ASA2016: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

(P36)
Anthropology and the post-war present in Sri Lanka: ethnographic reflections
Location Science Site/Maths CM107
Date and Start Time 04 July, 2016 at 14:00
Sessions 2

Convenor

  • Tom Widger (Durham University) email

Mail All Convenors

Chair R.L. Stirrat

Short Abstract

The panel invites ethnographic reflections on the temporalities of the post-war present in Sri Lanka, the orientation of individuals, communities, and society to history, time, and change, and the scope and role of anthropology in making sense of, and contributing towards, these processes.

Long Abstract

Six years after the end of a long civil war in Sri Lanka, meanings and values attached to deep and recent pasts have especially evocative (and provocative) roles in the ways that current and future problems, from the transition to peace to questions as seemingly far removed as environmental justice and climate change, are being dealt with. Processes of post-war reconstruction and reconciliation, armed service redeployment, IDP, diaspora, and land return, urban and rural renewal, market, social, and governmental reform, and political, moral, and subjective reorientation - all are full of claims and counter-claims of what was, what is, and what could be. This panel reflects on the play of the past and the future in the present in Sri Lanka and how a strong tradition of anthropological research has sought to make sense of the relationships between mythological and documented histories in the emergence of Sri Lankan nationalist movements and religious and ethnic conflict over the course of the twentieth century, and at the same time been criticised and censured in the country for doing so. Anthropological concepts have also informed policy and public debate in the island, including understandings of social problems like homicide and suicide and the idea of nationalist 'culture' itself. The panel invites ethnographic explorations of the temporalities of the post-war present in Sri Lanka, the orientation of individuals, communities, and society to history, time, and change, and the scope and role of anthropology in making sense of, and contributing towards, these processes.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Gender politics: governing migration in post-war Sri Lanka

Author: Michele Gamburd (Portland State University)  email

Short Abstract

Recently promulgated restrictive state regulations of female labor migration reflect emerging economic dynamics, national political uncertainty, and changing gender rhetoric in post-war Sri Lanka.

Long Abstract

This paper examines the relationship between the end of Sri Lanka's long civil war in 2009 and a set of restrictive state regulations on transnational female labor migration circulated by the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) in 2013. A set of circulars and their associated policies and debates, now referred to as "The Family Background Report" or "FBR" issue, set minimum and maximum age restrictions for female migrant laborers. In addition, a married woman needs her husband's signature on the FBR paperwork before she can migrate. Women who have children under the age of five are forbidden to leave their children to work abroad, and women with children older than five must demonstrate adequate plans for their care. According to the FBR discourse, the government must step in to protect women from making bad decisions and to protect children from the predations of their uneducated, short-sighted, misguided parents. The regulations present a marked change from the policies that regulated female migration for the prior three decades. Why would Sri Lanka implement the FBR policy, which will decrease remittances from abroad and increase undocumented or extra-legal migration? This paper explores how the shift relates to the end of the war by examining gendered discourses, changing demographics of migration, and the political benefits of paternalistic protectionist rhetoric deployed at a moment when the post-war government felt its hold on power beginning to slip. The research contributes to discussions in political anthropology about interactions between the family and the state.

Fractured communities: conflict and belonging in a Southern Sri Lankan fishing village

Author: Maurice Said (University of Bath)  email

Short Abstract

This paper draws parallels between the process of community building and local notions of the nation [jatiya] in a fishing village in post-tsunami Sri Lanka.

Long Abstract

This paper explores conflict, as well as notions of community and trust between fishermen in a Southern Sri Lankan post-tsunami village. The Asian tsunami of 2004 killed over 35,000 people and displaced almost half a million in Sri Lanka alone. In the Southern Sri Lankan district of Matara, fishing families were among the most affected and, consequently, those that least benefited from aid in the aftermath. Following the disaster, the introduction of a no build buffer zone along most of coastal Sri Lanka prevented those most affected by the disaster from rebuilding their homes and, subsequently, many families were relocated to tsunami villages far from their original localities and their protective kin networks. This paper takes one such 'tsunami village', Ragama, as its case study. Composed of fishing families from four different and rival fishing villages, Ragama experienced some of the highest rates of violent conflict in the district in the years following the tsunami. I specifically explore the process by which fishing families built trust and kinship with former rivals through a common narrative of exclusion. In doing so, I explore fishermen's discourses of nation [jatiya] as one of exclusion by the state and inclusion through collective suffering.

Acting and activism in contemporary Jaffna

Author: Isabelle Clark-Deces (Princeton University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper relates the many attempts to revive activist theater that I observed in Jaffna in summer and fall 2015. It suggests that this kind of theatre constitutes a critical venue for cultural reflexivity in contemporary Jaffna society.

Long Abstract

Based on recent ethnographic fieldwork in Jaffna, this paper explores the role of theater in social activism in contemporary Jaffna. Theatre as an effective medium to bring forth important messages emerged in the late 1970s along with the rise of the communist party in Jaffna (and Sri Lanka in general). It reached its peak in the 1980s with "participatory" plays that dealt with the problems of the war-torn society and "action groups" that created a "therapeutic space" for traumatized war victims. Activist theater declined after the defeat of the LTTE, which was known to use plays to recruit militants and further its political agenda, and the occupation of Jaffna by SL authorities. As writers and directors were investigated and intimidated, only plays with no political message were performed and many producers migrated abroad. This was true not just of theater but of all arts. In this paper I want to relate the many attempts to revive activist theater that I observed in Jaffna in summer and fall 2015. I show the difficulties associated with this revival, difficulties that for the most part stem from the association of theater activism with LTTE recruitment. Yet, because theatre has re-emerged as the only "public" outlet for expressing frustrations (with the war and its aftermath, as well as with current rapid social and familial changes), I argue that it constitutes a critical (although far from neutral) venue for cultural reflexivity and for the renewal and healing of Jaffna society.

History and nation in Sri Lankan environmental politics

Author: Tom Widger (Durham University)  email

Short Abstract

Environmental pollution cases have been making headline news in Sri Lanka. I argue that environmental awareness has rapidly increased at a time shaped by a new post-war politics, which roots itself in the ancient and recent pasts and in a future defined by territorial reunification and purification.

Long Abstract

In recent years environmental and water pollution cases have been making headline news in Sri Lanka. In this paper I account for the emergence of environmental politics at national and local levels in the country. I will do so by arguing that environmental awareness has rapidly increased at a time shaped by a new post-war politics, which roots itself both in the ancient and recent pasts and in a future defined by territorial (re)unification. At the heart of this temporal and spatial conjunction is a concern with purification at physical and social levels, as a precondition for the (re)making of a post-colonial Sri Lankan state. Using agrochemical and industrial environmental pollution and a growing epidemic of chronic kidney disease of unknown aetiology (CKDu) as case studies, I will argue that they can each be understood as examples of this attempt at national purification in action. From this starting point I will argue that the end of war in Sri Lanka not only made space for environmental issues to gain increased public attention and thus for a new environmental politics to emerge, but that environmental politics provides a key space within which the future of the nation can be imagined. The coalescing of environmental and national politics in the Sri Lankan context has implications for how we understand the travel of environmentalist and Anthropocene movements around the world.

Sinhalese and tamil catholics in Sri Lanka: united by faith, divided by war

Author: Bernardo Brown (National University of Singapore)  email

Short Abstract

The Catholic Church of Sri Lanka is deeply divided along the ethnic lines that separate the Tamil and Sinhalese communities. After 25 years of armed conflict, the postwar context has not helped to develop ties of solidarity among communities who share the same religious faith.

Long Abstract

Catholicism in Sri Lanka is the only major religious denomination that crosses the ethnic divide that separates Sinhalese and Tamil communities. After twenty-five years of civil war (1983-2009) and with a newly elected government, Sri Lanka has embarked on a long process of healing and reconciliation. However, a shared religious faith among Sri Lankan Catholics has not contributed to the rapprochement between these two communities, it has become an added challenge for laity and clergy on both sides whose expectations of solidarity and empathy were recurrently neglected during the war years. In a violent context where ethnicity took precedence over religion as the source of identity, Tamil Catholics have been perceived to side with the separatist movement while Sinhalese Catholics were seen as staunch supporters of the Sri Lankan military. The persistent apprehension with which Sinhalese and Tamils regard each other is palpable today within the Catholic Church, where ethnic affiliations continue to divide laities in the north and south of the country and all the way up to the highest hierarchy of the Sri Lankan Church. This paper examines the efforts of Catholic groups who organize multi-ethnic events and trips with youth from rural parishes to promote dialogues between Tamil and Sinhalese Catholics, often confronting the indifference of parishioners and clergy alike. The persistent difficulties that separate even those who share the same faith and participate in the same religious institution, reflects some of the long-term challenges that remain for the country's future.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.