Colombo Telegraph

Ilattamils’ Defying GoSL’s Disenfranchisement Of Mourning After May 2009

By Peter Schalk

Prof. Peter Schalk

Disenfranchisement of mourning is not a new phenomenon. An older name in Latin makes this clear: it is damnatio memoriae ‘ban on memorialising’ – a certain person or group of persons. Some Latin emperors and Egyptian Pharaohs did not wish to be reminded about a predecessor. They wiped out every trace of them. The Nazis destroyed the monuments of the Communist Party in Germany. Damnatio memoriae includes the removal of portraits, books, doctoring people out of pictures. In the island Lanka, graves of the combatants are turned into macadam by the GoSL and the SLAF. The site of the former tuylum illam ‘house of rest’ in Varani, Kotikamam, has been acquired by the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) citing the Land Acquisition Act.

When the armed conflict was over in May 2009, it continued verbally. The annual return of May 18th was and still is in 2015 the area of conflict. Two incompatible evaluations of the past encounter, one by Ilattamils’ and one by GoSL loyalists. The former regard the past as a traumatic series of events over long time and the latter as a victorious series of events, especially during the Rajapaksa regime from 2005 to 2009. The former expressed their emotions annually on 18th May in a solemnity memorialising the civil victims and the fallen combatants, and the latter on May 18th in a in a spectacular victory parade over terrorism. Both parties justify their actions, which makes clear that there is no sign of reconciliation.

A clarifying article by the Tamil Guardian in London, also published by Tamil Net in Norway in 2010, gave the background to the beginning of the annual solemnities of mourning on May 18th by Ilattamils. The article did not focus only what happened in Mullivaykkal in the last months of the armed struggle in 2009, but opened also a historical perspective on the bereavement of the Ilattamils:

—-2009’s single, protracted program of state-conducted slaughter has a sixty year-long antecedent, beginning well before the armed conflict erupted in 1983. From 1956 to then, thousands of Tamils died in regular episodes of rioting by Sinhala mobs.—-

The article ended with a correct prediction of coming protests and their message against the GoSL:

—-Wherever they have the freedom to do so, Tamils will in the coming days commemorate Sri Lanka’s slaughter of their people. The Sinhalese will celebrate ‘victory’. This is emblematic of Sri Lanka’s future. Just as Sinhala political projects will remain bound up with establishing a racial hierarchy, our political projects will turn on resisting hegemony and politically establishing our rightful place on the island. Accounting for 2009 is, in other words, the defining principle of Tamil-Sinhala relations to come.

Another clarifying statement stems from the Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association, dated May 2014. It reported that on 7th May leaflets were posted on the University premises making death threats against professors who are allegedly guiding students to support terrorism and student leaders of just the Arts and Science faculties and the leader of the University Student’s Union. General Perera had told them that no observance in the University would be permitted on the 18th as any observance would amount to extolling the late LTTE leader Pirapakaraṉ and would thus count as an inducement to terrorism. Any persons trying to hoist black flags, distribute leaflets or put up posters will be considered supporting of terrorism and such persons will be taken into custody under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The orders from the SLAF made the Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association put a number of questions and made statements. The text acknowledges that the war is part of the history of the Tamils which is a recognition of guilt as first step to reconciliation. The text also appeals to counterparty to feel for the Tamil mourners in the same way as they feel for their fallen insurgents of the JVP. There was a conditioned opening for talks in this statement, but as the GoSL continued to disenfranchise mourning there was no way to reconciliation. The evaluation of the GoSL will follow below.


First we have to take up some terminological questions.

We can say disenfranchisement of grieving (tuyaram)…, but I have deselected it. It is not possible for any suppressive authority to disenfranchise grieving (tuyaram) as silent emotion of people in private, but when grieving has gone public, and become mourning (tukkam), then suppressive authorities can try to prevent mourning.

Instead of using the long word disenfranchisement of mourning, we can just say blocking mourning, which was used by Taya Comacuntaram in Yalppanam. Some also speak in the footsteps of Sigmund Freud about severing the connection between the dead and the living in grief-work, but in this case severing this connection forcefully by military action.

Especially in Tamil culture, attachment to the dead is expressed in the art of continuous public lamenting, which is increased in war time. Detachment with the departed is not wished. Grief-work aims at preserving and strengthening the attachment to the departed, not to cut the connection.

Sigmund Freud was aware that grieving is not only a reaction to the loss of a loved person, but also “to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on”. This is applicable for the Tamil Resistance Movement and several other secular radical Movements that alternate between Martyr and Motherland (tayakam) as object of bereavement and makes one the representative of the other. With each combatant dying, a part of the Motherland is dying.
This presentation is also about the reaction of the mourners to this blocking. Mourners defied and still defy the disenfranchisement by the GoSL.

Decades of war have turned Tamil speakers in the island into aggrieved persons. There is hardly any person who has not been objected to suffering by loss of bodily and mental health, property, and by death of a relative. Silent grieving (tuyaram) has become a collective characteristic of Ilattamil speakers who in the island and in the global Diaspora memorialise their dead civilians and combatants.

The Tiger Movement has an organised a cult of dead combatants into an imagery of mavirarkal ‘great heroes’ tiyakikal ‘abandoners’, catcikal ‘witnesses’, maravar ‘wrathful’and English Martyrs. They are made idealised models for imitation. Characteristically, it factors out traditional religious references in its stylised process of mourning(tukkam) by combatants of fallen combatants. The Tiger Movement had also specific rites which the People’s Movement had not, like the mavirar kallaraip pirakatanam ‘declaration at the stone-chamber of the Great Heroes’. The combatant mourners are also not expected to wail loudly, but to persevere in silent musing. In contrast, mourners of the People’s Movement usually followed and still follow Caiva, Christian or Muslim rituals and wailing is a constitutive part of mourning in Tamil culture. Lighting the lamp in homes and adorations for the souls to rest in peace is also common. Both rites are highly frequent and can be used in interfaith rituals. The members of the People’s Movement do not cultivate their dead in accordance with the heroic imagery of the former Tiger Movement. Their dead are sons, daughters, sisters. brothers, friends, etc., even if they were combatants. It is important to realise the difference in these two mourning rituals. Every mourner has a double relation, a formal one to him as combatant of the Tiger Movement and another personalised one as member of the kin. As the SLAF is not able to distinguish between the formalised and the personalised relations or does not want to distinguish, the GoSL disenfranchises completely all attempts to memorialise the combatants. Furthermore, the GoSL neglects that most of the mourners themselves are not active combatants, that the dead combatants and mourners are part of the kin. Moreover, as the GoSL cannot or does not want to distinguish between memorialisation of combatants and civilians, it bans both. In the case of Mullivaykkal, we find the coming together of memorialising of civilians and of combatants. At Great Heroes’ Day annually on 27th November, we find the memorialisation of exclusively dead combatants.

The former President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa identified, however, all the mourning of all Ilattamils, on May 18th in 2014, as a way to celebrate terrorism. He said in a public speech:

—Some people want to pay homage to the burial place of the most ruthless terrorist who killed thousands of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims and kept the people as hostages.

While trying to block the mourning of the People’s Movement, he organised his own victory parade in Matara. Soon after May 18th 2015, in June, the SLAF commemorated Sri Lankan soldiers in Yalppanam.

Some media were supportive of the President’s evaluation, but add that room is given for a mother to mourn her child in private. We read in Lankaweb, but also in the Government paper The Daily News in May 2015, that only a mother of a terrorist can mourn her child, but in private only. The reader will note that the dead combatant’s father, siblings, friends and acquaintances are not allowed to mourn, not even in private.

A repeated justification in media for disenfranchising mourning is that
…the West is still looking for Nazis. The very media and international agencies demanding the right to mourn LTTE terrorists may like to be reminded that the West is still hounding Nazi’s even after 69 years!

If we neglect the identification of the Tiger Movement’s combatants with Nazis as propagandistic, there is a historical flaw in this way of reasoning. The hounding of Nazis concerns living, not dead Nazis. There is no law which disenfranchises the mourning of dead Nazis. Moreover, the so called de-nazification programme, launched by the victors after the war’s end, did of course not include dead Nazis. Even fallen SS-soldiers were taken care of in cemeteries in Germany and there was made no difference between dead SS-soldiers and common soldiers by the state sponsored organisation Gräberfürsorge, which cares for graves of soldiers of any category.

As for venerating Nazis in local cemeteries, it is not the German state who evaluates this, but the local community, which may or may not tolerate solemnities by Nazis at the grave of a Nazi. There is no legalised disenfranchisement of mourning of Nazis by the German state. Even the Nazi party, the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD), is not proscribed.

For more than 20 years from the 1970s onwards the German Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) “terrorised” Germany inspired the instructions by Carlos Marighella for how to conduct urban guerrilla warfare. The RAF’s leaders are dead, but their graves are today in open cemeteries and are annually visited by sympathisers. Nobody disenfranchises these sympathisers to venerate “the terrorists”.

The GoSL, however, does not allow that a dead Tamil enemy can be memorialised, but if the enemy is a Sinhala, the GoSL allows that the JVP still venerates its icon Rohana Wijeweera in public with life size pictures of him at rallies and gatherings. JVP’s Commemoration of November Heroes to commemorate heroes of the JVP in 2014 included its founder at the Open Air Theatre of Viharamahadevi Park. The JVP can publish dozens of publications and celebrate annually its ilmah(s)a viru samaruva ‘Memorialisation of November Heroes’ so named because Rohana Wijewwra was killed on 13 November 1989.

We learn that for example the 23rd Commemoration of November Heroes in 2014 would “commemorate heroes who laid down their lives for the Motherland”, including the founder of the party Comrade Patabändi Don Nandasiri Wijeweera will be celebrated by the JVP at Viharamahadevi Open Air Theater on the 13th at 3.30 p.m. The event will include a commemoration address and recital of commemorative songs and will be participated by the Leader of the JVP, the General Secretary and other leaders and comrades of the party. A book on the history of the party between the period from 1965 to 1994 will be also be launched at the ceremony. November Heroes Commemoration ceremonies will be also held in Italy, France, UK, Denmark, Sweden, Australia, Canada, Cyprus, Japan, Netherlands, Belgium and several countries in the Middle East by the respective committees.

The question arises: Why does the GoSL, who killed about 10 000 JVP “terrorists” in 1971 and another 60 000 in 1989, allow the celebration of ilmah(s)a viru samaruva, but not of maviranal ? As for the “homeland”, both parties use ‘motherland’ (mavbima, tayakam) and as for the phrase “heroes who laid down their lives for the Motherland”, we have heard it so many times in the same way from both sides! What legitimises the disenfranchisement of mourning of the Ilattamils?


We now come to the resistance against the blocking of mourning. The Chief-Minister of the Northern Province Council, Justice C. V. Wigneswaran defied in 2015 in Mullivaykkal the restrictions, albeit he was a Government servant. He could have been sacked by the Governor. Justice C. V. Wigneswaran participated in memorialisations on 18th May and made a speech, in which identified grievances which have caused the mourning: land grabbing, displacement, militarisation, and genocide. To identify these implies at the same time to accuse the GoSL. His speech was translated and sent all over the world. C. V. Wigneswaran lighted a ceremony lamp on the occasion at a makeshift memorial at Mullivaykkal. Then hundreds of Tamils also lit oil lamps during the ceremony. To light a lamp is a concern for religious and non-religious people alike. What has all this to do with terrorism?

Mullivaykkal is the center of the defeat of the Tiger Movement and of the death of many thousands of civilian displaced persons who had the homes in other places in the island. They organised also memorialisations on 18th May 2015. I refer to Vavuniya, Kilinocci, PTK, Tirukonamalai, Mannar, and Nantikatal. In Vatamaracci the event was held at the Vempati Murukaṉ temple where people lit candles of remembrance and lay flowers paying respects to those that had died.

In 2015 aggrieved, but defying, persons went public as mourners in spite of the disenfranchisement of mourning Ilattamils. Father Elil Racentiram told the world through media that organising a religious service in 2015 to commemorate 18 May 2009 was like experiencing a horror story, full of fear and suspense, with an uncertain end. Until the last moment he was not sure if anybody would dare to turn up for the event – the first of its kind in the six years since the war in the island ended. He went to Mullivaykkal Church three days in advance to check the arrangements as he was in charge of organising the event. On the way there he could see that the situation was getting tense;  policemen were deployed along the road that leads to Mullivaykkal – the place where tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed in 2009 – according to Bishop of Mannar possibly as many as 146, 679 in seven months. He admired the courage of the people from that area. In spite of their very real fear and the surveillance and monitoring they helped him organise the service. He could only imagine the struggle they face since even he as a [Catholic] priest had to go through so much. Until the last moment they were in suspense, unsure whether or not our religious service would be obstructed like all the other mourning events that day. When five hundred people did come for the service from the neighbouring villages, most of them were women mourning their dead. He believed it was the first time they had the space to cry out loud in grief like this. Mothers and children wept for their lost ones and the scene was heart rending. Everyone in the crowd cried and he struggled to hold back tears himself when a group of girls who live in an orphanage started weeping while remembering and honouring their dead parents.

Uninvited guests from the security forces took photos of all the participants who were mostly women in terrible grief – hardly people who could be a security threat to the Lankan state. For the first time he saw that people in the crowd were brave and began photographing those plain clothes intelligence officers who were photographing them. At the end of the service two foreign nationals who were present were questioned by the police as to why they were there.

To avoid problems with the GoSL, in Sweden, a so called Tamil non-political organisation, naming itself tamil cankam, has explicitly stated in 2015 that only civilians are to be memorialised on 19 May – as if combatants did not have a human side, a kinship side, also. This organisation feared that mourning dead combatants will be apprehended as glorification of terrorism, thereby falling line with what the GoSL says. This view on Tamil combatants reflects the GoSL’s view on the Tiger Movement, but this view does not reflect the view of Ilattamils, who regard their dead combatants from the perspective of justice on one side and of kinship, friendship and acquaintance on the other side.


The said brings us to the question: Why has the GoSL introduced disenfranchisement of mourning of combatants and of civilians? There is one political reason: Memorialisation glorifies allegedly terrorism. The combatants from the Tiger Movement and its supporters from the People’s Movement are classified as terrorists and deprived of every humanity. They are not sons, daughters, cousins, etc, but killing machines. To mourn them is to let loose and celebrate the animal in man. Therefore mourning has to be stopped. Mourning disturbs allegedly the peace.

There is another, a real reason. Mourning pinpoints directly – like in the case of the Chiefminister of the NPC or indirectly – the perpetrators for having caused this trauma and therefore for being guilty of war crimes, of crimes against humanity or even of genocide. Taya Comacuntaram said that Mahinda Rajapaksa feared that trauma treatment would be used to collect evidence of war crimes.

The counter-reaction of the perpetrator is three-fold, the truth of the accusation has to be denied, public mourning will be forbidden and the glorification of the heroism of its own soldiers will be made in a triumphal state-ceremony of victory every 18 May.

The mourners represent the victims of the perpetrators. These mourners are of course also aware that their mourning is provocative by its direct or indirect pinpointing, but this has to be neglected. To extend emotions of love towards the departed victims is more important for them than the GoSL’s irritation and anger of being made culpable. To memorialise the dead is a gift of love extended to the departed, may they be combatants or civilians. The perpetrators are aware of a predictable future if the truth about its atrocities is established. The pinpointing does not point only at Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but at a series of well-documented 173 massacres by NESoHR from 1956 onwards, which constitute together an intended, gradual genocide. The GoSL has a foreboding of being transferred to an International Court of Justice and of its representatives being put behind bars for decades. The TGTE put in 2015 on its political agenda this transfer. The GoSL may have to pay a large sum to the victims’ families for decades ahead in the name of remedial justice. Still worse, the UN may recognise Tamililam like it has done before in the case of Israel as compensation for its suffering. The moral reputation of the GoSLs will reach a low ebb. Lanka will be classified as a failed state and as a banana-republic internationally. It is in the interest of the GoSL to silence all criticism from beginning, which is done by establishing a culture of denial against all accusations and to prevent an international examination of the GoSL’s agenda in the past, which the UN already has demanded. The disenfranchisement of mourning is part of a culture of denial.


There are several countries who can be defined as cultures of denial. The denial has become a permanent brand mark of this culture’s mind-set. The two most well-known cultures of denial today are Turkey, which has denied its genocide of the Armenians for more than 100 years, and an international group of historians and amateur historians, who deny the holocaust. Now we can add the GoSL and the Indian Government, which deny the 173 atrocities on the Ilattamils.

I shall now dedicate some comments to the political concept of denialism in general and also specifically to the denial of the genocide of the Armenians, Jews, and Ilattamils.

We have to distinguish between total an partial denial. Total denial claims that there was no genocide of the Armenians and there was no Holocaust. This view is rare but it has been launched several times by debaters, who launched it in historical journals. They speak about a myth, hoax or swindle as for the genocide and Holocaust. It is not only the truth they deny, but they also condemn the expression of anti-nationalism, which is allegedly behind these accusations. Those who accuse of genocide are classified as anti-nationalists, who tarnish the image of the state.

Sometimes only a central part of the genocide is denied like the death marches of the Armenians and the gazing of the Jews, but these parts stand for the whole. Denying them is denying everything.

This brings us to the island. The accusation of genocide has always been denied totally by all GoSLs, but even a time limited event like the annihilation of civilians at Mullivaykkal has been denied totally by Mahinda Rajapaksa in his capacity of President. He has said two things which belong together. The first is his definition of terrorism which is a conventional one. Terrorism is the killing of civilians. This definition falls back on himself. His State-terrorism is also killing of civilians. The second statement from June 2009 is that not a single civilian has been killed. This is a blatant denial which can be given two interpretations. He may mean just what he says, but he can also mean the following: We have killed many, but none of them was a civilian. All were terrorists. In both cases denialism of killing civilians, and of his own state-terrorism, is total.

We now come to partial denial. It does not deny the atrocities, but tries to make them morally acceptable by justifying them as being reactions to provocations. This way of partial denial is called rationalisation. We know it from Ilam, where the GoSL describes itself as reacting on terrorism only, which justifies 173 massacres on civilians. We can also name this way of arguing trivialisation, which goes hand in hand with rationalisation. Another way of trivialising massacres is to question the demographic data, which has happened in all three cases of genocides.

A common way to deny genocide is to deny that the perpetrator had any intent of genocide. All know that according the United Nations’ Genocide Convention refers to acts committed with intent. If there is no intent these acts have to be classified as reactions to provocations.

In the case of Germany a famous partial denial says that Adolf Hitler was innocent. He was not aware of what Heinrich Himmler did. The guilt is loaded on someone else. Mahinda’s guilt is expected to be loaded on Gothabaya. Or the intent annihilation is replaced by another intent, namely by deportation and relocation. This argument was used both in the case of the Armenians and the Jews. In the island the intent was indicated by naming the military advancement as Humanitarian Action. These are ways of turning away from accusation of genocide and from truth.

A special form of partial denial is to keep silent. It is very common in all three cultures of denial. It functions like this: You do not talk about the Armenians, the Jews and the Ilattamils at all. Instead, you talk about the sufferings of the Turkish Muslims, the Germans and the Sinhalas. It always ends with the famous minority complex of the Sinhalas in relation to the majority of Tamils in the Tamil land. You imply then that the reader will understand what is not said, namely that the genocides are a reaction to the suffering which the perpetrator community had to go through.

Another form of partial denial is the fabrication of pure facts. The deniers fabricate their own list of atrocities and try to refute the other parties. We have seen this many times in the de-fabrication of the number of casualties of Ilattamils produced by the United Nations. It is well-known under the headline “the number-game”. Above all, the attack on witnesses was and still is a way of trying to deny facts about the genocide.

A partial denial very popular argument is the provocation argument. The Turkish and German leaders only reacted on provocations. The war with Poland was started in 1939 with reference to the “fact” that the Polish had started shooting over the border. The Armenians were disloyal to the Ottoman empire. In the island the Tiger Movement and the People’s Movement together questioned the unitary states Constitution. All this rationalises the atrocities of the perpetrators.

In all three cultures of denial we find many cases of conspiracy theories. A common one is that the Tiger Movement was backed up the Catholics and that Veluppillai Pirapakaraṉ had converted to Catholicism. This was launched by the same people who asked for a law against conversions to Christianity and who now saw an opportunity to hit back on Christianity as a religion supportive of terrorism.

Deniers of guilt sometimes try to show that that the real perpetrators were the victims and that the real victims were the perpetrators. The Armenians were depicted as killers of Turkish Muslims and these were depicted as victims. The Jews have plotted the extermination of hundred million Germans, who may have become victims if they had not reacted. In the same way, the Sinhalas would have become victims if they had not reacted.

Partial deniers appear often as relativists who relativize the atrocities defended by them. They do not deny them, but they place them in relation to other atrocities which are worse. We get a case of juxtaposing losses. The nations of the perpetrators suffered much more than the nations of their victims. Relativisation usually ends in the mantra “all suffred”, which equals to “none suffered”, which is taken up in the process of reconciliation.

A relativist of that kinds reacts predictably. If I say to her/him that that the SLAF has committed a massacre in Puttur on 18th April 2006 she/he will immediately come up with a massacre committed by the Tiger Movement. The intention is to neutralise one massacre with the other. This is no judicial way of thinking. A crime cannot be neutralised by another crime, but in the world of deniers this is possible.

We have now seen what means are used to cover the truth about genocides: lying, silencing, rationalizing, relativising and trivialising. This becomes a necessity if victims and mourners through their mourning pinpoint the atrocities committed by suppressing authorities. These are of course interested in suppressing all references to genocide, which are expressed in mourning. This has to be disenfranchised or banned, but I can see that the Ilattamils defy the orders of the GoSL. They defy in grief-work the GoSL not by violence, but by their public akavanakkam, ‘inner/mental veneration’ of the dead, may they be combatants or civilians. The akavanakkam can be formed in a religious or non-religious way. If religious, it can be formed as a multireligious or as an interfaith ritual of mourning with the participation of a Christian and Caiva priest like in Tirukōnamalai in 2015. It is a mental process of reflecting on the life and death of civilians and of the dead combatants. To ban the akavanakam is to neglect the constitutional right of freedom of religion.

akavanakkam is a Tamil signifier, but the signified is a common place. It is what in the West is call grief-work, Trauerarbeit, porter le deuil, sorgearbete, etc. Grief-work transfigures, re-interprets and spiritualises the realistic and cruel memento mori as it was experienced on the battle-field. Memorialisation is in a comparative perspective a transfiguration of this memento mori and brings to the consciousness of aggrieved persons a vague notion that the dead combatants and civilians have done something great during their life time.

The akavanakkam emphasises the human side of the combatants and of the civilians killed by the GoSL. The performance of akavanakkam, may it be religious or non-religious, expresses also a mental defiance and resilience. It is sometimes more effective than direct verbal attacks, because the akavanakkam comes from mourners, who represent victims, in any case the weak. The moral cry of the weak, which is heard in large parts of the world, is forceful.

The GoSL and its SLAF fear the moral power of weakness. Among the first things they do when they get control over an area is to suffocate any loud grieving and public mourning. The dead in their graves are killed a second time. This is to deepen the Īlattamils’ grief of the loss and to increase their alienation to the Lankans. It intensifies the consciousness of the existence of two separate peoples in the island.

*Professor (em) Peter Schalk -Uppsala, Sweden

Back to Home page