Tourists are flocking into the island’s northeast following the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, worrying some residents.
Is Sri Lanka’s government using tourism to whitewash its alleged war crimes? While the island has become a top destination for foreign visitors, a very different – and far more macabre – tourism industry has flourished in silence.
After decades of civil war, Sinhalese tourists are finally free to visit the previously inaccessible northeast. Since the Tamil Tiger (LTTE) separatist rebels were crushed in 2009, visitors have been coming in busloads to explore the former warzone with a morbid curiosity in the defeated enemy.
Traveling on new six-lane highways along a trail of triumphalist war monuments and LTTE landmarks, hailing the heroes of the 2009 “humanitarian operation”, who “liberated Sri Lanka from terrorism”, the pilgrims marvel over the region’s rapid development but don’t see refugee camps and bombed-out ruins off the road.
The new boom may be victors’ justice at its most bizarre. In the process, the government has seized the opportunity to write its own version of history of what happened in the controversial final stage of the war where an estimated 40-70 000 civilians were killed.
Observers warn that the northeast remains under military occupation and that the army is increasingly taking over traditionally civilian functions. The government has also increasingly been pressured to investigate its alleged human rights abuses and war crimes – including torture, enforced disappearances and rape.
In Sri Lanka, remembering the war is reserved for those who won.
Since the war ended four years ago, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry has flourished. With over a dozen hotels operated and staffed by soldiers , as well as safaris, whale watching and restaurants , the army has not been late to capitalise on the boom.
‘The government has given all of the country’s best beaches to the army, because they trust us to take good care of them,’ said an employee of the Marble Beach Air Force Resort. Off the shore, ships search for oil but the hotel employee hoped they wouldn’t find anything. ‘If they find oil, there might be another war,’ he said.
In 2013, Sri Lanka was selected as Lonely Planet’s top destination and last year the island welcomed over a million foreign tourists. Few, if any, of them visited what has become one the most popular tourism trails, which is primarily frequented by Sinhalese tourists from the rural southwest.
Across the previous war zone, numerous triumphalist monuments have sprung up in what used to be the stronghold of the now defeated separatist guerrilla the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, LTTE. With an AK47 in one hand and the Sri Lankan flag in the other, the statue’s soldier looks towards the site where Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s body was found in May 2009. Four stone lions, the country’s national animal, surround the base and a dove sits on the muzzle of the machine gun.
A mortar launcher, allegedly used by the Tamil Tigers in the civil war, displayed to domestic tourists at the LTTE museum. This is a rare sign featuring Tamil, the predominant language in the northeast of Sri Lanka, as most are in Sinhalese only.
The ‘terrorist swimming pool’, 83 ft long and 22 ft deep, where the LTTE allegedly trained their Sea Tiger divers ahead of deep sea operations and suicide attacks. “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” said a sign.
One of the most popular attractions on the war tourism trail was reclusive LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s three floor bunker home in the jungle. This photo is taken few days before the military detonated a bomb inside, citing “safety concerns”. Others have speculated that the destruction intended to prevent the site from becoming a shrine for former Tamil Tigers.
A tour bus arrives at the Iranamadu tank outside Kilinochchi, now a military air strip and tourist attraction, and an armed soldier guides the pilgrims around the site.
A stray dog at the ruins of another LTTE bunker bombed by the government’s air force, which has become another popular tourist site since the war ended. Still, extensive reconstruction remains to be done in the previous war zone and the government has been accused of neglecting civilian development in favor of infrastructure and tourism. An estimated 93,482 civilians remain internally displaced and even the war tourism sites remain surrounded by land mines. In March, the UNHCR will decide whether Sri Lanka will be independently investigated for its alleged war crimes.
Other landmarks are kept to illustrate the ‘terror’ of the Tamil Tigers. A Sinhalese tour group photographs the remains of a vehicle reportedly blown up by the LTTE, near Jaffna.
Next to a destroyed water tower kept as a reminder of the war’s violence stands a military run souvenir shop in Kilinochchi, the former de facto LTTE capital. With a multitude of shops and stalls throughout the region, the army has been criticised for undermining local business and civil society. Meanwhile, the government hails the military’s involvement in development as a new model for post conflict reconstruction.