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.