Erasing the Past: Repression of Memorialization in the North-East of Sri Lanka

For the survivors of human rights violations, mass atrocities, and political violence, the past is always present. But in the Tamil regions of North-East Sri Lanka, where tens of thousands of lives, both civilian and combatant, were lost over the course of the decades-long war, remembrance remains extremely contentious. Efforts by victims and survivors to commemorate the past are suppressed by restrictions on freedom of assembly, oppressive state surveillance, and the presence of competing memorialization projects. Despite some improvement following the change in government in January 2015, the ongoing presence of the military and its pervasive involvement in civilian activities continues to color everyday life, including remembrance practices. People in the North-East routinely experience harassment by security forces when they attempt to honor their dead. Fear of repercussion prevents many from participating in memorialization activities, from talking to their children about the past, and from publically objecting to the presence of government-constructed victory monuments in their communities.

In July-August 2016, PEARL’s researchers spoke to approximately 50 war-affected individuals in the North-East about memorialization and the obstacles to remembrance that they face. These discussions were conducted both one-on-one and in small groups in seven districts: Amparai, Batticaloa, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu, Trincomalee and Vavuniya. The researchers met with a broad cross-section of the population, including relatives of civilian and combatant dead, families of the missing, former combatants, civil society members, and politicians.

Using a semi-structured interview approach and observing the respondents’ preference of Tamil or English, the researchers asked a series of questions organized around the following topics: the meaning of remembrance; current commemoration practices; obstacles to memorialization; preservation of important sites; transmitting historical knowledge to the future generations; and reactions to the presence of Sri Lankan government victory monuments. Most of those interviewed spoke on the condition that their identity be kept confidential. We therefore provide minimal identifying details other than location in the following pages.

This report details the findings from these interviews and from two weeks of field observations conducted in the North-East. The next section presents an overview of the beliefs and practices around memorialization among the war-affected population. It outlines how both civilian and combatant dead are currently remembered and how survivors would prefer to honor their lost loved ones. The third section surveys the obstacles to memorialization, including the suppression of remembrance activities and the imposition of alternate narratives through the construction of government victory monuments in the former war zone. The fourth section discusses how these circumstances implicate the right to memory as it exists in international law and practice. The report concludes by analyzing the critical role of remembrance in the pursuit of credible accountability and meaningful reconciliation in Sri Lanka.