“That hellish abyss”
As ethnic tensions in Sudan continue to cause an international spike in blood pressure, another conflict has recently captured my attention. This one is unfolding in an entirely different country, on an entirely different continent. It’s happening in Sri Lanka.
We don’t hear much about Sri Lanka. A tear-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, it’s relatively small—slightly larger than the state of West Virginia and significantly more crowded (a population of twenty-one million as opposed to W. Virginia’s two). The predominant ethnicity is Sinhalese (82 percent), with Tamil making up the biggest minority group (9.4 percent).
And, as is so often the case, it’s the tension between these groups that has left a dirty stain on Sri Lankan history. War erupted in 1983 between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil separatists (LTTE) and became one of the longest-running civil wars in Asia. Norway helped negotiate a ceasefire in 2002, but the peace treaty was repeatedly violated in the years that followed and an estimated 265,000 people were displaced.
In 2009, the Genocide Prevention Project released a Mass Atrocity Crimes Watch List, and Sri Lanka made it onto the top tier—the “red alert” countries who had the highest composite of risk factors. In May of the same year, the Sri Lankan government declared official victory over the rebels. But is an official victory the same as an actual one? And if so…at what cost?
Today, one year later, the government has launched a new project in Sri Lanka: the project of destruction.
In an astute article in The Guardian, anthropologist Malathi de Alwis explains the current state of affairs:
On 19 March 2010, Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror carried a brief article on its front page startlingly headlined, “Government to wipe out LTTE [Tamil Tiger] landmarks”. The rationale for this, according to the secretary to the ministry of tourism, George Michael, was that the “LTTE and the violence which affected the public during the war should be forgotten”. Fortified with such logic, the government has bulldozed all the LTTE cemeteries in the Wanni… A few weeks back, the Thileepan memorial near the Nallur temple was defaced with the collusion of the Sri Lankan army. While the homes of LTTE leaders will be replaced with hotels and resorts, according to the ministry, we have also witnessed the erection of several state-sponsored “victory monuments” to commemorate the defeat of the LTTE in the north.
De Alwis is “dismayed by the government’s myopic and misguided understand of memory, and its brutal disregard for the feelings and emotions of a people who have undergone unimaginable and innumerable horrors for the past three decades.” Instead of “bulldozings and demolitions and exhortations to forget,” she advocates a drastically different approach. “We need to reflect on the circumstances that led to this war and make sure we do not repeat mistakes made in previous decades.” For de Alwis, this is the only way to “ensure that we never again descend into that hellish abyss.”
What the Sri Lankan government is attempting is nothing new. Perhaps that’s why their efforts to rewrite history—to scrape away the “undesirable” parts—make me profoundly uncomfortable: precisely because it’s so familiar. It’s eerily reminiscent of Holocaust deniers or the Sudanese government denying that genocide ever occurred. The first step is to destroy the evidence. The second step is to forget what happened. And how very dangerous it is, this forgetting.
I think we’d all agree that destroying the remnants of the past is not the answer. If we want to keep ourselves from descending yet again into that hellish abyss, then we must remember. It is our moral imperative.
And if film is a way “to document – to serve as a keeper of memories for future generations,” as Michael Pertnoy and Michael Kleiman attest, then documentaries like The Last Survivor became all the more vital. The film functions as a memorial, but not a stagnant one. It is an active memorial: one that makes it impossible to forget.
For de Alwis, memorials “play a crucial role in all societies. They function as repositories of memory, suffering and grief, and often help to translate the unthinkable to the thinkable.” The sooner we move into the thinkable, the sooner the preventable can and will occur.
Check out The Last Survivor next week, screening on May 11th and 12th at the Jewish Film Festival in LA.