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Tour Buses to Sri Lanka's Battlefields

Driven by morbid curiosity, the island’s majority population is returning to the battlefields of its recently-concluded civil war by the busload. And the regime—which stands accused of war crimes—is doing everything it can to whitewash history.

Kim Wall

Majority Sinhalese let loose on a propaganda tour to Sri Lanka's subdued north. All photos courtesy the author

The tour bus had far more passengers than seats, but no one around me seemed to mind. Most of the pilgrims were dancing anyway. A boy played drums; a middle-aged woman shook a yellow tambourine. In a joyous frenzy, children, teenagers and adults danced tirelessly in the aisle as the vehicle bounced along one of the few roads of the northeastern tourist trail that has not been reconstructed. Only the eldest were seated, infants in their laps, clapping to the calypso music blasting from the speakers and passing around a flask of Ceylon tea. Everyone sang along.

All dressed in white, the Sinhalese tour group I was hitching a ride with had just finished sightseeing for the day at an ancient Buddhist temple on an island just off Sri Lanka’s northern tip that the Tamil separatist insurgency had previously made inaccessible. Earlier in the trip they had visited Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) landmarks to learn more about the enemy that was defeated only four and a half years ago: a “terrorist swimming pool”, a Sea Tiger submarine construction yard, an LTTE military prison, and numerous monuments hailing the government army “heroes” who ”liberated Sri Lanka from terrorism.” Now, the pilgrims had reason to be festive; the 26-year long civil war was over and they could explore their country freely.

Whilepalm-fringed beaches, exotic wildlife, and historical Buddhist sites have made Sri Lanka into one of the world’s top tourist destinations—indeed, it was Lonely Planet’s top choice in 2013—but foreign visitors see little of the country’s troubled past. It is a war that the island’s holiday industry wants to remember and forget simultaneously. Since the conflict ended, Sri Lankans themselves have established a macabre domestic tourist trail in silence.

Driven by a morbid curiosity, the island’s majority population—the Sinhalese—is returning to the northeastern battlefields by the busload. Many remnants of the Tamil Tiger rebels have been deleted from history, but the abandoned bunker home of their reclusive leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had been transformed into one of the key destinations, complete with a shooting range, an underground garage and empty cages of guard dogs. By its entrance, families posed for portraits under a large “WELCOME” sign. Inside, it was a damp, pitch-black maze.

“I can’t see a thing!” an old lady yelled, gripping her nephew’s arm tightly as she came to a panicked standstill on the crowded staircase, three floors below ground. “Take me out of here! Now.”

Her middle-aged nephew had patiently guided her through the foul darkness using his phone as a torch but now he couldn’t find the way out. A native of Colombo, the frail 75-year-old had not visited the northeast of her country since 1974, and now—armed with a small Japanese car and a meticulous itinerary of must-see “terrorist” landmarks, museums and Buddhist monuments—she was fiercely determined to catch up. Eventually, a smiling young soldier-tour guide came to their rescue and showed them to the sunny, although not fully clear of landmines, jungle outside. For days, she marveled at how the Tiger leader could live like that; it seemed so far from the luxury she had imagined.

The old lady didn’t understand the hype.

“Why are we coming to see this?” she complained. “This is man who destroyed so many lives. Why should we go see a bunker of a man who has done so much evil?” The 30-year long civil war was still clear in her memories. The lingering fear of suicide bombers, even in the capital where she lived. The bombs would go off at random, and you never knew when leaving house in the morning if you would get home safe in the night.

She was largely alone in her skepticism; with a constant flow of tour buses there seemed little doubt this was one of the most popular sights for Sinhalese tourists.

”The fascination with Prabakharan started on the Tamil side with the cult of personality he created, and then it transferred over,” explains Fred Carver, director of Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, who thinks the fascination with the long-term adversary is understandable, and comparable with that of the Israelis in the Palestinians.

”What we need to understand is how very, very ’other’ the north seemed to Sinhalese people who were totally cut off from it for 30 years. So I think there was a desire to see what it was they had been missing all this time.”

Now that the roadblocks are gone, an eclectic and often bizarre collection of memorials has mushroomed up across the previous war zone. Many are inside army camps; some recycled from the LTTE themselves, others built from scratch. Rather than demilitarizing after the war, government troops were given an active role in the new holiday industry. Aside from monuments and innumerable “army welfare” shops, the military organizes safaris and whale watching tours, and for those who can afford it, it offers luxury hotels and private beaches.

In the process, critics say, the military regime has not only effectively colonialized the land, but monopolized the war narrative as well.

Even before the war ended, the authoritarian Rajapaksa leadership zealously insisted on writing their version of history. In advance of the final surge against the Tigers, international monitors and press were evacuated from the war zone. Even today, the regime, with one of the world’s lowest press freedom ratings, controls the media aggressively, with journalists routinely intimidated, some even made to disappear. The government has also steadfastly resisted international calls for an independent investigation into war crimes allegedly committed by both sides during the war, but was rebuked when the United Nations Human Rights Council voted in March (shortly after a scathing report—the first definitive documentation of the various violations—was issued by watchdogs) to conduct one anyway. Perhaps anticipating the added scrutiny, the regime announced last fall it would conduct another census of dead and injured, but so far its own estimates of “collateral damage” don’t come near the UN figure of 40,000 civilians killed in shelling during the war’s final months.

Most of them died just off the flourishing northern tourist trail. At the Vadduvakkalu causeway that connected the “No Fire Zone” with the rest of the Vanni, a small viewpoint pagoda overlooked the lagoon. Four years ago the water was red, witnesses said, from the blood of fleeing civilians caught in the crossfire between the LTTE and the government. Now, white pelicans and egrets waded in the shallow water beyond a large sign praising “the brave soldiers of the great army” for “dislodging the terrorists from the shoulders of this lagoon bank without harming the innocent civilians.” Nearby, perhaps the most triumphalist monument of all was erected: a lavish all-teak guest lodge—Lagoon’s Edge—on the site that the Tiger leader eventually died in May 2009. Inside its lobby, there was a framed portrait of the army division that allegedly executed him.

“If the effort is to create a memorial to those that suffered, with a promise never again to allow such suffering, it might serve as a healing,” says Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch. ”But if the effort is at triumphalism, to celebrate the defeat of the LTTE without even an acknowledgement of the historical wrongs by all parties and ethnic groups, then it will be an exercise in humiliating the country’s ethnic minority and cannot serve as a step towards reconciliation.”

In Kilinochchi, the de facto Tiger capital, a water tower has been left where it fell when the rebels allegedly blew it up as they fled, marked by a sign, “Never Again—Say No to Destruction,” and a military-staffed shop named Souvenir Galore selling t-shirts, sweets and colorful wigs. At the former Tiger stronghold of Thoppigala, where one of the final battles was fought, stood a military conservation project featuring an obstacle course and a stone monument that “beacons the power, strength and warmth of [Sri Lanka’s] message of peace to the nations across the world and beyond,” while “resonating the joy of establishing order out of chaos."

Capitalizing on fascination for a country’s war-ridden past is nothing unique. Cambodia’s “killing fields,” America’s civil rights landmarks, and Europe’s many Holocaust memorials are all major tourist attractions. A possible distinction might be that these sights allow survivors to tell their stories, and often benefit them or their families financially. But the Sri Lankan commemoration is different: it centers on the military, and does not even engage with the civilian losses suffered by Sinhalese, let alone by Tamils.

Here, history lessons don’t seem to serve the purpose of reconciliation, nor ethnic integration. Rather than “dark tourism,” it appears more like a propaganda tour and victor’s justice at its most bizarre.

“They come here and spend an hour but they don’t see much,” said one female resident, whose home is just off the path, about the Sinhalese tours. “None of them actually stay.”

Few, if any, Tamil locals have been employed in this flourishing tourism sector. It is a Tamil-majority area, yet virtually all signs are in Sinhalese, or occasionally English. For decades, Sri Lanka’s northeast had in effect been run as a separate state by the LTTE, with hospitals, schools, television channels, banks and humanitarian aid administration. Into the vacuum, Sinhalese business and security forces have seeped in, in what some observers have labeled state-sanctioned colonialization. 

Behind a gate shaped like battlements, another busload of Sinhalese tourists were given a tour of the LTTE museum’s loose collection of rusty weapons (homemade and imported), cannons, and one-person “suicide boats.” “Grenade laugher” stated one hand painted sign; “LTTE motar weapon,” another. Only a corrugated iron fence separated the museum from a fully functional military base. In a swamp next to the museum, a gigantic golden statue of a screaming soldier, with an AK-47 in one hand and the Sri Lankan flag in the other while looking to the site where Prabhakaran’s body was found, stood on a platform surrounded by white marble lions.

“So, this is what the Tigers used to kill the Sinhalese people,” an older man said sternly, pointing at a characteristically striped Sea Tiger ship. As one bus left, another group, from Jaffna University, arrived. Outside, next to an army stand selling pineapple cordial, a double amputee sold grapes from a UNHCR tarp covered shack.

Further along the trail, visitors gathered around the abyss that is the “terrorist swimming pool,” which the LTTE kept hidden from air inspections with an enormous camouflage net. The pool was empty now, except for some dirty water and leaves, and the diving boards were closed off with barbed wire.

“While the nation was swarming with pools of blood with the spate of LTTE’s heinous crimes elsewhere, the terrorist had constructed this huge swimming pool in 2001 for exclusive use of the cream of terrorists,” reads a sign, adding that it measured 83 feet in length and 22 feet in depth, and had been used to train the Sea Tigers’ professional divers for deployment in deep sea operations and suicide attacks.

Under military oversight, children played on two colorful playgrounds. By the entrance, at Café Sixty-Eight, decorated with a man-sized plastic pink ice cream cone, uniformed soldiers served soft drinks to the accompaniment of cheery calypso tunes. Red warning signs for land mines surrounded the parking lot.

”I think the government is keen to show off the war trophies, the LTTE equipment, and infrastructure to Sinhalese tourists going north to show off what a great and heroic job they did, and what a terrible and brutal, and even strong group LTTE was,” Ruki Fernando, a local human rights activist with Rights Now Collective for Democracy, told me in an interview before he was detained on terrorism charges. He has subsequently been released but is banned from speaking to the media.

”The stronger and more brutal they make the LTTE appear, the greater the government will appear,” he said.

The legitimacy of the nepotistic Rajapaksa regime may hinge on the Tigers’ defeat. Initially saluted as an extraordinary counterterrorism act, with the army offering its expertise to American and Chinese forces, gradually the “humanitarian operation” metamorphosed into an indiscriminate massacre. If that victory is diluted, for instance by the criticism of the regime’s alleged human rights abuses, the authoritarian family cabinet may not be guaranteed lasting power.

Even so, Fernando believes the vast majority is not questioning the government propaganda. And while exact statistics on visitors are not available, the eerie sites never seem empty thanks to a steady flow of tour buses, mainly from rural areas in the island’s southwest. Tamils visit the sites too, although in far lesser numbers, with tour groups including schoolchildren as well as members of the diaspora.

The northeast also showcases the regime’s generous development efforts. Along the newly refurbished six-lane A9 highway—once known as the “highway of death”—new Buddhist shrines have proliferated in what critics call a gradual “Sinhalization” of the northeast. But while tourists marvel over the region’s rapid development, they don’t see the refugee camps and bombed out ruins just off the road. An estimated 80,216 iternally displaced persons (IDPs) have yet to be resettled according to UNHRC’s records, and on a recent fact-finding mission to the country, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay remarked that “physical reconstruction alone will not bring reconciliation, dignity, or lasting peace.”

“This type of tourism aims to hide from rural Sinhalese the sufferings of Tamils in the North during the war and even now, it totally obstructs ethnic harmony and prospects for reconciliation,” Fernando told me. "It’s very hurting and insulting when Sinhalese have a good time, appreciating the very forces that have caused so much suffering and ignore and don't bother to find out their [the Tamils’] side of the story.”

Yet, some fear that the victory that the regime is basking in may just be a temporary cessation of hostilities. In November, a report from the International Crisis Group warned that the north remained under de-facto military occupation and that if the regime “continues to close avenues of peaceful change, the risks of violent reaction will grow." Many Tamils in the Vanni expressed uncertainty that the peace would last.

For survivors, the propaganda tourism seems just another reminder that reconciliation remains a distant promise. Mere miles away, and excluded from the tourist trail, the white sand of yet another paradise beach was strewn with possessions from tens of thousands of civilian victims killed in the so called 'safe zone,' where non-combatants and Tamil Tigers alike were allegedly shelled with little or no discrimination. School backpacks, children’s sandals, VHS tapes, frying pans and torn saris were everywhere. According to local survivors, people still come to reclaim the cooking utensils they left behind; others come to search for loved ones they had buried in shallow pits in the sand. There were no monuments there, the only signs of life a politely suspicious plain-clothes intelligence officer. And a stray dog.

From here, another popular attraction could be spotted further down the beach; the skeleton of a stranded Iranian ship—Farrah III—which had supposedly been used by the Sea Tigers.

Until the day before Navi Pillay’s visit, one of the fields was covered with hundreds of rusty war vehicles. Then, local residents say, the army removed them all overnight.

Remembering the war seems reserved for those who won. In the Vanni, there are no memorials for civilian victims. On the contrary, a priest attempting to place crosses in his garden commemorating 25 victims and colleagues was allegedly "taken away." According to local watchdogs, the families of fallen LTTE cadres (many of whom were forcefully conscripted, and some of whom were children) are not allowed to keep their photos. On Martyr’s Day on November 26, a traditional LTTE holiday to commemorate victims, the military reportedly (according to the same watchdogs) visited Tamil homes to warn of “serious consequences” if they lit lamps for their dead. In at least two churches, army members cut the bell ropes. Throughout the former war zone, counseling of survivors remains banned even as it is desperately needed; a man who offers therapy in secret described how parents faint at the mere mention of their dead children.

Soon after the war, the LTTE’s own monuments were torn down and even its own cemetery was bulldozed beyond recognition. On the scorched earth there are no longer gravestones; just young saplings of a tree that in Sri Lankan superstition only grows in cemeteries. According to local monitors (Fernando’s watchdog group), military checkpoints and fences were built on the site in the past year. Even so, a local revealed with a slight smile, passengers still get off the bus at “the Heroes’ Place.”

The regime—which stands accused of war crimes—seems to realize its history lessons are controversial. It closed off some of the sites due to “safety concerns” and “superior orders.” Only days after the old lady’s visit to Prabhakaran’s bunker, the army detonated a bomb inside the place and destroyed one of the country’s most popular tourism sites in what some say was a preventive move to keep it from becoming a shrine for LTTE sympathizers. Farrah III was closed last summer to be salvaged for scrap metal.

As foreigners began to explore the country’s north, restrictions and registration procedures were introduced at some sites—perhaps because memories of the war could prove detrimental to Sri Lanka’s foreign tourism, which has become a vital industry. In November, two Agence France-Presse (AFP) journalists were restricted from photographing one of the war-tourism sites by military men citing orders to restrict media. In a recent phone conversation with Sri Lanka’s US embassy, the spokesperson denied not only the government’s involvement with these sites, but also their very existence.

Earlier this year, a former Tamil Tiger had made the pilgrimage too, for reasons of his own. Having fought for over a decade, he was overwhelmed with emotions when he visited—incognito—the annexed bunker home. All floors had had air conditioning, he explained proudly. 

For him, the war was lost but the struggle not yet over, and he’s convinced the regime’s triumphalism may ultimately backfire.

"My leader is not dead,” the ex-combatant added, dismissing the photo evidence presented by the government as fake. “I can't believe it. I think he has gone to a foreign country."

Then, after showing his drivers’ license to the young checkpoint soldier guarding his former guerilla camp, now another triumphalist monument, he swore that if someone started up the violence again he would not hesitate to join.

“When I saw my leader’s house, I cried,” the former fighter confessed. He had to go, though; it had been impossible to come even close while the enigmatic leader was alive. And besides, where else would he go to commemorate his lost struggle?

“When you go, I think you will cry too,” he told me.

Kim Wall is a freelance multimedia journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, BBC, South China Morning Post, and other publications.