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Holding memory hostage to politics

T he Right to Memory' held at the Jaffna Public Library in May 2015, was the first public event held in the North since the end of the war that dealt with issues of transitional justice and posed tough questions of remembering, recognizing and acknowledging the past. This article flags some of the issues raised in the writer's presentation at the event and is meant to generate a discussion on the right to memory and the politics and nuances it encompasses.

The Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman in his play 'Death and the Maiden' poses some pertinent questions relevant to the subject of memory and issues faced by any post war society: "How do we keep the past alive without becoming its prisoner? How do we forget it without risking its repetition in the future?"These questions raise important issues when talking about the past and the possibilities in the future. Is it possible to focus on the past without being held its hostage? Can the past be left behind without repeating mistakes? These questions are important in a post war context where contested and competing memories exist and challenges remain on how best to address transitional justice and reconciliation.

Memory and Its Role in Transitional Justice

Within the framework of transitional justice and its four pillars- truth, justice, reparations and guarantee of no recurrence- memorialization falls within the third pillar of reparations. But it is not mutually exclusive to reparations.


Monument for the Disappeared -Against Every Single Disappearance was created by Chandragupta Thenuwara under the guidance and initiative of Kalape Api and Asian Human Rights Commission. It was inaugurated by the Friends and Relatives of Disappeared on February 04 2000, in Raddoluwa Junction where Ranjith Herath and his friend M.Lionel were killed and burnt on October 27th 1989 pic courtesy disappeared.ha.blogspot

Memory is connected to all other pillars in that it has implications to finding the truth, obtaining justice and ensuring there is a non recurrence of violence. In Sri Lanka where the discussions on transitional justice have been basic so far, discussions are now moving slowly as to what issues, processes and mechanisms should be considered that best fits the Sri Lankan context.

Discussions so far have centered more on issues of truth, justice and some aspects of reparations such as compensation and restitution. While recognizing these are important issues that require considerable attention and action, attention must also be on initiatives to remember and recognize the past and provide space for the multiple and competing memories.

There are both individual and collective memories, at times competing with each other, especially in societies that have experienced violence, death, displacement and devastation. Memory can be a powerful way of commemorating victims and events in history, and contribute to truth and justice processes.

It is also a way of recognizing the competing forms of victimhood and the need for a nuanced approach when dealing with such issues.

Memory initiatives can be at the individual level as well as state sponsored. Individual memory initiatives can include artifacts, letters, photographs and storytelling, a more ephemeral form of remembering. State-sponsored memorialization effortscan includelawmaking and transitional justice initiatives. These efforts can take the form of truth commissions, courts, reparations programs, memorials, and days of commemoration.

Many other questions must be asked when dealing with memory. Is there a prioritization in terms of deciding whose memory is more important? The competing memories highlight the diversity but who decides which one is more important? Whose memories count and at what cost? These questions must be addressed when thinking through memory projects. Similar initiatives in other contexts that have successfully contributed to reconciliation efforts have taken time to design and involved an inclusive and consultative process.

For example, the Memory Park in Buenos Aires, Argentina took years to plan and design and continues to evolve with new information and art pieces included on a regular basis. There also must be the buy in of the different stakeholders including victims and families of the disappeared who should be included in the different phases of design and construction of memorials and monuments. In Argentina, families of the disappeared and civil society played key roles in shaping memory spaces, thereby capturing the different perspectives and multiple memories.

Memorials and Monuments

Art critique Arthur Danto in his piece titled 'The Vietnam Veterans Memorial', commented on memorials and monuments, observing: "Very few nations erect monuments to their defeats, but many set up memorials to the defeated dead. Monuments make heroes and triumphs, victories and conquests, perpetually present and part of life.

The memorial is a special precinct, extruded from life, a segregated enclave where we honour the dead. With monuments we honour ourselves." He goes on to make the point that a memorial enables to remember the men and women who were killed or are missing and thereby not forgetting them as opposed to a victory monument, which remembers a victory and thereby captures the triumphalist nature of the victor.

This is a relevant point in post war Sri Lanka where the monuments erected by the State capture the victorious military campaign with no space to recognize the multiple narratives including the costs to civilians.

Memorials and monuments can play a role in connecting people and perspectives. If memorials are seen as exclusionary or restrictive in what it stands for or monuments are seen as a triumphalist gesture, they are likely to undermine any efforts of genuine reconciliation.

It is also important to ensure that memorials and monuments stand to remember the past, not erase it. The destruction of the LTTE cemeteries in the North and subsequent construction of camps for security force on the same land is an example where the then government deliberately attempted to erase a part of Sri Lankan history and rob families and communities a space to remember and to mourn.

Six years after the war, there is no one memorial or monument that captures the complex history of Sri Lanka. Those constructed by the State such as the monuments in Killinochchi town and Elephant Pass represents the victorious state machinery that defeated the LTTE, depicting the official narrative of the Government with no space for any other.

To date, there is no memorial or monument built by the State that captures the plight of civilians during the war. Civil society and others have initiated their own forms of memorialization including a memorial for the disappeared in Seeduwa and art work that provide a critical space for families and affected communities to remember but are limited in its number and reach. Greater effort must therefore be taken to ensure that the material aspect of memory such as memorials and monuments erected in the future address and capture the complexities in Sri Lankan history and the competing memories.

Moving Forward

Memory is a double-edged sword. It is powerful in how it shapes the present and the future.

It can either be a tool that connects diverse actors and captures the multiple and competing narrative to inform and enrich reconciliation. Or by curtailing and controlling memories and memory spaces, communities may feel sidelined, thereby impacting efforts at reconciliation. Memorials and monuments if planned and built through an inclusive and timely process can have a positive impact.

Process therefore is important as it can bring together diverse actors and views and generate a dialogue. Discussions regarding memorials and monuments should evolve even after the construction of such sites, ensuring there is space for future generations to reflect and discuss rather than be static and outdated.

It is worth examining memory spaces such as those in Argentina, Cambodia, Chile and Rwanda to identify ways of initiating Sri Lanka's own memory projects. Memorials and monuments do not need to be limited to physically constructed spaces and can include others such as art, literature and theater.

Ultimately, we must recognize that memories cannot be imprisoned or silenced. Nor can they be permanently erased.

Eventually, aspects of it will emerge, confronting society with the past and the unanswered questions. Thus, it is critical to commence the journey to address the past and recognize and make space for the multiple and competing memories.

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