Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province

It is archaeologically proven that the golden era of the Sinhala civilisation sprang into life in the Northern and Eastern plains of the island.Therefore, a massive number of ruins can be witnessed in the North and Eastern Provinces today. Although many of these ruins were deliberately vandalised with the shallow hope of wiping out the identity of the land, they continue to stand as silent witnesses to the golden era of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, just how they have stood the test of time. 

Although the 30-year-old internal conflict is now over, traces of conflicts among the ethnic groups are still prevalent, especially in Northern and Eastern parts of the country. The main reason to this problem which resulted in the internal conflict was an outcome of many misunderstandings between the two ethnic groups and misinterpretations of the country’s history. Archaeology has solutions for these misinterpretations and it is the responsibility of archaeologists and historians to address this issue. The recently established Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province is one such attempt. 

Presidential Task Force 

On 2 June 2020, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa established a Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province and appointed eleven Members to it (Gazette Notification; number 2178/17).The Task Force is chaired by the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. 

To know further about this programme and controversies raised by some groups we contacted Senior Lecturer at the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology, University of Kelaniya and the Director of Ampara and Baticaloa Projects of the Central Cultural Fund Dr. Dananjaya Gamalath. According to Dr. Gamalath, this is the best decision taken to safeguard the archaeological heritage of Sri Lanka since the Central Cultural Fund Act was enacted in 1980. He further stated that, if any ancient monument or an archaeological heritage is under threat, and if the prevailing law is insufficient or unable to take necessary measures to safeguard the archaeological heritage, the Head of the State has the authority to appoint a unit or a task force dedicated to execute the said task. 

When asked about the need to establish a special unit or a Presidential Task Force (PTF), Dr. Gamalath explained that the archaeological heritage in the Eastern Province is under great threat and facing harsh vandalism. Considering the gravity of the threats and the fact that the Department of Archaeology alone has failed to safeguard the archaeological heritage in Eastern Province, the PTF appointed is a measure that is timely as well as important. The recently established PTF will be functioning with the main aim of safeguarding and developing the historical sites and archaeological monuments in the Eastern Province in order to preserve them for future generations. Dr. Gamalath emphasised on the necessity of responding to the disputations raised by certain groups or individuals and clearing the misunderstandings. 

The archaeologist explained that vandalism of archaeological heritage in the two provinces was accelerated since 2015 by presenting photographs and videos of the sites. “These historical sites are occupied by people and that is illegal,” he further specified, presenting evidence.  Mavadivembu in Batticaloa, Olumadu archaeological site in Vavunia, Thirukkovil, Kandikudichchiaru, Gurukanda, and Seruvila Sirimangalapura, are to name a few sites that are illegally occupied and monuments being vandalised. “These actions are backed by certain political groups with the mere intention of creating clashes between communities and erasing the Buddhist heritage out of the North and Eastern Provinces,” he further stated. 

“These archaeological sites have been neglected by the authorities for decades and making the situation worst, they were targeted by racist groups.  Therefore, after President Gotabaya established the PTF, a huge rage was raised by groups and individuals representing such racist groups. It is unfortunate that these groups and individuals do not understand that archaeological heritage has no race or religion and also it is a grim situation that they do not see these monuments and sites as a part of their cultural heritage, which belongs to all Sri Lankans and to the entire human race,” Dr. Gamalath said. 

Have there been PTFs before in Sri Lanka for the protection of Archaeological Heritage? Answering our question Dr. Gamalath said that in the year 2002, A Heritage Task Force was appointed to protect and develop the archaeological heritage in Anuradhpaura Mahavihara Monastery, appointing late prof. Senaka Bandaranayake as the head. 

One of the accusations against the new PTF is that this is not legal. “According to the Sri Lanka Archaeology Act and the International Charter for the Protection and Management of the Archaeological Heritage (1990), the PTF can be proven as completely legal and ethical. It does not violate any rules or regulations”, Dr.Gamalath clarified. 

The tasks of the PTF are as follows;

– Identifying sites of archaeological importance.

– Identifying and implementing an appropriate programme for the management of archaeological heritage by conserving and restoring such identified sites and antiquities. 

– Identifying the extent of land that should be allocated for such archaeological sites, and taking necessary measures to allocate them properly and legally. 

– Preserving the cultural value of sites of archaeological importance and promoting the uniqueness of Sri Lanka, locally and internationally, and making recommendations for the promotion of such heritage. 

Now let us take a look at the International Charter for the Protection and Management of the Archaeological Heritage (1990) prepared by the International Committee for the Management of Archaeological Heritage. (ICAHM), Article 2 – Integrated Protection Policies.

1.    Policies for the protection of the archaeological heritage should constitute an integral component of policies relating to land use, development, and planning as well as of cultural, environmental and educational policies. The policies for the protection of the archaeological heritage should be kept under continual review, so that they stay up to date. The creation of archaeological reserves should form part of such policies. 

2.    The protection of the archaeological heritage should be integrated into planning policies at international, national, regional and local levels.

It should be noted that the above mentioned points aligns with the tasks of the PTF, therefore that clears any legal issues. Article 3 of the ICAHM (Legislation and Economy) states that the protection of the archaeological heritage should be considered as a moral obligation upon all human beings; it is also a collective public responsibility. This obligation must be acknowledged through relevant legislation and the provision of adequate funds for the supporting programmes necessary for effective heritage management. 

According to the Charter, that it is the duty and responsibility of the community living in the Eastern Province to protect the archaeological heritage in their vicinity. 

Preserving artefacts of all religions

“I must emphasise that, the PTF is not focusing only on the Sinhala Buddhist heritage of the Eastern Province. Heritage management means protecting the archaeological heritage that belongs to all races and religions. Therefore the PTF should not be interpreted in a racist point of view. That is wrong. Look at this statement in the Charter; Legislation should be based on the concept of the archaeological heritage as the heritage of all humanity and of groups of peoples, and not restricted to any individual person or nation,” emphasised Dr. Gamalath. 

One accusation is that the PTF consists of only Sinhalese and do not represent other nationalities. Addressing this Dr. Gamalath said, “yes, there were some accusations made by university scholars, pointing out the fact that archaeologists in the Batticaloa University should be a part of the PTF. But my question is, during the last five years, when these archaeological heritage was vandalised, where were they? Were they not aware of such things happening in the vicinity? I don’t think there is a need to please anybody by including such scholars to the PTF just to pacify certain groups. Those who are criticising or accusing the PTF should keep in mind that the purpose of PTF is safeguarding our heritage,” Dr. Gamalath clarified.

“The archaeological heritage in the Eastern Province is prominently Buddhist. If you visit these places you will witness this. This truth should not be hurting anyone’s feelings. Why and how archaeological ruins could hurt the feelings of certain groups? It is only because you look at these ruins in a racist point of view. There are enough records and evidences about purposeful vandalism. We should be ashamed of ourselves as a nation about that. Why is this hatred towards ruins?” Dr. Gamalath questioned.  

Challenges of the PTF

When asked about the challenges faced by the PTF Dr. Gamalath said, “I will give an example. Let us take Mavadiwembu and Thirukkovil in the Eastern Province. The archaeological monuments at these two places are destroyed and new constructions can be seen there now. According to the International Charter, following their guidelines, we have to eradicate these new constructions and safeguard the archaeological heritage once again. This is the first challenging task. Also security measures should be taken immediately. In March 2019 when I visited Mavadiwembu – a large ancient stupa – it was destroyed and a temporary building was constructed. And when I visited there once again in June 2019, a permanent building was constructed there. It is disheartening to see how the Department of Archaeology is blind and deaf to all such things,” Dr. Gamalath said passionately. 

Another challenge is to determine means of protection of newly discovered archaeological evidences. If legislation affords protection only to those elements of the archaeological heritage which are registered in a selective statutory inventory, provisions should be made for the temporary protection of unprotected or newly discovered sites and monuments until an archaeological evaluation can be carried out. 

“First it was the three-decade war. Since then, more than 800 sites and monuments in the North and Eastern Provinces were neglected. No measures were taken to stop the vandalism or to preserve these sites and monuments.It must be stressed out that Batticaloa District is the only district that no archaeological heritage has been developed or protected. This fact is strong enough to emphasise the importance and need to establish a PTF,” Dr. Gamalath concluded. 

Archaeological heritage in Pakistan and Afghanistan are predominantly Buddhist. Nevertheless, they are preserved and conserved by the Muslim authorities simply because they understand that ‘cultural heritage’ has no religion or race, but is the heritage of the entire human race. If only this truth was understood by certain groups of people in Sri Lanka who are creating disputes regarding the PTF. 




Uncategorized, Ama H.Vanniarachchy, Ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province, Sinhala Buddhist heritage, Sri Lanka, SRI LANKAN HISTORY, Traditional Tamil Homeland 

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