Resisting the ‘Master’: How Memory can Advance Accountability for Sri Lanka’s Disappeared

By Stephanie Nicolle

In January 2020, newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa claimed that Sri Lanka’s disappeared were ‘dead’.   Thereafter, the instructions communicated by the country’s highest office were brief.  ‘Death certificates’ would be issued to the families after conducting ‘necessary investigations’. The unrelenting finality of this messaging signalled to the families that the state had chosen to move on, and so should they.

Sri Lanka’s disappeared are among the highest in the world, resulting mainly from a nearly 30-year war and two Southern insurrections. Every year, on May 18, Sri Lankans remember the lives lost due to the war and those forcibly taken away. However, the current state’s commitment to deliver genuine accountability draws scepticism from the families of the disappeared.  On the one hand, the ‘investigations’ will be conducted under a president who served as the defence secretary during the final war years and immediately after. During that time, Rajapaksa and the then administration stood accused of committing war crimes. These allegations have cast doubts over the independence of the proposed investigations. On the other, the president’s messaging reinforces a familiar state narrative that has often denied, downplayed or deflected enforced disappearance.

This article presents a case for the role that memory can play in challenging the sense of finality conveyed by the state.  First, it reviews the memory advanced by the state that has dominated Sri Lanka’s post-war years, which can be explained through the concept of a ‘master narrative’. Thereafter, it analyses an instance where individual memories were able to resist the master narrative to a certain extent. Finally, it argues for a more ‘public’ form of remembering to effectively resist the state’s narrative and amplify calls for accountability.

 

Unravelling Sri Lanka’s ‘Master’

Prof. Brian F. Havel offers a useful way of understanding the political form and function of a master narrative.  To Havel, a nation’s master narrative comprises official memory.  It is an effort by the state to prescribe its selective, top-down version of events. Especially in post-conflict societies, the master narrative is perpetuated to reconcile citizens with the state.  Its ideological function often manifests through state-authored memorialisation projects, which help entrench it.

Sri Lanka’s post-war state advanced a specific master narrative.  This narrative framed the war as a ‘humanitarian’ effort and valorised state officials as ‘war heroes’. Such language disallowed the space for any recollection beyond the parameters of this narrative, including enforced disappearances.  State-authored memorialisation projects, promoting military triumph, indicate this erasure of alternative memories.

Individual memories that contested Sri Lanka’s master narrative were often dealt with through various strategies: (1) refutation, (2) reframing such memories as ‘exaggerated’ or a ‘betrayal of the war heroes’, and (3) reconciling such memories with the master narrative.

 

Resisting the ‘Master’

Given the dominance of the master narrative, we may then ask, ‘Can the master narrative be effectively resisted?’

Certain instances in Sri Lanka’s post-war years suggest the possibility of limited yet effective resistance. One such instance is the ‘Memory Wall’ erected by the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) in 2019, where families of the disappeared were invited to commemorate their loved ones. Commemorating the disappeared at the OMP—a government body—was, arguably, a significant moment for resistance campaigns led by the families.

Resisting the master_2

‘Memory Wall at the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) in Sri Lanka’. Image by Saliya Pieris

 

At the outset, the Memory Wall, albeit a temporary structure, stood as a site of resistance. It was a testament to the years of individual memories and struggles to resist the state’s pervasive master narrative.  Concurrently, it indicated a slight change in the post-war state’s response to enforced disappearance—from years of denying and discrediting to an extent of respect and recognition.

The Memory Wall, which held personal photos and penned messages, also opened an avenue for broader conversations on memorialisation.  It gave families the freedom to decide the memories they were comfortable with displaying.  The memories were, therefore, theirs to keep or share. This way, the Memory Wall stood as a marked contrast to other post-war memorials that served to legitimise the state-authored master narrative.

However, the social impact generated by the Memory Wall was short-lived.  Its significance was, to a great extent, limited to an intimate, private realm comprising the families.  This limitation likely curbed its potential to create momentum around resistance campaigns.

 

Broadening the Resistance

To effectively resist the master narrative, individual memories need to transcend the private realm and penetrate the social realm of remembrance.  They need to become part of public memory. One approach resistance campaigns can use to draw public support is memorialisation.

Memorialisations draw various responses.  For some Sri Lankan families of the disappeared, they convey ‘an end’ to the hope of meeting their loved ones. However, transitional justice practitioners continue to highlight the value of memorialisations.

Memorialisations tend to have significant restorative potential.  For the victims of past abuses, they provide a kind of reparation by publicly calling out perpetrators and recognising victims’ memories.  For the community, they urge reflection and foster empathy.  To this end, they remind us of the importance of collectively ensuring non-recurrence.

Memorialisations also attract myriad voices that are beneficial for resistance campaigns. One benefit relates to overcoming barriers to resistance. To date, state-led intimidation and surveillance attempts to silence traumatic truths from becoming public.  A larger collective can help build solidarity and create a safe space for individuals to speak.  The second benefit relates to overcoming a drawback of individual memory.

Often, the significance of individual memory, which comprises lived experience, ceases to exist when the holder of this significance is no more. In Sri Lanka, at least 70 relatives of the disappeared have passed away without receiving answers. By appealing to public consciousness, resistance campaigns allow for individual memories and campaigns to become ‘public’ and live on, despite the death of an individual.

Resisting the master_1

‘A family member holds a photo of a disappeared loved one’. Image by Human Rights Watch

Part of memorialising Sri Lanka’s past atrocities relating to enforced disappearance is confronting the legitimacy struggles over memory.  That is, the right to determine whose memories are publicly acknowledged and how.  To facilitate an inclusive form of public memory, memorialisations must balance the need to respect individual memories with the need to create collective resistance.  Here, Sri Lanka may learn from countries like Argentina and Chile, which have and continue to engage in these conversations.  Both Argentina’s Parque De La Memoria and Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights grappled with highlighting victim-centred accounts, the extent of state involvement, and creating a public push for accountability.

Sri Lanka’s chapter on enforced disappearance risks being closed by a state advancing a sanitised narrative of the past.  By broadening the resistance, Sri Lanka finds itself as having an avenue to keep the space for accountability open.  In the pursuit of justice, this avenue is worth considering to firmly resist the ‘master’.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

StephanieNicolle - headshotStephanie Nicolle works as a researcher in Sri Lanka. Her research interests mainly include ethno-religious conflict, memory studies, media ghettoisation and postcolonial discourse. She graduated from the University of Colombo with a BA (Hons.) in English and minors in International Relations and Sociology.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spotlight on Sami Al Haj

By Pauline Canham

Each month, the HRC Blog will feature a significant figure, or team from the Human Rights community to go under the Spotlight, answering questions put by students from Essex University.  This month, we feature Sami Al Haj.

Sami_al_haj

Image courtesy of Al Jazeera Media Network

About Sami

Sami Al Haj is the Director of the Centre for Public Liberties & Human Rights at the Al Jazeera Media Network (AJMN) in Doha, Qatar.  He was born in Sudan and started working for Al Jazeera as a cameraman in 2001.  Shortly after the events of 9/11, he was sent to cover the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, an assignment that would change his life forever.  After two months, while crossing from Kandahar across the border into Pakistan, Sami was arrested and detained by Pakistani Intelligence on 15th December 2001 and subsequently handed over to the Americans.  Nothing could have prepared Sami for the horrors that were to come and the course that his life would take as a result.  After some time at the infamous Bagram detention facility, where he experienced harsh and humiliating treatment, he was transferred to a facility in Kandahar and then on to Guantanamo Bay, where he remained as Prisoner 345 for 6 years, without charge.

Guantanamo_captives_in_January_2002

 

While there, according to Sami’s lawyer and founder of Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith, “Sami endured horrendous cruelty – sexual abuse and religious persecution”. He was beaten, deprived of sleep and force-fed after going on hunger strike.

On 1st May 2008, Sami was released without charge.  He said that he was glad to be free but sad that his ‘brothers’ remained in the hands of “people that claim to be champions of peace and protectors of rights and freedoms.  But a true just peace doesn’t come from military force or threats to use…bombs or economic sanctions.  Justice comes from lifting oppression and guaranteeing rights and freedoms and respecting the will of the people…”

Shortly after his release, and his long awaited reunion with his wife and son, Sami returned to Al Jazeera, where he created a new team dedicated to the field of human rights and civil liberties.

IMG_6213

 

Students’ Questions Answered

Sami_al_haj_smSami was gracious enough to allow the students at Essex an opportunity to send him and his team some questions about his experiences and ongoing work in the field of human rights:

 

Q: It is almost 20 years since 9/11 – What are the biggest changes faced by journalists and humanitarian aid workers operating on the ground in war zones, and have the policies of the war on terror had a ‘chilling effect’ on journalists’ ability to hold truth to power?

A: Regrettably,  journalists are now facing a far worse reality with regard to field coverage. Authorities, militias, and armed groups all endeavour to suppress the voice of truth.   Counter- terrorism policies went to the extent to limit the range of ethical journalism and criminalize journalists.  Press freedom has been compromised all over the world.

 

Q: To what extent do you believe that the CIA Enhance Interrogation Program at Abu Ghraib and other so called ‘black sites’ emboldened repressive regimes in their own torture practices?

A: Tyrants and dictators felt at ease seeing the free world legitimizing water-boarding and torture, we can see that in the Middle East and elsewhere.

 

Q: After your experiences at Guantanamo, do you believe in the universality of human rights both as a concept and in practice?

A: Indeed. My personal experience has provided me with a more humane universal vision and understanding.   I believe human rights should be granted to all individuals regardless of their race, religion or nationality.   Human Rights mechanisms and intentions are good.   However, unfortunately, in practice, things are quite different.

 

Q: Were you told why you were being detained in Guantanamo?   And what gave you the strength to endure your detention?

A: My guards told me that I was being brought to Guantanamo and I would never leave alive.   No information was given except that YOU ARE GUILTY, YOU ARE A TERRORIST!!   I endured due to my strong belief in Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.  Throughout my tormenting experience, I believed that I would go out and support my family.

 

Q: To what extent do we see a repetition of the policies of exceptionalism that we saw immediately after 9/11 playing out now in Syria, and how can we ensure a fair judicial process to those accused of involvement with ISIL?

A: Unfortunately, all Middle Eastern regimes  do not believe in an independent judiciary system, and the British and Americans do not want the defendants to stand trial in London nor in Washington DC.

 

Q: How can journalists, humanitarian workers and human rights practitioners maintain their safety in hostile environments?

A: They should adhere to safety guidelines, and subject themselves to strict professional training.   At our Centre at Al Jazeera, for example, we have a Safety Section, and we provide journalists in the Middle East and elsewhere with workshops on the necessity of safety.

IMG_9620

 

Q: Can you tell us more about your team and objectives at Al Jazeera?

A: The Public Liberties and Human Rights Centre first started as a specialised desk within the Al Jazeera Arabic newsroom in 2008 and expanded to become a Centre in 2015.  The Centre now has a team of 14, all based at Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, spread between the Arabic and English newsrooms and online, writing articles and doing research.  Our aim is to ensure human rights content across all AJMN platforms, to raise awareness and competence of international humanitarian law with journalists in the field,  and inform the public about human rights issues and legislation.  In addition, we endeavour to build and develop strategic partnerships with international, regional and local organisations to identify human rights violations and contribute to the promotion of freedom of expression and the press.

 

Q: How does Human Rights fit with Al Jazeera’s core business?

A: Human Rights issues are no longer fleeting news, but at the core of what the Al Jazeera Media Network does.  Al Jazeera’s interest in human rights has clearly emerged as a key element during analysis and discussion both in general and more particularly in the area of press freedom and the detention of journalists.

 

Q: What achievements you are most proud of in the work that you have done over the last 12 years?

A: I believe, over the last 12 years, we have done very well with regard to spreading the culture of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa.  We are now an effective partner of UNESCO, specifically with respect to Press Freedom and we work closely with the International Press Institution.   Our editorial section has contributed over 5,000 pieces and 6 full length documentaries and our partnership section has held more than 60 workshops with international experts from the UN and other global institutions benefitting over 1000 journalists from Al Jazeera and other media organisations.  We are also very proud of our Global Solidarity Initiatives, working in partnership with other media organisations in the areas of press freedom, anti-hate speech, protection of journalists and humanitarian workers, safeguarding displaced persons, rights of prisoners and detainees, and consolidation of transitional justice and the rule of law.

 

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges and the top 3 priorities for human rights advocates around the world?

A: The biggest challenge right now is the rise of the far right all over the globe.  The top 3 priorities are Right to Religion, Right to Health and Press Freedom.

 

Q: What one piece of advice would you give to a human rights student just starting out on their career?

A: Never compromise.

 

My thanks to Sami and his team for engaging so generously with the questions from our students.  The HRC Blog Editorial team will be publishing further Spotlights in the coming weeks and months and welcome suggestions from students, staff and alumni for subjects they’d like to see featured.