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Lions, Gods & Heroes: Military In The Popular Culture Of Postwar Sri Lanka..

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Jerome Cooray

Sri Lanka’s military plays an important role in the popular culture of the island nation: It is a part of the history, the popular memory and the daily life of 20 million Sri Lankans who suffered from a three-decade long civil war since the anti – Tamil pogrom of ‘Black July’ 1983; a war fought between the Sri Lankan Government and the separatist terrorist group LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) who demanded for an independent state of Tamil Eelam to be carved out of the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka. This brutal civil war which claimed up to 100,000 lives and displaced tens of thousands civilians came to an end on 18th May 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE at the hands of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF). One can argue that with the end of the war, there have emerged two distinct post war portrayals of the military in the popular culture of Sri Lanka; a ‘northern portrayal’ among the Tamils of the northern regions of the island and a ‘southern portrayal’ among the Sinhala – Buddhist majority who dwell in the central, western and southern regions of the island. This short article attempts to summarize the following distinct features of the latter portrayal, the ‘southern’; they are the emphasis on the re-narration of Sinhala – Buddhist history and the Sinhala myth of origin that speaks of lions, gods and heroes, and the alteration of the daily terminology from ‘soldier’ to ‘war hero’.

The last phase of the war saw intense recruitment propaganda by both sides. The Sri Lankan Government effectively utilized popular media to gain support of mainly southern and also the north-eastern Sri Lankans for its military operation by engineering a special focus on the ‘humanitarian’ portrayal of the military. ‘Api Wenuwen Api’ (Together for All) was a campaign, which employed the talents of many artists and writers, that helped to draw popular support during the final Eelam War. It imprinted a lasting popular memory in the Sri Lankan psyche in the post civil war context.

Re-narration of the Sinhala – Buddhist history

The victory of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces on 18th May 2009 is considered by many southern Sri Lankans (mainly Sinhala – Buddhists) as a re-making of the historic Battle of Vijithapura between the Sinhala – Buddhist King Dutu-Gamunu and the righteous yet Dravidian invader, King Elara around the 2nd Century B.C.E, which resulted in the victory of the Sinhalese. In fact the former President Mahinda Rajapakse gave currency to this ‘image’ when he paid homage before a statue of King Dutugamunu in 2009[i]; and in 2013, the Sri Lankan Army erected an archway in the ancient city of Anuradhapura which depicts the Vijithapura Battle. Although it has been officially expressed by the Government of Sri Lanka on numerous occasions that the war was fought not between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, but between the state and the terrorists, the erection of such monuments in a historic civilian /public space in the post war context brings into question the official narrative of the civil war. At the same time it makes one question the meaning of the war time portrayal of the military as a humanitarian force; has the military undertaken a role as the custodians of a Sinhala – Buddhist identity and its history, contrary to being the protectors of the sovereignty and all people of Sri Lanka?

Lions and Gods

The flag of Sri Lanka displays a lion in it to remind the mythical origin of the Sinhalese; as the saga goes Sinhalese are the descendants of a majestic lion. Many Sinhala songs, both war-time and post-war sing about this lion origin. Anyone familiar with the Sri Lankan Civil War could recall the fact that the LTTE self portrayed themselves as the tigers as opposed to lions ; and with the defeat of the LTTE, it has led to the inevitable conclusion in the popular culture of Sri Lanka that the lions have triumphed over the tigers.

Another related aspect of the Sinhalese myth of origin is the role of the Guardian Gods of Lanka. According to the chronicles and the folklore of Sri Lanka, it was at the request of the Buddha that God Indra entrusted the island of Lanka to the custodianship of God Upulvan (Vishnu) and other ‘guardian gods’. The very term ‘guardian gods’ has been used as a synonym to the Sri Lankan Armed Forces; and the 2009 victory has helped to consolidate the deification of the military as the ‘guardian – gods of the nation’. This deification of the military has made it both a tiresome and risky task to prosecute those who might have committed war crimes because such move will face a potential mass opposition from southern Sri Lankans.

From ‘soldier’ to ‘war hero’

One of the most significant accomplishments of the ‘Api Wenuwen Api’ campaign was the alteration of the daily vocabulary among the Sri Lankans, mainly the Sinhalese. The vernacular term used to address army personnel was the term ‘hamudhakaraya’ which means ‘soldier’; but in the post war popular culture it has been altered by the more superior term ‘ranaviruva’ which means ‘war hero’. This is not a mere change of terms, it also signals an alteration of the popular perception of the military (at least in the south). Therefore every time that the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva pushes on the alleged human rights violations of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces, there comes mass social pressure on the government in Colombo to safeguard its war heroes.

It has been only 7 years since the end of the civil war and Sri Lanka has yet to arrive at a political solution in order to achieve true reconciliation. In that process of reconciliation politicians, policy makers and other stake holders have to acknowledge and address the complex differences of the roles that Sri Lanka’s military played and continue to play in the north and south. In the south, they are the triumphant lions, heroes and the guardian gods; but in the north at-least for some they are ‘a land grabbing – occupying force’[ii]. This ‘northern portrayal’ has been catered by the continuing military presence in the north and the existence of military establishments on civilian and public lands[iii]. But at the same time some ex- LTTE cadres have now joined the Sri Lankan Armed Forces while some still continue keep the LTTE alive in exile; and the LTTE in exile continue to receive the support of certain factions within the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora who live in Canada, the UK, France and Norway[iv]. Given this complex nature of the post war Sri Lanka, it is appropriate to say that it is a nation at cross roads. One of the main facts I realized during my field trip to the northern Sri Lanka during last spring is that many Tamils have now given up the concept of an independent Tamil Eelam; but they demand a political solution, some form of recognition and devolution of powers, the de-militarisation of the civilian and public places in the north and east, and prosecution of those who have committed war crimes, of both sides. Therefore the future of Sri Lanka now depends on the south’s response to the demands of the post war north and south’s response will inevitably be influenced by its post-war popular portrayal of the military.

[i] Roberts, B. (2009), Confrontations in Sri Lanka: Sinhalese, LTTE and Others, Vijitha Yapa Publishes, Colombo

[ii] Ibid 2009:10)

[iii] Sundarji, P.R (2015), Sri Lanka : The New Country , HarperCollins Publishers, Uttar Pradesh, India

[iv] Ibid

- Melani

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