People & Politics

Sharp relief

By Michael Vurens van Es

4 October 2013

Filmmaker, researcher, writer and activist Tanuja Thurairajah discusses the need to take a sharp lens approach to Sri Lankan history.
Image courtesy of Sanjana Hattotuwa

Image courtesy of Sanjana Hattotuwa

Tanuja Thurairajah is keenly aware of the power of narrative construction. As a member of the Swiss Tamil diaspora, collective renderings of history and memory are of a significance that is, perhaps, more intensely defined than elsewhere. It is this awareness of the force of popular imagination and the narratives that inform it that has guided Thurairajah’s filmmaking efforts. PROJECT Belonging, co-founded by Thurairajah in 2011, documents the personal histories of Sri Lankans living in Switzerland in an attempt to furnish understanding and empathy within the Tamil community itself, as well as with the broader community. Her most recent efforts follow a similar trajectory. Presented as a part of the Groundviews curated ‘30 Years Ago’ exhibition, Thurairajah employs the medium of film to revisit and reappraise memories of Sri Lanka’s Black July Pogrom of 1983. Himal Southasian recently met with Thurairajah to discuss the ‘politics of memory’ in Sri Lanka and the capacity of film to contribute to a more nuanced collective consciousness.    

As a filmmaker and writer you’ve focused on the ways in which memory can both “dispossess and malign” as well as “empower and humanise”. To what extent do you think the ‘politics of memory’ will perform these functions in Sri Lanka’s post-war context?
The focus of my work has been on stories of people; stories that are woven around personal memories of life, events, places, feelings of belonging and exclusion. These stories contribute towards an alternative ethnographic and conflict history in Sri Lanka where history as we know it is hegemonic as a result of having been politicised. Through oral narratives, we realise that remembering and forgetting builds the foundations of a ‘politics of memory’, which becomes alive and dynamic at particular moments in which historical events are commemorated. Providing a platform for these memories to be collated, I believe, enables a process of empowerment and humanisation to occur, particularly given the current environment of enforced silence. These stories talk about events or experiences that are intimate and at most times apolitical even though the political undercurrents are usually implicit. Therefore, they are not confrontational but powerful enough to clarify and evoke empathy. The process of collating these memories is cathartic to the storyteller and lends prominence to personal experience, instilling value and purpose. The memories become testimonies not only of survivors but also those around them who have been killed, disappeared or displaced, and in a sense provide a makeshift map of a societal fabric that has undergone vast change over the years. These narratives provide capsules of remembrance that are essential for a Sri Lanka struggling to take the first steps in a long journey towards reconciliation.
In acknowledging their vitality, can you chart the competing narratives and the memories upon which they rely?
Quite clearly, the competing narratives present in Sri Lanka stem from identity and the politics related to it. Of course, the conception of identity is fluid and fragmented, formed and contested by colonial and postcolonial social processes. One can see the internal logic that resulted from the introduction of the principle of majority rule through the British implemented Donoughmore Constitution (1931-1947) and the formation of a Sinhala identity that asserted itself in the Official Language Act No. 33 (more commonly known as the Sinhala Only Act) of 1956, for example. The history of the Sinhalese community became politically invested, serving to legitimise political claims that satisfied the desires of a chauvinistic identity. The important point here is that it was constructed rather than natural. On the other hand we see a reactive Tamil narrative that is consumed by forging an homogenous identity in order to legitimise its claim to nationhood. Of significance is the ‘socio-economic grammar’ of these constructions and the narratives they enable. Not only are institutional factors important, so too are the economic. The interests of the Tamil-speaking Muslims and Upcountry Tamils for example, were marginalised in the process of articulating Tamil nationalism, with the latter’s structural economic situation rendering them more vulnerable to the hegemony of the dominant narrative. Nonetheless, one must also take note of the narratives that were created around the formation of multiple Tamil identities such as caste and regionalism, which were then magnified in the diaspora.
…And Sri Lankan Muslims?
Sri Lankan Muslims occupy an ambiguous place within the hierarchy of oppression and subordination germane to identity politics. Despite the efforts of Tamil elites to influence and encourage assimilation with the Tamils, Muslim elites often took an accomodationist stance toward the Sinhalese state. The Muslim assertion of distinction is an important and dominant narrative, highlighting the danger of counter-minoritisation. An alternative ‘citizen’s history’ is necessary to challenge the dominant narratives and discourses promoted by the elites of all groups in Sri Lanka.
In your most recent project you focus on Black July – an event that was seminal in the hardening of Tamil identity, though perhaps less meaningful to Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese population. What do you hope to achieve by focusing on this event?
A number of things. First, we need to remember that the Black July Pogrom is a landmark event in the conflict history of Sri Lanka and has left an indelible mark on the psyche of the Tamils at large. Not only this, it is deeply symbolic of the disintegration of hope as well as the severance of ties between the Sinhalese and Tamils and must therefore be placed within a national, rather than specifically Tamil history. While it must, and is, essentially remembered as the betrayal by the state of its citizenry, other important nuances related to it – such as the power of humanity and human resilience – are routinely underplayed. The Welikada Prison massacre, for example, is a dominant memory among the Tamil diaspora in France, while among a large number of Tamil youth in Switzerland the pogrom is believed to be a singular case of a Sinhalese neighbor killing and looting the Tamil family next door. The larger picture of what happened, the fears, the loss and empathy are lacking. The ‘30 years ago’ project supported by, and in collaboration with Groundviews, attempts to fill this void. Remembering Black July is critical as well as timely given the current context of growing religious intolerance and anti-minority discourses in Sri Lanka.
In previous writings you’ve been unflinching in your criticism of the Tamil diaspora, describing it as finding “solace in fuelling intra-state wars” while warning of “neo-Tiger fascists” who will be “much more complex and ruthless” than past incarnations. Do you see the revisiting of Black July as a means to address the distortion of memories among the diaspora as much as the Sinhalese? 
Absolutely! Before the end of the war the dominant discourse in the diaspora revolved around a separatist nationalism, which drowned out alternative renderings. With particular reference to the Swiss Tamil diaspora, it was a period where openly challenging the dominant narratives propagated by the LTTE resulted in alienation from the Tamil community or being subject to physical and verbal intimidation. Well networked, the LTTE controlled many aspects of the diaspora whose business and social ties depended largely on the Tamil community itself. Furthermore, the mainstream channels of information were also largely controlled by the LTTE, with little possibility of alternative information. Stories and memories were selected, distilled and presented to a geographically spread out but closely networked Tamil community. 
What was the effect?
The younger generation Tamils, whose source of information failed to provide a nuanced and impartial look into the fault lines of the protracted Sri Lankan conflict, were denied a more robust perspective. Diaspora narratives began to push the line of separatist nationalism and victimisation by cobbling together memories that supported a single narrative. This trend stagnated the diaspora and converted it into an LTTE propaganda and fundraising machine. While this supported the aim of a separate state, it seriously stunted any progressive impact in changing the course of the Tamil struggle from its singular obsession of statehood. In this light, the impact of revisiting historical events such as Black July in order to present stories from varied experiences and perspectives is vital.
In recent months, the Sri Lankan Muslim community has found itself increasingly marginalized. Since their expulsion from the North by the LTTE in 1990, they have likewise been alienated by the Tamil community. Along with reappraising Tamil narratives, do you see a pressing need to address the cultural dislocation of the Muslim community? Do you see a space opening up to do so within the Tamil community itself?
The counter-minoritisation process of the Muslims by the Tamils in the 1990s is an undeniable stain on the hands of the Tamil community. To quote Sharika Thiranagama, the place of Muslims within the Tamil nationalist discourse remains a ‘pregnant emptiness’, despite recent attempts by civil society members as well as Tamil National Alliance MP M A Sumanthiran, to have the Tamil community take responsibility for their actions. Nevertheless, these ad hoc actions, albeit progressive, are still the first steps in the long journey of ethnic reparation. This is indeed a pressing need if we are to make any progress towards a durable political solution.
…Certainly. In terms of political solutions to social reconciliation, transitional justice actors often posit a dichotomy of ‘truth vs justice’. Though your project aims to create a more nuanced national history, thereby promoting reconciliation of sorts, do you see the legal pursuit of war criminals (on both sides) as desirable?
In order to move forward I believe that both ‘truth’ as well as ‘justice’ need to be realised. While the intricacies of a ‘truth and justice’ process depend on local realities, I am unable to see it as a ‘one or the other’ situation. Perpetrators on both sides need to be brought to justice, especially the higher-level authorities, through establishing the chain of command. Having said this, one cannot look past the need for special protection and rehabilitation of an important part of the war machinery – child soldiers – who cannot, void of any context, be categorized as war criminals. The task of finding a balance in this journey towards truth, which cannot be reached without justice, is difficult. At the same time, the healing of a community cannot merely happen through punitive action.

Do you think that a legally viable truth and reconciliation commission is feasible given the current political climate and the attempt by the military to keep matters ‘in-house’ while Tamil leaders create their own Provisional Transitional Government of Tamil Eelam?

Unfortunately, I do not see the current political climate as a feasible environment for ‘truth and justice’ seeking. Increased militarisation on the part of the government and a guiltless transition of the so-called Tamil nationalist leaders of the diaspora into utopian schemes such as the Provisional Transitional Government of Tamil Eelam is sterile ground for any political progress. Leadership on both sides is sadly lacking.  
As a filmmaker, how do you see the medium’s capacity to reproduce memory? What techniques do you use in order to do so? 
Images are powerful. They have the ability to impact change. Photography interspersed with sound deeply moves and impresses, particularly in today’s fast-paced world. Not only is it interesting for the viewer, but it is cathartic for the storyteller as they attempt to put their memories into words. Before we work on a story, we usually try to have informal interactions with the storyteller, identifying an appropriate physical space to conduct the interview and discussing any special requests they might have. The stories are collated using the oral history method, which gives the storyteller the freedom to express their narrative in a way they are most comfortable with. Sometimes this results in hours of data that we then sift through, edit and compress to around 10 to 15 minutes maximum. Even though this is a tough process, we believe that it is important to enable the storyteller to express and ‘remember’ freely. 
You’ve worked internationally promoting art interventions as a complementary feature of more formal peace efforts. Though at first glance this goal may appear somewhat decadent given the many obstacles communities face in the aftermath of war, can you explain the idea behind this?
Impacts of art interventions are difficult to measure and thereby usually cast off as ineffective. The medium of art, if used effectively and conscientiously opens up a world of possibilities especially in enabling dialogue, forging links and most importantly in preserving memories and enabling collective healing. It functions as sort of a neutral agent without the direct politics and confrontation that other interventions seem to attract. Nevertheless, it can also be provocative, having the power to affect the status quo. In Sri Lanka, where militarisation hangs oppressively over the war-mangled fabric of society, expressions through art are watched closely by authorities. It is interesting that films such as Flying Fish that prod mainstream nationalistic sentiments are banned from reaching the masses. Indeed, as long as we continue to struggle as a country with a plethora of abuses and discrimination, the obstacles facing art interventions will continue. In this context it is paramount that we improvise and forge ahead creatively in dealing with these issues. 
~ This article is one of the articles from Under the Shadow of the Bollywood Tree: web-exclusive package.
~ Michael Vurens van Es is an Assistant Editor at this magazine.
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