Removal of war victims’ memorial at Jaffna University sparks tension

The sculpture was erected in memory of civilians killed in the final phase of the civil war in 2009.

Updated - January 09, 2021 09:07 pm IST

Published - January 09, 2021 12:51 pm IST - COLOMBO

Photo of the exterior of University of Jaffna, via official website

Photo of the exterior of University of Jaffna, via official website

A tense situation continued at the Jaffna University on Saturday, as dozens of locals, students, and politicians gathered overnight, protesting the removal of a war memorial on campus. 

According to students and eyewitnesses, on Friday night university authorities bulldozed a sculpture, of hands held out of water, erected in memory of several thousand civilians brutally killed in the final phase of the civil war in 2009, in Mullivaikkal in Sri Lanka’s northern Mullaitivu district. “We heard about this move to destroy the memorial and I rushed from my home in Vavuniya and got here at 2 a.m. Students and some local politicians had gathered here, and there was a heavy police presence,” said Pakianathan Ujanthan, President of the Jaffna Students’ Union. “Despite the police and army in and around our premises, we continued the protests outside. Later, when police told us they would subject us to PCR tests, we decided to suspend our agitation,” he said. 

Following early reports of the development, social media users expressed shock, terming it an attack on Tamils’ attempt to memorialise, and an attempt by the Sri Lankan state “to erase” the troubling history around the massacre of scores of civilians. 

When contacted, S.W.M. Senarathne, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, Jaffna, said: “The decision to demolish the unauthorised structure was taken by the university administration. Our personnel were deployed there only after we heard students were gathering outside the campus last night. In this pandemic period, it is our responsibility to prevent such gatherings.” The memorial, local media reports said, was erected in 2019, to mark the 10th anniversary of the civil war. “Since then, authorities have been asking the university administration to remove the unauthorised structure. I received multiple instructions from higher authorities, and this was discussed at several meetings with the university’s capital works, engineering and maintenance departments,” said University Vice-Chancellor S. Srisatkunarajah, who assumed charge in August 2020. 

Asked who the higher authorities were, he said: “Defence, intelligence, Education Ministry, everyone. I am a civilian carrying out an administrative responsibility. Sometimes, I have to take decisions beyond my personal likes and dislikes,” he told The Hindu . “So, I delegated the responsibility to the concerned departments about a month ago, giving no particular date. They have executed it, that is all.”

Memorialisation has been a sensitive and contentious issue in Sri Lanka, with many instances of the state and its security apparatus preventing families from remembering their loved ones. While defending affected families’ right to remember the dead, some within the Tamil community, including university academics, have in the past questioned the “politicisation” of memorial events, in Sri Lanka’s post-war context. 

Jaffna University lecturer Mahendran Thiruvarangan wrote on Facebook: “I have a number of issues with the Tamil nationalist commemoration processes that take place at the University of Jaffna…it is a conversation that needs to happen within the academic community. Demolishing, in the stealth of the night, a monument commemorating thousands of people who died during the last stages of the war cannot be justified under any circumstances. This is nothing but a high-handed, chauvinistic act by the state.” 

Jaffna parliamentarian S. Shritharan described the developments as “very disturbing.” “This is a deliberate, provocative act, knowing well that memorials are to do with people’s emotions. After a relatively peaceful period here, this act will trigger much pain and anger, especially among our youth. That is very worrying,” he said. “I also feel the state has tactfully used the VC to carry out this, pitting some Tamils against others, while achieving what they want,” he added. 

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