Collective for Historical Dialogue and Memory

The Collective for Historical Dialogue & Memory (CHDM) works with the past to create just futures for all peoples in Sri Lanka

CHDM invites you to read a chapter from Kumari Jayawardena’s ‘The Rise of the Labour Movement in Ceylon’, focusing on the dynamics of labour movements during times of economic crisis. Here, we draw special attention to the change in communal policy that the labour movement adopted, noting the role played by A. E. Goonesinha, pioneering trade unionist and politician, often referred to as ‘the father of the labour movement.’



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Archiving memories

‘Herstories’ of Resilience and Hope

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” – Chimamanda Nģozi Adichie

Herstories project is based on the idea that generally, women and children are the most affected by war and peace. Yet, women’s voices are the least heard mostly because they are oral histories, and are hardly ever recorded. As it passes from their memory and ours, it will also vanish from history.

HERSTORIES attempts to address this gap, by collecting mothers’ narratives from the ground (South, East and North Sri Lanka). Primarily because mothers are guardians of memory – narrating stories, collecting photographs and keeping the family history alive – when a mother is asked her story, she speaks not only of herself but of her family, neighbours and village. As a result she creates a composite view of a time period, a place and a set of identities that is truly unique. Together, these lives of others even though very personal individual stories, create a collective set of narratives that add faces, names, places, character, hopes, dreams, challenges, strength, courage and ‘flesh’ to an era in Sri Lankan history that must not be forgotten.


Photo-essays Kilinochchi District

I want the best for my children

A mother of three from Kilinochchi speaks of her struggle to survive and wishes for a better future

English: I have three children. We had a terrible time during the war, no food, no water. We were in Manukulam when a shell struck my husband. I was 22 when he died. We lived in a refugee camp in Chettikulum for about a year after that. When their father died I told my children that they should not worry because I will take care of them. I always do my best to provide them with what they need. 

Tamil: எனக்கு மூன்று பிள்ளைகள். போர்நடந்த காலத்தில் உண்ண உணவோ குடிநீரோ இல்லாது நாம் மிகக் கஷ்டத்தை அனுபவித்தோம். நாம் மாங்குளத்தில் இருந்தபோது எனது கணவர் செல்லடிபட்டார். அவர் இறக்கும்போது எனக்கு 22 வயது. அதன் பின்னர் ஒரு வருட காலமாக நாம் செட்டிகுளத்திலுள்ள அகதி முகாமில் வசித்தோம். தகப்பன் இறந்தபோது எனது பிள்ளைகள் எதற்கும் கவலைப்படக்கூடாதெனவும் நான் அவர்களைப் பராமரிப்பேன் எனவும் கூறினேன். அவர்களுக்குத் தேவையானவற்றை வழங்குவதற்கு நான எப்போதும் என்னாலானதைச் செய்வேன்.


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Languages and identities – Fiction and non-fiction references

Identities within a language – in Tamil

In Caste and its multiple manifestations. A study of the Caste System in Northern Sri Lanka (2021, Baby Owl Press, Sri Lanka), Selvy Thiruchandran studies how language structures go hand-in-hand with caste structures:

“A question raised by a low caste person to an upper caste person mainly the Vellalar takes an interesting form. It is considered rude or impolite to ask a question or make a statement on equal terms or with an equal status with a Vellalar. For example, questions like “are you going?” or “what do you say?” have to add a phrase akum in order to sound respectful. Instead of directly asking poreenkala (Are you going?), “akum is added at the end, thus saying poreenkalakum\ Or, instead of asking ennasollureenka (What do you say?) they say “ennavaakum sollureengal The interrogative marker has supposedly made the address polite and dispels the status of being equal in the conversation. Etymologically aakum cannot be explained or broken into syllables to signify a meaning other than a derived contextual meaning as it appears or it seems expressing a sense of uncertainty like, maybe’. Unlike other forms of speech formation aakum was a Panchamar construction. How it originated and why it originated remains a mystery ” (p 63).

Forms of respect as well as derogatory comments can be conveyed through the use of specific language structures. People belonging to low-castes could be referred to in the adu (it / animal or object form): “A person of high caste, when he wants to ask the question “Where are they?” phrases it as “atukal enge?”(thus referring to them as inanimate objects) instead of “avarkal enge” Where are they?)” (p 64).

In When I Hit You, Meena Kandasamy reflects on how language shapes her identity or rather how she can see herself:

Language determines who you are, but also who you are shapes the language you use
“English makes me a lover, a beloved, a poet. Tamil makes me a word huntress, it makes me a love goddess.
There is a linguistic theory that the structures of languages determine the mode of thought and behaviours of the cultures in which they are spoken. In an effort to understand my life at the moment, I have come up with its far-fetched corollary, a distant cousin of this theory: I think what you know in a language shows what you are in relation to that language. Not an instance of language shaping your worldview but its obtuse inverse, where your worldview shapes what parts of the language you pick up. Not just: your language makes you, your language holds you prisoner to a particular way of looking at the world. But also: who you are determines what language you inhabit, the prison-house of your existence permits you only to access and wield some parts of a language.
Now in Mangalore, I know the Kannada words eshtu: how much; haalu: milk; aanda: eggs; namaskaram: greetings; neerulli: onions; hendathi: wife; illi: here; aadu: that one; illa: no; saaku: enough; naanu naandigudda hogabekku: I want to go to Naandigudda” (p 92).

Identities beyond a single language

What happens then when one moves from one language to another and faces what Yaa Gyasi has eloquently phrasely: (speaking of her mother from Ghana, who moved to America) “I think, rather, that she just never figured out how to translate who she really was into this new language” (Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyassi).

Despite the inevitable sense of loss in this process of translating identities, there is also the possibility of creating new ones, as Lauren Collins brings out in When In French. Love in a Second language:

“ Bilinguals overwhelmingly report that they feel like different people in different languages. They do so for a multitude of reasons, some of which are less attributable to any language in particular than to having a new language itself. A person may be a loan shark in his new language when he was an opthalmologist in his native tongue. Perhaps he spoke Polish to his first wife but speaks Portuguese with the second. He may have scaled or slid down the ladder of class. He may have changed his politics, or his name.”

It is often assumed that the mother tongue is the language of the true self. And in many ways it remains the primal vehi­cle, the first and most effective responder in moments of cele­bration or crisis. A person who has spoken English most of her life is always going to speak English when she stubs her toe. But if first languages are reservoirs of emotion, second lan­guages can be rivers undammed”, and even “A fresh language can be a solvent to heart­ache.”









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Books on caste in Sri Lanka

Selvy Thiruchandran’s book, Caste and its multiple manifestations. A study of the caste system in Northern Sri Lanka (2021) is insightful and informative. Going through language forms and cultural practices that depict caste structures, the book also brings out a contrast between strategies in India and Sri Lanka with regard to avoiding caste: Referring to Periyar (1993) and Ambedkar, the author explains: “They both held the view that Hinduism was the biggest or the only cause for casteism. Ambedkar was perhaps ignorant of how Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have to be of a specific high caste to adorn the high positions of Buddhist order and institutions. Daniel’s ancestry was originally Hindu of the Turumbar caste, the lowest in the caste ladder. He was converted to Christianity and assumed the Christian name Daniel. Daniel raises the question through his novel whether conversion is the means of caste liberation. He answers in the negative and calls it, Kanai — a mirage/an illusion or an illusory image of water with inverted reflections.”

After mentioning the key figures who perpetrated caste-based structures (Arumugam Navalar) and those who fought against them (   , the author also deals with long-lasting consequences of caste, especially in the context of conflict. Speaking of the refugee camps set up after the end of the war, she refers to the socio-economic disadvantages that are accentuated by caste: “Does caste play a role in the lives of the people who live in the refugee camps? One could say that it starts very early in the composition of the inmates. Those of the high caste have escaped the violence of the war by migrating to other countries or by moving to the city of Colombo. They were also able to return to their former habitats during the periods of ceasefire and continue to live there. Those who belong to the lower strata of a caste became internal refugees. It is estimated that there is a disproportionate presence of the Panchamar caste in the refugee camps. (Silva, Sivapragasma and Thanges (2009:65) That they have to live for long periods in these centres (e.g. Alady camp) is symptomatic of continuing inability to move out due to lack of resources. In addition to this they also face a disadvantaged status by being subjected to other socially unjust discrimination relating to caste ” (page 137).

Ajith Balasuriya in Legacy of Palmyra: The Victims of Dual Horizontal Inequalities in Northern Sri Lanka (Colombo University Press, 2023) uses caste as the main focus in analysing the conflict in Sri Lanka. “Considering the duality of the protracted conflict in Sri Lanka, this study clearly identifies caste-based socio economic inequalities within the Tamil community as one of the fundamental causes of the conflict. Caste based socio-economic inequalities are not a unique phenomenon in the Tamil community, but parallels can be seen among the Sinhalese as well” (p 106).

“(…) this study argues that Horizontal Inequalities can be seen in a dual form within the ethnic Tamil community, among lower and upper castes. Lower-caste Tamils have been discriminated or affected by HIs twice. First, from the inequalities imposed by majority Sinhalese, and secondly from the inequalities from upper-caste Tamils who are a part of their own ethnic group” (107).


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Books on the war

Beyond Check-points: Stories of Human Resilience in troubled Sri Lanka by Duleep de Chickera.The Diocese of Colombo, 2023.


Counting shells – How plantation Tamils joined the LTTE controlled areas
“The daily lives of these twice oppressed humans redefined human desperation. They were on their own, among their own and in need of protection from their own. Their presence served the cause of those near and far. They had to be there to churn out cadres with no questions asked; just as they produced the best tea in the world for the lowest possible wages with no questions asked. Decades of suppression had conditioned them to passively obey. They were the idea ingredients for a fascist regimes; the ‘indispensable-dispensable’, dressed in rubber slippers and fed with layers of indoctrination.”

People of conscience
“As several like Fr. Clifford were learning, it was daily doses of restrictions and not carefully clichée statements in impressive assembly halls that stimulated these conscience corners of human resilience. All the UN’s motions and all the parliaments of the world brought little relief when tyranny strode down lonely byways in the darkness of night.”

“If you happened to be the Tamil from beyond the border, you had to be Tiger on this side. This is the plain message I got again and again,” he sobbed. Hell, for the young Tamil fleeing the LTTE, was a place that moved with you.”

Beyond Checkpoints
“The check point culture was much, much more than the visible or the moment. Those who met there carried heavy baggage that had to be unpacked in a matter of moments. For the few who stood there through the day, the ability to observe, question, screen and ensure all was well with courtesy, a thousand times over, was commendable. For the many who passed through, the ability to be patient and understanding when questioned or searched several times a day, was equally commendable. That these interactions occurred without incident through the day and night, spoke volumes about the goodwill and co-operation between those who stood and those who moved.”

“But for now this is our life, looking into peoples’ bags and getting scolded by everyone. What to do, this is our fate.”



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Theatre in the diaspora

Counting and cracking

By S.Shakthidharan with Eamon Flack
Directed by Eamon Flack with S.Shakthidharan

The internationally-acclaimed epic returns to Sydney, this time at Carriageworks.

28 June – 21 July 2024

On the banks of the Georges River, Radha and her son Siddhartha release the ashes of Radha’s mother – their final connection to the past, to Sri Lanka and its struggles. Now they are free to embrace their lives in Australia. But a phone call from Colombo brings the past spinning back to life, and we’re plunged into an epic story of love and political strife, of home and exile, of parents and children.

Featuring nineteen performers from six countries, Counting and Cracking follows the journey of a Sri Lankan-Australian family over four generations, from 1956 to 2004.

Winner of 14 major awards including Helpmann Awards for Best Production and Best Direction, Counting and Cracking returns triumphant from the Birmingham Commonwealth Games and Edinburgh Festivals, for a strictly limited season at Carriageworks.

By S.Shakthidharan with Eamon Flack
Directed by Eamon Flack with S.Shakthidharan

Review 2024:


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De Lanerolle and the French Connection

“The Odyssey and Living Legacy of sieur de la Nérolle.” Neptune Publications.
Yasmin Rajapakse, 2019.



Le livre en français

La Nérolle – Huguenot charentais de l’escadre de Perse à Ceylan (1672) 

Yasmin Rajapakse,
Gérard Narjoux (Traducteur)

Les Indes Savantes


L’ambassadeur de France, le Sieur de La Nérolle, gravit la passerelle pour monter à bord du bateau le Triomphe de la Marine royale et n’en redescendit que pour mettre le pied sur le sable fin de Ceylan (Sri Lanka) à Trincomalee, le 21 mars 1672, durant le règne du roi Rajasinghe II (1635-1687). Il y passera le reste de sa vie, et y fera souche. Jusqu’à nos jours, ses descendants restent en contact avec La Nérolle (commune de Segonzac en Charente).
Cet ouvrage retrace l’histoire de ce noble charentais parti avec l’escadre de Perse, formidable flotte envoyée par Louis XIV pour concurrencer les Hollandais et établir un empire commercial dans l’océan Indien.


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Quelques livres récents sur Sri Lanka – mémoires et livres de voyage

Razeen Sally, 2019. Return to Sri Lanka: Travels in a Paradoxical Land. Juggernaut

Sunil Tantirige, 2019. The House of a Thousand Memories. Bay Owl Press


Yasmin Azad, 2020. Stay, Daughter. Perera Hussein.

Rory Spowers. 2007. A Year in Green Tea and Tuk-Tuks: My unlikely adventure creating an eco farm in Sri Lanka. HarperElement.

Anne Mustoe. 2001. Two Wheels In The Dust: From Kathmandu to Kandy

John Gimlette. 2015. Elephant Complex. Travels in Sri Lanka. Quercus Publishing

Cherry Briggs, 2013. The Teardrop Island. Summersdale Publishers.


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Article sur les femmes migrantes travailleuses domestiques

Women Migrant Workers and Market Forces: Toward an Inter-disciplinary Representation of Female Labor Migration

In: Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology: Including a Selection of Papers Presented at the First History of Economics Diversity Caucus Conference

Nadeera Rajapakse

The economic literature on labor migration has incorporated insights from various disciplines with regard to content and method, although the representation of migrants has not fully moved away from the neoliberal, market-dominated framework. This paper addresses the issue of women migrant workers using the particular example of Sri Lankan migrant women workers to the Middle East. It aims to highlight the need for more diversity in economic research without which conceptual representation, as well as empirical reach, is limited. After a brief overview of the representation of migrants in economic literature, I develop the concept of vulnerability. I refer to qualitative and quantitative analyses on Sri Lankan migrant women workers to the Middle East from a variety of disciplines in order to differentiate the “vulnerable,” that is, the workers in need of protection, from the “vulnerabilities.” The latter concept refers to the debilitating effects on workers, produced by market forces, which are often perpetuated by underlying assumptions, as well as policies. A broader, inter-disciplinary perspective, which considers the agency of women, can go a long way toward removing some of the limitations and preconceptions ingrained in most economic representation. This in turn could help to improve the protection of the vulnerable and empower them to better face market forces.


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Online event “Dynamics of Tamil Urban Ethnoterritories in Diaspora (Kuala Lumpur, Paris and Singapore)”, by Delon Madavan, with Sharika Thiranagama

The South Asia Program of Cornell University has the pleasure to invite you to an online presentation, given by Delon MADAVAN, on “Dynamics of Tamil Urban Ethnoterritories in Diaspora (Kuala Lumpur, Paris, Singapore)” on Monday October 5th at 11.15AM (New York time)/ 5.15 PM (Paris time). Sharika Thiranagama will be the respondent for this presentation.


Studying the ties and practices that bind Tamils to the districts they inhabit or visit is essential to understand not the ways Tamils use and transform space in diaspora. The territorialization of Tamil identity, that is, their spatial extension and the continuation of their socio-cultural practices, is not always immediately visible in multi-ethnic cities in which Tamils are a minority. Tamils transform those spaces where they are dominant according to their own cultural and social practices and establish venues conducive to social interactions. Furthermore, the polarization of space and the dynamics of identity networks explains the various attitudes of Tamils towards the social frequentation of certain areas. Finally, the presence and role of places of sociability, such as religious, cultural or commercial establishments, are essential to understand Tamils’ relationship with locality and thus the reasons for which these districts are recognized -or not- as “Tamil” by Tamils themselves.

With specific examples drawn from fieldworks in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Paris, this paper will show that the affirmation of Tamil identity and the constitution of Tamil ‘ethnoterritories’ in certain areas is not only the outcome of Tamil action but also the consequence of state-sponsored urban planning policies, such as eradication of slums, gentrification and heritagization of specific zones, and the frequentation of these zones by non-Tamil migrants.

Delon Madavan was the Tamil Studies Visiting Scholar at Cornell’s South Asia Program in Spring 2020. He completed his PhD in Geography at Paris-Sorbonne University (France) in 2013. He has taught at the Department of Geography at Sorbonne University and also gave lectures at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO) in Paris. Madavan is Researcher Fellow at the Centre of Studies and Researches on India, South Asia and its Diaspora (University of Québec à Montréal, Canada) and Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Centre of Studies and Researches on India and South Asia (CNRS-EHESS, France). In his research, he examines the articulation between migration, identity and space to analyze forms of integration of the Tamil populations in several cities (Jaffna, Colombo, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Paris & Montréal). Madavan is the author and co-author of several articles and books on Tamils in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and France.


Sharika Thiranagama is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. Her research explores the intersection of political mobilization and domestic life, focusing on highly fraught contexts of violence, inequality, and intense political mobilization. Her major work has been on the Sri Lankan civil war and research with two different minority ethnic groups, Sri Lankan Tamils and Sri Lankan Muslims, exploring the ways in which militancy, political violence and large-scale displacement became folded into intergenerational transmissions of memory and ethnic identification. Most recently, in new fieldwork on Dalit communities in Kerala, South India, she examines how communist led political mobilization reconfigured older caste identities, re-entrenching caste inequities into new kinds of private neighborhood life. She focuses on the household as the prime site of the inheritance of work, stigma and servitude as well as the possibility of reproduction, dignity and social mobility. She is the author of In My Mother’s House: Civil War in Sri Lanka (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

Source: SAP, Cornell University

Coronavirus and politics in Sri Lanka

Nous attirons votre attention sur un article du professeur Jayadeva Uyangoda, qui fait le point sur la situation à Sri Lanka et sur les implications politiques de la crise sanitaire, que vous pourrez télécharger ci-dessous

(courtesy Sri Lanka Brief)






Les premières semaines du gouvernement Rajapakse

En l’espace de deux semaines, le gouvernement issu des élections présidentielles s’est lancé dans une série de règlements de compte visant ses adversaires politiques. Il a commencé par l’épuration des services de la police qui avaient été chargés d’enquêter sur les meurtres de journalistes et sur les affaires de corruption remontant à la période du premier gouvernement Rajapakse (2006-2015). A la suite du départ précipité à Genève, en compagnie de sa famille, et avec ses dossiers, d’un policier menacé, une employée locale du consulat de Suisse à Colombo a été séquestrée plusieurs heures par des inconnus qui ont récupéré de force les données de son téléphone portable, et des membres d’ONG en contact avec la Suisse ont été inquiétés. La reprise en main de l’appareil policier prélude à la reprise en main de l’appareil judiciaire.

Un article du New York Times analyse les implications de l’affaire de l’ambassade suisse:

“Gotabaya Rajapaksa, un politicien brutal au seuil du pouvoir sri-lankais” par Vanessa Dougnac

“Il est l’homme lié à l’un des épisodes les plus violents de l’histoire du Sri Lanka et du début du XXIe siècle. Celui qui fut le stratège militaire de l’anéantissement de la guérilla des Tigres tamouls, en 2009, arbore aujourd’hui un sourire jovial sur les posters de la campagne présidentielle. Moustache fournie et crinière cendrée, Gotabaya Rajapaksa a percé parmi un nombre record de 35 candidats et s’est imposé comme l’un des favoris du scrutin qui se déroulera ce samedi 16 novembre.”

via: Le Temps

“Le clan Rajapaksa consolide son emprise sur le Sri Lanka” par L’Obs avec AFD

via: L’Obs

“Sri Lanka elections | Unfair to attribute racist dimension to Tamil vote, says Sampanthan” by Meera Srinivasan

It is unfair to attribute a “racist” dimension to the Tamil vote in Sri Lanka’s presidential election, according to senior Tamil leader R. Sampanthan.

His remark comes a day after the results of the country’s biggest election were declared. The winner — newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa — garnered his 52.25% vote share almost entirely from areas where the majority Sinhalese community is concentrated.

via: The Hindu