The results of this week’s elections in Sri Lanka may prove decisive for reconciliation, following the end of a long and deadly civil war that ended six years ago. The divisions between Sinhalese and Tamil that shaped almost three decades of violent conflict are shaped and defined by cultural heritage, both through an extraordinary archive of texts and in the art and architecture on the landscape.
Sri Lanka’s elections coincided with the bombing of the Erawan shrine in Bangkok, which killed 22 people and the beheading of Khaled Asaad, and 82-year-old Syrian antiquities expert, who was executed by the IS at the World Heritage site of Palmyra. There is little credibility left in the old argument that heritage, art and antiquities are somehow “above” politics. People’s claims on the past are, more than ever, shaping politics across the spectrum, from the legitimate to extrajudicial violence.
UNESCO is at the heart of this storm. Here, the case of Sri Lanka reveals how the concept of world heritage was misappropriated and used to buttress the mechanisms of a violent and repressive state. Today’s heritage organizations can learn from this example, in re-conceptualizing their approaches to controversial sites that are entangled in contemporary, intractable, conflicts.
In 1982, and after intensive and divisive lobbying by Buddhist nationalists, Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle was declared a World Heritage site. This was at the beginning of the war that was to end almost thirty years later with accusations of genocide.
Sharply differentiated and politicized Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic identities originated in the nineteenth century as part of the complex manipulations of colonial rule. This stereotyping, which saturates life in Sri Lanka today, is tied to interpretations of the island’s cultural heritage and its traces in architecture, monuments, art and written texts that span more than 2000 years.
The dominant narrative is of a straightforward succession of Buddhist states withstanding external aggression. In this interpretation, the Sinhalese lineage was established in the sixth century BC when the island’s first king was banished there from northern India. This is a story of proud and persistent defence of religion and civilization against external aggressors; in this story Tamil Sri Lankans are, and always have been, an “enemy within”.
As has long been pointed out, neither the documentary nor the archaeological evidence supports this narrative. Both artistic representations on the remnants of urban architecture and excavations of living areas suggest a considerable degree of syncretism. This is supported by the documentary record, which maps a complex history of alliances, intermarriages, disagreements and skirmishes with South Indian polities, which is hardly surprising, given the proximity of the island to the mainland.
The idea of a long and noble lineage, overcome by Britannia’s might, suited British imperial jingoism while Buddhism appealed to the peculiar mysticism of the Victorians. This narrative also suited some post-independent factions and has continued to the present.
For example, Mahinda Rajapaksa, president through the closing years of the war until his defeat in January 2015 and a candidate in this week’s election, is portrayed as the custodian of Sri Lanka’s royal lineage. Named for the royal line of Anuradhapura, his government’s public works programmes are presented to visitors to the World Heritage site as a continuation of the great irrigation projects on which the economy of the first millennium was founded.
As ethnic battle lines hardened ahead of the outbreak of civil war, Sinhalese nationalists launched an extensive and successful campaign to woo UNESCO. This culminated in an elaborate display at Anuradhapura in January 1980, under an auspicious new moon. In the official account, included in the UNESCO-endorsed guide sold at the site today, some 200000 devotees witnessed a ceremony involving 4000 monks, 10 000 children dressed in white, 200 flagpoles, each with a drummer and bunting adorning the massive stupa. Dignitaries, dancers and drummers circumambulated the stupa before climbing to the top of the three basal terraces with a relic-casket to the chanting of sacred verses by Buddhist monks.
UNESCO was persuaded and declared Anuradhapura a World Heritage site in 1982, along with the remnants of the cities of Ritigala, Polonnaruva and Sigiriya. Together, these constitute the Cultural Triangle, the heart of the island and one of the largest cultural heritage complexes in the world.
The civil war began in the following year with the insurgency by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers), claiming the right to an independent state in the north and eastern part of the island. The Cultural Triangle immediately became a target for violence. Now inscribed with a militaristic strand of Buddhist nationalism, Anuradhapura was attacked by the LTTE in 1984, resulting in a strong military presence across the World Heritage complex as a whole that was to last throughout the war. In 1998, and on the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence, suicide bombers killed sixteen people with extensive damage to Kandy’s Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, the most important religious site in the Cultural Triangle.
Despite this evident and dangerous politicization of Sri Lanka’s cultural landscape, UNESCO continued to insist on the objectives of dialogue and development that Meskell identifies as the founding principles of world heritage. Here is Director-General Federico Mayor in 1990, marking the tenth anniversary of the Anuradhapura ceremony:
The Cultural Triangle project is indeed steering the proper course with its underlying dedication to safeguarding the national cultural heritage in order to foster and strengthen a sense of identity that cannot but contribute to the socio-economic development of the whole nation. Let us seek together the best and most practical means to lead this campaign to a successful and rewarding conclusion.
At the time of his speech, Sri Lanka’s world heritage sites were under continuous military protection from a mounting insurgency that was affecting all aspects of life in the country.
Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009 with a decisive victory by government forces and accusation of genocide against the Tamil minority that have yet to be resolved. This has enabled both a revival of the tourist industry and a re-opening of access to sacred places that are vital to the spiritual identity of many Sri Lankans. The imprimatur of UNESCO is evident across the ruins of this extraordinary landscape. Archaeology, art history and the scholarly interpretations of texts are presented as authoritative and definitive. There is no place here for the long-persistent counter-narrative that shows how the separate historical lineages of Sinhalese and Tamil were a function of nineteenth century colonial typologies and a contemporary, language-based nationalism.
The Sinhalese nationalist version of Sri Lanka’s past has also served to shape research inside the Cultural Triangle in the years following UNESCO endorsement. Excavation, conservation and restoration has prioritized Buddhist Theravada sites with monumental structures, royal parks and sculptured art. Monuments belonging to ‘heterodox’ Buddhist sects, as well as Hindu monuments, have not been accorded the same degree of importance, contributing further to writing more complex, alternative, histories out of Sri Lanka’s prevalent heritage narrative.
The resurgence of Sinhalese nationalism in campaigning for this week’s parliamentary elections raised the specter of new violence based on this long and divisive misappropriation of Sri Lanka’s rich and sophistication record of art, architecture and literature. The decisive defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa offers instead hope for reconciliation. Here, as in many other parts of the world, cultural heritage remains a visceral part of belief and identity that that is inseparable from power and politics. Violence is always immanent. To engage with world heritage in ways that fail to appreciate these complex interrelationships is to risk exacerbating deadly conflicts.
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