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War tourism in the north of Sri Lanka

If you follow the A9 road long enough, you will end up in former Tamil Tiger territory. I say ‘former,’ because the Tamil Tigers were soundly defeated by the Sri Lankan military in 2009. As many know, the Tigers maintained a de facto state in the North with its own military, police force, political infrastructure and even postal service. The Tamil Tiger state, however, now lies in ruins.

Since the end of the Tiger regime, the Northern Province has become something of a domestic tourist Mecca, something that reveals a great deal about the way ordinary Sinhala people have psychologically dealt with the close of the civil war and that helps illustrate the nature of Sinhala nationalism in Sri Lanka.

In 2010, seven months after the fall of the Tiger regime, I visited the north. The A9 road was the main supply route into the North and was only just being repaired after many years of abject neglect. Before then, entry into the North was highly restricted. What was revealed was an area lacking in basic infrastructure. Many buildings were completely burnt out while others were pockmarked with hundreds of bullet holes. On one side of the A9 was a burnt out tank, and overgrown and abandoned bunkers were everywhere. The jungles to the east and west of the A9 were completely inaccessible because of anti personal mines. Yellow tape ran for miles on both sides. It read, ‘bima bomba’ or ‘land mines’. The villages that we passed were basic in the extreme, with sanitation systems were largely restricted to outhouses. Yet there was already evidence of restoration. To the credit of the Sri Lankan government immediate investment was made to begin redevelopment. The A9 was being rebuilt and modern eateries were slowly being developed. In Kilinochchi, the former Tamil Tiger capital, we stopped at a recently built eatery. The Tamils working there were delighted by their new clients. ‘Tell your friends to come,’ they said. In saying this, they were really hoping for foreign tourists. In reality, Sinhala tourists are likely to be their main clients.

Indeed, there were few foreigners in the North at that time. Even today, not many venture far North. When I was stopped at the border checkpoint at Omantai, the army captain who ran the outpost was concerned about my occupation and purpose for entering the North. As we progressed further North, we soon discovered that there were very few foreigners at all: only a handful of aid workers. The North was, in fact, largely dominated by Tamil residents and, more importantly, by Sinhala tourists.

Domestic tourists are the main client of the tourist industry of the North. They are well catered for, as the Sri Lankan government has set up a number of rather morbid tourist spots that act both as spaces of leisure and as monuments to the glories of the Sri Lankan military.

Somewhere along the A9, with no human habitation anywhere in sight, there is a brief stop area where you can visit an old train. The site does not cater for train enthusiasts, but rather those who wish to reflect on the Sri Lankan military’s victory over the Tigers, and meditate on the evils that befell the Sinhala people during the Tiger reign. It was here that in 1985 the Tigers blew up a passenger train that carried people from the south of the country all the way up to Jaffna. The location is marked by a sign with an image of a passenger train, over which an explosion has been awkwardly photoshopped. The sign reads, in Sinhala: ‘This is the place where the Yaldevi train was destroyed by the terrorists’.

To get to the actual site of the wreckage you have to follow a snaking path that strikes through heavily mined jungle. When we visited, someone had helpfully written with a stick on the dirt path, ‘Careful: mines.’

These exciting tourist destinations continue further along the A9. At the entrance to the town of Kilinochchi is a massive concrete water tower, completely riddled with bullet holes, lying collapsed on its side. The structure is surrounded by low walls, and a brand new brick footpath allows visitors to access the entire tower. A large plaque had been installed to commemorate the victory over the Tigers as well as the battle that led to the collapse of the tower. Supposedly Tiger cadres had blown up the tower as they fled the besieged town. This was either an act of extreme malice as many Sinhala nationalists would have us believe, or a tactical decision.  The latter seems more likely.

Further north still is Elephant Pass, another place of considerable strategic significance in the Eelam wars. Unsurprisingly, it has also been turned into a space to showcase the glories and sacrifices of the Sri Lankan military.  Elephant Pass is a narrow strip of land that connects the bulk of the island of Sri Lanka to a small isthmus at the top of the island where the major city of Jaffna is located. It was at Elephant Pass where much of the military activity was concentrated throughout the entire Eelam conflict. Here, you can find the remnants of a makeshift Tamil Tiger tank, raised up on a platform for all to see. The vehicle is a highly modified, heavily armoured dozer covered on all sides by thick, metal plates. It is a lasting monument to the ingenuity of the Tigers, and its destruction is seen as a testament to the will and sacrifice of the Sri Lankan military. The top of the vehicle is splayed open like a peeled banana, blown up by a well-placed grenade.

Next to the dozer is a large sign that immortalises the soldier responsible for destroying it. The sign reads, in Sinhala: “For the first time in the world the Vibhusanaya award [a bravery award] was given to Corporal Gamini Kularatne for sacrificing his life at this camp by jumping at the Tiger bulldozer on 1991 July 1 at Elephant Pass.” Kularathna stopped the vehicle, which was loaded with explosives and on a suicide mission. He died in the attempt and has been immortalised at this spot as a Lankan hero. Strangely juxtaposed with this scene is an old children’s playground, located just to the side of the dozer memorial. The area is intended to be enjoyed by all, young and old.

At the time we visited, all these tourist sites were crowded with Sinhala tourists. Large air-conditioned buses transported the visitors, who we might even call war pilgrims, from far south to the remote northern areas. For many, this was the first time they had seen this part of the country: the entire Northern Province had been off limits for more than twenty years. For the Sinhalese, rediscovering their own country is a huge incentive to visit.

None of the sites were more crowded than the giant sculpture at Elephant Pass, a monument adjacent to the Kularathna memorial. It is a towering memorial to the Lankan victory, a sculpture of four hands holding up the island of Sri Lanka, a lotus flower blooming from the top. It is meant to illustrate the solidarity of the Sinhala people, uniting to stop the terrorist threat. At the time we visited, a large number of tourists were listening with rapt attention to a military officer, explaining the victories at Elephant Pass.

Perhaps the most cherished memorial is Prabhakaran’s command bunker at Mullaitivu. Prabhakaran was the leader and founder of the Tamil Tigers. At the end of the war, after being hemmed in on all sides by Sri Lankan forces, the much-hunted Tiger leader was found dead on 19 May 2009, floating in the water amongst some mangroves. Since his death, his headquarters in Mallaitivu has become a significant tourist attraction set up, as with the cases above, by the Sri Lankan government. For many Sinhalese, Prabhakaran’s base is essentially the equivalent of Hitler’s bunker. But where Hitler’s bunker was destroyed, Prabhakaran’s headquarters has been made into a fetishised tourist space by the people who hated him most. The importance of the site was made clear when one of our party expressed considerable regret that we would be unable to visit it.

This is the morbid war tourism industry of Sri Lanka. It is curious that people would choose to celebrate the liberation of the North in this fashion. It is not unusual for countries to commemorate great battle sites, but it is usually done after much soul searching and many years of consideration. The speed with which these memorials sprang up, and the eagerness with which people were visiting them, in spite of the horrors they represented, seems unusual.

I think the celebration of these sites can be explained in several different ways. There is, first of all, a psychological aspect to visiting these memorials. It helps provide closure for visitors previously tormented by more than twenty years of civil war. The memorials are statements that say, ‘The war has finished, we won.’

This was made abundantly clear when we spoke with a soldier stationed at a military outpost in Point Pedro, at the most northern tip of the island. Point Pedro was formerly a hotbed of Tiger activity and the soldier recounted that, during the war, the outpost was constantly assailed by suicide bombers. He explained that the people who live in the area now, all Tamils of course, continue to be supporters of the Tigers. Yet, he said, they know that they have lost. The memorials are as much for the Tamil people as they are for the Sinhalese. It reminds them that they are now, and forever, unified with the rest of Sri Lanka – lest they forget, and once again incur the wrath of the Lankan military.

This psychological statement is also reflected in the systematic destruction of Tiger iconography. As we drove through Kilinochchi we saw a beheaded statue, a former Tiger statue honouring a fallen hero. Now that hero is just a pile of rubble on the ground. Similarly, in Jaffna, the gravesites of lost Tiger soldiers had been bulldozed over by the military.

Given these graves were previously of almost religious significance for the Tigers, this action is significant. For the Sri Lankan government, it is a matter of the utmost urgency that all Tiger monuments be knocked down and replaced with appropriate ‘Sri Lankan’ memorials.

Another reason for visiting these sites in this fashion is quasi-religious. I called the visitors to these sites ‘war pilgrims’. That’s partly because there is a strong ethos amongst the Buddhist Sinhala majority to engage in Buddhist pilgrimage activities. This war tourism is an extension. Many of the visitors to the Northern Province were probably engaged in an actual religious pilgrimage anyway, as the island of Nagadipa, just off the coast of Jaffna, is an extremely sacred religious site. Reputably, the Buddha arrived there while touring Sri Lanka, (though from a critical historical perspective the Buddha certainly never visited Sri Lanka at all).

Visiting battle sites is a sort of continuation of this pilgrimage practice. When Sinhala Buddhists think about touring, they quite often think about touring from a religious perspective. When people visit India it is most often on a religious pilgrimage to visit the sacred places of the Buddha. When people tour Sri Lanka domestically, it is to visit places of religious significance such as the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. In this way, pleasure and religious duty are intertwined in inextricable ways. Having a series of monuments to visit makes sense, just as it makes sense to visit a series of temples. Many Sinhala Buddhists are preoccupied with religious completionism: that is, being able to say that they have viewed all the sacred sites. Now they can do this with war sites, too.

The relationship between religion and tourism also broaches the final reason for validating this war tourism: Sinhala nationalism. To be able to see these sites in the way that Sinhala visitors reinforces the significance and power of the Sri Lankan state in the minds of the Sinhala people. It is a transposition of the power the Tigers once had into the power the Sinhala people now have. The transformation of these areas of conflict into spaces of entertainment partly depreciates the significance of the Tigers’ former successes. Their efforts to hold territory in the North, to conquer ‘rightful’ Sinhala territory, is made farcical by the fact that these areas are now places of pleasure.

For many Sinhalese, the distinction between the Tigers and the Tamil people as such is fluid. Hence, the monuments, placed as they are in Tamil heartland, are graphic reminders of just who is in charge. In short, they are ways to project Sinhala dominance and power.

The monuments in the North bring symbolic closure to the war for many Sinhalese. They have won. The Tigers, a term often used to refer the Tamil people as such, have finally been made docile.

Yet because the war was won through violence, the victory has strengthened the hand of Sinhala ultranationalist groups. The Tamils are now increasingly seen as a threat of the past. It is likely they will continue to be oppressed but because of the closure brought by the war Sinhala nationalist groups are likely to turn their attention to other minorities. War tourism, therefore, is a device that can be used to reinforce Sinhala domination but it also diverts attention away from other nationalist dangers on the horizon.

James Stewart is a Research Associate at the University of Tasmania. He recently completed his PhD in Buddhist Studies and Philosophy. His main area of research is Sinhala Buddhism, especially animal ethics in Sri Lanka and the effect it has on food and dietary practices. He has previously lived in Sri Lanka and makes frequent visits there to conduct fieldwork. His website is http://srilankaobserver.org/.

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Comments

  1. I recommend a look at James’ fb website to garner some Australian connections. Just dipping into Christopher Cramer’s 2006 Civil War Is Not a Stupid Thing. He has a chapter arguing that the internationally standardised concept of post-conflict reconstruction is a blank slate fantasy. “The onset of peace can itself threaten development.”

  2. Thank you, Alex. Yes, I agree that understanding the situation in the northern provinces is important because it adds context to some of the issues facing Tamil asylum seekers. However, it’s also interesting to note that many asylum seekers to Australia are Sinhalese who are, of course, the dominant ethnic group. The motivations for why Tamils and Sinhalese seek refuge in Australia are often quite different because their socio-political circumstances are different.

  3. nice article on sri lankan war tourism and its really interesting.your article helps me to get an idea for my research

  4. Thank you for your article. Very interesting. I realise it’s central thesis is ‘war tourism’, but I had hoped it might, at least in passing, refer to the material reality of Tamils living in Sri Lanka post-civil war. Have you read Tamil Tigress by Niromi de Soyza? Also you didn’t mention the role of Chinese arms in helping the Sri Lankan military defeat the Tigers. This was essential as the Tigers controlled the northern and eastern provinces of the island. From what I understand, ‘the North’ is not just one province but several provinces. Also Tamils are the majority population in the north and east.

  5. Thanks very much for your reply.
    1. The Northern province really is just one province and the East is another province. They are two of nine provinces in the island. Unfortunately, I could only comment on the northern province because I didn’t actually visit the East.
    2. You are right that the ethnic majority in these areas are overwhelmingly Tamil. In fact, one thing that struck me was the extent to which many northerners didn’t know Sinhala. Unsurprising in some ways, given the long segregation the North has had from the rest of the country. It also parallels the Sinhalese who mostly don’t know any Tamil.
    When I said that the ethnic majority of Sri Lanka are Sinhalese I meant the point to illustrate the way in which the Sinhalese dominate the population in general. What we see now are more Sinhalese flooding into the North through tourism (under the protection of the military, of course, who are absolutely everywhere).
    3, As for your point about the supply of Chinese weapons – an interesting and important point, but somewhat tangential to the subject matter insofar that I was focusing mainly on the attitudes the Sinhalese had towards the newly liberated North. In fact, it is hard to talk about the Tamil people in this article for that reason, but also because I don’t know Tamil and therefore am not an authority to mediate their point of view. I think it is absolutely important that more ethnographical work be conducted on the experience of the Tamil people post war and there is certainly a lack of work in that subject in the literature.
    4. Regarding their material living conditions: a tricky question but it’s fair to say a great number of Tamils were living in poverty. There were quite a few with rudimentary huts erected, presumably, by those who had lost their homes. I imagine the military would have removed these structures now as a huge resettlement project was undertaken during and after my visit. In general, I think it was clear that there was a drop in living conditions the further north you went. Of course, there was also a small middle class evident in Jaffna city – probably small business owners.

  6. James, I just got back from traveling all over the Northern area, shooting for a local NGO. I pretty much stayed off the A9, other than to eat. But, I knew something was up when i saw the souvenir shop next to the fallen tower. Also when i saw the “big bullet cracking the wall” monument with army honor guard standing fast. it was all a bit surreal. Not to blatantly self promote, but if you or any readers want to see how the Tamils are presently living for years to come, go to:

    http://kristoffcapa.com/home.html?lb=fc6e1d024c3c9e1

    Things are getting done, roads are being built, its just the poorest people are at the other end of the dirt road, without clean water and electricity.

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