Picturing Sri Lanka’s Undead War

by Crisis Group 17 May 2019

Ten years after the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka Project Director Alan Keenan and Photographer Julie David de Lossy travelled 1,500km through ex-combat zones. They found a population finding ways to cope with their traumatic experiences and an extraordinary array of monuments to the war. 

Ten years have passed since Sri Lanka’s 26-year war came to an end on 18 May 2009. A decisive victory over the Tamil Tigers placed the Sinhalese-majority government firmly back in control of the country. The war-weary population of 21 million hoped war’s end would usher in reconstruction that would strengthen battered democratic institutions and deal with the longstanding concerns of the country’s diverse ethnic and religious groups.

But the government has done little either to heal the war’s wounds or to address the ethno-nationalist dynamics that drove the conflict. It has largely limited itself to generic statements in support of “reconciliation”, disappointing many Sri Lankans, most notably the 11 per cent Tamil minority, who suffered huge casualties in the war’s crushing last days. Failed political reforms, inadequate economic development, heavy militarisation of the Tamil-majority north and government resistance to providing information on disappeared persons have further deepened many Tamils’ grievances. Their sense of betrayal, and the absence of spaces to work through the suffering experienced by Muslims and Sinhalese, too, threatens hopes of reconciliation – either between ethno-religious groups and the state or among the groups themselves – and risks further instability. For many Sri Lankans living in the bitterly contested north and east, the war has never quite ended. The Easter jihadist terror attacks compounded the general anxiety, tearing again at the social fabric, unleashing further violence and complicating the road to sustainable peace.

In April, Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka Project Director Alan Keenan and Photographer Julie David de Lossy travelled through the former combat zones in the north and east to explore how the Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese civilians who suffered most intensely during the war remember their experience – and what these collective memories mean for the prospects of lasting peace. On their ten-day, 1,500km-long trip, they found scattered across the country’s landscape an extraordinary array of war memorials. State-sponsored monuments glorifying the government’s victory contrast with the grassroots memorials, some of them hidden or secret, to the estimated 150,000 dead – everything from statues to bulldozed Tamil cemeteries to bus shelters honouring soldiers killed in action. The sheer number of memorials shows a population coping in myriad ways with the legacy of an undead war.

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