On Sunday, 10th January, the University of Jaffna Students Union reached out to students ‘across the world’ in a letter pleading for support from international governments against reported human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. It came two days after the demolition of a monument inside the university grounds which sparked protest amongst students and the wider Tamil community.
Built in 2019, the Mullivaikkal monument marked ten years since the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, commemorating the Tamil civilians who became victims to its final stages. Caught in the crossfire between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, tens of thousands of civilians were killed. The Sri Lankan government still upholds the Mullivaikkal fighting as a victory, signifying their final defeat of the Tamil Tigers. However, many Tamils, whose community and family members lost their lives, view the end of the war as nothing less than genocide. Sri Lankan authorities, fiercely denying this, reportedly regard the Mullivaikkal monument as ‘a threat to national unity’ in the country. However, they claim no responsibility for its demolition last Friday.
The memorial was removed by university authorities under cover of darkness on Friday 8th January. Students at Jaffna university first became aware of the demolition at around 8:45 pm on Friday night. Those who attempted to gain access were met by police and the Sri Lankan Special Task Force. Soon, protest began, with many students later joining a hunger strike, calling for an explanation from the university’s Vice-Chancellor. The Tamil Guardian reported on Friday night that ‘at least two Tamil students’ had already been arrested.
An end to the hunger strike came early Monday morning when the Vice-Chancellor finally met with students and symbolically laid foundation stones as a promise that the statue would be rebuilt. However, students are sceptical, unconvinced that the promise will come to fruition. Their disbelief is thanks, in part, to the Vice-Chancellor stressing that the new monument will be one of peace, not simply rebuilt to resemble the original. Students are angered by this refusal to memorialise the Tamil civilians who lost their lives and are ready to resume protests if no action is seen, according to the Tamil Guardian.
Meanwhile, communities around the world have spoken out against the demolition, with protests taking place in both Canada and Germany. Politicians in India have also condemned the action. Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Edappadi K Palaniswami, tweeted on Saturday that it ‘has caused great pain to the Tamils across the world’.
On Tuesday, British MP Siobhain McDonagh also took to Twitter with her call to the UK government to ‘take a leading role at the UN Human Rights Council in March,’ in response to the events. ‘We need a resolution for the promotion and protection of human rights in Sri Lanka,’ she declared.
Meanwhile, the Jaffna students’ pleas were also addressed by students here in Oxford. In a statement for The Oxford Blue, The Oxford Tamil Network, a group for Tamil students and recent graduates of the University of Oxford, said:
“The Oxford Tamil Network strongly condemn the recent demolition of the Mullivaikkal monument by the Sri Lankan Government. This monument was one of the few memorials Tamil citizens have to remember the genocide of Tamils, in Sri Lanka. This attempt to erase Tamil existence and history is simply unacceptable. We show our full solidarity with students in Jaffna who have peacefully demonstrated against this. The Sri Lankan political leadership must be held accountable for the ruthless persecution of Tamils and other minorities in Sri Lanka. These recent events have had severe repercussions for students as far away as Oxford. Many feel that it is no longer safe to return to Sri Lanka and worry about the lives of their families back home. This is having an alarming impact on Tamil students’ social security and mental health here in the U.K. We therefore demand that Sri Lanka, the International Community and the UN take the necessary steps to deliver justice for all Tamils and minorities living in Sri Lanka. Our rights and freedoms must be protected.”
This is evidence of how widespread the repercussions of the demolition last Friday really are. For Tamils, both in Sri Lanka and around the world, it signifies a lack of respect for their community and a very real threat being faced by those still living in Sri Lanka. In their appeal, Jaffna students say that they are ‘afraid for our lives’. They are relying on solidarity from students across the globe and responses from international governments to condemn the actions taken by their authorities.
The Jaffna university protest has currently been halted as students await the reinstatement of the monument. Efforts to rebuild it began on the morning of Friday, 15th January, a week after its demolition. However, according to the Tamil Guardian, students remain sceptical as to whether this promise will be fulfilled. If the monument is not fully rebuilt, it seems as though protests may well resume. For now, Tamil students at Jaffna university and around the world wait for a further response from international governments, earnestly hoping for answers to their call for help.