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Out Now!

Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identity and History in Modern Sri Lanka (1995 | 2009).

Pradeep Jeganathan & Qadri Ismail (eds.)

Now in a 2nd Edition, with a new preface, and a comprehensive index.

"Stimulating... Excellent..." -- Journal of Asian Studies. 

"Will be of great value to all those concerned with... nationalism [and] violence..." -- Arjun Appadurai.

"...[F]orces us to think about Sri Lankan symbolic and social formations in an entirely novel fashion." -- Gananath Obeyesekere

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Thursday
Mar152012

Killing Fields 2: Unpunished War Crimes

The much touted C4 show, Killing Fields 2: Unpunished War Crimes is out. I’m calling the first one C4KF and the second C4CU. Indi Samarajeewa has a great review of it; where he re-frames the whole thing; another review in the UK Telegraph just repeats the C4 stuff, and I will get to that at the end of this short post.

As for my own take; I just wrote one from a completely different angle for my Sunday column in the Nation; until that comes out, I have only two highlights from the show I want to note and a question to ask.

Highlights: I thought the best part of flick was the clip of Rajpal screaming at the C4 guys in the media room of the Commonwealth Conference over C4KF. It made me smile; Rajpal didn’t know where to start with them! Do not miss it. The next best clip was CBK almost in tears over C4KF at some talk she gave. I found it interesting they had her cameoing in C4CU; I guess it anchors the politics of it a little better since she is in the running after the 18th amendment. Nice one; getting right ahead of the curve there.

Finally, I am just so confused as always, and I will close with my question. As the review in the Telegraph put it, “… there seemed no doubt that the government had indeed set up special no-fire zones for Tamil civilians — and then fired on them with heavy weaponry. According to a secret UN report, the ‘probability’ that the government had done the shelling was ‘100 per cent.’”

What the review is saying here is, and it’s worth underlining it, because this is indeed not the voice of C4 here, but supposedly, a sane, independent voice speaking, that it is the GoSL who herded the people into a No Fire Zone, and then started shelling them in there. On purpose, as we say in good Sri Lankan English. Neither the review or the movie does not really tell you why they did this, I do not think, but it’s made ‘obvious’ in the context of the whole thing. They are bad Sinhalese, and they just wanted to kill the Tamils. And according to the movie they did. They killed Prabakaran and they killed his son. Then they stopped.

Hey, wait a moment, I got confused now. Why did they stop? Would it not have been more logical to just keep shelling and shelling and kill every one there? All the Tamils in one fell swoop. I mean, there were they right? Why even bother with camps and that whole fuss and bother?

You see in the horror flicks I’ve seen, the killer never stops. And this is a horror flick, right? But some how it they stop pretty quick, and I just wanted to say, I am confused.

 

Monday
Mar122012

Gendered Violence in the North and East of Sri Lanka

The Sinhala service of the BBC, reported a few hours ago, of an "alarming rise of sexual abuse in Jaffna." They quoted Dr S Sivaruban, the Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) of the Jaffna Teaching hospital: "There were 102 cases of sexual abuse reported in Jaffna in 2010 and it has increased to 182 in 2011," said Dr Sivaruban.

This, sad, troubling statistic and statement is indicative of the breakdown of social structure in Jaffna, something that I've been picking up on through anecdotal evidence, on the one hand, and published reports on the other. The break down can be attributed to wild swings in explicitly and implicitly enforced social norms, given a pre war, and war time social structure which saw an intertwining of both extreme patriarchal and puritanical ideologies.

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Wednesday
Mar072012

Notes towards an ordinary person’s guide to the Sri Lankan conflict-part i

Hall-way, Kandalama

While the fighting in Sri Lanka between Government and the LTTE has come to an end, it’s clear that the conflict broadly put, between “Sinhala” and “Tamil” nationalists have not ended. Claims and counter claims are traded each day, sometimes in Sri Lanka and often outside.

How is an interested lay person to understand common arguments about the Sri Lankan conflict? How do you shift the kernels of truth from the bushels of chaff that is thrown about? In May 2009, I did a series of interviews with Kannan Arunasalam, who then represented or worked for PACT – peace and conflict time line – which hosted a web site devoted to some of these questions.

Over the past few days, I began to reread the transcripts of the interviews which are in three parts (one, two, three) with a view to updating, revising, and publishing them as little booklet. There are a number of areas not covered; and I am working them out. I would like help though – from regular readers of my blog: If you have a question you think is relevant and not covered in these interviews, do please leave me a comment here; it may well help make the final product more comprehensive.

 

Thursday
Mar012012

History, Historiography and the “Sinhala-Buddhists”: A Reply to Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri

Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri is right to point out in his recent essay, “History after the War: Challenges for Post War Reconciliation,” that “[t]here is an important factor that gives an extra advantage to the (sic) Sinhala-Buddhist historical consciousness. The historical narrative that is linked with the latter is generally compatible with the dominant paradigm of the modern historical scholarship in Sri Lanka.”

Yet, he is either unable or unwilling to make this “important factor” itself a topic for inquiry and in failing to do so, he inevitably then freezes this “Sinhala-Buddhist historical consciousness” within an ahistorical black hole. According to Dewasiri’s chronology, by the 6th Century AD, “for reasons that are not clear,” -- there had crystallized the “dhammadipa” idea, that has been a constant since. This then, raises the inevitable question: If the problem itself has no historical contours, indeed if nothing changed in “Sinhala-Buddhist historical consciousness” for 1600 years, how would any kind of attempt “to build an alternative discourse of history” be anything “more than a naïve academic pursuit” that almost by definition cannot dislodge or even address the problem itself?

Surely, the already existing critical literature must be worked through first? On my reading, it is apparent that there are three key vamsa texts in questions which span a period of some 600 years --the early 4th Century Dipavamsa, the 5th century Mahavamsa (Mv; which is in some ways a re-working of the Dipavamsa) and the 10th or 11th Century Vamsatthappakasini, (VAP; which is a re-articulation and elaboration of the Mv.) Indeed, there is an argument made in different ways in these texts, with different intensities and emphases, that the violent conquest of Lanka and the defeat and banishment of the Yakkshas by the Buddha, on his first (mythical) visit to Lanka, is legitimate, so making legitimate violence against unconvertible unbelievers, very much in the mold of some manifestations of the faiths of Abraham (i.e., Judaism, Christianity and Islam).

Furthermore the VAP, and associated inscriptional claims that can be dated as simultaneous with that text, argues that claims upon the throne of Lanka that maintains that the legitimacy of rule over the island depends upon being a direct descendant of the Buddha through family lineage, on the one hand, and being the bodhisattva or in other words an heir to the lineage of the Buddha through the Sasana, on the other. Yet these are but particular arguments about faith and rule, the Sasana and kingship.

There is clear historical evidence that shows that the claims of the VAP of the Mahavihara were made against claims of Abhayagirivihara monks who argued for a different kind of Sasana, Dhamma and Vinaya – there was a multitude of sophisticated ways of being a Buddhist throughout the first millennia in the Sri Lankan city of Anuradhapura. What’s at stake there, are complicated interpretations of Buddhism that position the Buddha in relation to Siva, who we may understand as a Hindu God. The Mahavihara interpretation of Buddhism, which is both exclusivist and violent was not always ascendant, indeed at times the Abhayagirivihara interpretations were dominant. They have not been preserved so we cannot read them today, but I repeat there is plenty of evidence that they indeed existed and were important.

Dewasiri’s conflation of Sinhala and Buddhist here, into the now common and very modern concatenation Sinhala-Buddhist is even more surprising. In fact, central to Gunwardene’s argument in the booklet Dewasiri cites is his opposition to this view, as it is of course, in his early and classic paper, “The people of the Lion.” “Sinhala” referred to a set of inhabitants within the island, certainly not all of them, in the 10th Century. In fact, the dynastic claims of Sri Lanka’s medieval kings, from Sena the 1st to Parakramabahu the 1st contradict the idea that their lineage is that of the lion slayer, Sinhabahu; it is rather that of Sudodhana and Amithodana, father and uncle of the Buddha. In fact, Nissankamalla who ruled after Parakramabahu wasn’t Sinhala, but Kalinga, and he was very clear about it, given his fondness for inscriptions. But he was certainly a Buddhist, and in the Mahavihara sense of it. Magha, who is credited with finally destroying the civilization of the North Central Province, which was undergirded by the dense, inter-connected and most technically advanced irrigation system in the entire pre modern world was also Kalinga.

After what is called the decline of Polonnaruwa, and by the 13th Century there were indeed Tamil, Hindu kings who ruled in Jaffna. Yet in the middle of 15th century Sapumal adopted son of Parakramabahu the 6th, conquered the kingdom of Jaffna. He wasn’t Sinhala though, his origins are arguable but he may have been Tamil; he also built the great Temple at Nallur.

A century or so later, we find that Rajasinha the 1st, the great Lion of Sithawake, who fought the Portuguese to a standstill more than once, took to Saivism, and yet was king of a southern kingdom. Not every legitimate ruler of southern Lanka was a Buddhist in early modern times. Yet also it is not historically accurate to say that the Kings of Jaffna ruled the east, certainly even a cursory glance at Dutch records and the doings of Rajasinha the 2nd will tell you, that the Kings of the Kanda Uda Pas Rate, (the five countries on top of the mountains) were also the overlords of Batticoloa and Trincomalee.

The Nayakkara kings who inherited the throne of the Kanda Uda Pas Rate, or what is now called the Kandyan Kingdom didn’t consider themselves Sinhala either. They were Telugu but spoke Tamil. But ruled as Buddhists leading an important revival Sasana and enabling the return of the higher ordination from Thailand leading to the founding what still to this day is called the Siam (Thai) Maha Nikaya which includes the chapters of Malwatte and Asgiriya. But in those days the Buddhist nobility did not always even write in Sinhala; in fact, Ehelapola, a key Minister of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, who would have indeed considered himself Sinhala and Buddhist signed the Kandyan Convention of 1815, in Tamil script, after he had helped depose his Tamil speaking King.

Indeed, as I have argued at length in previous work, the very idea that all of this island is rightfully Sinhala-Buddhist is a very recent idea. It is traceable to Geroge Turnor’s (and Edward Upham’s) colonial misunderstandings of the particular, parochial claims made by the Mahavamsa and the Vamsattappakasini, which they then universalized and associated with simultaneous readings of monumental remains in the North Central Province seen through this foggy lens; the acceptance of Turnour's work as 'true' authorized its continuation throughout the nineteenth century. This is where what Dewasiri correctly identifies as the “dominant paradigm of the modern historical scholarship in Sri Lanka” comes from. He is quite mistaken though, in seeming to assume, that this just the “ideology of the Post-Colonial Sri Lanka state.”

On the contrary the very idea that Sri Lanka is made of discreet, competing communities of Sinhala, Tamil and Mohemedan is very much a colonial idea; first mooted in Colebrokke Camaron Reforms of 1833, which simultaneous with the misappropriation of Mahavamsa and the Vamsatthappaksini for a parochial European debate about the chronology of South Asian Kings. The idea that the Sinhala need a Sinhala representative and the that Tamils need a Tamil one, that the ‘Moors’ need a ‘Moor’ one is a colonial idea, a rupture in the human history of this island, that had seen settled, civilized human habitation for over 15, 000 years. This idea then, to repeat, was folded into the idea culled from a misreading of the Mahavamsa that history of this island is a series of battles between Sinhala Buddists and Tamil Hindus. There is no historicity to this, what so ever.

We really must abandon this idea, that we are in grip of a 6th century Sinhala-Buddhist historical consiousness; this is a recent, colonial construction.Treating products of colonial interventions as a timeless essence adds to our difficulties, not allowing for the necessary plurality of imaginings of Lanka’s history to emerge in present times.

Monday
Feb272012

A Stake in Sri Lanka

I think stakes of those who live outside Sri Lanka, and who are not citizens, who do not really contemplate returning to Sri Lanka to live here – and that’s some, not all of the Diaspora, of course – are better elaborated through an alliance with a person, group or community that’s in Sri Lanka, that lives here with the consequences of what happens here. So it’s better that simply going with, ‘If I diss Sri Lanka I can get reelected in Harlow?’ Far superior would be, ‘If I criticize Sri Lanka, will it be a better place for someone I care about who lives there?’

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Sunday
Feb262012

Becoming Biennnale: The 2012 Colombo Art Biennale

And such was the Biennale itself, which we hope will mature into strong, autonomous adulthood in a time of life between war and peace in Sri Lanka.

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Thursday
Feb232012

Running Round the Round Table

We, citizens of Sri Lanka, are again caught up in the shifting, ephemeral sands of the thirteenth amendment, plus and minus, and of course, its pluses and minuses. There are many, no doubt. There are the issues of land and police powers on the one hand; that the Tamil National Alliance argues is crucial, as perhaps are finance powers. One the other hand, another headline tells me, that the Muslim Congress would ask for a South Eastern provincial council, if the TNA’s arguments are successful. A smaller column tells us, that the Wimal Weerawansa faction in coalition with the government will leave it, if the TNA’s arguments are conceded. Indeed. We’ve been around this table, running around it in fact, sitting when the music stops, finding chairs, pretending to talk and then running again, as the music starts, in a never ending circus from the 1950s. In those early days, talks were in English, behind closed doors, leading to pacts that were torn up later. It was in the late 1970s, that the whole idea of the round table talks began. Then the music started.

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Wednesday
Feb222012

Facing the Bitter Truth

...we should remember and memorialise all the victims of our long war, and in so doing, also remember and understand that deep divisions and questions between communities existed before the war, and may continue after, if not addressed....

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Tuesday
Feb212012

Reconfiguring Regional Power

I think I was supposed to debate the right and left of it. I didn’t. I proposed, all out of the blue, that if we have a cabinet of 27, let’s say, each province would elect 3 members. One of these must be from a poorly served, under build area in the province. We have nine provinces so it would be 27. Nine would represent ‘backward’ regions in the provinces. It’s power-sharing. It’s regional. It’s not Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim. The number of 27 is just a number; it is divisible by 9, the number of provinces.

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Tuesday
Feb212012

Paradise Lost?

I have been asking myself, again and again, my question of last week, and other weeks in different ways – why is there a demand for an inquiry into the final stages of the civil war, but no demand for an inquiry into previous moments of the war. In fact, when the evaluation of the Norwegian peace efforts was published, I asked a similar question; why was the lack of a war crimes inquiry in 2002 not criticised now as a major failing of that peace process. There has been no reply.

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