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FeaturesNewsNationalism,politics of humiliation and the Geopolitics of Emotion – Notes on Possibilities after the UN Report

Nationalism,politics of humiliation and the Geopolitics of Emotion – Notes on Possibilities after the UN Report


The UN report has returned us to that moment, and if intelligently and constructively used may help us explore roads not taken, toward a better, brighter and kinder future for all its citizens.

 by Darini Rajasingham Senanayake

It was my sense after May 18, 2009 when the LTTE was defeated that Sri Lanka was missing an opportunity to redefine itself as part of a kinder, gentler, global community. Instead it heightened nationalist discourse, extended emergency rule, surveillance and militarization, and devised new forms of censorship.
Sri Lanka missed the opportunity to become one of South Asia’s more enlightened nations by not reaching out to one of its more battered and war-scarred communities after 18/09. The UN report has returned us to that moment, and if intelligently and constructively used may help us explore roads not taken, toward a better, brighter and kinder future for all its citizens.

Political philosopher Judith Butler wrote after 9/11 and the attacks on the twin towers in New York City in a book titled: Precarious Life: “that we can be injured, that others can be injured, that we are subject to death at the whim of the other, are all reasons for both fear and grief. What is less certain however is whether the experience of vulnerability and loss need to lead straight away to military violence and retribution. There are other passages. If we are interested in arresting cycles of violence to produce less violent outcomes, it is no doubt important to ask, what politically, might be made of grief besides a cry for war?” (xii).

Now, two years after the end of war, it is clear that Sri Lanka as a multicultural country will not be able to “move on” and achieve lasting and substantive peace, until ALL its communities have put to rest the ghosts of violence. The release of the semi-official report of the experts panel set up by the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, to investigate events leading to the end of war in Sri Lanka has opened a space for discussion of what was repressed in the aftermath of the violence that ended almost three decades of war in the country in the rush to “move on” and leave behind the ugliest chapter of history in the country. But thus far there has been a lop-sided ‘moving on’; while the south is growing and flourishing, the post-war northeast has been heavily militarized and remains a space of death and mourning inhabited by ghosts of war in the absence of mourning.

An economic boom in the South it was hoped would help people forget and heal. For the minority communities however, the peace that dawned seemed to be a victor’s peace. In Jaffna, the new military head quarters was built on a graveyard of LTTE carder that had been raised to the ground. The victorious state violating the dead, even if they were terrorists flies in the face of Buddhist and Hindu religious norms and practices of decency, tolerance, and respect for the dead. Preventing mourning disables closure and shows the lack of respect for the defeated that is counter-productive to reconciliation.

Clearly, the wounds of war in northeast Lanka have not yet been adequately cauterized so the healing process of the country as a whole has been delayed. This is one of the reasons for the straightforward language of the semi-official UN Report which has in the long run done the people of Lanka a great service in putting important information that had been repressed in the public domain, even as if it painfully opens wounds that were festering under the surface of things. In the short term the Report also gives ultra-nationalists on both sides another chance to demonstrate there strength that conceals deep moral anxiety.

Rather than addressing vulnerabilities after the war, taking limited responsibility for excesses in the context of the fact that all wars are ugly, and reaching out to heal the wounds of war, the victorious Sri Lanka state and its detractors have been locked into a blame game while subscribing to a dominant international myth prevalent after 9/11 that militarization constitutes a global public good and the best way to secure ourselves from vulnerability and life’s precariousness. Militarization on the ground has been the crude materialist response of the State to allegations of “war crimes” from powerful segments of the international community and the Sri Lanka diaspora.

‘Geopolitics of Emotion’

The end of war in Lanka amid allegations of “war crimes” by both parities to the conflict consolidated a local-global disjuncture that has configured the course of post-conflict peace and reconciliation in the country. Many Sri Lankans, indeed the majority of Sri Lankans who were mere by-standers in a thirty-year war not of their making or choosing, were and still are somewhere in between the grand standing on both sides of the divide between Sinhala and Tamil ultra-nationalists.

Those of us who are in this in-between position are rightly embarrassed and largely silent about the great violence that occurred over the past three decades in the island, the land of the peaceful one, the Buddha. Even “just war” arguments mobilized at the end of the war sit uneasily with the national imaginary of Lanka as an isle of peace, beauty, and tranquility. This embarrassment continues in a different register at the failure to address the root causes of war, at war’s end, and the official boasting that has accompanied the victory, most recently encapsulated in the plan to have three chapters of the Mahavamsa dedicated to the deeds of Rajapakse. Calling the semi-official UN Report “The Darusman Report” rather than constructively addressing the issues it raises misses another opportunity to build a genuine, sustainable peace.

The quality of peace is not strained. In the interest of “moving on” and leaving behind the ugliest chapter of the island’s post colonial history after 18/09 much was repressed, but it is increasingly clear that all communities must “move on” together in peace and security. Some have claimed rather disingenuously that the UN report would derail reconciliation, when in fact there has been little serious political and cultural reconciliation on the table or the horizon.

Peace has once again been differed in Lanka, and even though the war is over the culture of humiliation of the defeated, be they political or ideological, gendered or ethnic “others” has continued and indeed been exacerbated in the post-war context. The onus for any gesture of reconciliation would naturally lie with the government of Sri Lanka which won the war comprehensively, particularly since the LTTE is no more. Yet, since the war ended two years ago there has been very little sincere attempt at reconciliation. Indeed, at times it appears that there has been systematic and institutionalized humiliation of the minority community that bore the worst ravages of the three-decades long war in the island. Thus, school children have been forced to sing the national anthem in Sinhala for the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka at the official Tsunami commemoration in Jaffna in December 2010 despite the fact that linguistic discrimination was one of the root causes of the war.

In a globalized world where the ‘geopolitics of emotion’ often contoured by post-colonial nationalism configure the actions of modern nation-states, magnanimity to the defeated ‘other’ and humility in victory are rare qualities that have been largely absent in Sri Lanka political landscape. The island’s common citizens have been far more refined.

Political Culture of Humiliation

The strategic use of humiliation in post/war contexts to compel obedience, establish and signify authority, and government has received considerable attention in the scholarly literature (Lindner: Margalit; Moisi). Thirty years of war between the State and the LTTE in Sri Lanka generated a public political culture of humiliating the ideological, ethnic and gendered “other” which has been and is detrimental to conflict resolution and reconciliation, even as it limits the participation of women and minorities in the arena of formal electoral politics. An example of this politics of humiliation is the manner in which, ironically, at war’s end General Sarath Fonseka, the architect of the military victory strategy and defeated Presidential candidate who also faces allegations of grave human rights abuses was stripped of his honors, arrested by his junior officers, and thrown into prison after a Court Martial.

In contemporary Sri Lanka a dominant political culture of humiliation works on multiple registers and intersecting axes of identity and affect to limit the participation of socially and linguistically marginalized groups, including women in the sphere of formal politics. Electoral politics has been increasingly conceived of primarily as a ‘man’s world’ and an increasingly violent arena, perceived as unfit for even more intrepid women. Eveline Lindner has defined humiliation as “the enforced lowering of a person or group, a process of subjugation that damages or strips away their pride, honor or dignity”. It generates a deep psychological wound which may engender passivity and a sense of helplessness. At the same time humiliation and anticipation of humiliation is at the root of spirals of violence, militarization and conquest, while collective humiliation in many Euro-American contexts have give rise to demands for multiculturalism and the
“politics of recognition” (Kymllika;.Tailor).

The spectacle of public humiliation that serves to ‘discipline and punish’ populations also fuels the logic of retaliation. Much of the work on humiliation in the South Asian context derives from studies of caste marginalization and the denial of self-respect and stifling of agency of scheduled castes in the public spheres (Guru: 2009). Ashis Nandy has suggested that humiliation configures both, the self or person, (or state) that humiliates and the “other” who would be humiliated, the latter often being constructed as the gendered, ethnic, or ideological other. Humiliation is differently debilitating and costly to the self that humiliates / fears humiliation as to the “other” who would be humiliated as Nandy who has also theorized ‘the loss and recovery of self under colonialism’ noted in The Intimate Enemy. At the same time, narratives and discourses of humiliation have commodity value in the media and their evocative power may enable “humiliation entrepreneurs” and recruitment of post/colonial nationalist soldiers, fighters or terrorists. Some may get attached to humiliation, and narratives of victimhood may exempt one from responsibility for perpetrating violence.

During the years of war and cycles of peace in Sri Lanka, humiliation of the ‘other’ side was practiced by both warring factions. In the post-war period militarization, securitization, surveillance and occupation constitute the continuum between war and peace that perpetuates a ‘culture of humiliation’ that has deformed political-economic institutions and processes, as well as, public space with gendered implications. This is most clearly manifest in the scenario of the absence of women’s participation in the arena of formal politics in post-war Sri Lanka, the country that gave the world its first woman Prime Minister and should have many more women in Parliament. The Inter-Parliamentary Union which works on democracy has ranked the island at 122, below Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and close to Myanmar following its elections in April 2010 in statistics released for Women’s International Day in 2011. Lanka has only 12 female members, or 5.3
per cent, in its 225 seat National Assembly, despite having the best social indicators for South Asia with literacy for both men and women in the high nineties.

The marginalization of women in politics despite their prominence in other vocations and in the professions may be attributable to the culture of humiliation that configures formal politics in Sri Lanka which is refracted and reflected most obviously in the postwar militarization and surveillance in the north and east. Indeed, post-war militarization is a continuum between war and peace that both institutionalizes humiliation of peoples in the post-war northeast and disables reconciliation, thus leaving open the space for a return of conflict.

Ironically militarization is the ultimate materialist response and defense against humiliation that anticipates the humiliation of the Victor. This anticipation of humiliation reveals the psychological mindset, as well as, the political culture of humiliation that thirty years of armed conflict has generated in Sri Lanka’s political culture, also manifest in the desire of the political leaders of the two main political parties in the island to remain in power forever, rather than stepping down gracefully when their term limit has arrived, or their shelf-life expired.

Restorative Justice, Punitive Justice and the Decent Society

It is in hence that Margalit’s notion of the ‘decent society’ (rather than a just one) where “institutions do no humiliate people” seems relevant to closing a discussion on the space for post-war accommodation (rather than occupation). Since post-war or ‘transitional justice’ as it is termed by international organizations is in the best of time a fraught issue, as war is a messy business where ‘victims may become killers’ or vise versa (cf. Mamdani),

The notion of a ‘decent society’ may be more relevant to our discussion of the (dis)abling conditions for cycles of endemic conflict, in a context where peace with justice is differed. In post-war Lanka, the question of justice is doubly problematic in the context of the fact that the both the government and LTTE have been accused of “war crimes”. The GoSL termed its war against the LTTE a “humanitarian war” to “liberate” the people in the north east, but now mimics the LTTTE in militarizing and occupying the area, while denying its residents even a modicum of self-government and self-respect. Magalit’s critique of the dominant political philosophical emphasis on ‘Justice’, and suggestion that the more useful question is that of building a “decent society’ with institutions which do not humiliate people seems relevant to the discussion here because it addresses both the institutional and symbolic aspects of humiliation.

Likewise, Lindner has noted “decency does not mean that everyone should like everybody, decency is a minimum that is necessary to keep a neighborhood functioning—co-existence without mayhem even when neighbors dislike each other”. Demilitarization and power-sharing at national and regional levels would be part of the post-war compromise for building a decent society that enables a more inclusive and less militarized political culture in a context where the question of justice and the problem of impunity remain suspended due to the manner of war’s ending in Sri Lanka at this time.

There has been much talk of devising a ‘home grown’ solution to the conflict in Lanka, but the process of arriving at this solution has been dominated by political forces that are largely part of the problem of playing the ethnic card to win votes in domestic politics. There has been little space for non-party political members of society in Sri Lanka to contribute to discussion of a lasting and disinterested solution to the problem. It is in the current context of continuing marginalization of constructive and moderate voices, censorship and anti-intellectualism after the war, that the documents below may provide some new, yet old ideas based on local knowledge and Sri Lanka’s multi-ethico-religious traditions that may point us in other directions towards building a decent society and a semblance of post-conflict reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

Finally, as Butler noted “One insight that injury offers is that there are others out there on whom my life depends, people I do not know and may never know. This fundamental dependency on anonymous others is not a condition that I can will away. No security measure will foreclose this dependency; no violent act of sovereignty will rid the world of this fact… To be injured means that one has the chance to reflect upon injury.. to find out who else suffers from permeable borders. If national sovereignty is challenged, that does not mean that it must be shored up at all costs, if that results in suspending civil liberties”.

There are other passages, alternative routes.

A Multicultural National Vision for Sustainable Peace in Sri Lanka based on consultations in the regions of the country

The document was drafted by a group of social scientists, academics, professionals, and concerned citizens during July 2003-December 2003. While the Drafting Committee for the National Vision was initially convened on the invitation of the Office of the Commissioner General for Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Reconciliation, Office of the Prime Minister, in March 2003, the current National Vision is a civil society undertaking that emerged after a year of voluntary discussions, consultations and meetings in various regions described above.
It is based on consultations held in Mannar, Jaffna, Kandy Colombo, Matara, Kataragama, Batticaloa and Kalmunai. The meeting in Matara included members of indigenous communities including the Veddha and Vanniatoo communities. A meeting with representatives of the hill country communities was held to review the Vision and incorporate the concerns of those communities in Colombo in December 2003. In each region the meetings were organized by local NGOs and/or community organizations in collaboration with members of the National Vision Drafting Committee. Meetings sough to include all local regional organizations and stakeholders.

At each meeting the document was read page by page and comments, corrections and inclusions from regional representatives discussed and incorporated. All consultations were documented. The vision is available in the Sinhala, Tamil and English languages. This Multicultural National Vision for Peace based on consultations in the various regions of the country in 2003 draws on long standing patterns of multiculturalism and co-existence in the island. It was drafted on the premise that a sustainable resolution of the to two decades of violent conflict in Sri Lanka requires a balanced and wholistic understanding of the island’s multiple post/colonial armed conflicts, as well as, recognition of the suffering experienced by various communities during the years of violence. A balanced understanding we hope would contribute towards reconciliation.

‘Peace making’ and ‘conflict resolution’ have become buzzwords recently, but the substance of sustainable peace in Sri Lanka, aside from the principle of power sharing between the main conflicting parties remains rather obscure. Increasingly intricate legal frameworks for federalism and power sharing are discussed, but little attention has been given to developing a culture of trust and valuing of diversity that is essential for successful power sharing.

This Multicultural Vision for post/conflict Sri Lanka draws on local knowledge and the ethico-religious traditions of pluralism and respect for diversity that have been long established. The island’s multicultural traditions have been increasingly forgotten and marginalized in the past two decades of violence.

During the regional consultations it was evident that each region is different and has unique concerns, issues and problems in addition to common issues that all face. Many groups felt that their experience of suffering and discrimination was unique and exceptional. In the context the vision tries to place the experience of diverse groups and communities in a balanced perspective and attempts to develop a multicultural vision for peace that is inclusive of the aspirations of the island’s diverse and hybrid ethnic, religious, regional, linguistic, and cultural, and socio-economic groups. In the aftermath of violence the Vision analyses the complexities and interconnections between multiple conflicts in post/colonial Sri Lanka, and envisages peace with social and economic justice for all. We also recognized that ethno-national and identity based conflicts are related to intra-group resource conflicts, poverty and inequality.

The Vision recognizes and affirms the need for devolution of powers and regional autonomy particularly in the north and east of the country. It stresses that devolution of powers must be accompanied by recognition of multiculturalism and protection of local minorities in all regions if peace is to be sustainable. The Vision envisages the institutionalization of multiculturalism and the protection of cultural diversity and minorities by setting up a Ministry for Multiculturalism that would also assist mainstreaming of multicultural approaches into the educational curriculum and government policy. This is necessary in the aftermath of a war that has consolidated ethno-national majoritarianism in all parts and political processes in the country, and given the fact that a younger generation has grown up with the perception of members of “other” communities as potential enemies. We hope that this document would address this lacuna in the current
post/conflict approach.

Creating a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka entails transcending the “ethno-nationalist” and ethno religious majoritarianism that have been entrenched in all regions of the country during the war years in the political process. We believe that recognition of the fact that every citizen is a minority outside the region, city or neighbour hood in which s/he may be part of a majority group, and hence the need to respect and protect minorities in all parts of the island establishes a principle of parity between groups and communities.

The National Vision for Peace in Sri Lanka is not a legal or a constitutional document. Rather, it attempts to articulate the cultural philosophy of a truly social peace in the island that draws from our richly diverse ethico-religious traditions and recent history of collective suffering. It is hoped that the substance and spirit of this multicultural national vision will inform the post/conflict constitution drafting process and enable a new political culture for genuine reconciliation in the country

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