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FTVMS327

| Memory and Media

October 2014

Michael de Alwis (5948597)


War Tourism in Sri Lanka: the Memorialization of Conflict and the
Mediation of Memory
Michael de Alwis

Commercialism, politics, and economics and a number of other factors
contribute to the construction of memorial sites, and in turn the mediation of
collective memories. As Jennifer Hyndman and Amarnath Amarasingam write,
the importance of memorialization and the politicization of landscapes for the
continuing viability of nationalism has been a keen focus of scholarship for some
time1 (Hyndman; Amarasingam 2014) By 2009, Sri Lanka had been engaged in
conflict for almost 26 years. Clashes between the Sri Lankan government and the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers) lead to the start of a
Civil War in 1983, as the LTTE fought for an independent state for the Tamil-
dominated north and east. The war ended in May 2009 when the Sri Lankan
military defeated the LTTE and occupied the last of their territory. Since then,
great effort has been put towards the mediation of Sri Lankas collective memory

1 Hyndman, J., & Amarasingam, A. (2014). Touring Terrorism: Landscapes of Memory in PostWar Sri Lanka. Geography Compass, 8(8), 560-575.

FTVMS327 | Memory and Media

October 2014

Michael de Alwis (5948597)


of the war. Andreas Huyssen states that monumentalizing the past can
legitimize and give meaning to the present and [allow us] to envision the future:
culturally, politically, socially.2 (Huyssen 2003) The memorialization of conflict
and tragedy in Sri Lanka has worked to perpetuate nationalist ideology, as well
as promote and instigate the militarization of the state. The government has
worked to construct a collective memory of these events that illustrates
themselves as heroes and emphasizes the conquering of the powerful LTTE. This
is wholly apparent through the governing and operation of these sites, which are
controlled largely by military; through the erasure of Tamil memorial sites; and
the spread of Sinhala nationalist ideology throughout the north. Having visited
one of these sites of memory in January 2014, I was able to explore these notions
first hand. What I would argue is that what is being memorialized here is not
those lives lost, but rather the war and conflict itself. These sites have become
places to celebrate or recognize the triumph of the state, as well as places to
forget about the tragedy and loss that accompanied the said victory.

To quote Ann Rigney: acts of remembering are as much about shaping the
future as about recollecting the past.

(Rigney 2012, 251) Sinthujan

Varatharajah argues that The production and maintenance of collective memory


helps to inform and establish identities as well to uphold group consciousness of
self and other. They simultaneously serve as indicators of desired and undesired
narrations and interpretations of human catastrophes: those that are placed

2 Huyssen, A. (2003). Present pasts: urban palimpsests and the politics of memory. Stanford,
Calif.: Stanford University Press.
3 Rigney, A. (2012). Reconciliation and remembering: (how) does it work?.Memory
Studies, 5(3), 251-258.

FTVMS327 | Memory and Media

October 2014

Michael de Alwis (5948597)


inside and those that fundamentally remain outside of the concept of the
nation.4 (Varatharajah 2013) Physical sites of memory are often reflections on
the dominant political mindset of a nation, and represent not only the events of
the past, but influence how the public sees the present and future.5 Edward
Simpson and Malathi de Alwis state that Names, dates, particular words and
sometimes images become the focus of public attention, replacing the altogether
less palatable smell of blood or the haunting image of the face of a dying child
when conflict comes to an end and is memorialized.6 (Simpson; de Alwis 2008, 7)
Memorials are thus interesting as they are sites of both remembrance and
forgetting at the same time.

When the Sri Lankan military were at last able to topple their opponents, they
had regained access to what had become the LTTE occupied and operated
northern and eastern territories. Any traces of Tamil Eelam have since been
erased.7 An estimate from the United Nations suggests between 40,000 and
70,000 people were killed over the course of the Civil War8, including both Tamil
and Sinhala civilians, yet its a struggle to find any memorial for Tamil lives lost
since the state has regained the north. While there were initially some sites of
memorial for both Tamil fighters and civilians, all of these have over time been


4 Varatharajah, S. (2013, May 22). Possessing Memories, Designing Cemeteries: The Production
And Policing Of Memories In Post-War Sri Lanka.Colombo telegraph. Retrieved October 20,
2014, from https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/possessing-memories-designingcemeteries-the-production-and-policing-of-memories-in-post-war-sri-lanka/
5 Simpson, E., & Alwis, M. D. (2008). Remembering natural disaster: Politics and culture of

memorials in Gujarat and Sri Lanka. Anthropology Today, 24(4), 6-12.


6 IBID

7 Hyndman, J., & Amarasingam, A. (2014). Touring Terrorism: Landscapes of Memory in Post-

War Sri Lanka. Geography Compass, 8(8), 560-575.


8 IBID

FTVMS327 | Memory and Media

October 2014

Michael de Alwis (5948597)


destroyed, and replaced by military zones.9 Before they were razed, in any sites
of Tamil memorial, photographs were prohibited entirely.10 Malathi de Alwis has
criticized the national government, arguing that they show a myopic and
misguided understanding of memory.11 (de Alwis 2008) In justifying the need to
destroy Tamil sites of memorial, George Michael, the Secretary to the Ministry of
Tourism once stated that the actions and violence surrounding LTTE should be
forgotten.12 Jennifer Hyndman and Amarnath Amarasingam have called this an
expression of triumphalist nationalism13:

The Sri Lankan Government, however, has chosen a different approach from
that of reconciliation and/or granting of autonomy to Tamil majority areas:
through its selective remembering of the Tigers and dead Tamil civilians, it
stokes a triumphalist Sinhala nationalism that reproduces the Tamil Tigers as a
future potential threat, and in so doing, provides grounds for ongoing
militarization of civilian spaces by the state and marginalization of Tamils and
other minority groups in the country who are represented as latent threats.14

(Hyndman; Amarasingam 2014)



The north is full of reminders to residents of the Tamil-dominated region that
the government was victorious. Tamil War memorials have been destroyed in
place of monuments that accentuate the triumph of the military. Varatharajah
notes that the main memorial for the Sri Lankan Army is situated in the de-facto

9 IBID
10 Hyndman, J., & Amarasingam, A. (2014). Touring Terrorism: Landscapes of Memory in
Post-War Sri Lanka. Geography Compass, 8(8), 560-575.

11 Simpson, E., & Alwis, M. D. (2008). Remembering natural disaster: Politics and culture of

memorials in Gujarat and Sri Lanka. Anthropology Today, 24(4), 6-12.

12 Hyndman, J., & Amarasingam, A. (2014). Touring Terrorism: Landscapes of Memory in

Post-War Sri Lanka. Geography Compass, 8(8), 560-575.


13 IBID
14 IBID

FTVMS327 | Memory and Media

October 2014

Michael de Alwis (5948597)


state capital of Tamil Eelam, Kilinoichchi.15 During Amarasingams visit in 2012,
an LTTE cemetery she attempted to photograph was in the process of being
converted to a Sri Lankan army camp.16 Signboards in these regions are in
Sinhala language only, despite the fact that Tamil is the predominant language
spoken in the area.17 Flags in the north were changed from the Tamil Tiger
emblem to the national flag of Sri Lanka, a move which Varatharajah feels
serves to demonstrate presence, power and victory by contesting former spatial
and ethno-political borders that separated people and power.18 (Varatharajah
2013) A large billboard in a busy area celebrates the triumph of President
Mahinda Rajapaksa, who according to the signage, United the country and
brought giant development to the North Central region.19

Edward Simpson and Malathi de Alwis argue that memorials are made to
heighten to accessibility of an event.20 They allow the public to think about
unthinkable events. The memorial flattens the extremes of individual memory
replacing it, and, therefore, in a sense, denying it or suppressing it, with


15 Varatharajah, S. (2013, May 22). Possessing Memories, Designing Cemeteries: The
Production And Policing Of Memories In Post-War Sri Lanka.Colombo telegraph. Retrieved
October 20, 2014, from https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/possessing-memoriesdesigning-cemeteries-the-production-and-policing-of-memories-in-post-war-sri-lanka/
16 Hyndman, J., & Amarasingam, A. (2014). Touring Terrorism: Landscapes of Memory in

Post-War Sri Lanka. Geography Compass, 8(8), 560-575.

17 Hyndman, J., & Amarasingam, A. (2014). Touring Terrorism: Landscapes of Memory in

Post-War Sri Lanka. Geography Compass, 8(8), 560-575.

18 Varatharajah, S. (2013, May 22). Possessing Memories, Designing Cemeteries: The

Production And Policing Of Memories In Post-War Sri Lanka.Colombo telegraph. Retrieved


October 20, 2014, from https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/possessing-memoriesdesigning-cemeteries-the-production-and-policing-of-memories-in-post-war-sri-lanka/
19 Hyndman, J., & Amarasingam, A. (2014). Touring Terrorism: Landscapes of Memory in

Post-War Sri Lanka. Geography Compass, 8(8), 560-575.

20 Simpson, E., & Alwis, M. D. (2008). Remembering natural disaster: Politics and culture of
memorials in Gujarat and Sri Lanka. Anthropology Today, 24(4), 6-12.

FTVMS327 | Memory and Media

October 2014

Michael de Alwis (5948597)


something altogether more palatable, if not anodyne.21 (Simpson; Malathi 2008,
7) Once the event is accessible, it opens the doors for commercialism. Simpson
and Corbridge cite Adornos argument that commodification equals forgetting,
in order to explore the relationship between memory and tourism.22 A state is
able to capitalize on the conflict or trauma of a nation, attracting visitors from
afar with monuments and memorials.

I personally visited one of these sites, SLN Dockyard (Sri Lankas largest naval
base), in January 2014. In the naval base was a museum that showcased mostly
Tamil armory obtained during the Civil War. I was shown tanks, submarines,
guns, canons, diving gear and more. The museum itself was located within
converted military bunkers atop a mountain.

Tourism is used for what Hyndman calls a Sinhala nationalist project of ongoing
militarization.23 (Hyndman 2014) During my visit to the war museum: my tour
guide was a soldier, I was driven by soldiers, and I was served tea and food by
soldiers. At many similar sites I visited across the country, soldiers had sold me
the entry tickets. I was especially intrigued at the fact that while there was no
hesitation to showcase the weaponry and tactics of the LTTE, there was a
noticeable absence of national military arsenal at these museums. Hyndman

21 IBID
22 Simpson, E., & Corbridge, S. (2006). The Geography of Things That May Become Memories:
The 2001 Earthquake in Kachchh-Gujarat and the Politics of Rehabilitation in the Prememorial
Era.Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 96(3), 566-585.

23 Hyndman, J., & Amarasingam, A. (2014). Touring Terrorism: Landscapes of Memory in

Post-War Sri Lanka. Geography Compass, 8(8), 560-575.

FTVMS327 | Memory and Media

October 2014

Michael de Alwis (5948597)


suggests that these sites look to emphasise the power and threat once posed by
the LTTE, so as to emphasise the strength of the Sri Lankan Government in
defeating them.24 Amarasingam argues that a victory/defeat narrative permeates
these sites of memory25, and as I recall my own visit this notion was evident.
Many scholars argue that the Tamil Tiger movement has, and continues to be
dehumanized by the state. These sites of memory project the LTTE as a force that
was once a major threat, and could one day once again be a major threat. The
reason for this being that as long as the LTTE is still a potential threat, military
still have reason to control the north. What eventuates from this is a completely
militarized state, wherein Tamil people in the north continue to be marginalized
in the united and free nation.26


24 Hyndman, J., & Amarasingam, A. (2014). Touring Terrorism: Landscapes of Memory in
Post-War Sri Lanka. Geography Compass, 8(8), 560-575.
25 IBID

26 Varatharajah, S. (2013, May 22). Possessing Memories, Designing Cemeteries: The


Sinhala billboard for the Sri Lankan Military, in the North of Sri Lanka (Photo: Nedra de Silva 2014)

Production And Policing Of Memories In Post-War Sri Lanka.Colombo telegraph. Retrieved


October 20, 2014, from https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/possessing-memoriesdesigning-cemeteries-the-production-and-policing-of-memories-in-post-war-sri-lanka/

FTVMS327 | Memory and Media

October 2014

Michael de Alwis (5948597)


In the midst of the conflict, Sri Lanka was struck by more tragedy, when a major
tsunami hit in December 2004. While the tsunami left damages around the entire
country, the most affected areas were in the North and the East, regions widely
occupied and operated by the LTTE. The North is also home to most of Sri
Lankas Muslim population, while the rest of the country is predominantly
Buddhist. 27 Simpson and de Alwis explored acts of restoration and acts of
remembrance surrounding the tsunami in Sri Lanka, and found an interesting
dichotomy in how the state dealt with the north and how the state dealt with the
south.28 As according to Simpson, Acts of memorialization are inseparable from
reconstruction initiatives, and politics of all kinds and at all levels have
influenced the design, location and inauguration ceremonies of memorials.29
(Simpson; de Alwis 2008, 6) Far more effort was put into sites of memory in the
north. The scarcity of Muslim sites of memory (despite religious differences in
memorial practice) is a clear indication of the states mediation of the past in the
north.

Dhana Hughes states that in the aftermath of violence, recreating life entails a
process of inbuing ones past violence with powerful moral meanings through
the negotiation of memory.30 (Hughes 2013, 170) Memorial sites are physical
spaces wherein memory is mediated and collective memories are formed.

27 Simpson, E., & Alwis, M. D. (2008). Remembering natural disaster: Politics and culture of
memorials in Gujarat and Sri Lanka. Anthropology Today, 24(4), 6-12.
28 IBID

29 Simpson, E., & Alwis, M. D. (2008). Remembering natural disaster: Politics and culture of
memorials in Gujarat and Sri Lanka. Anthropology Today, 24(4), 6-12.
30 Hughes, D. (2013). Violence, torture, and memory in Sri Lanka: life after terror. London:
Routledge.

FTVMS327 | Memory and Media

October 2014

Michael de Alwis (5948597)


Following the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009, the Sri Lankan
government carefully chose to preserve particular aspects of the LTTE arsenal in
order to accentuate the threat they once posed and to heighten the triumph of
the state in defeating them. In this effort, many Tamil memorial sites have been
erased and replaced with military zones, tourist zones, or both at the same time
as I witnessed earlier this year in Trincomalee. Civilian casualties who were
Tamil have been widely forgotten in the public memory of the war. The collective
memory of the civil war that these sites construct is one that portrays the state
not only as the victors, but as heroes who have saved the country, while
obscuring the subsequent tragedy and loss surrounding the conflict. Tourism is
now an industry that encourages the complete militarization of the state, and the
war tourism in the north continues to push forward this idea. After 25 years of
territorial conflict the government (or military) is at last able to completely
control the north and sites of memory allow them to continue to do so.


FTVMS327 | Memory and Media

October 2014

Michael de Alwis (5948597)

REFERENCE LIST:
Hughes, D. (2013). Violence, torture, and memory in Sri Lanka: life
after terror. London: Routledge.

Huyssen, A. (2003). Present pasts: urban palimpsests and the
politics of memory. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Hyndman, J., & Amarasingam, A. (2014). Touring Terrorism:
Landscapes of Memory in Post-War Sri Lanka. Geography
Compass, 8(8), 560-575.
Rigney, A. (2012). Reconciliation and remembering: (how) does it
work?.Memory Studies, 5(3), 251-258.

Simpson, E., & Corbridge, S. (2006). The Geography of Things That
May Become Memories: The 2001 Earthquake in Kachchh-Gujarat
and the Politics of Rehabilitation in the Prememorial Era.Annals of
the Association of American Geographers, 96(3), 566-585.

Simpson, E., & Alwis, M. D. (2008). Remembering natural disaster:
Politics and culture of memorials in Gujarat and Sri
Lanka. Anthropology Today, 24(4), 6-12.

Varatharajah, S. (2013, May 22). Possessing Memories, Designing
Cemeteries: The Production And Policing Of Memories In Post-War
Sri Lanka.Colombo telegraph. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from
https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/possessingmemories-designing-cemeteries-the-production-and-policing-ofmemories-in-post-war-sri-lanka/

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