colonized the entire island in 1815. During their rule, the British brought Tamils from India as indentured laborers for tea and other plantations.
In keeping with colonial “divide and conquer” strategies, the British colonizers favored Burghers, high-caste Sinhalese, and Tamils. This contributed to the ethnic tensions and conflicts between Sinhalese and other communities, namely Tamils, which survive today. Such tensions were exacerbated by Tamils’ ability to occupy a disproportionate number of civil service positions because of the wide availability of English-language, Western-style education in the Tamil-dominated North. Interestingly, it was Tamils in the north who led the 20th century struggle for independence, even though Sinhalese communities rebelled against the British in 1818 and 1848. After a largely peaceful independence movement, similar to India’s the year before, Sri Lanka was granted independence by the British on February 4, 1948.
Rise of Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism After Independence
Post-independence, the disproportionate amount of civil service positions held by Tamils bred resentment among the Sinhalese and caused the majority Sinhalese government to embed Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in the formation of the state. Even the constitution of Sri Lanka enshrines Buddhism by giving it the “foremost place” among religions, which patently discriminates against the island’s significant non-Buddhist populations. Populist Sinhalese politicians were elected after exploiting resentment against Tamils with promises to elevate the Sinhalese people. This dangerous nationalistic attitude and rhetoric prompted the ongoing Tamil struggle for self-determination that continues today.
Anti-Tamil Pogroms before the Armed Conflict (1956-1977)
Sinhala Only Act and the Gal Oya Riots (1956)
The first ethnic-based riots against Tamils, known as the Gal Oya Riots, lasted five days in June 1956. That year, the pro-Sinhala nationalist Freedom Party rose to power with the promise that it would make the language of the Sinhalese people the sole official language on the island. The passage of the “Sinhala Only Act” discriminated against Tamils and other communities who did not understand Sinhala. In response, the Tamil Federal Party conducted a non-violent sit-in protest in front of Parliament in the capital city of Colombo. Although the protests were peaceful, a Sinhalese government minister led a Sinhalese mob in attacking the sit-in. After being urged by Sinhalese politicians to boycott Tamil businesses, the same mob went on a city-wide looting spree.
Shortly afterward, information about this mob violence spread to other parts of the country. In particular, word spread to the Gal Oya Valley, where the government had already stirred up ethnic tensions by settling Sinhalese villagers on traditionally Tamil lands. Once they heard about the violence in Colombo, many Sinhalese people in Gal Oya began rioting against Tamils on the evening of June 11, 1956. False rumors of Tamil violence against Sinhalese spurred the rioters on. Around 150 Tamils were killed and 100 more were injured. The local police stood by, and eventually army reinforcements were sent in to stop the violence.
First anti-Tamil pogrom (1958)
Two years later, in May 1958, the island experienced the first anti-Tamil ethnic pogrom, or violent riots aimed at destroying or persecuting Tamils. Estimates report a death toll of as high as 1,500 people. Although most victims were Tamils, Sinhalese mobs also attacked Sinhalese individuals who were sheltering Tamils.
The riots began on May 22nd, when Sinhalese people began attacking Tamils after the government settled Tamil laborers in Sinhalese districts. An estimated 70 people were killed the night of May 25th alone. The next day, instead of trying to ensure the cessation of violence, the Prime Minister spread false rumors about Tamils perpetrating crimes in order to incite Sinhalese people to commit further violence against them. Sinhalese mobs murdered an estimated 300 Tamils, injured another 1,000, and raped at least 200 Tamil women. They also destroyed many Tamil shops in Sinhalese-dominated areas.Just as it waited during the 1956 anti-Tamil riots, the government did nothing for five days. Then on May 27th, it declared a state of emergency. As the island’s first ethnic pogrom, the violence of 1958 played a large role in shaping the Tamil armed struggle for self-determination.
Second anti-Tamil pogrom (1977)
Decades of post-independence anti-Tamil violence and structural discrimination led Tamils to demand the devolution of power to the provinces, or federalism. Although agreements were reached, the Sri Lankan government showed no sign of following through, motivating Tamil leaders to begin politically advocating for a separate state for the Tamil people. In 1974, the major Tamil political parties joined together to form the Tamil United Liberation Front (or TULF). Two years later, the TULF adopted the Vaddukoddai Resolution, which calls for a separate state known as “Tamil Eelam” (or Tamil homeland). After the 1977 elections, Tamil districts voted overwhelmingly for the TULF and its separatist platform. The newly elected Prime Minister J.R. Jayewardene took a strong stance against separatism, and there was unprecedented state violence under his government, starting in his first year in office.
In August 1977, Sinhalese people attacked Tamils on the train from Jaffna to Colombo, through the country from Anuradhapura to Colombo, and in the Hill Country. Again, false rumors about Tamil crimes against Sinhalese people fueled the violence. From August 12th to 20th, Sinhalese mobs killed approximately 300 Tamils and injured another 1,000. The violence displaced 25,000 Tamil people. Prime Minister Jayewardene inappropriately blamed the victims, saying that the separatist leanings of the Tamil people caused the pogrom. The events of August 1977 led to the disillusionment of many Tamil people who no longer agreed with the TULF’s peaceful legal and political approach to separatism. Many of them then gravitated toward Tamil armed groups, including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (or LTTE).
The Burning of the Jaffna Library (1981)
Before 1981, the Jaffna Library, a public library in the North-East of Sri Lanka and one of the biggest libraries in Asia, housed over 97,000 volumes of books, historical scrolls, and manuscripts, including palm leaf records that were centuries old. It was the major archive of the Tamil people’s literary materials.
On May 31st, 1981, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) organized a rally to protest the government’s discriminatory policies and practices. Three Sinhalese police officers were killed during the rally. In retaliation, on the evening of June 1st, 1981, Sinhalese security forces and government-sponsored mobs burned the Jaffna Library. The library burned for two days straight in one of the largest examples of book burnings in the 21st century. This tragedy was an act of cultural genocide. The government failed to act until the library was completely ravaged.
The year after nearly all of the materials in the Jaffna Library were destroyed, the Jaffna community started to rebuild and restore the library. The community collected thousands of books and had fully rebuilt the library by 1984. However, the armed conflict, which began in 1983, damaged the building yet again. The Sri Lankan government did not attempt to rebuild the library until over a decade later. This iconic destruction was an early warning sign of the Sri Lankan government’s intent to destroy Tamil culture and memory.
On the evening of June 1st, 1981, Sinhalese security forces and government-sponsored mobs burned the Jaffna Library. At the time, it was one of Asia’s largest libraries and housed over 97,000 volumes, including ancient palm leaf records. The library burned for two days straight in one of the largest examples of book burnings in the 21st century. Nearly all of the materials in the Jaffna Library were destroyed in this act of cultural genocide.
Black July (1983)
Tamils remember July of 1983 as “Black July” due to the government-sponsored anti-Tamil pogroms and riots that marked the start of the armed conflict. Although Tamils had already been victims of several ethnic-based attacks, Black July was by far the worst.
Sri Lankan government committed genocidal acts with genocidal intent
In a classic hallmark of genocide, the government provided voter registration lists to Sinhala mobs so they could identify Tamils and attack them, their residences, and their businesses. The violence lasted for over one week from July 24 through July 30, 1983, killing more than 3,000 Tamils, destroying 5,000 shops and 8,000 homes, and displacing more than 150,000 Tamils. One of the most iconic photos is here before you, showing a Tamil youth shortly after he was stripped naked and beaten by Sinhalese rioters in Colombo. The Sinhalese man to the right is grinning as he raises his knee for another blow to the cowering Tamil youth.
Sinhala mobs also raped 500 Tamil women and even burned some Tamils alive, including by throwing children into burning cauldrons of tar. Even Tamil detainees were attacked when Sinhalese prison guards enabled Sinhalese prisoners to murder 37 Tamil political prisoners, most of whom were detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Black July prompted the first large exodus of Tamils: 500,000 of them fled the island.
President J.R. Jayewardene did not condemn the violence, express sympathy to the survivors, or call for justice. Instead, he blamed the victims and survivors and said Tamils brought the violence on themselves due to their calls for a separate state, including the Vaddukoddai Resolution, and reassured the Sinhalese people that the island would never be separated into two states. To this day, no one has been held accountable or brought to justice for these attacks.
A Tamil youth stripped naked by Sinhalese rioters near the Borella bus stand in Colombo. The men in the photo later beat him to death. This youth was one of more than 3,000 Tamils killed by Sinhalese mobs from July 24th through July 30th, 1983.
The Tamil Armed Struggle + the LTTE (1983-2009)
Origins of the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers, were an armed group and political organization. The LTTE emerged as the leader of the armed struggle for self-determination and for the separate state of Tamil Eelam (Tamil homeland) in the North-East of the island. The LTTE has roots in the Tamil student movement against the government’s policy of standardization, which, in 1971, required Tamil students to score higher than Sinhalese students as a way of increasing Sinhalese enrollment in universities. Around this time, the future leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran, got involved in one of these Tamil student organizations that advocated for a fair admissions policy. Three years later, he and his close associates formed the Tamil New Tigers (TNT), which was later refashioned into the LTTE on May 5th, 1976.
After the genocidal acts of Black July 1983, which we just explored, many Tamils joined armed groups to fight the Sri Lankan government for their right to self-determination.
The LTTE’s stance on sociocultural discrimination
The LTTE agitated not only against Sinhala Buddhist nationalistic rule, but also against sociocultural discriminatory norms within the Tamil community. Although most members of the LTTE were Hindu, Prabhakaran criticized the discriminatory features of traditional Hinduism, namely the caste system, the dowry system, and male chauvinism. Accordingly, the LTTE was a secular organization that included men and women of different religions and castes. Women constituted approximately 30% of the group and some held high-ranking positions. Here are a few images of female fighters. Notably, unlike the Sri Lankan military and most armed groups around the world, the LTTE did not perpetrate systematic sexual violence within or outside its ranks.
The LTTE’s structure
The LTTE had military, intelligence, and political wings. The military wing consisted of several divisions, including a women’s division and the Black Tigers, who launched suicide attacks with devastating effects. It included conventional army and navy divisions as well as a basic air force, which was unique among non-government actors. As a political organization and non-government actor, it was noted for having impressive governance and administrative capabilities. The LTTE’s de facto state had fully functioning administrative offices, courts, police, banks, boards of health and education, and radio and TV stations.
Although the LTTE’s international image is often dominated by its use of suicide bombers, the LTTE did not exclusively employ violence. For example, the 23-year-old political leader in Jaffna, best known by his nom-de-guerre “Thileepan,” conducted a hunger strike and fasted for 11 days until his death. He implored the Indian government, which the LTTE believed could influence the Sri Lankan government, to address militarization, Sinhalization, and the detention of Tamils under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Here you can see an image of a group of young men including Thileepan, who is pictured wearing glasses. Many people fasted with him, and 100,000 people gathered around the site of his fast-unto-death. His sacrifice is still commemorated throughout Tamil Eelam.
Allegations of LTTE crimes
Although the LTTE enjoyed widespread support among Tamils in the homeland and the diaspora, it is widely accused of committing human rights violations. The LTTE was accused of committing suicide attacks, including some on civilian targets, assassinations of Tamil opponents and political leaders, child recruitment, and forced displacement. In particular, following increasing tensions between the Tamil and Tamil-speaking Muslim communities, the LTTE expelled 72,000 Muslims from their homes in the north. Nevertheless, violations committed by the LTTE cannot be equated with the genocide and other mass atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan government, in scale or in impact, particularly toward the end of the war. The LTTE’s political ideology continues to enjoy popular support among the Tamil people. However, this support has taken on a more critical form for many Tamils.
Aftermath of the destruction of the LTTE
The Sri Lankan government defeated the LTTE on May 18th, 2009 as part of the Tamil genocide that we will describe later in the exhibit. After the LTTE’s elimination, emphases on caste, dowry, and patriarchal systems resurfaced in Tamil Eelam, much of which is also heavily militarized and surveilled by the government. Since the LTTE took a hardline stance against sexual violence and punished offenders harshly, there were lower levels of sexual violence in LTTE-controlled areas. At the time, women spoke of feeling safe enough to walk alone at night, which they no longer experience and which is exacerbated by high rates of militarization in the region.
Systematic Displacement in the Tamil Homeland (1980-2009)
Displacement in the 1980s–1990s
The following are examples of major periods of displacement. In 1983, Black July displaced 150,000 Tamils, with many fleeing the island out of fear for their lives. In 1990, following increasing tensions between the Tamil and Tamil-speaking Muslim communities in the then-LTTE-controlled North, the LTTE expelled 72,000 Muslims from their homes. In 1994 and 2002, LTTE leadership expressed remorse at the “difficult circumstances” that led to this mass eviction and acknowledged that the Jaffna peninsula was the home of Muslims as well.Five years later, the military’s attack on Jaffna in 1995 caused nearly 500,000 Tamils to flee in heavy monsoon rains. Half of them could not find shelter with relatives or in schools or churches. These Tamils slept outside in unsanitary and unhygienic conditions. The Sri Lankan government blocked journalists so accurate information could not spread quickly. This censorship provided cover for the Sri Lankan military’s abuses. The government downplayed the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) – a tactic they employed again in the Tamil genocide of 2009, which we will discuss later in this exhibit.
Displacement statistics before the war’s final phase
As of 2007, shortly before the final genocidal phase described in the following section, the armed conflict had displaced 1 million Tamils, largely to Canada and Western Europe, and around 100,000 Tamil refugees lived in refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, India. Nearly three-quarters of a million Tamils became IDPs within Sri Lanka. Of these 750,000 Tamils, 300,000 were displaced by the Sri Lankan government’s military offensives. Another 350,000, who had been displaced before 2002 – when a ceasefire was implemented – remained IDPs partly because their homes had been designated “High Security Zones” by the Sri Lankan government. In addition to conflict-related displacements, yet another 100,000 Tamils were displaced by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. The fact that the government blocked tsunami aid from reaching the LTTE-controlled Tamil homeland (Tamil Eelam) kept tsunami-displaced Tamils in tents for years. To put these numbers into perspective, since there were just over 2 million Tamils in the homeland at this time, nearly half of all Eelam Tamils were living as refugees or IDPs.
Displacement in the aftermath of the Tamil Genocide
The final phase of the war displaced or re-displaced 300,000 Tamils in the Vanni in the North. After the conclusion of the armed conflict in May 2009, these 300,000 IDPs were detained in Menik Farm, an IDP camp that was once the largest in the world. There, Tamils suffered in tents with poor sanitation and under heavy militarization while the government, on the pretense of screening for LTTE combatants, prevented them from leaving to stay with friends or family. The Sri Lankan government had initially planned to keep the Tamil IDPs in Menik Farm permanently, but they began slowly releasing Tamils in response to pressure by the international community. However, Menik Farm operated for nearly three and a half years after the war’s end.
Protracted and multiple displacements as a result of the armed conflict inflicted long-term psychological trauma on the Tamil people. Such systematic expulsions of a people can constitute genocide, as we will explain next in this exhibit.
Content Warning: The following photographs consist of war-related imagery, view with care.
The word “genocide” might bring to mind the Holocaust, when 6 million Jewish people were systematically killed. A more recent reference might be the ISIS genocide of the Yazidis, or Burma’s genocide of the Rohingya.
Ten years ago, the Sri Lankan government committed genocide against the island’s Tamil people. Between 70,000 and 140,000 Tamil civilians were killed in a matter of months, largely due to the military’s intentional shelling of government-designated safe zones. We do not call these events genocides because of the number of deaths, but because the perpetrators committed genocidal acts with the intent to destroy a protected group. The five genocidal acts are: (1) killing members of the group, (2) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, (3) inflicting conditions to bring about the group’s physical destruction, (4) preventing births within the group, and (5) forcibly transferring the group’s children to another group. This infographic is a simple illustration of how the Sri Lankan government’s actions constituted genocide. The images you see here today represent a fraction of the government’s genocidal acts committed with genocidal intent.
Sri Lankan government had genocidal intent
Genocidal intent is the intent to physically destroy at least a substantial part of a protected group. It can be inferred through circumstantial evidence, which helped prosecutors convict genocidaires in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Srebrenica is a useful example because the Bosnian Serbs’ targeting of Bosnian Muslims in the UN-designated “safe area” of Srebrenica parallels how the Sri Lankan government herded Tamil civilians into government-established “No Fire Zones” before deliberately shelling those areas.
Sri Lankan government targeted “a substantial part” of the Tamil people
“A substantial part” either refers to the proportion of the whole group or the part’s significance. For example, to continue our parallel, Bosnian Serbs wanted to destroy the Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica because they disconnected the Serb state that Bosnian Serbs wanted to create. The Sri Lankan government wanted to destroy the Tamils in the Vanni because they joined the Northern and Eastern Provinces into a contiguous Tamil Eelam. The destruction of these peoples in established safe zones effectively conveyed the message that nothing could protect them. Finally, a targeted part is significant if its members include leadership who are crucial for the group’s survival. The Vanni was home to Tamil Eelam’s political, administrative, judicial, law enforcement, and financial branches, and it was the last stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). A total targeting of Tamil leadership and institutions like this indicates the occurrence of genocide.
Sri Lankan government committed three genocidal acts with genocidal intent
The Sri Lankan government carried out its destruction by killing Tamils, seriously harming them, and inflicting conditions with the intent to physically destroy at least a substantial part of the Tamil people.
(1) Sri Lankan government killed Tamils through shelling
The government shelled the UN hub, hospitals, food distribution lines, and areas near humanitarian organization ships. Initially, doctors gave the government GPS coordinates of makeshift hospitals, but the military used that information to shell those places. By the final stages of the war, doctors stopped providing GPS coordinates, and the only hospitals that were not attacked were the ones whose locations were withheld. The government shelling killed tens of thousands of Tamil civilians and maimed 25,000 to 30,000 more.
(2) Sri Lankan government physically and mentally harmed Tamils through shelling and sexual violence
Tamils who survived the shelling have experienced high rates of psychological trauma. In addition, toward the end of the war, government security forces raped and sexually mutilated Tamil girls and women who were shot dead. Tamil men and women who were detained after crossing into government areas were subjected to sexual violence, which is still continuing today. These acts resulted in serious mental health impacts as well as physical trauma for survivors.
(3) Sri Lankan government limited necessary supplies and systematically displaced Tamils in order to cause their destruction
Finally, the government deliberately inflicted conditions to bring about the physical destruction of the Tamils in the Vanni by intentionally understating the civilian population. It did so to limit the delivery of necessary food and medical supplies, especially surgical supplies, into that area. The government’s shelling systematically displaced Tamils in the Vanni, sometimes multiple times. Legally, systematic expulsions of members of a group are a method of inflicting conditions of life to bring about the group’s physical destruction. The items you see pictured here are what Tamils dropped or could not carry as they were pushed further into the killing zone. Their owners were victims of the genocide.
Again, the examples you see here are simply illustrative and are in addition to the government’s war crimes and crimes against humanity against Tamils, both of which are easier to prove and less politically contentious to recognize. Victims and survivors are entitled to precise recognition of all the crimes committed against them. In this case, Tamils are entitled to recognition as victims and survivors of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
During the Tamil Genocide, government shelling maimed at least 25,000 to 30,000 Tamils, in addition to the many who were previously injured by shelling or landmines. Many persons with disabilities have not received assistance from the Sri Lankan government or diaspora and are struggling to make ends meet.
MULLIVAIKKAL + MULLAITIVU + KILINOCHCHI, POST-GENOCIDE
Remnants of destroyed buildings, including a marketplace.
Ten years later, many items that were left behind by fleeing Tamil civilians remain scattered around Mullivaikkal.
Years later, one Tamil Genocide survivor revisiting his childhood documents the ruins of Mullivaikkal.
Tamil Diaspora Resistance (2009)
Tamils protests around the world
As the Sri Lankan government’s onslaught escalated into genocide against the Tamil people, hundreds of thousands of Tamils in the diaspora began protesting and demanding that world leaders intervene and stop the mass atrocities. Their protests spanned months and several countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Denmark, and Norway—all of which are pictured here today—in addition to France, Germany, Switzerland, India, and other nations. The diaspora protests became larger and more vocal in proportion to the increasing violence and death toll in the Vanni. Tamils of all ages employed different forms of peaceful resistance, including demonstrations, rallies, human chains, sit-ins, vigils, and hunger strikes.
Public reactions to the protests
The largest protests occurred in London and Toronto. The London demonstrations began in January 2009 but, from April to May, Tamils in London protested continuously. At one point, as many as 200,000 Tamils marched through the streets. In Toronto, home to around 200,000 Eelam Tamils at that time, Tamils formed a 5-kilometer (or 3.1-mile) human chain. Later, on May 10th, 2,000 Tamils blocked the Gardiner Expressway, a major highway in downtown Toronto. Instead of eliciting sympathy from other Canadians, this specific protest led to mass outrage, scrutiny, and criticism of the Tamil diaspora. Media coverage, especially in Canada, marginalized the Tamil diaspora and accused them of being “terrorist-sympathizers,” likely because they carried the flag of Tamil Eelam, as many protesters did around the world. This redirected the public’s focus from the Sri Lankan government’s mass atrocities to media-supported allegations that the Tamil diaspora’s protests were controversial. In spite of their exposure to online and offline abuse, however, Tamils continued their resistance.
Legacy of the protests
Although Tamils in the diaspora could not stop the genocide in the Vanni with their protests, their global mobilization in 2009 remains a testament to the resistance, resilience, and rapid-response capabilities of the Tamil people, wherever they may be located. Later in the exhibit, we will see examples of this type of collective action in Tamil Eelam itself.
Sri Lanka’s Transitional Justice Report Card (2009 - Present)
Following massive human rights violations, governments must implement transitional justice, which consists of the accountability measures and processes that aim to end impunity, redress victims, and re-establish the rule of law.
Overview of Sri Lanka’s transitional justice process
Sri Lanka’s current transitional justice process began in October 2015, when the Sirisena government co-sponsored UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1. Under the resolution, Sri Lanka agreed to fulfill 25 key commitments. The infographic before you outlines the commitments most relevant to criminal justice.
Criminal justice for atrocity crimes
The Sri Lankan government has rejected prosecutions of mass atrocities, particularly the inclusion of foreign judges and the prosecution of individuals it deems “war heroes.” At the most recent UN Human Rights Council session, Sri Lanka went so far as to deny allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Furthermore, the government has not investigated or prosecuted attacks on civil society, including the wartime killing of 34 journalists, 29 of whom were Tamil. Finally, despite ongoing documented reports of security forces committing sexual violence against, and torturing, detained Tamil women and men, the government has not taken any steps to address these horrific crimes.
Sri Lankan law has yet to criminalize war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide. It also fails to allow for the trial and punishment of commanders who did not directly commit crimes but are culpable due to the chain of command. Highly problematic and discriminatory laws, many of which prompted successive stages of the Tamil struggle for self-determination, remain unreformed and on the books. The supreme law of the land, the constitution, continues to enshrine Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and centralize power to the detriment of non-Sinhalese communities. The current draft of the Counter Terrorism Act (or CTA), which is intended to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (or PTA), is even more vague and broad than its predecessor and continues to allow for extended detention without charge. Additionally, the Public Security Ordinance Act of 1947 continues to allow the government to declare a state of emergency that grants the military overly broad and sweeping powers. Successive governments extended the oppressive, wartime state-of-emergency from 1983 through 2011. The most recent state of emergency was declared after the Easter Sunday Bombings last month.
Security sector reform + demilitarization
The systemic criminality and impunity within the security sector necessitates a credible, impartial, and transparent process of vetting and removing human rights abusers. No such process exists, and instead, the Sri Lankan government has sent individuals credibly implicated in human rights violations to embassies abroad and to UN peacekeeping missions. Militarization rates in Tamil Eelam are as high as 1 soldier for every 2 civilians in Mullaitivu District. The military is also heavily involved in civilian activities in that part of the island, including tourism, agriculture, and public education. Although Tamils have mobilized to demand the return of their lands, there is little incentive for the government to do so. Adding insult to injury, what little land has been returned is frequently uninhabitable because the military destroyed houses, buildings, and other infrastructure.
The images after this section highlight the resistance and resilience of the families of the disappeared. These protests, predominantly led by Tamil women, have been ongoing for over two years because of the government’s failure to provide answers or justice for disappeared relatives. Sri Lanka ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in May 2016 and criminalized government-sponsored disappearances in March 2018. The law does not criminalize retroactive disappearances, which is concerning because the estimated 100,000 individuals, mostly Tamils, who were disappeared were taken before the law’s passage. Although the Sri Lankan government has made some progress on the Office of Missing Persons (or OMP), it did not seriously consider the input and demands for justice of the families of the disappeared. Furthermore, the OMP’s findings will not give rise to criminal or civil liability.
Collective action in Tamil Eelam
Over the last four years, members of the international community have been disturbingly lenient toward Sri Lanka, despite the absence of progress on its key commitments contained in Resolution 30/1. Instead of taking a stronger stance on the government’s inaction, the UN Human Rights Council has granted the country extension after extension. The failure of both the government and the international community to push for change contributed to unprecedented levels of mobilization in Tamil Eelam, which you can explore in the following section.
Memorialization (2009 - Present)
Honoring Tamil resistance
During the armed conflict, more than 22,000 Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (or LTTE) cadres perished. All across the North-East of Sri Lanka, memorials honored those who lost their lives for Tamil Eelam. These memorials were historic monuments and places of remembrance for family members and the Tamil people as a whole. Beginning in the 1990s, the LTTE also constructed cemeteries, known as Maaveerar Thuyilum Illam, or Heroes’ Resting Places. At one time, there were 27 of these cemeteries. All of them were destroyed by the Sri Lankan government. Here, you can see some images documenting these resting places before and after their destruction.
Sri Lankan government’s destruction of Tamil cemeteries and sites of memory
As the government gained control over LTTE-held territory, it systematically destroyed memorials and monuments without considering the rights and desires of the Tamil people living there. The right to memory is an essential element of accountability and reconciliation efforts. The government left some of the razed heroes’ cemeteries in pieces while turning other sites into military camps, making them completely inaccessible to the local Tamil population. In the face of militarization and surveillance, Tamils have resisted and recovered gravestones of fallen LTTE cadres, particularly in the lead up to Maaveerar Naal, the Tamil National Remembrance Day, which continues to be observed in Tamil Eelam and in the diaspora every year on November 27th. In addition, the Sri Lankan government converted Mullivaikkal beach, the site of the genocide and other mass atrocities in 2009, into tourist attractions as part of their deeply-insensitive “war tourism” efforts.
A thuyilam illam (resting place), or LTTE cemetery, that had been destroyed by the Sri Lankan government. The Tamil community gathered the fragments in preparation for Maaveerar Naal (Great Heroes Day), the Tamil National Remembrance Day (November 27th)
Families mourn the deaths of their loved ones on Maaveerar Naal (Great Heroes Day), the Tamil National Remembrance Day (November 27th)
Sri Lankan government replaces Tamil memorials with victory monuments
In a painful and offensive show of triumphalism, the government built victory monuments celebrating the Sinhala Buddhist military throughout Tamil Eelam. The most prominent ones are in the Vanni, including at the sites of the war’s final stages. Since victory monuments are much less common in the Sinhala South, their presence in Tamil Eelam illustrates the government’s disregard for those who are traumatized by these visual symbols of the Sri Lankan government’s genocide of Tamils.
PUTHUKKUDIYIRUPPU, JULY 2016
An enormous Sri Lankan government victory monument in Tamil Eelam illustrates the government’s attitude of oppressive triumphalism toward the Tamil people.
The tenth anniversary of the genocide occurred within one month of the Easter Sunday bombings. This year, there were increased numbers of checkpoints and security forces at key routes into Mullivaikkal, who stopped and searched vehicles and passengers traveling to the Vanni. En route to Mullivaikkal, the army recorded travelers’ names and hearing this deterred some Tamils who were afraid for their safety. Even still, the Tamil people resisted as they have for the past decade and hosted their remembrance event at Mullivaikkal beach with the red and yellow flags that represent the colors of Tamil Eelam. Here, you can also see the 2019 Mullivaikkal memorial: blood-soaked hands reaching toward the sky. While central to the Tamil people’s remembrance and mourning, the site of the genocide is not the only space for memorialization. Throughout the homeland and in the diaspora, Tamils have come together every year to grieve the lives taken on May 18th.
Tamil Collective Actions (2009-Present)
Sri Lanka has one of the highest numbers of enforced disappearances of any country in the world. An enforced disappearance occurs when the government takes someone—or sanctions their taking— and refuses to acknowledge the abduction or disclose the fate or location of the disappeared person. Since the start of the armed conflict, more than 100,000 individuals, primarily Tamils, were disappeared. The Sri Lankan government particularly targeted former LTTE cadres who surrendered, Tamil civilians who were hospitalized around the end of the war, and Tamils in camps for internally displaced persons.
Women-led protests by the families of the disappeared
On February 20th, 2017, women-led families of the disappeared began protesting at the roadside in Kilinochchi to demand answers regarding the locations and fates of their disappeared loved ones. Their mobilization sparked sister protests across Tamil Eelam, first in Vavuniya, then Trincomalee, Mullaitivu, and Maruthankerny, beginning in mid-March of that year. These mothers and grandmothers, some of whom you see here, have sat defiantly despite harsh physical conditions and an intimidating military presence. They are seeking the names of surrendees and detainees taken by government security forces; a list of all secret detention centers and detainees held there; and the names of all detainees held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act in non-secret detention centers. On their 100th day, the families blocked the major A9 highway until President Sirisena met with them on June 12th, 2017. Sirisena denied the existence of secret detention centers but promised to release the list of names the next day.
Sri Lankan government has failed to provide answers
After nearly two years and over 800 days of continuous protests, the Sri Lankan government has yet to fulfill these families’ right to truth. Although the government created the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) to address the issue of enforced disappearances, the mechanism has failed to center the families’ demands. Even the name, “Office of Missing Persons,” is controversial because the persons in question did not go missing—they were disappeared when the government took them. The OMP has not met other minimum requirements for credibility, such as the independence of commissioners and the families’ calls for justice in addition to truth. Instead, the OMP’s findings cannot be used for criminal or civil liability purposes. The government’s failure to release information that it itself possesses—the lists of names and detention centers—clearly illustrates the lack of political will to address enforced disappearances. And so the protests continue because they must. At least eight protesters have died in their pursuit of the truth about their loved ones.
Tamils in the homeland have also collectively resisted land grabs. Residents in Keppapilavu have been displaced since the military took control of their lands in 2009. In January 2017, they began protesting outside the security forces headquarters in Mullaitivu, an extremely militarized part of Tamil Eelam. You can see some images of them here, and you will see more about militarization toward the end of the exhibit. After their protest crossed 671 days, the families attempted to enter their stolen lands, defying the Sri Lankan army that occupies it. Not all lands have been returned, however, and the military still occupies the preschool and school, playground, cemetery, church, and community hall. An arguably greater retaking occurred in Iranaitivu, which was home to 225 families, consisting of 650 individuals, before they fled their tiny island in 1992 due to the war. Now, at 336 families, they began a continuous protest in May 2017, demanding their resettlement in Iranaitivu to no avail. Then in April 2018, a group of them, mostly women, sailed home and successfully reclaimed their land, although the navy retains a presence and water is the only basic necessity provided by the government. The protests regarding enforced disappearances and land grabs highlight the resistance and resilience of the Tamil people whose rights continue to be violated by a genocidal government.
KILINOCHCHI, MULLAITIVU & VAVUNIYA, MARCH 2017 – APRIL 2019
Vanniyan & Sugi Thiru
Women-led families of the disappeared protest across Tamil Eelam, demanding answers regarding the locations and fates of their disappeared loved ones.
Militarization + Sinhalization: Life in the Homeland (2009 - Present)
Alarming rates of militarization in Tamil Eelam
Militarization has persisted even ten years after the end of the armed conflict. Throughout Tamil Eelam, there are Sri Lankan military checkpoints or soldiers on most major roads. Soldiers are disproportionately stationed in the North, and the ratio of soldiers to civilians in Vavuniya is 1-to-3 and 1-to-2 in Mullaitivu, the site of the final phase of the war. In other words, after the end of the war, the military deployed one-quarter of its forces to an area where less than 1% of the island’s population lives. The number of soldiers has regularly increased since the Tamil genocide in 2009, jumping from 200,000 in 2009 to 300,000 in 2012. Their presence has grown under the current Sirisena government as well.
Surveillance of Tamils + the vulnerability of Tamil women and girls
Ever since the end of the war, Tamils in the homeland have had to navigate a large military presence and surveillance. Some people are monitored more than others, such as Tamils who had actual or suspected links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (or LTTE). Women and girls are additionally burdened by militarized civilian life. Like women and girls all over the world who live among soldiers, Tamil women and girls in Tamil Eelam are at great risk for sexual and gender-based violence and exploitation by the military in order to survive. Post-war, one in five households on the island is woman-led. Since the military’s takeover of many civilian vocations and activities has left women with limited employment opportunities, the 90,000 war widows in Tamil Eelam are extremely vulnerable to abuse.
Military involvement in governance
Surveillance is enabled by the military’s troubling levels of influence and interference in Tamil civilian life. The Sri Lankan government has given civilian administration posts to retired military personnel, resulting in the local Tamil government’s inability to make day-to-day decisions without first obtaining military approval. The average Tamil cannot engage in civil society activity without military permission, which affects the ability to participate in reconstruction, livelihood projects, and even social activities. By restricting their movements, the military further denies Tamils their right to move freely in or out of the North-East.
Military involvement in civilian industries + activities
Under the pretense of national security, the army has taken land from its rightful owners in Tamil Eelam in order to build military bases and engage in tourism, agriculture, and other commercial industries. All the while, the military has increasingly interfered with the daily lives of Tamils, ranging from their involvement in religious, cultural, and public education activities to paying teachers’ salaries to building houses to implementing development projects. This is disturbing not only because these are activities in the civilian domain, but also because the soldiers carrying them out are, at best, part of a genocidal regime and, at worst, genocidaires themselves. As previously mentioned, Tamils have mobilized to demand the return of their lands, and you can see images of such protesters here.
Sinhalization of Tamil Eelam
Tamil and Muslim communities in Tamil Eelam have become victims of Sinhalization, or the process by which the Sri Lankan government settles Sinhalese people and constructs Buddhist symbols in traditionally Tamil regions in order to change the demographics of the area. For example, government and police officials have planted Buddhist artifacts in some places in order to declare them historically Buddhist sites. In Pulmoaddai, which is highlighted in the infographic here, the Department of Archaeology declared the site of an army-destroyed Hindu temple an historic Buddhist site. Just as the government has destroyed Tamil memorial sites, it also has tried to erase the presence of Tamils by renaming Tamil places with Sinhalese names. Ongoing militarization facilitates the Sinhalization of Tamil Eelam, and this contributes to the demographic changes we are seeing in the North-East of the island today.
This collection of photographs is a testament to the tragedies and human rights violations that have been enabled and exacerbated by Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist nationalist framework. This dangerous government-endorsed nationalism based on ethnoreligious dominance remains an unaddressed root cause of conflict, the ongoing Tamil struggle for self-determination, and the impunity the Sri Lankan government enjoys for acts as appalling as genocide.
Ten years after the height of the Tamil genocide, not a single perpetrator for horrific human rights abuses has been held accountable. This impunity has promoted war criminals within Sri Lanka’s security forces and enabled the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president — the former Defense Secretary in 2009 and architect of the Tamil genocide. Please support PEARL in our campaign for justice and accountability for Sri Lanka’s wartime atrocities and follow our work on social media, @PEARL_Action.
Brami Jegan is an Eelam Tamil, activist, and intersectional feminist. She is the daughter of a survivor of the 2009 Tamil genocide.
Brami started Tamil Survival Stories in 2015 when she and her father started documenting his stories from Mullivaikkal. The project is a photographic journey into the survival of the Eelam Tamils, the preservation of their identity, and the role of women in this story. It aims to contribute to the Tamil community’s attempt to write our history, pain, victories, celebrations, and resilience in our own voice, unappropriated, and uncolonized. You can find more of her work on her webiste: http://www.bramijegan.com.
Karthikesu is a surviving staff reporter of the Eezha Naatham Daily, one of the few media outlets to directly witness the last phase of the genocide in the Vanni. The newspaper released photos and videos of the genocide. Karthikesu fled Sri Lanka and lives in exile in Vancouver, Canada, where he has been unable to obtain permanent residency. Karthikesu gained access to the released photos and has been helping families of the victims trace their loved ones by publishing the pictures on social media.
Vanniyan is a young journalist from the Kumulamunai district in Mullaitivu. He has directly encountered the consequences of the war and grown up in the midst of them. He has been working in media since 2015, and he reports on the many struggles of the people from the field. He documents the struggles of the families of the disappeared, the struggle to reclaim seized lands in Keppapilavu, and the ongoing Sinhalization, Buddhisization, and militarization of the North by the Sinhalese through his photography.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the photographer.
Mithun journeyed to his hometown after the end of the war in 2009, carrying with him his childhood memories of running and playing games, but everything had changed. The house, streets, playgrounds, and schools where he grew up and played no loner remained. They had been replaced by the scars heaped on his memories by the war. He immediately realized that these scars did not live within him, but also in the people who lived there and those who continued to live there. His photos reveal those scars and their lingering wounds within the depths of all our hearts.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the photographer.
Sancheyan Nandakumar became interested in writing while in school. He has been writing since then, for about ten years now. He later became interested in photography. He began telling stories through photography: he does this with the intention of documenting human stories and the traditions and cultures they observe. He believes that the endurance of a people is connected to their identity, and as the markers of that identity wear away, or are erased, they must be archived. It is only if they are properly documented that the history of that people will be spoken of in later years.
S.P is interested in the field of photography because of his love of photographs. His devotion to his people made him want to depict the sorrows, struggles, and challenges they face. He wants to show the outside world and the media the pain his people undergo. He wants justice for the 146,000 people killed in the genocide.
Priya Tharmaseelan is a Tamil Canadian photographer based out of Toronto. She is committed to bringing to light the plight of our people a decade after the genocide.
Shanmugarajah lives in the North-East and is invested in the Tamil people’s struggle, most notably the plight of the disappeared.
Shanmugarajah works to raise awareness about those affected and to bring resources and knowledge to the victims and survivors of the Tamil Genocide. He engages with his family in the diaspora to help provide everyday necessities for families affected by the repercussions of the war and for those living below the poverty line. Shanmugarajah is currently working on a website that sheds light on the everyday issues faced by Tamil people in the North-East.
Sugi Thiru is a photojournalist at a regional newspaper, Fyens Stifstidende, in Denmark. She was raised in a patriotic Tamil family, where talks and discussions about the Tamil struggle and minority rights were a huge part of everyday life. Her own family was stuck during the last stages of the war in 2007–2009, where they ran toward Mullivaikkal and ended up in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp. The feeling of not knowing whether they were dead or alive during the last few months was horrible and the big reason behind my project “The Missing”. She believes no one should live without closure.
Sagi Thilipkumar is a law student at the University of Zurich. His passion for photography started in his youth and continues today. As a child of Tamil refugees, it is important to him to capture and document the faces and stories of Tamil society.
That is why his photographic work equally focuses on Tamils in Switzerland, who are torn between two different cultures, and Tamil people in Sri Lanka, who, without their own state, continue to deal with discrimination and oppression ten years after the end of the armed conflict.