Review: Daya Somasundaram, Scarred Minds: The Psychological Impact of War on Sri Lankan Tamils. New Delhi: Sage Publications 1998. (Rs 425 cloth).


Pogroms, assassinations, suicide bombings, torture, rape and ‘disappearances’ are some of the violent acts that have destroyed many Sri Lankan lives over the last two decades. Violence has occurred throughout the small island nation, both between and within the major ethnic groups. None has been spared, but the principal victims have been the poorer and weaker social strata, and especially the inhabitants of the once densely populated Jaffna Peninsula. Many of this area’s Tamil inhabitants have been forced to become refugees both in Sri Lanka and abroad, while the rest have for various reasons remained and attempted to preserve their lives in the face of tremendous deprivation, violence and suffering. Scarred Minds recounts the psychological impact of such a prolonged conflict on the Jaffna population, focusing especially on the late 1980s when State violence escalated. Its author Daya Somasundaram is Professor of Psychiatry at Jaffna University and consultant psychiatrist at Jaffna General Teaching Hospital. His account is first hand, his discussion of case studies and their treatment is made with an intimate understanding of their context and causes. The book is meant as a testimony (p.176), a testimony that in part protests at the silence of Sri Lanka’s medical profession, its passivity in the face of shocking violations of human rights. It is in these terms that the book must be judged and not simply from more narrowly academic perspectives. For it is in these terms that the author’s protest can be extended to broader sections of the Sri Lankan and international community whose silence has been deafening. Importantly, the book does not pursue the scholastic silence recently contrived by E. Valentine Daniel in Charred Lullabies (Princeton University Press, 1996), where testimony is eschewed lest it lead to prurience. For someone in Daya Somasundaram’s circumstances such a perspective would be pointless.

A large part of the book concerns phenomena collectively labelled as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Somasundaram providing moving case materials that will interest many involved in this relatively newly defined condition. However, Somasundaram’s own use of a Tamil translation of the treatment developed in Australia by Raphael and others following the Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983 (B. Raphael When Disaster Strikes Hutchinson, 1986), suggests more than the relative newness of the disorder. It also brings home quite forcefully a sense that Somasundaram and his colleagues were frequently clutching at straws or taking allopathic shots in the dark as they worked under highly fraught and badly supplied conditions. This point comes out most strongly through the case histories where, in the face of unprecedented levels of affliction in the circumstances of acute crisis, hard and fast decisions were vital and the doctors employed whatever means available. This is not say that the Raphael text is useless or inappropriate, rather it is to acknowledge the enormity of all the Jaffna doctors’ achievements with very limited resources. In a situation where psychiatric patients who wandered from the hospital were being found the next day tied to a lamp post and shot as ‘anti-social elements’, and where suicide was felt to be the only choice for many victims, especially rape victims, then the finer points of observation, analysis and therapy take a distant second place to the need to ‘cure’. In this regard, the book is also the author’s testimony of his actions, a powerful reflection on the therapeutic decisions he made in the heat of the moment with minimal resources.

The book also recounts an attempt to rehabilitate torture victims through questionnaires and counselling conducted in association with a self-help group of Tamil ex-detainees by a team of medical students and a clinical psychologist, Anne Doney (who wrote this chapter of the book). The survey data are then compared with similar data collected in Denmark and Canada. Very little correlation is established between such factors as interval between release from detention and the interview, and in this regard the presentation and analysis could be much stronger. Nevertheless the material is very powerful and offers (yet another) striking indictment of how dastardly different powers (Sri Lankan, Indian and militant) have behaved during this war.

Somasundaram recounts two key events in the war in Jaffna that contributed most to trauma and Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder. These were the killing of members of the militant Tamil group TELO by their rivals the LTTE in 1986 and the switch by the Indian Army from peace keepers to aggressors when they took the war to the LTTE in 1987. In both instances, the high levels of PTSD are linked to the way the violence shattered understandings about the nature of friend and foe; shattering for many the teleological grounds upon which they had withstood the trauma of war. This point is important for the insight it offers concerning the nature of Jaffna Tamil society and also concerning the way that violence begets violence as, in part, a method of coping with the trauma of violence. For when there was a clear sense of the enemy, the deeds of ‘the boys’ – the militants – helped ameliorate the suffering. But when allies became enemies and enemies became allies the fear for personal safety grew as the sense of the war’s higher purpose got lost. To be blunt, for there to be any hope for Sri Lanka, more of such cognitive dissonance is required among the entire population, particularly among the country’s urban elites who have the capacity to end the war.

For people unacquainted with Sri Lanka the book provides a useful if in places inaccurate background to Sri Lankan history rewritten by Rajan Hoole. At one level, this background is enough for the reader to get by. But at another level, it also reveals some of the taken-for-granted categories and historical understandings through which nationalism and its destructive potential are reproduced. This is unfortunate, for it will prompt many Sri Lankan readers, especially Sinhalese, to discard the book without fully admitting to the enormity of their responsibility by closely reading the case material.

In sum, this book is important but flawed in many aspects of its social analysis. Somasundaram’s remark (p.306) that, in the event of peace, the process of rehabilitation involving external agencies will detrimentally affect Jaffna society more gravely than the war itself, cannot be dismissed as off hand. His conception of what constitutes the Westernising demise of traditional Jaffna Tamil culture is both inane and revealing. For surely, children wielding guns and bombs, a world diaspora of refugees, and a small poor country being consumed by violence all point to a world being thoroughly and violently drawn into contemporary globalising processes? This is what we must lament and act upon, not the chance that with international intervention (that is desperately needed) peace will come.

Rohan Bastin
Deakin University


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