The sculpture was erected in memory of civilians killed in the final phase of the civil war in 2009.
A tense situation continued at the Jaffna University overnight, as dozens of locals, students, and politicians gathered, protesting the removal of a war memorial on campus on Friday night.
According to students and eyewitnesses, university authorities bulldozed a sculpture, depicting 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,” Pakianathan Ujanthan, President of the Jaffna Students’ Union said. “There are over 100 people protesting even now, despite all the police and army here,” he told The Hindu from the spot, on Saturday morning.
Following early reports on Friday night in the Jaffna-based newspaper Uthayan and Tamil Guardian website, the development drew attention on social media, with many expressing shock and anger. Many posts described the development as a “blatant attack on Tamils’ attempt to memorialise”, and an attempt by the Sri Lankan government “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 premises last night. In this pandemic period, it is our responsibility to prevent such gatherings,” he said.
A photo of the war memorial that was removed from the campus of Jaffna University in Sri Lanka. | Photo Credit: Twitter/Tamil Guardian
The memorial, according to media reports, 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 we discussed this 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.”
He said the demolition work began around 7 p.m. on Friday night and it was only when two truckloads of debris left the campus that some locals had noticed it and “people with political interests” came to the spot and “tried to enter the campus unlawfully”, according to the Vice-Chancellor. “You know, even at the time this unauthorised structure was first erected at the courtyard of our campus, it could have been prevented. But for a long time now, the University has been exploited by different political forces here,” he said.
Memorialisation has been both a sensitive and contentious issue in Sri Lanka’s war-affected north, 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 the Sri Lanka’s post-war context.
In a public post on Facebook, Jaffna University lecturer Mahendran Thiruvarangan said: “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 and feelings. 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 Tamils against each other, while achieving what they want,” he added.
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