The Camera Never Lies: Trauma in Sri Lanka

Apr 19, 2001

Is there a condition that may be called collective trauma? Arjuna Parakrama thinks so. He has filmed his fellow Sri Lankans discussing the impact of nearly 20 years of civil war on their nation's sense of well-being.

MARY-LEA COX: For your Carnegie Council fellowship, you looked at the experience of collective, versus individual, trauma that occurs during a period of prolonged civil war, focusing on what's been happening in your native Sri Lanka. Tell us, how does the treatment of collective trauma differ from that of individual trauma?

ARJUNA PARAKRAMA: Individual and collective trauma are certainly different—how they manifest themselves, how one treats them, and how to come to grips with them. In Sri Lanka a child is already traumatized at the point of being born—he or she is inheriting a culture that is completely subsumed by the experience of social cleavage. You don't need to have experienced trauma directly to feel the effects on your own life.

Do psychologists recognize the difference?

Psychologists tend to frame the notion of collective trauma in terms of the individual model. The difficulty they have with collective trauma is that they can't understand where it resides exactly. And if you can't find the locus, it's hard to address, let alone treat. Some think of societal trauma as the aggregate of this person's trauma and that person's trauma. But this isn't accurate either, as the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So then do you say that the trauma resides in culture or society itself? Such a concept is anathema to psychologists —they regard this as no longer being in their purview.

So how do you conceive of trauma that takes place at a societal level?

I think of it in terms of coping mechanisms: what kinds of coping mechanisms have groups of Sri Lankans developed to handle the effects of trauma? I want to chronicle the various ways they have found of being Sri Lankan—or not being Sri Lankan—Tamil, Sinhalese, etc., depending on the situation they are in.

Can you give me some examples?

Sri Lankan cultural practices have changed profoundly as a result of prolonged armed conflict. We now have lots of child marriages because getting married is a way of avoiding being drafted into the army. We've also had to alter our mourning rituals. Usually we mourn during the night, but we can't do this anymore, for security reasons. Also, you need a body to mourn. If you don't have a body, what happens? Many families are still waiting for a son to come back who's been gone for nine years or more. Do they keep waiting and hoping, or do they have a funeral? No one knows what to do. A third example is hospitality. Sri Lankans like to make outsiders feel welcome; we invite them into our houses in our houses and feed them for a week. But nowadays we are told: beware of your neighbor; he may have a bomb. I have had the experience of people asking me for my identity while preparing a meal for me. Sri Lankans find it unnatural to be acting so suspicious—but we have little choice.

You've been using a video camera to interview people about their lives. Is it possible your research methods could be doing more harm than good, by opening or reopening wounds that people would prefer not to think about?

Very good question. That would be horrible if I were reopening old wounds. The people in my films are all people I've worked with for years and years, and that I'll continue to work with. I don't just walk in, ask stuff, and leave. Rather, I look at these interviews as part of an ongoing process, not just sexy research. Establishing relationships with people is very important. I'm not just tapping them as my sources.

And how do you know that your interviewees are telling you the truth? Isn't it possible they are saying what they think you want them to say?

I think of my method as being akin to unpeeling the layers of an onion. For example, I asked a young Sri Lankan man why he got married so young. His first response was the standard line about how he wanted to. But after we'd talked for a while, he revealed that avoiding the army was a big part of the incentive. It's like peeling the skin of an onion. I have to engage people to get them to tell me things that they are fully aware of but don't normally disclose. Not telling me the truth right away is natural and appropriate. That's a human being's right of privacy. Still, I take your point: getting to an inner layer of an onion doesn't necessarily mean you'll find out the truth. Sometimes, as with an onion, you get nothing at the end!

As you know, the Carnegie Council is interested in examining the moral dimensions of conflicts. Your research appears to imply that the average Sri Lankan is in the right, whereas Sri Lanka's ruling class are behaving in a morally objectionable fashion by perpetrating and prolonging this conflict. Is this too simple a picture?

Self-interest is extremely natural. It's the norm across the board. So I wouldn't say the Sri Lankan ruling class is evil just because they look out for themselves. However, I would say that the self-interest of a few individuals has less value for the totality of our society. Naturally, the elites would dispute this —saying that in serving their self-interests they are serving the interests of the Sri Lankan nation, providing leadership to the masses. The irony is, it may be their self-interests that save us in the end. Sri Lanka has had many suicide bombings and assassinations. Four or five key leaders have been assassinated in the past 17 years, including one president [Ranasinghe Premadasa], one who could have been the president, and two who were very powerful. The leaders of the Tamil parties have been wiped out. The current president [Chandrika Kumaratunga] had a miraculous escape at the end of 1999 and virtually lost sight in one eye. In a strange way, this violence provides a source of hope for the resolution of the conflict. The elites would like a safer country.

You refer to the elites as though they are a homogeneous bunch.

No, of course they're not homogeneous. They, too, represent different interests and ethical standpoints: mainstream Buddhist, Christian, Hindu —and variations within. Some are more pluralist and tolerant, such as the current president. Still, taken as a collective, they have failed completely to solve the conflict, and continue to fail spectacularly.

To return to the model of individual trauma, I've often heard that individuals who've suffered trauma —rape, for instance —prefer to be treated by other survivors as they say that people who haven't been through the same or similar experience can't understand how they feel. But is that also true of the collective? Do Sri Lankans think people in the West can comprehend their situation —is it presumptuous of us to think that we can help them by talking about human rights and so forth?

You can't ride roughshod over local conditions; at the same time, you can't let individual circumstances override universally accepted norms, such as those established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But to say that the human rights approach allows for intervention in a conflict taking place within a single country—that would grossly oversimplify the situation. One needs to respect the autonomy of local communities, local solutions and so on, and be sensitive to the differences between cultures. Individuals should get involved in organizations that teach them about the conflict in question. That way, they earn the right to get involved in a particular conflict.

This summer we're doing a roundtable discussion on Carnegiecouncil.org about works of fiction that have inspired us to think more deeply about ethics and world affairs. I was wondering if Michael Ondaatje's latest novel,

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