POLITICAL AWAKENINGS IN BATTICALOA DISTRICT, SRI LANKA

Reprint of a Review by Rohan Bastin, Deakin University, in The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 2008, the books reviewed being:-

(1) Margaret Trawick. Enemy Lines: Warfare, Childhood, and Play in Batticaloa. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2007. Pp. 307, bibliog., index. ISBN-13: 978-0-520-24516-7.

(2) Mark P. Whitaker. Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka. London and Ann Arbor, MI, Pluto Press, 2007. Pp. 251, bibliog., index. £19.99(Pb.), ISBN-10: 0745323537.

In very different ways, each of these books examines the Sri Lankan civil war, specifically the ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese state and minority Tamils. They are written by American anthropologists (one a long-time resident in New Zealand) and, to different degrees, they are set in the predominantly Tamil Eastern Province. Finally, both books relate (again, in very different ways) to the political activist and journalist Sivaram Dharmeratnam, the creator of the outstanding internet news information service, Tamilnet, who was murdered in Colombo by persons unknown in April 2005.

Enemy Lines is simply dedicated to his memory while Learning Politics from Sivaram is a biography as well as a memoir of a personal friendship Mark Whitaker enjoyed with Sivaram Dharmeratnam from the early 1980s until his assassination. Enemy Lines might thus be thought of as a more conventional ethnography while Learning Politics from Sivaram joins the small but growing genre of ethnographic biography. This is an important difference, but in addition to their circumstances, both works also share a measure of their author’s reflexive presence – that ethnographic “being there” that has become the sine qua non of metropolitan/cosmopolitan authenticity. More than this, however, the incidence of memoir highlights some basic issues associated with the conduct of research in conflict situations.

Trawick’s study is based on fieldwork near the town of Batticaloa in the late 1990s, when territorial gains by the militant organisation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or simply The Tigers), resulted in territories under Tiger control outside the town. Making her way back and forth across the military lines, Trawick was able to live in this territory and get to know many militants, both men and women or, more appropriately, young men and women and even adolescent children. Her interest is to observe the nature of these young people’s resilience – both cultural and personal – in the circumstances of war. Her previous research is based in south India where she studied social organisation and the nature of family sentiment. She has clearly excellent Tamil language skills and through them she evokes a sense of people negotiating the social and cultural impact of prolonged insurgency, counter-insurgency and counter-counter insurgency. The result is a series of fleeting portraits of individuals associated with the Tiger movement – young women and men for whom war and the membership of a highly disciplined militant organisation has created new opportunities, risks and forms of loss. The most powerful of these is the loss of family through dislocation and death. Trawick conveys this through the crafted organisation of her fieldwork journals complete with entry dates that provide diary-like fragments of description and, overall, elicit a sense of surrealism where, quite intentionally, snippets of observation sit at the periphery of one’s vision.

And it was in my peripheral vision that I saw Meena and Anbarasi, young women just briefly returned from combat, going back into combat, wounded and in one case facially disfigured, apparently not concerned about their wounds, and not embarrassed about [sic] asking and taking plastic children’s toys, tiny signs of my care for them, back with them to the battlefront. That gesture spoke eloquently, in a language I cannot translate, of what lived in the hearts of these girl warriors. (p.275)
The reference to untranslatable language simply reinserts the ethnographer feeling her way through a barely comprehensible cultural landscape where normative codes and actions have been displaced into the realm of the incongruous. This is life during wartime when the play of children and of those whose path to adolescence is marked by military training, combat and death confront a metropolitan and safe reader to give a momentary jolt.

The historical background chapter (chapter 2) is more than disappointing. Trawick declares that she is not trying to analyse the Sri Lankan conflict, as there are “millions of words” on this topic (p.14). That’s OK, but I’m surprised at how few of these words Trawick has read and the historical inaccuracies that result when she sets about contextualising her context for the study of childhood, warfare and play. It is almost as if it does not matter, and for me this smacks of the basic apolitical conservatism underlying much anthropology refusing to grasp the nature of the world in which its cultural lab-rats turn their treadmills.

People who genuinely wish to understand the Sri Lankan conflict and its childhood and play are advised to look to other sources and skip this chapter, while those who have some knowledge already are also advised to skip it and thereby be in a better frame of mind when they read the descriptions from the war zone. I may, therefore, have been jaundiced, but I also found these descriptions of childhood and play unsatisfying, because there was hardly anything there.

Learning Politics from Sivaram is much more interesting, but in its own way it highlights this kind of naivety so many North American anthropologists routinely display. Whitaker takes pains to present himself as a kind of “Connecticut Yankee” blundering self-deprecatingly through the Sri Lankan landscape and especially its conflict. This enables him to convey his political awakening which is partly facilitated by the chance meeting during his doctoral research in Batticaloa with the remarkable young man Sivaram Dharmeratnam. Like Sivaram, Whitaker is a wordsmith and highly literate, albeit more in the limited traditions of American pragmatic liberalism. Sivaram, in contrast, is better read (he’s better than most of us) but, as Whitaker shows, Sivaram’s reading, both in Western thought and in Tamil history and literature, are overdetermined by the conflict and his need to engage in it. Critically, and especially in relation to Whitaker’s self-conscious ingenuousness, Sivaram becomes a tragic hero who remained in Sri Lanka committed to the Tamil struggle through a commitment to careful political analysis and the courageous reporting of events leading to death threats and eventually assassination. Taking over an inconsequential Tamil information website called Tamilnet in 1996, Sivaram created an internet news service so good it was banned in Sri Lanka in 2007. Before that, writing under the pseudonym Taraki, Sivaram produced some of the most incisive analysis of the conflict for the English-language press in Sri Lanka. Here he brought his phenomenal scholarship (almost completely self-taught) to bear on his direct experience of the conflict as a member and one-time combatant of PLOTE (People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam) in the 1980s. In a nutshell, this is the story Whitaker has written. He first met Sivaram in Batticaloa Town in the early 1980s, and from there a friendship was born that later became the idea for an official biography that Sivaram (clearly a man with all the vanity and aplomb of an autodidact) welcomed.

Sivaram’s analysis of the conflict developed in hand with an analysis of the state and of nationalism. As a member of the more Marxian PLOTE, Sivaram initially envisioned an ultimate unity along class lines between Sinhalese and Tamil that was not imagined by rival and later enemy groups such as the Tigers. The Indian intervention in 1987 that firmly fractured the rival interests of different militant groups saw an end to Sivaram’s militancy and the development of the political commentator. Moreover, Sivaram’s respect for the insurgency and especially counter-counter-insurgency tactics of the Tigers grew as he came to understand better the intractability of the Sri Lankan government in respect to conceding that the fundamental nature of the Sri Lankan state had to change if there were ever to be a lasting peace. With this, Sivaram’s sense of his own role became clearer and with that his need to risk losing his own life, especially after the defection from the Tigers of their Eastern Province commander, Karuna, in 2003.

The result is an interesting book that stands as a testimony to an original thinker, the intellectual traditions of his Tamil culture, and his struggles with the political order of his country, its cleavages and their global networks, and the intellectual traditions of the dominant Western society that both seduced him and frustrated him. At the same time Whitaker’s book is in step with Trawick’s account in highlighting the political naivety that seems routinely to accompany American anthropologists who set out to study the customs of exotic peoples in far away and, as in this instance, strife-torn places.

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