Panel Abstracts

“Sri Lanka Otherwise? Resituating Temporality and Topography”: Sri Lanka Graduate Student Conference 2014

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Panel 1: Sri Lanka’s Pasts   10:00 a.m. – 12:00 a.m.

·      Sri Lanka is Not an Island: Notes on John C. Holt's The Sri Lanka Reader – Mark Balmforth & Mariyahl Hoole (Columbia University) 

This essay considers how Sri Lanka is imagined as an analytical subject. How do scholars help intellectually construct an imagined space too commonly understood to be two (perhaps three) hermetically-sealed communities bounded by water? What sorts of materials do we rely upon to convey what the country means and the lessons that should be taken from its experience? How might rethinking colonial frames of knowing Sri Lanka (traditionally reliant upon ethno-linguistic, religious, and spatial categories) provide insight into different ways to imagine the island? As a starting point to think about these questions, this essay discusses John C. Holt's far reaching The Sri Lanka Reader: History, Culture, Politics and the subsequent written exchange between the author and Gananath Obeyesekere over the appropriateness of the work as an introduction for new students of Sri Lanka. While there was disagreement over what should or should not have been included in the 733-page work, one of the most resonating and combustible turns of the conversation was the question of whether an anticolonial commitment had been sufficiently incorporated into the work.

We argue that part of what made the discussion so combustible was two radically different conceptions of what constitutes anticolonial scholarship. These parallel approaches signal different commitments to colonially-derived analytic categories for imagining Sri Lanka, though neither is able to fully shed its boundaries and constructs. While analyzing The Sri Lanka Reader and the resulting conversation over it, we call for a renewed effort to destabilize academic and pedagogical depictions of Sri Lanka which obscure liminal spaces and complex identities.

·      Caste as Race: Jaffna 1844-1971 – Nishkala Suntheralingam (Clark University)

While the recent civil war that raged in Sri Lanka lent to the perception of Tamils from Jaffna as a relatively “homogenous” minority ethnic group fighting for self-determination, in reality for centuries, interactions amongst Tamils from Jaffna were riven internally by hierarchical caste dynamics that created legacies of privilege, and kinship networks.  Revisiting the geo-historical and socio-cultural underpinnings of Jaffna between 1844 and 1971 provides a basis for understanding how caste as a social construct amongst Tamils was situated and became entrenched in response to changing circumstances on the ground.  Looking at caste in Jaffna through the lens of race as a social construct allows for the recognition and review of centuries of old oppressive practices, and provides the historical space for revisiting the silence, claims of ignorance and denials surrounding caste injustice and Vellalar thinking about equality and protecting their privilege.  Although the colonial administration played a significant role in contributing to maintaining a hierarchy for “social order” purposes, as significant is the role of Tamil men and women in their intransigence to creating equal opportunity and access for services for all Tamils regardless of caste and sex.  From a historical stand point breaking down these barriers was first largely directed at empire, and then the ethnic divide, rather than measures to address the more deep-rooted problem of caste inequalities amongst the Tamils.  Attempts to redress these inequalities culminated in the Social Disability Acts of 1957 and 1971, were never actually policed or implemented by the government, or local communities. 

The paper first will review the social stratification of caste dynamics in Jaffna as they existed between 1844 and 1971 and their ramifications of privilege, of inclusion and of exclusion which continue to shape the behavior/conduct patterns and belief systems of the Tamils in Jaffna, influencing the rest of Ceylon.  I first describe the geo-socio-historical context of Jaffna that contributed to the development and entrenchment of caste privilege in Jaffna.  I consider some of the factors that may have contributed toward the entrenchment of Vellalar privilege in Jaffna and its ramifications, including in the context of the discourse around entitlements and franchise representation in the transition to independence.  The final section provides an analysis of the ramifications and possible lessons to be learnt from looking at caste through the lens of race in Jaffna.  


·      State Ritual of War Commemoration: Sinhala Buddhist Ideology and its Ambiguities – Geethika Dharmasinghe (Northern Arizona State University)

This paper discusses war commemoration as a state ritual producing social reflections crucial to understanding the reproduction of Sinhala Buddhist ideology in post-war Sri Lanka. Focusing on the “Jayagrahanaye  5 vana Abimanavath Samaruma” [The Glorious Fifth Victory Celebration] war commemoration that took place on May 18, 2014, I argue that this state ritual not only commemorates war heroes, but also selectively reimagines the Sinhala Buddhist past. The government has idealized the end of the thirty-year war, and has declared the victory as the second Independence Day of the country. I suggest, by putting forward myths that have constructed the Sinhala Buddhist past, the current regime presents itself as the custodians and representatives of a timeless Sinhala Buddhist valor.  Examining the narratives that were presented in the 2014 war commemoration, I further argue that the exclusive Sinhala Buddhist ideology is penetrating into Sri Lankan people’s lives despite the war being over. However, the reception of such ideological assertions is not without ambiguities and contestation.


Panel 2: Sri Lanka’s Futures  1:30 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.


·      Negotiating Legal Space: Decoding Post Conflict Infrastructure – Shanthi E. Senthe ([Assistant Professor ]Law, Thompson Rivers University)

This paper explores the post-conflict reconstruction of the A9 Highway, which serves as a linkage between the Northern and Southern part of Sri Lanka. This significant highway has been regarded as a site of contestation, reconciliation and reconstruction. Symbolically, this historic road provided a cultural, religious, political and, more recently, an economic route which has affected communities along the way.

In situating the inquiry within the legal geography discourse, this paper seeks to examine the multitude of spatial and temporal contours that inform the various legal claims. Through an analysis of empirical data, and the application of a specific legal lens in deconstructing narratives that shape identities, a ‘particular’ legal frame emerges. Post-Conflict infrastructure imagines a ‘particular state’ rooted in a ‘particular ideology’.

The trans-disciplinary approach employed in this paper chronicles the significance of the A9 Highway, which explores the cultural and economic aspects embedded in the post-war narrative. Further, this paper will discuss how the A9 Highway represents an economic lifeline, which has reconfigured rights and obligations in commercial contractual arrangements. Using contract theory, stakeholder relationships will be examine to highlight successes and challenges in employing specific legal mechanisms. This analysis will be tied to the linkages of the A9 Highway, which previously was deemed inaccessible, but now signals a gesture of reconstruction and reconciliation.


·      Pitakotuwa dang Pitarata Wagey: Situating Sri Lanka’s Post-war Development – Andi Schubert ( Kansas State University)

This paper seeks to intervene in the current debate regarding the status of post-war development in Sri Lanka. Shifting away from attempting to evaluate or criticize this emphasis on development, it turns instead to the cultural production of consent for development. In doing so, it seeks to discuss the alternate topographies that are shaping the spatial re-production of the post-war Sri Lankan state. This paper discusses these problematics through a radio clip that was released by Neth FM, a local radio station, to mark the opening of the Floating Market down Bastian Mawatha in Pettah on the 25th of August, 2014. The clip draws on virindu - a traditional folk song form – to announce the opening of the market and in doing so not only attempts to advertise the market but to also address many of the criticisms that have been leveled against Sri Lanka’s post-war development.

Drawing on Stuart Hall’s reading of Gramsci, the paper discusses the choice of using a traditional folk song form to justify and advertise the ‘modernization’ and ‘beautification’ of Colombo. It also examines the ways in which this clip addresses and yet simultaneously embodies the criticism of post-war State-sponsored development as a means of addressing the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

The paper addresses the paradoxically high levels of support for post-war development in the South of the country in spite of the criticisms of the costs and quality as well as the numerous attempts by the Opposition to privilege the cost of living as a key electoral issue. It also points to the imagination and production of a post-war Sri Lanka that is located, marketed and privileges the ‘foreign’ in spite of the fact that at first glance this appears to contradict much of the nationalist, home-grown rhetoric that has marked Sri Lanka’s post-war discourse.  Therefore it argues that post-war Sri Lanka is, both temporally and topographically, located otherwise.


·      Place, Practice and Pretence: A Topography of Sri Lankan Labour Migration – Matthew Withers (University of Sydney)

Temporary labor migration has become a stubborn feature of Sri Lanka's economic landscape, coinciding with the 1977 neoliberal turn and swelling year-on-year to emerge as the single largest source of foreign exchange earnings (IPS). Yet with the 'export' of human labor comes the fictitious commodification of a large, culturally diverse and geographically fractured population as homogeneous 'migrant heroes' serving to buoy the rupee and finance uneven processes of development. By disembedding migrants as one-dimensional economic actors their lived experiences are lost, obscured by a totalizing developmental paradigm that axiomatically equates temporary labor migration with a 'triple win' that – through remittance income – leverages migrant families into prosperity. Re-embedding migrants and their families in the complex tapestry of social, cultural, political and economic threads that define their localized existences reveals divergent patterns of migration-(under)development: differing causes for, experiences during, and outcomes of their migration. This paper contends that empirical evidence suggests little semblance of a sustainable 'win' for Sri Lankan migrants, instead pointing to a spectrum of experiences shaped by social topography and tempered by individual circumstance, but collectively gravitating towards one-off, transient or wanting benefits. Compounding this, the very act of fictitiously commodifying migrant labor is seen to devalue human life and incentivize the conspicuous consumption of remittances as a material surrogate for the status and integrity denied in the wake of neoliberal economic restructuring. Status consumption and the outwards construction of 'success' is seen to be prevalent, even amongst returned migrants reporting dissatisfaction with their experience. While entailing a diversion of remittance income for returnees, the pretence of success simultaneously projects a false prosperity that propagates further migration amongst those attempting to emulate returnees' apparent wealth. We assess these findings to argue that a contextually-specific understanding of labor migration as embedded within social and cultural institutions is needed to distinguish its complexity from the neoliberal reductionism through which it is too often interpreted.  


·      “‘Let Us Transform Your City into a Clean and Beautiful Metropolis’: Postwar Urban Planning in Colombo, Sri Lanka” – Dilshanie Perera (Stanford University)

This essay examines how residents of Colombo, Sri Lanka make sense of infrastructural changes and city beautification practices that are being implemented following the country’s decades-long civil war. Public conceptions of urban futurity exist in tension with the idea that such visions should have already come to pass but were stymied for thirty years by war. To make up for this acknowledged time-lag, new development is proceeding with haste as proposals are expedited through administrative and bureaucratic processes. The country’s Urban Development Authority, which, as of 2010 was incorporated by the Ministry of Defense, maintains a list of projects for which they actively seek investors. What happens when a future-oriented planning imaginary is nearly simultaneous with actual changes wrought upon the built environment and in spaces of dwelling and labor? Who bears the burden of beautification and who gets to enjoy a city celebrated as clean and aesthetically pleasing? How do these changes heighten or transform ethnic or religious divisions and distinctions made by urban residents? Many changes are slated for Slave Island, a neighborhood in Colombo settled by indentured laborers from across the Indian Ocean under Dutch colonial rule and historically home to a multiethnic and multireligious working class community of people identifying as Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Dutch Burger, Malay, and otherwise. Today, those who live and work in the neighborhood have been asked to make way for two recently-approved multimillion-dollar development projects that are being built in the area. Evictions are ongoing.