23rd November, Colombo, Sri Lanka: The insurrections of the 1970s, the riots of 1983 and the 30-year conflict – all which have immeasurably shaped the country’s history and have far more reaching consequence for its future – are glaringly absent from the history syllabus of the Sri Lankan education system. Textbooks are one way of teaching history and memorialisation. So too are the physical expressions of history and of memory, in the monuments we have built to tell the stories of our past. As with the lessons that we teach the younger generations, the Sri Lankan State’s practice is selective here too.
From schoolbooks to statute and statues, this erasure of the country’s violent recent history is reflective of deliberate State amnesia on the part of successive governments and a convenient approach to dealing with the past – without confronting its horrors – by way of denial. The atrocities witnessed, especially by those living in the combat zones of the Northern Province, and the drastic losses faced by the communities have been reduced to monuments that tell only one, partial story – that of the glorious victories of the armed forces.
The monuments do not account for the multiple narratives and truths around experiences of the conflict. The State-sponsored memorials were not built with any consultation from the communities that live in the immediate vicinity. Communities whose histories are linked to these places and what they were before the conflict, and whose everyday realities are linked to these places and what they are after the conflict.
For people from the South in general, it may be difficult to understand why these memorials are so out of place and violent. For the people living around them, the monuments are a living reminder of the painful recent past which prevent them from ‘moving on’ in any sense.
The impact of these memorials is inextricably linked to the patterns of militarization and land occupation that remain in the Northern Province, eight years after the conflict came to an end. Taking into consideration the ground realities that persist for residents of these areas, issues that have gone unaddressed by several governments, sustained marginalization of this nature, if left unaddressed, has the potential to fuel renewed cycles of conflict.
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