Sri Lanka ten years after the war: the Tamil struggle for justice continues

Protests in London in 2009. Shutterstock/Daniel Gale

Tamils across the world this May marked the 10th anniversary of the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka. Not to celebrate a decade of peace, but to remember the 70,000 people thought to have been killed in the final months of the conflict.

In a final effort to defeat the armed separatist group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the Tamil Tigers), the Sri Lankan state forces relentlessly shelled an area called Mullivaikal in the north-east of the country, where thousands of civilians were trapped on a strip of beach. Local and international media and observers were ejected from the area as the military fired indiscriminately into populated areas, some of which were officially designated as “safe zones”.

Apart from the occasional statement of concern, the rest of the world largely ignored the violence of 2009, while Tamils who had fled persecution in their country watched in horror. The violence shaped the lives and politically motivated a generation of young diaspora Tamils.

May 18 has become known as Tamil Genocide Day, a day of remembrance for Tamils to collectively mourn those killed, and to protest against the lack of accountability for mass atrocity crimes.

The Sri Lankan state’s official story of that period is one of war heroes and terrorists – of a humanitarian operation to “rescue” Tamil civilians from the Tamil Tigers. But this narrative cannot hold in the face of the overwhelming evidence that has emerged since 2009 – of indiscriminate shelling, the targeting of hospitals, and the sexual assault and execution of surrendered Tamil Tigers.

Yet despite sustained efforts by Tamil groups and human rights organisations over the last decade, the international community has done very little to secure justice for those killed, bereaved, injured and displaced.

Weak resolutions at the United Nations Human Rights Council have urged the Sri Lankan state to bring about reconciliation and pursue accountability. But these have been met with hostility, inaction and denial by the state.

The current president recently went as far as claiming that efforts towards accountability have weakened the state forces, making the recent Easter Sunday bombings, which killed over 200 people, possible.

My own work on conflict memory in Sri Lanka explores how the Tamil community’s experience of the end of the war, and the time since, is one of trauma and persecution.

The stories being told by Tamils make it abundantly clear that violence continues. Tamil-dominated areas in Sri Lanka are now some of the most militarised spaces in the world.

Remembrance of crimes past

Against this backdrop, remembrance and protest have a powerful role to play. The Sri Lankan state knows that memory is dangerous, that it challenges the official story, and that it strengthens struggles for justice.

May 18 has become a day of collective memory and a day for Tamils to demonstrate resistance and resilience. Likewise, the celebration of Maaveerar Naal, or Great Heroes’ Day, on November 27, is another date that has become embedded in Tamil culture.

Despite being denigrated, threatened and intimidated, people come together to light candles for the dead. There is collective power in memory practices, which are are shaping a new politics.

Memorialisation and resistance have a close relationship. Tamils in the north-east of Sri Lanka have shown that reclaiming the narrative of conflict and agitating for justice is bound up with memorialising the dead.

Around the world in 2019, memorial events and protests were held to mark the ten years since so many were killed. In London, an exhibition on heritage and human rights took place, organised by young diaspora Tamils working with the Tamil Information Centre.

A range of organisations, artists and academics contributed, offering an overview of Tamil history, art and culture, and generating a devastating picture of the impact of the war.

Taking resilience as its central theme, the exhibition channelled memory into connectivity and resistance, with narratives of suffering and victimhood. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn delivered a speech calling for accountability and a sustainable peace.

Military presence. EPA/M.A.PUSHPA KUMARA

The sense of community at the exhibition was moving and powerful. It was inter-generational and dynamic, and opened up fresh and necessary conversations on history and memory, and the consequences of the war.

The exhibition was held in parallel with protests and processions across the world, including London, Toronto, Paris, and Sydney – as well as at Mullivaikal itself, the location of that terrible violence in 2009. Across the world, this annual remembrance has become a means of resistance to state violence and impunity for mass atrocity crimes.