Civil War Subjectivities: Space, Social Change and Ethnicised Violence in Sri Lanka

Civil War Subjectivities: Space, Social Change and Ethnicised Violence in Sri Lanka

“…never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” (John Donne, Meditation 17)

The Sri Lankan civil war has been reviewed and debated by many scholars who argue its rootedness in historic enmities, its evolution from an ethnicised consciousness and its more immediate political struggles in relation to diasporic and party politics. Ethnographic studies of particular local communities give the sharpest insights into wartime and post war scenarios. Political theory uncovers the actions of successive governments and separatist groups at various stages of the history of the conflict dating from 1983-2009. There are no architectural studies of the wartime landscapes.

Sovereignty, Space and Civil War in Sri Lanka: Porous Nation follows two lines of inquiry. The first is from my discipline of architectural history. Can architecture contribute to an understanding of its own destruction? In recent years, many prominent scholars such as Andrew Herscher and Eyal Weizman, to name just two, have offered convincing methodologies for writing on spatial violence in concrete rather than abstract ways. In contrast, the far fewer writings on Lankan architecture have focused on the careers of individual architects or on hospitality architecture, for which Sri Lanka is well known. Given this seeming myopia, I chose to study geography in order to write this book, and first investigated its limits through an MPhil at the University of Melbourne under Rachel Hughes and Ruth Fincher, scholars who have written on related issues. Consequently my work draws on aspects of both these disciplines.

My second line of inquiry is subjective. I am of Sinhala ethnicity, the language of my formative education. My family background is Christian, the one religious community where Sinhalese and Tamil identities interact. But my Sinhala-Christian identity, while opening me up to inter-ethnic friendships, is not the predominant filter through which I operate. I identify most strongly with my worldview as an Asian woman in this geographic region, and as an architect and educator, part of the Australian diaspora. In fact my political subjectivity is most shaped by the shift from a pro-socialist import substitution Cold War era childhood to teenage and adolescence transformed by capitalism. This radical structural change caused a generational rift in Lankan society most deeply felt by those of us who are now middle aged. So rather than approach the civil war through the lens of ethnicity, which I argue was artificially hardened by political hostilities, I chose this radical break in our everyday subjectivity as my starting point. By doing so, I aligned myself with a small group of scholars for whom economic change is a necessary fulcrum for understanding social conflict. I argue that the border that had been impermeable during the pro-socialist era, before 1977, suddenly became porous to goods, ideas and labour, transforming and unsettling Lankan subjectivity. The inequitable distribution of new opportunities and resources, created by this change, prompted various forms of social conflict including the insurgency, the separatist struggle and civil war. Since these opportunities were politicised along ethnic lines, ethnicity became the primary filter through which political or social allegiances were sought. The resultant violence transformed both the physical geography and society, creating the provocations for militancy and militarisation.

Intersectional Theory drawn from critical race theory and feminist sociology has proved most useful for highlighting the other categories of identity such as class, profession, generation, gender, religion, and so on, which although sometimes divisive were also bases for shared subjectivities beyond ethnic identification. These categories were also targeted by forms of political and social oppression, and were mobilised in struggles for survival. All of these social and physical constructions contribute to a sense of ontological security that is destroyed by war and displacement, a concept that has traction in many fields including psychology, sociology and international relations. These are the conceptual tools that I work with.

Some may argue that the economic argument has its limitations, given the ethnic complexity of the society and caste, religious and familial relationships. In fact, intersectional theory offers a route by which these and other identity categories can be analysed in relation to social and structural hierarchies, including class interests. The framing of the book responds to the availability of material, during and immediately after the war, when restrictions were still in place. Apart from my lived experience in and frequent return to Lanka, the investigations for this book’s content occurred during the five year post war period, from 2009 onwards, when I was able to travel to and observe the changes that were taking place in the north. My interest is in understanding how a society handles those critical transition years when emotions are raw and families are broken. Does it demonstrate willingness to construct a shared space or does it continue the ethnic tug-o-war? There are political critiques of the Rajapaksa era (2005-January 2015) that look at this period more closely, but I see it as an accumulation or end point of a longer political struggle in which successive political regimes mishandled the opportunities of economic liberalisation.

The book begins with an introduction on the border as a methodological lens, followed by three sections. The first section, normative spaces, looks at how our understanding and reception of taken for granted spatial units such as nation, home and city are social and political constructions that are destabilised by social conflict. Their disruption provokes a series of human mobilities, addressed in the second section, as affected civilians flee these spaces during the war and the military and separatists seek to control the routes of access and egress. The spatial units discussed in this section – route, camp and site – cross over to the post war era and cover movement along the Alpha-9 highway and Yal Devi rail routes, the camps or state of encampment created by the dispersal of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the contested tourism sites that open up in the north. The third and final section on Exile is divided into ruin, exile and settlement. It looks at the ruined homes of ethnically Tamil, female respondents and the manner in which they recuperate them, the place and spaces of the diaspora made visible through their virtual cyber-conflicts and their physical adaptation to urban conditions in their new host geographies, and finally offers some closing observations on the different architectural solutions proposed for resettling returning IDPs. All of these changes are entangled in the politics of neo-liberalism, where state welfare has receded and other global actors take centre stage. Militarisation is argued as the means by which the receding state apparatus continues to hold potentially dissident territories or in fact keeps the fiction of the nation intact. I don’t venture further into the many changes that have occurred under the Sirisena government since 2015, due to the opening up of the civic sphere and the actions of numerous civil society organisations.

Any book that focuses on war is necessarily biased, due to the fragmentation of social perspectives. The privileges afforded me as a Sinhala -Lankan and my personification of oppression in the eyes of affected minorities limits what I can know. I have not lived in the war zone and was unable to enter it during the war, so my knowledge of it comes second hand. Moreover, a significant critique of my de-ethnicised approach is that ethnicity is the avenue for minority restitution. Unfortunately every group, including the Sinhala majority, sees itself as victimised on the basis of ethnicity. All of the many ethnic or language groups that share the Lankan geography are confident in their cultural patrimony. At some point in the region’s history they have all acted as imperialists. Harnessing all their ethnic legacies would amplify our shared cultures, but could also be divisive if deep structural accommodation is lacking. We need to learn to navigate through these tensions in a supposedly postnational era, where global pressures exceed local controls and defensive ethnicised identities nevertheless assimilate into global ways of being.


Featured image: Kovil bell from a fishing village at Kayts, photographed by author in 2010.

Anoma Pieris is a professor at the Faculty of Architecture Building and Planning. She holds a BSc from the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka, an MArch and SMArchS from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a PhD from UC Berkeley and an MPhil in geography from the University of Melbourne. Anoma’s training is in architectural history and in geography with a specialist focus in postcolonial and subaltern studies methods as applied to the architecture of South and Southeast Asia; more specifically to Sri Lanka and Singapore.

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