Negative Memory Bulldozed in Sri Lanka

A March post on Culture in Peril, titled “Remembering to Remember at Holocaust Museums,” discussed the topic of memory and its crucial role in effecting proper negotiation of tragic negative events. I wrote,

[T]he key premise of this blog post: museum exhibits dedicated to past tragedies, particularly human induced atrocities such as The Holocaust, are important vehicles in the formation of collective memory and facilitate the consumption of trauma/loss in a way that provides society with a cathartic release from grief. Simply put, memorials to ‘negative heritage’ allow society to remember to remember.

Culture in Peril asks readers to recall this previous post in light of recent cultural heritage developments occurring in Sri Lanka, that is, the government-sanctioned destruction of all LTTE [Tamil Tiger] landmarks. According to Tourism Ministry Secretary George Michael, “The official government policy is not to highlight former LTTE landmarks for tourism purposes. The government has already begun to clear some LTTE landmarks in line with the government’s view that terrorism, the LTTE and the violence which affected the public during the war should be forgotten.” Newly-elected President Mahinda Majapakse’s UPFA government has consequently begun bulldozing LTTE cemetaries, homes of former LTTE leaders, and memorials erected by the LTTE. In their place the government plans to build hotels and resorts to promote tourism in the country’s Northern Province.

While I support the decision to develop these once war-torn areas as new tourist destinations, thus empowering Sri Lanka’s economy, ultimately I condemn the UPFA’s egregious efforts to eradicate all tangible remnants of the decades-long civil war. This conflict has only just ended–May 17, 2010 marks the one-year anniversary of the Tamil Tigers’ defeat–and vivid memories (nightmares?) of it are no doubt fresh in the minds of people who have witnessed the indescribable horrors firsthand. These living victims of the war require a means of reconciliation and confirmation of their experiences. Eliminating LTTE landmarks is not proper grief counseling; it is shunning the negative heritage that remains today. Malathi de Alwis, a Sri Lankan journalist writing in The Guardian, remarks,

The primary response to the war we endured should not be bulldozings and demolitions and exhortations to forget, but rather to ensure that we never again descend into that hellish abyss. To do this, we need to reflect on the circumstances that led to this war and make sure we do not repeat the mistakes made in previous decades.

In this case it is not beneficial to advance touristic opportunity to spite the collective memory of the Sri Lankan people. As I mentioned, the people of Sri Lanka–Tamil or otherwise–are living victims of the tragedy. They are relatives, friends, and even enemies of those who perished. Deconstructing the cultural landscape and ensuring that the LTTE is entirely forgotten by erecting “victory” monuments is a callous way to honor and memorialize those who have ties to this event. The suggestion is to maintain the former sites of LTTE presence because they are “repositories of memory, suffering and grief, and often help to translate the unthinkable to the thinkable.” In any event, though these sites were once appropriated as a form of Tamil nationalism, instead they now can act as conciliatory landmarks of the LTTE’s former power, reminders of the tragedy and indicators of the government’s triumph.

We can also ponder the repercussions of this cultural heritage destruction as it pertains to the Tamils.Johnathan Steele notes, “If [President] Rajapakse treats Tamils as a conquered enemy, who have to be corralled in camps and whose land has to be split up and occupied, he will sow the seeds for new militancy in the generation to come.”

Clearly, the treatment of (negative) memory has significant social, economic, and political ramifications. Cultural heritage of past tragedies, even recent ones, need not always have negative connotations. We must consider how this heritage can be appropriated for good purposes as well–like fomenting collective memory to prevent these events from recurring. (Indeed, is it possible for the former LTTE landmarks to serve as tourist destinations without encouraging Tamil nationalism?)

Culture in Peril asks readers to think about a global cultural landscape without a Fort Sumter, a Normandy Beach, or Gorée Island.

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