Keynote on ‘Sights of Violence, Sites of Memory: Reframing the Past’ delivered on the 13th of August, 2015 for ‘Framing the Past: Untying the Future’, 11th -17th of August 2015, Park street Mews, exhibition curated by Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives and Editor of Groundviews, Sanjana Hattotuwa, in collaboration with Artraker (United Kingdom).

Art by M. VIJITHARAN, 2015, Motherland II-IV



The subject of war, memory, memorials, memorialization  and the violence of the state has been rekindled both domestically and internationally in recent weeks. Sri Lanka’s ongoing general election campaign has focused on our long and brutal internecine war and the need for reconciliation. Internationally  the 70th anniversary of the awful events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been observed. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial commonly called the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima is part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It serves as a memorial to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August, 1945. Over 70, 000 is reported killed instantly and a similar number is said to have suffered fatal injuries from radiation. Bombs were dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August, 1945. Nagasaki’s Atomic Bomb Museum was  built in 2003 around the  only structure left standing near the bomb’s hypocenter. Some locals opposed the building of the Atomic Bomb Museum while some others were for it. It is now 70 years since the dropping of atomic bombs by the United States. Postwar Japan limited its military to self defence. Now Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’ plans to loosen the restrictions on what Japan’s military can do. Opinion is divided as most in Nagasaki and Hiroshima continue to be supportive of peace and disarmament. According to the Mayor of Nagasaki TomihishaTaue , there is ‘widespread unease’ about Mr. Abe’ s legislation that will alter the constitutional requirement limiting Japan’s military to self defence.

Meantime in Chile’ , the death has occurred a few days ago, at age 86, of Manuel Contreras, the man who headed Chile’ s intelligence service, Dina, during the rule of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s and 80s. Dozens of people gathered at the military hospital in Santiago where Manuel Contreras was being treated for cancer. He was serving a sentence of more than 500 years for human rights abuses. The families of the victims say Dina, the former Chilean intelligence service, was behind more than half the cases of murder, disappearances and torture under the Pinochet government. Contreras was one of the main architects of PalnCondor , a co-ordinated campaign of political repression and assassination by military governments in the southern cone of South America. It is said to have killed tens of thousands of people across the region. One of those gathered near the military hospital is reported as saying :

I am really happy, but it’s a conflicting emotion because the murderer died of illness but he should have suffered much more, just like many comrades suffered.

Pinochet seized power in 1973 in a military coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende’.

Vangeesa Sumanasekera  drew my attention to Patricio Guzman’s fine documentary released a few years ago titled Nostalgia for the Light. The title of the film is inspired by the title of a 1987 book by French scientist Michel Casse’:  Nostalgia for the Light: Mountains and Wonders of Astrophysics. In it Guzman draws our attention to the similarities between astronomers researching humanity’s past, in an astronomical sense, and the struggle of many Chilean women who still search the Atacama desert  for the remnants of their relatives executed during the dictatorship.

Given the above, this exhibition and the related discussions we are participating in are as timely as they are most relevant to Sri Lankan society. Among the literature on the theme I consulted in preparation for today’s presentation, the book of essays titled Space and the Memory of Violence. Landscapes of Erasure, Disappearancesand Exception published in November 2014 edited by Pamela Colombo and Estella Schindeldrew my attention especially because the origin of the book is associated with a salon , and a piano there  on which  Fredrico Garcia Lorca  used to once play. I had read  and studied the plays of Lorca, in particular the “Blood Wedding”, “The House of Bernada Alba” and “Yerma”  in my student days and seen some of these performed in Sri Lanka and elsewhere  as well.

In their introduction to the volume,   the editors Colombo and Schindel  inform us ,  that the inaugural session of the symposium  “ Spatialities  of Exception, Violence , and Memory”,  for which  the essayscontained in  Space and the Memory of Violence, Landscapes of Erasure, Disappearances and Exception were originally written, took place in February 2012 at the Residencia de Estudiantes( Students’ Residency) in Madrid. We are further told that this institution has a legendary place in the intellectual history of Spain, having served as an active cultural centre in the interwar period. It had been here, at this building, that many prominent , daringly new, non-conventional artists  and scientists, like Lorca himself, had met and initiated interdisciplinary conversations  with a view  to forging and disseminating new ideas, before Franco’s dictatorship  had put an end to it all!  It is fitting that this symposium was held in this spot suffused with Lorca’s memory and the piano on which he once played  standing there as a silent witness! Lorca, arguably the greatest Spanish-language poet of the 20thcentury(1898 to 1936),was executed by the Francoist regime. Ironic as it may seem,Lorca  is a ‘ desaparecido’ , one of the ‘disappeared’ , since his remains have never been found. Colombo and Schindelpose the question: What happens when state crimes do not leave traces and where there are no recognizable graves? How can the absence be made visible?  While recognizing the immense validity of their questions, that which struck me was why a relevant related question was not posed, namely, what happens when those challenging the state commit crimes without leaving traces?

At this point, I realized how complex and difficult are the questions and issues related to our theme for discussion is. I also noticed that, most if not all, of these questions and issues do not have definite, clear and unambiguous answers and that dispassionate analysis may neither be possible nor desirable. And the exploration and discussion of these issues are complicated further by the changing ways in which we get news/information. National identity and honour often depends  upon the recitation of selective histories. Thus, many Turks continue to deny Armenian  genocide and many Vietnam veterans  remain wedded, as Joanna Bourke reminds us, to the defence of  ‘it was him or me’’ when justifying  the slaughter of unarmed women and children. After the genocidal war in Rwanda, the prisoners accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity still protest their innocence. Bourke quotes Robert Black of The Independent on Sunday, 31 July, 1994, who after a visit to a refugee camp inGoma writes:

Perhaps the most disheartening of all is that most of the Hutus – – despite their agony- – still do not recognize that what happened to the Tutsis was a crime of enormous proportions. There is a state of collective denial by almost everyone you meet in the camps. People do not see their  ordeal as self-imposed but as the fault of the Tutsis  and the RPF(Rwandan Patriotic Front): ‘We are dying here because of the Tutsis  and the cockroaches of the RPF who want to rule over us’, said one woman, who was absolutely convinced of the correctness of killing Tutsis.

And yet the need for asking questions  and articulating these issues remain of paramount importance.  And so I decided that my presentation today, at best, would only be an exploration of this complexity and ambiguity rather than an attempted last word on the subject .  And my exploration will be within my limitations. I know little or nothing about  the raging academic controversies over memory and space and memorialization  in former sites of terror based on what are termed  ‘Memory Studies’ or ‘Cultural Studies’. Frankly these are beyond my ken. And If I tried to wade through the welter of available academic material I would haveprobably ended up  way outside my academic comfort zone.

I, therefore,  propose to approach my topic  basing myself on myknowledge of literature and life  and my familiarity with the  violence of the state and  the violence of  those  who seek to oppose the state.  I also wish to confine myself to Sri Lanka and the violence that we have endured at home in recent decades.

Under the broad theme of Sites of violence, sites of memory: Reframing the past , our topic today includes a number of sub-themes  and significant questions. They are:

  • Should sites of violence have new lives suitably transformed?
  • Should those sites remain as they are as a memorial to the crimes committed at these sites?
  • Should we dwell on the past or pick up the pieces, move on and get on with our lives?

Circumstances have changed after the violence and war that began decades ago and came to an end in 2009. Yet, should not we question the nature of the Sri Lankan state?  Will Sri Lanka become more  inclusive and ensure that the rights and dignity of all of its citizens are respected? Or will one segment of Sri Lanka continue to dominate the rest  and perpetuate the endless struggle for domination which will lead  eventually to mutual ruin?  Should not we seek to transform and democratize the state so as to make demands for separation irrelevant?

Some of us, perhaps a majority, happy that the war is behind us seem not all that keen on analysis of the causes that led to war , the role of the LTTE in it,  and that of the state in meeting and overcoming  the armed challenge to its authority. Nor have we yet figured out a way in which we should remember all   who died, and care for others maimed and traumatized.  [And what of those marginalized youth who died in the two southern insurrections? I remember those who perished in 1971 and 1987-89 period, but will leave that discussion for another time.] Let me, however, be clear. I refer here to all Sri Lankans who died, were maimed and traumatized, regardless of their ethnicity or if they died in defending or attacking the state. Here I am reminded of Antigone,Sophocles’s tragic play based on the legend of Thebes. This play looks at the whole question of challenges to the state and the state’s response to those challenges as a morally ambiguous issue. Two of Antigone’s brothers die in battle, one attacking the state of Thebes and the other defending it. Creon, the King of Thebes, decrees that Eteocles, the brother who dies defending the state is buried ‘with all honourable observations due to the dead’ while Polynices the other brother who dies attacking the state is not given burial. It is important for us to remember that for the ancient Greeks burial after death was crucial for the afterlife of the dead. According to Greek belief of the time, the departed soul does not rest until the body is properly buried. In the circumstances, Antigone was convinced that the morally correct thing for her to do, as an individual,  was to ignore the dictates of the state and give burial to her brother. By her action, she was proclaiming that loyalty to one’s loved ones overrides one’s obedience to the state. In similar vein, the state represented by her uncle Creon argues that it has the right to safeguard itself and its citizens. The audience or the reader of the play is left with the notion, paradoxical as this may sound, that both are right and both are wrong. And what is made startlingly clear at the end of the play is that the state’s suppression of the individual (Antigone’s) right to bury her dead and mourn that passing leads to tragedy, the destruction of everything of value and eventually to the vitiation of the state ( as represented by Creon). The gap between a good ruler and tyrant is very narrow. Creon wants to be a good ruler but ends up a tyrant.

Most of us seem to feel that any questioning of how the war ended in May 2009 is unnecessary and to do so is to be disloyal to the state.  Especially as the US-sponsored UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka hangs like a sword of Damocles over the country, those who seek to raise questions about the war’s end are even viewed as traitors. It is that old ‘you are either with us or against us’ philosophy most recently popularized by George W. Bush. A few of us who wish to look critically at the past with an open mind are looked upon with suspicion and even hostility.

But, despite the attendant risks, a look backwards, not in anger or in a judgemental sense, is called for, as this will enable us to confront our tragic and blighted past. Such a sensitive and   careful examination will help us to understand better our past and assist us to come terms with it.  For withoutthis  interrogationof our past and coming to terms with it, our present will remain muddled and our future bleak.

It is true that a frank and open discussion about our past in order to confront that which drove us to war and its aftermath has not taken place in our mainstream media or within our national politics. Some members of our academic community have produced well-researched papers on certain aspects of the war and Sri Lanka’s post-war future that the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (Sri Lanka) has published in2012 and 2013.Some political entities, especially the United National Front for Good Governance and its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe talk of setting up a Truth Commission similar to that South Africa established some years ago.

What I propose to do in the next several minutes is to offer some personal comments on issues such as memories  and scars of war and trauma and my thoughts on reconciliation in no particular order.

We human beings need to remember some things   and forget others.  It is natural to want to remember the pleasant and forget the unpleasant. Sometimes even unpleasant things linger in our memory. As I pondered over this presentation, one of the questions that came to my mind was why do we have cemeteries? This question arose when I was reminded of the cemeteries of the Tamil Tiger dead in the north which have been destroyed postwar and on some of which Army Divisional headquarters now stand. We have cemeteries so we can bury the remains of our loved ones and have a location we can visit( if we wish to) on special days or holy days. Of course, it is a given that the loved one is not present in that grave – – but, yet, there are many who feel a compelling urge and need to visit a grave and remember a loved one. And to these latter, the burial site and the gravestone thus serve as vivid reminders of the person  they once knew and loved.  To raze a cemetery to the ground is thus an act of abomination; a vilification of the spirit in which we recognize the other as human like ourselves. We all have a right to remember and to celebrate as well as mourn our absent loved ones.

However, not everyone wants or desires to have a ‘permanent’ burial place. Many have their ashes scattered in a river, in the sea or even on land, in a spot that was special to them.  What of them? If they are happy to have  their mortal remains scattered to the four winds of heaven , then why  is it such a horrendous act to destroy a cemetery? The key difference is that the latter is by choice; while the former symbolizes the oppressive power of the state over a people when it denies them the right to grieve  and mourn the passing of a loved one.

This begs the question why a state would destroy a ‘harmless’ memorial like a cemetery? Why does it prevent people from mourning the passing of loved ones? I would think there are two compelling reasons which make the state to act irrationally. These are fear and the desire for revenge. The state is fearful because the memorial site could galvanize the loved ones into acting passionately, irrationally perhaps and even fearlessly. Love is a powerful emotion and grief over the loss of a loved one could turn even a  lamb into a lion. Grieving parents , spouses, siblings and children could become  a cataclysmic  force which could  threaten the state. At another level, the agents of state who fought and overcame  the so-called enemies of the state, also feel the urge to flex their muscles in the manner that conquering armies have done through the ages, in a bid to show them ( the defeated) what’s what!  Thus while the first  reason is linked to fears about state security( unfounded or otherwise), the latter, that is,  the show of force through muscle-flexing is a consequence of a baser human instinct , one that needs to be deplored  and condemned by civilized human beings. Hence the destruction of a memorial site like a cemetery could be the result of either one of the above reasons or a combination of the two- – security concerns plus the desire to rub the enemy’s nose in the dust. But such action becomes entirely counter-productive  as it would only serve to strengthen  the differences between the ‘conquering’ and the ‘conquered’ people. By such perverse and vindictive behaviour, so at odds with our religio-cultural values, we will have merely ‘scorched the snake not killed it’.

So what arethe alternatives available to the state in such a context? There are no easy answers to this question. It has been said that a state will use whatever means are at its disposal to subdue rebellion and crush a threat to its existence. When people fight, they do not hold a book of rules in their hand; particularly so when the perceived enemy, too, does not abide by the rule book. Countries faced with civil unrest within their borders and threats from without  will do all in their power to safeguard themselves , even if in the process, they contravene Geneva Conventions.  If they do so, the UNHRC will throw the rule book at them, as they must do. However, this is complicated by the fact that the rule book is not thrown at everyone who deserves to be at the receiving end. The powerful states of the world seem to be exempt  from the rules that are applied stringently to the actions of less powerful states , leading to the outcry against the double standards in operation.  Yes, double standards are in operation and it is unfair and unfortunate that this should be so. The absence of a set of standards  to aspire to,  the absence of UN policing(however imperfect) , however, would  and could lead to anarchy or state terror.

The state, as we know it, has evolved over time. We are no longer an island entire in itself but a part of the main. The evolving world seems to be more barbaric in its behaviour and yet, because of new developments in the spheres of knowledge and education, hyper aware of its own barbarity. We are also no longer inviolable, no longer separate. We no longer have a choice about whether or not  wewant to become a part of the global village.  We are a part of it. As long as technology connects us instantly to the rest of the world, as long as we sell to foreign markets and buy from them, as long as we move freely to and from other states, borders become fluid. Conversely this movement is paralleled by a counter movement  towards separation. Secessionist movements are on the rise – – giving rise to conflicts between  the existing nation state and its challengers. Perhaps the time has come to frame a new world order. John Lennon famously sang and said: ‘imagine there is no country; and no religion too . . .’ Maybe there is a message here for  the 21st century.  Is to re-imagine the state in the manner suggested impossibly idealistic? Perhaps so.Perhaps  not.

Now for some difficult but essential concluding thoughts about reconciliation, accountability and justice.  These pose enormous challenges, accountability in particular. Even at the risk of over-simplifying issues, let me say the following. There seems to be two very different  and mutually exclusive  points of view on one and the same phenomenon  which, in the context of  a protracted and bloody internecine war between the two main ethnicities of the country, become impossible to mediate.

For the Sinhala person, even at the risk of brutally reducing the stakes here,  the soldier not only represents  the hero  who sacrificed life and limb to safeguard the Motherland and the security of the Sinhalese, but they  are also, and quite literally,  the sons of the rural poor in the Sinhala heartland. For the Tamil, that soldier represents  the murderer who killed their kith and kin. In other words,  with the same force  that the Tamils would seek justice for the loss of their loved ones, the Sinhalese would continue to see in the soldier the image of  a saviour.

This is the dreadful limit of the term ‘accountability. How will the Sinhala men and women in the south ever agree to a process whereby those who are held accountable  for the crimes would be punished?  Any attempt at a forcible enactment of an investigatory body- – domestic or ‘international’ – – will only ever strengthen Sinhala Buddhist extremism, giving rise in turn to politicians who would manipulate these sentiments.

But this seeming point of impossibility is also the point on which politics resides- – at least in the sense it was used in all great emancipatory projects, from the communist movements(s) and national liberation struggles  to women’s movement  and gay/lesbian struggles. If we agree , that is, that politics consists in making seem possible precisely that which, from within the situation, is declared to be impossible. In this sense, it is around this point of impossibility the future of a different Sri Lanka is tenable.

In concrete terms, and again, at the risk of simplification, this means that there is really no midpoint at which the two contrasting opinions can meet on this issue and we will always see EITHER  the ‘vase’ OR the ‘two faces’ (as per Rubin). This means that the political future in our country will depend on the extent to which we can make the Sinhalese society understand the justifiable nature of the demand of the Tamil men and women who are trying to cope with trauma of loss of life, hope and desire. A trauma of loss of life, hope and desire similar, I might add, to that which the next of kin of those victims of the two southern insurrections have endured for several decades now.

As a point of the impossibility, it is also a point of intersection between art and politics and it is in the sphere of art that some of the most serious attempts at grasping this seeming impossibility have been made – – from the cinema of PrasannaVithanage, Asoka Handagama,  Vimukthi Jayasundera to the paintings of Jagath Weerasinghe, Chandragupta Thenuwara et al.    This leads us to the question of political art and its relevance in the era after the demise of twentieth century communism. What role will it play in the process of thinking of the Sri Lankan future from the point of view of this impossibility we have been focusing on?  What novel idea do they teach us about art, and also about politics?  Sketchy and elementary thoughthese thoughts may be, I believe that searching for answers to these queries are indeed significant as we grapple with ourselves to shape our postwar future.

We all know only too well that healing the wounds and divisions of any society in the aftermath of sustained violence is no easy task. The creation of trust and understanding between former enemies is a monumental challenge. If we are serious about seeking peaceful coexistence, however, a genuine attempt to forge such trust and understanding has to be made. Such an attempt at reconciliation is an essential stepping stone to a lasting and enduring peace.   For South Africa, truth was at the heart of reconciliation. This, I am convinced, is equally important for Sri Lanka. We need to find out the truth about the horrors of our past so that we could attempt to ensure they do not happen again. Without getting at the truth , we will not able to place our faith and confidence in our future. As Bishop Desmond Tutu has argued, ‘examining the painful past, acknowledging it, and above all transcending it together’ is the best way to guarantee that we do not go back to war once more. Our aim should be ‘to build a shared future from a divided past’.

Sights of Violence