The removal of the Mullivaikkal monument from the Jaffna University has had both positive and negative reflections in the minds of undergraduates regarding peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka
“Nevertheless, there are honours due to all dead,”- Antigone
On January 8, the Mullivaikkal monument in the Jaffna University was demolished leading to students and residents protesting against the act. In Sri Lanka, a polarization of opinions was seen in response to this demolition. While some condemned the demolition, some saw it as an act propelling the country towards peace and reconciliation.
Final phase of civil war
Many who condemned the demolition were of the opinion that the memorial was constructed in the memory of innocent civilians who lost their lives in the attack on Mullivaikkal, which was declared as a No Fire Zone, in the final phase of the war.
“This happened during the last stages of the war. The Sri Lankan military was indiscriminate in its attacks. Thousands of people died to shelling, cluster bombing and aerial bombings. Some of hose who surrendered to the Sri Lankan Army were also massacred. Many others went missing. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for its part, did not allow the people inside the No Fire Zone to leave that area and used them as human shields. They tried to create the impression that the people voluntarily wanted to remain with the LTTE till the very end of the war.
But many people were forcibly held by the LTTE and were recruited to fight the war,” said Mahendran Thiruvarangan, Senior Lecturer attached to the Department of Linguistics and English, University of Jaffna. He also added that the monument symbolised the violence that the Tamils who were trapped inside the No Fire Zone suffered during the last stages of the war. “Both the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the LTTE were responsible for this violence. But the intention of those who designed the monument was possibly to bring to light the government’s role in it. But for some of us, the outstretched hands in the monument, remind us of the pleas of Tamils, whom the LTTE gunned down, when they tried to escape the No Fire Zone in 2009,” he opined.
Many who condemned the demolition were of the opinion that the memorial was constructed in the memory of innocent civilians who lost their lives in the attack on Mullivaikkal
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for its part, did not allow the people inside the No Fire Zone to leave that area and used them as human shields
The Students’ Union of the University of Jaffna and the Students’ Union, Faculty of Arts and Culture at the Eastern University had requested the rebuilding of the memorial, in their press releases
Why was it demolished?
Prof. Amaratunga maintains that it was a good decision taken by the Vice Chancellor to ensure peace at the university, however he said that he was not aware of the current situation at the Jaffna University
Recent media reports reveal that Prof. Srisatkunarajah was quoted saying that he had received a classified document regarding the demolishment of the monument
According to a media release by the University Grants Commission Chairman Prof. Sampath Amaratunga on January 9 it was stated that the Vice Chancellor of the Jaffna University, Prof. S. Srisatkunarajah decided to remove the monument as it could cause disharmony among the students at the University.
But in a recent media report Prof. Srisatkunarajah was quoted saying that he had received a classified document regarding the demolishment of the monument. Amalini de Sayrah, a human rights defender, shared that it was speculated that the previous Vice Chancellor of the university was possibly removed from his post because he resisted the demolishing of the monument. “In a media report, the current Vice Chancellor stated that he was pressurised into demolishing the monument.” Multiple attempts to reach Prof. Srisatkunarajah by Daily Mirror were proven futile.
Speaking to Daily Mirror Prof. Amaratunga shared that the monument was demolished because it is also believed to have been associated with the Nandikadal attacks. “It was a good decision taken by the Vice Chancellor to ensure peace at the university, however I am not aware of the current situation at the Jaffna University,” he stated. He also added that he wanted to visit Jaffna to look into the matter and had intimated the Ministry of Higher Education of the same. He also stated that he hopes to facilitate dialogues among university students to further the peace and reconciliation process in Sri Lanka.
After the demolition
Thiruvarangan stated that there was no formal announcement to the staff of the university from the Vice Chancellor regarding the demolition. He also shared that the students and the staff at the university were deeply unsettled because of the incident. “Some students immediately gathered outside the university. They were joined by Tamil nationalist political leaders and activists. There were protests and there was a Hartal all over the North-East condemning the demolition,” said Thiruvarangan. He also added that the Muslims from the North and East, Inter University Students Federation and activists from the Sinhala community also protested the demolition of the monument.
While believing that there should have been a discussion among students, teachers and the larger university community prior to the construction of this memorial, he stated that the memorial had become a part of the university landscape since its erection in 2019. According to Thiruvarangan, it represented the injustice and violence suffered by the community in the North. “There are many monuments all over the North built by the military and the Government celebrates the armed forces’ victory in 2009. The triumphalism they represent deepens the wounds of the local communities caused by the war. In such a context, demolishing the Mullivaikkal monument in a high-handed manner was unacceptable. The manner in which it was demolished under cover of the night without any consultations within the university community, possibly at the behest of the military and the University Grants Commission, is shocking and totally wrong. The state needs to take responsibility for this cruel act. For me, the demolition represents the state’s desire to wipe out public monuments that expose its chauvinistic violence against the minority communities,” he opined.
de Sayrah pointed out that there were many restrictions on commemorating in Mullivaikkal on May 18. Even when the governments changed, the restrictions were still in place. “In 2017, they wanted to construct a structure in Mullivaikkal consisting of the names of the people who had died and a statue. But, the court ordered an injunction on that stating that it was remembering the terrorists,” she shared. She also opined that stating the monument in the university was illegal was questionable. “Why didn’t they stop the construction of the monument, if so? Why demolish it two years later?” she queried.
Methsuka Waidyaratne (17) opined that the memorial does not actually signify the remembrance of the innocent civilian lives lost, but rather carries a hidden symbolization of Tamil nationalism. “I feel relieved. The destruction of this memorial means that we are progressing in helping improve ties between the North and the South. It also helps the North to move away from its negative past of the brutal LTTE regime. Many Sinhalese communities living in Jaffna and the North may not be satisfied with the existence of these memorials and as a result it may prevent reconciliation and increase ethnic tensions.” said Waidyaratne. He shared that if a monument is to be constructed, one remembering all civilian lives lost regardless of ethnicity should be constructed.
Sharing similar sentiments Imaal Nanayakkara, an entrepreneur, stated that while it was a right to mourn a loved one’s death, a monument built to commemorate LTTE cadres should not be allowed. “The Jaffna University is notorious for its student body propagating LTTE propaganda the past few years,” said Nanayakkara.
Nethmi Muthugala (21) considers this monument to commemorate the innocent civilian lives lost in the civil war. However, she stated that some of the students at Jaffna University had shared that in the guise of commemorating the dead civilians, the LTTE cadres were commemorated. She opined that a memorial helps to share the history with the future generations and aids in the healing process, but commemoration of a terrorist group should not be allowed.
Like many, Chalaka Wijenayake was not aware of the monument until the incident. Therefore, he opined that it was a myth that the monument was affecting national unity as a majority of the people in the South were unaware of the monument. “A common argument is that most of those who died in the Nandikadal area were terrorists, hence should not be commemorated. But we should not forget that this too is a myth and that a lot of innocent civilians too lost their lives there. Hence, commemoration of those people should not only be allowed, but I think should be state sponsored, as they too were Sri Lankans.”said Wijenayake.
For Abinaya Sritharan, hailing from Jaffna, the monument symbolises lives of all those who died in the massacre and was a means of healing. “A close look of the monument shows hands emerging from a debris. The sleeves on some of the hands show that they are that of the Army whilst the rest belong to civilians indicating that this memorial was built in remembrance of all the lives lost in the massacre, honouring them as humans.” said Sritharan. She also drew parallels between this monument and the monument King Dutugemunu built for Elara after his demise, in his remembrance. “King Dutugemunu urged his subjects to pay their respects by prayer or removing one’s hat honouring Elara’s death as a fellow human being.” she said. Sritharan shared that though initially she had felt anger and pain at the demolishment of the monument, she thought that maybe such a memorial was not necessary at a state university. “But that wasn’t the reasoning that the Government was giving us. Stating that the monument was promoting racial imbalance is a sickening accusation when the same could be said in return for the monuments erected by the Government promoting patriotic tourism,” she said. She opinioned that the destruction of the memorial could have been caused by racist intentions or it could also be seen as a distraction from the economic state of the country.
Laksiny Gunasingam, hailing from Batticaloa, stated that the demolishment of the monument signified the demolishment of people’s right to mourn. While condemning the LTTE, she pointed out that there was injustice being meted out to the Tamil community. “But, this should be brought out peacefully through discussions, not by taking up arms,” she said. Gunasingam also felt that the demolishment was to distract people from the country’s economic issues. While noting that there are monuments commemorating the JVP at present in state universities, she said one shouldn’t compare and ask for their rights. “We are entitled to our rights, we shouldn’t have had to compare and ask,” said Gunasingam.
Lakshan Seneviratna, a social and political activist, stated that the destruction was uncalled for and ‘disgraceful’. He opined that the destruction could have taken place because when people mourn deaths of such nature, it spreads the ideology of terror for the younger generations who would join the University and get hurt that their own people were killed. But, he also noted that remembrance was crucial to healing. “Our President promised ‘One Country One Law’ but I don’t see that law in his vision for Sri Lanka - no peace in rest at this state. Why don’t we start off with that? Treating every citizen equally. If we fail to heal; we will never succeed as a country,” he said.
Why such polarised opinions?
“The youth on both sides, who’ve never really experienced anything, act as if they own this conflict and think it’s their job to carry it forward and avenge their sides. It would be best if the younger generation could grow up informed of the facts and they are ignorant of the sentiments. We shouldn’t forget the lives lost or not acknowledge the atrocities committed but rather should forget the grudge between the two groups and forget avenging what happened,” shared an undergraduate from Colombo.
Piyumi Wattuhewa, from Bandarawela, thinks that the people have disfigured ideas of the war because of the media and what people around had said. “I remember having the idea that the war was between two ethnic groups and not between the state and the LTTE. I ‘rooted’ for the ethnic group to which I belonged. Most in our generation have not grown out of this mindset and thus have a very subjective views of the war and the events that took place. We have never or hardly ever been exposed to stories of the other side because we were so removed from them. Even mainstream media never featured or attempted to feature them. Instead, what we saw was a glorification of victors,” she pointed out.
“Due to years of politicians and media conditioning to believe that Tamils equate to terrorists, that thought is still present within people’s minds. We don’t teach about the civil war in our history lessons at school. There is no understanding of the impact of the war. It all trickles down to how people teach their kids about the war. It takes a lot of learning and unlearning to have a factual view of the war,” stated de Sayrah.
According to Muthugala, many of the information presented online and articles by the international media regarding the Mullivaikkal incident were inaccurate leading to increased ethnic tensions.
Rebuilding of the monument
The Students’ Union of the University of Jaffna and the Students’ Union, Faculty of Arts and Culture at the Eastern University had requested the rebuilding of the memorial, in their press releases. Therefore, on January 11, Prof. Srisatkunarajah laid the foundation stones to rebuild the monument.
While many welcomed the decision to rebuild it, some were Sceptical about the rebuilding.
“Will the new one be the same or will it be a design that also needs ‘approval’ from the top? In effect the state will then be dictating how to represent and visualise this, and whenever the state [who is the offending/aggressive party here] dictates how to remember, there is an element of erasure involved. These are pre-emptive questions. We don’t know how it will be designed or who will have a say over it, but just asking ahead,” stated de Sayrah
Some believed that the state rebuilding it, would further peace and reconciliation. Some were also of the opinion that when the state is involved in such constructions, it would no longer symbolise the commemoration of LTTE cadres and only symbolise the innocent civilian lives lost. Many were also of the opinion that the incident could have been prevented, and opined that a rebuilt monument would not have the same sentimental value as the previous one, constructed by the students who had lost their loved ones in the attacks.
The Effect on the Future of Peace and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka
While there were views that the removal of the memorial reflected positively on the future of peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka and would enhance the unity between the North and South, many were of the view that it had a negative impact. “Radical extremists got another opportunity to voice their racism, and Sri Lanka was portrayed in a negative light on international media,” shared an undergraduate from Colombo.
“This is one of the many incidents orchestrated by the Government to indicate to the Tamil community that the state is not keen to bring about genuine reconciliation. It shows that the Tamils have to learn to accept the versions of reconciliation that the state designs for them. The attempts on the part of the state to ban and regulate Tamil memories of the war show that the state treats the Tamils as second-class citizens,” revealed Thiruvarangan. Sharing similar sentiments, de Sayrah stated that the heavy military presence in the North and East, restrictions on commemorating the dead coupled with the destruction of memorial monuments impacts the people’s ability to heal. “It keeps the tension the way it is, and shuts any possible conversation,” said de Sayrah.
Sanjana Ravi, a social activist, stated that sentiments should be understood and experiences should not be dismissed to move forward as a country with accountability, to receive closure. She shared that people should educate themselves about the history and see things objectively. Ravi also acknowledged that over the past few years people have been trying to build bridges between the North and South. “The preconceived notions and assumptions about Tamils and Sinhalese should be forgotten.” said Ravi.
Wijenayake urged people to understand the fact that most of the victims who were a part of the LTTE were either forced or manipulated into it. And he believed that everyone should actively take part in commemorating the dead in the north as to understand the pain of people who lost their lives or loved ones in a war that none wanted.
“I would place emphasis on discussions. There should be a larger movement within our universities both to nourish pluralism, justice and coexistence internally and to challenge the authoritarianism of the state and its various apparatuses including the military and the UGC. I completely reject the idea that the University of Jaffna is for Tamils and the universities in the South are for Sinhalese. First of all, the students and teachers who are part of a university should not feel alienated because of their ethnic or religious or regional background. At the same time, we should develop an understanding of justice and should not censor ourselves from speaking about it because it exposes our commissions and omissions in the past. We need a larger inter-university movement to raise these questions and take forward these conversations,” shared Thiruvarangan.