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.
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.
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
Stephanie 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.