Civil War and Peace in Sri Lanka

Alice Konig
Monday 5 February 2024

In this presentation, Visualising Peace student Tao Yazaki discusses some of the research she has been doing on post-conflict transitions in Sri Lanka. Among other topics, she looks at colonial legacies and their impact on peacebuilding, and also at media representations and memorialisation. Below the video, you can find a summary of the publications she discusses. These are also available in our Visualising Peace Library.

Nissan, Elizabeth and Stirrat, R.L. “The generation of communal identities.” In Sri Lanka: History and the roots of conflict, edited by Jonathan Spencer, 19-44. London:Routledge, 1990.

This book chapter, written by Elizabeth Nissan and R.L. Stirrat, is part of the book ‘Sri Lanka: History and the roots of conflict’, edited by Jonathan Spencer, and looks at the role the past plays in shaping and influencing the recent Civil War in the country. Nissan and Stirrat’s chapter looks at the formation of communal identities since the pre-colonial period and how different understandings of the past have come to be through modern political identities. They question how contemporary historical debates on the dominant ethnic group presupposes an established distinction between ‘Tamil’ and ‘Sinhala’ racial groups. Instead, Nissan and Stirrat emphasise that such a partisan reading of ancient Sri lanka is inaccurate, pointing to anomalies in the pre-colonial state which evidence Sinhala-Tamil communal violence as originating from after Independence, and that differences of language, custom and religion in between the two groups was reinvented and imposed teleologically by the modern state. Nissan and Stirrat then explore why politics in Sri Lanka currently has come to be dominated by violence between groups differentiated by racial and linguistic traits and how these groups came to be polarised, and point to colonial rule as setting these processes into motion. They look at imported Western values such as the unitary bureaucratic structure, British understandings of ‘race’ and their ‘civilising mission’, and the developments of state education and mass media as creating an environment for the creation of the two separate and opposing communal groups. By highlighting the different understandings of the two groups pre-modern and modern state, Nissan and Stirrat emphasise the importance of viewing perceived continuities in their historical context.  

Tennekoon, Serena. “Newspaper nationalism: Sinhala identity as historical discourse.” In Sri Lanka: History and the roots of conflict, edited by Jonathan Spencer, 205-226. London:Routledge, 1990.

This book chapter, written by Serena Tennekoon, is part of the book ‘Sri Lanka: History and the roots of conflict’, edited by Jonathan Spencer, and looks at the role the past plays in shaping and influencing the recent Civil War in the country. Tennekoon examines the impact of political events and how they influence national identity and politics through three newspaper debates from 1984-5 in the Sinhala language newspaper Divayina. The newspaper debates were situated within the context of the anti-Tamil riots of July 1983 and the ensuing guerilla war between Tamil militants and the mostly Sinhala government forces. The riots and following violence prompted a reassessment of the Sinhalese identity and nationalism, and Tennekoon examines the nationalist trends in Sri Lanka through contemporary controversies in Divayina, arguing that the newspapers are an example of the cross-section of views of the Sinhala intelligentsia as well as the media’s participation in generating and maintaining a type of nationalist discourse. She looks at three controversies: disputed Tamil claims to traditional homeland, disputed roots of a ‘modern Sinhala culture’, and the debate around the use of past cultural figures and myths to inform nationalist ideologies. Tennekoon uses these debates to illustrate the connection between politics and culture and this engagement is tied to a bolstering of nationalist sentiment.    

Walton, Oliver and Saravanamuttu, Paikiasothy. “In the balance? Civil society and the peace process 2002-2008” In Conflict and Peacebuilding in Sri Lanka, edited by Jonathan Goodhand, Benedikt Korf, Jonathan Spencer, 183-200. Oxon:Routledge, 2011.

This book chapter, written by Oliver Walton with Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, is part of the collection titled ‘Conflict and Peacebuilding in Sri Lanka; A peace trap?’ which examines the liberal peacebuilding model in Sri Lanka and the unexpected paradoxical and ‘illiberal’ consequences of such an approach in Sri Lanka. Liberal peacebuilding refers to a framework for policy exercised through pursuing alliances between international actors and domestic actors, to pursue conflict management, liberal democracy and market sovereignty (Pugh and Cooper 2004) through economic and political means (Howard 2008). Walton and Saravanamuttu’s chapter explores the impact of the liberal peacebuilding process on the culture of civil society actors, and how the process perhaps hindered organic, grassroots peacebuilding. They examine the interaction between liberal peacebuilders and Sri Lanka’s civil society actors, in particular the difference between the engagement with cosmopolitan elite-oriented NGOs of the capital and lack of engagement with other types of civil society organisations. In an environment where peacebuilding was increasingly associated with intrusive foreign agendas, NGOs had to use various strategies to continue their peacebuilding while avoiding damaging comparisons to international liberal peacebuilders. The authors also argue how the liberal peacebuilding model led to the depoliticisation of historical political civil society actors and to the backlash against peace processes. Lastly, the authors draws some tentative lessons for future engagement and possible alternatives to liberal peacebuilding in Sri Lanka. 

Perera, Sasanka. “Remembering Death and Mourning the Loss of Innocence” In Violence and the burden of memory: Remembrance and Erasure in Sinhala Consciousness, 107-148. New Delhi:Orient Blackswan, 2016.

This book chapter is taken from Sasanka Perera’s book ‘Violence and the burden of memory: Remembrance and Erasure in Sinhala Consciousness’ and explores memory after violence, focusing on Sinhala memory of loss and pain resulting from the violence in the south between state armed and police forces and the insurrectionist political party JVP. He addresses this memory in the contexts of the construction of monuments and memorials through collective and individual efforts in the public and private sphere, and in the context of intervention by visual artists. The chapter I chose focuses on monuments that centre mourning the loss of innocence, in contrast to war monuments that glorify heroism and death. Perera draws a comparison between two monuments in Sri Lanka that memorialise the violent deaths of civilians: the Shrine of Innocents, funded by the state, and the Monuments of the Disappeared, funded by a civil society organisation. He examines the poetics and politics of these two monuments and examines the relation between the political motivations backing monuments, and how monuments endure and last. He also compares these monuments to heroic monuments, noting how heroic monuments were at less of a risk of physical disappearance and neglect. Perera concludes that although monuments can be understood as a way ‘society remembers their past and formulates its present identity’,(Brooks, 1997) this is not the case in the Sri Lankan context, with monuments playing little to no role in how society formulates the current state.

International Crisis Group. “After the Attacks: An Anti-Muslim Backlash.” After Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings: Reducing Risks of Future Violence. International Crisis Group, 2019.

This source is from a report by the International Crisis Group, a non-profit, non-governmental organisation founded on preventing, mitigating, and resolving conflict. The report is titled ‘After Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings: Reducing Risks of Future Violence’, and examines the details of the Easter Bombing attacks in 2019 in Sri Lanka, and its impacts, as well their recommendations for the Sri Lankan government. I wanted to include this source to examine the current state of Sri Lanka, 22 years after the war’s ‘official’ end. I think this, as well as Vindhya Buthpitiya’s piece ‘In Sri Lanka, a perpetrator state demands non-violence’, also included in the Visualising Peace Library, may help us think about what exactly ‘true peace’ after conflict looks like. The Easter Bombings were carried out by Islamic jihadist militant group NTJ, and later claimed by the terror group IS (Islamic State). Almost immediately after the bombings, Sri Lanka’s Muslims began to face backlash. The report outlines the forms of violence such as attacks and exploitation in the political sphere such as the heightening of divisive rhetoric to garner support. Other forms of violence outlined are mob assaults on refugees, Sinhala Buddhist militant groups’ attack on Muslim communities, and an increase in the arbitrary arrests and unfounded allegations against Muslims as well as a marked increase in othering and demonising rhetoric. The government also imposed dress restrictions on clothing banning all face coverings including the burqa and the niqab, as well as restricting the dress code for public sector employees and visitors which in effect banned the typical dress of Muslim and Tamil women. 

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