Sri Lanka: Histories of Conscience and Dissent

Sri Lanka: Histories of conscience and Dissent

The post-Independence history of Sri Lanka is dominated by the division between the majority Sinhala community, and the minority Tamil people, a division which culminated in a long-running civil war, which finally ended in 2009, with the comprehensive defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But behind the headlines, there lies another possible history, a history of those activists who tried to escape the claims of rival ethno-nationalisms, and build alternative political projects on the island. For some these were built in the name of feminism, or Marxism, of Christian socialism, or environmentalism or human rights. Very often, the same faces would appear under different banners, as the same actors made their way from, say, early days in Christian social justice groups, to trade unionism, or as the years unfolded, NGO work.

Many were just as militant as the fighters of the LTTE; others, a few, were committed pacifists. All of them lived through dangerous times. In the North and East of the island, the LTTE systematically crushed all political alternatives, and those who weren’t killed often fled, either to Colombo or out of the country itself. In the South, a parallel Sinhala ethno-nationalist group, the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), launched two risings against the state, in the early 1970s and late 1980s. They too targeted their critics on the left as well as those aligned with the Colombo government.

For our strand of the Anthropology of Conscience project, we have been interviewing the survivors of the turbulent decades of war, at once preserving a history at risk of being lost, but also probing individual life-stories for clues to the mystery of dissent. Why did some people, rather than others, feel the need to take a stand against the violent political forces sweeping through their communities? What resources did they draw on in shoring up their own sense of conscience? What visions inspired their efforts, and what can we learn from them for the efforts of future generations?

As well as interviews, we have been identifying other materials from the period – pamphlets and other publications, photographs, diaries, letters – and are using these to build an archive of dissent. With the help of our partners, the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies, a selection of this material is being digitized and will be available on open access through the South Asian Open Archive (SAOA).