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The Camera Never Lies: Trauma in Sri Lanka

Conversation with Arjuna Parakrama

April 19, 2001

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, Anil's Ghost, might qualify for helping outsiders understand the effects of prolonged conflict on Sri Lankan society?

Sri Lankans see Michael Ondaatje's book as speaking more to the West than to the core concerns of his fellow Sri Lankans. That said, we are grateful for all the work he's done for Sri Lanka. For instance, he endowed a trust to award an annual prize for the best creative writing by Sri Lankans.

I understand that Ondaatje lives in Canada. Does Sri Lanka have a large diaspora?

Yes, despite our small size we come in tenth in Europe in terms of numbers of refugees, and ninth in China. Sri Lankans are seeking asylum all over the world—even in Chechnya. Many of the expatriates can connect these days via the Internet. Many send money back to the country. They tend to support the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, leading guerrilla group]. A lot of LTTE funds come from the diaspora.

One of the key questions the Carnegie Council asks of countries in conflict situations is what role the wider international community can play in resolving a conflict inside sovereign boundaries. Can we be neutral? Should we be neutral? And if not, what kind of international aid should we be providing?

International aid can exacerbate conflicts. East Timor is a well-documented example. But then there are other situations where the complete absence of international aid is a recipe for genocide, such as in Rwanda. Sri Lanka is actually a great success story for international pressure—in particular, India. India has its own Tamil constituency so at one stage was actively trying to protect the Sri Lankan Tamils and ensure they got help. Had India not intervened in the conflict at that particular time, atrocities on both sides would have been even worse. International pressure is not sufficient, however. International pressure alone won't allow sufficient space for meaningful devolution and power sharing. It needs to be coupled with local initiatives.

What role can the United States play?

The United States has lost its ability to function as a negotiator, to exert some pressure. I am particularly concerned about the position taken by the Bush administration: it's not sufficiently nuanced. They've taken sides too early and not in a constructive kind of way. Basically, they are supporting the government and being critical of the Tamil Tigers—but they're not pushing the government into improving its human rights record. So now the government has the sense it can win its propaganda war against the Tamils. The Tamil guerrillas don't represent the Tamil people, but they are the strongest force in the escalation of the war. We need to contest their leadership. Paradoxically, the leadership in Colombo is becoming increasingly militarized. Both of these trends should be taken into account.

So would you say that United States officials are ignorant about the Sri Lankan situation?

The U.S. State Department looks at Sri Lanka's election reports, but something gets lost in translation. On the surface, we seem like a democracy —we have elections periodically, and that's good enough in the State Department's view. They need to scrutinize beyond that, but to do so requires engagement, a lot of work. The State Department wouldn't do this for a tiny place like Sri Lanka. Still, this shortsighted American policy could have tragic consequences. I believe that the United States has double standards in terms of nuclear capable countries and non-nuclear. India is a good example of the former. The moment Sri Lanka starts developing nuclear weapons — upping the ante — we think we will be treated as one of the big boys. Unintentionally, the United States may be creating greater impetus for increasing the scope of this violence.

Are you saying the violence could escalate into nuclear war?

Low-level missiles are currently within the economic ability of the LTTE to procure. This would change the entire complexion of conflict, making it too late to do anything. Right now the conflict is at a low intensity because it is being fought with conventional weapons. Therefore it doesn't matter to anyone else apart from India, which is very concerned because it, too, has a Tamil constituency.

What kind of relations does Sri Lanka have with India these days?

Sri Lanka has a frought relationship with India. Of course, any solution to the conflict would ultimately involve India as the key player in the region. Meanwhile, the rest of the world stands back and says: these people are just tearing each other apart, and there's nothing we can do. The Indian prime minister [Rajiv Gandhi] was assassinated by these people, after all.

What if any lessons can be derived from the Sri Lankan experience that could help people elsewhere? Is Sri Lanka a typical example of post-colonial trauma—by that I mean, nations abused by other nations end up inflicting self-abuse, as we're witnessing in so many African countries? And is there any way to avoid this vicious cycle?

The Sri Lankan conflict is a classic example of how things go wrong once communications break down. From 1957 onwards, the Tamils were denied their basic rights and their language, and were the target of discrimination. They were humiliated and beaten up on five or six notable occasions. These attacks went unpunished, and the situation eventually led to full-scale war and a complete breakdown in communications. You also have a majority that perceives of itself as a minority and vice versa —which complicates matters considerably. Colonialism has a lot to answer for, but it's not the only cause of the situation. The colonials didn't govern the place entirely on their own. Certain elites benefited—and since independence, have fought hard to sustain their privileges.

Those who treat psychologically abused people often have to be treated themselves. How do you cope with the stories you hear? Do you take breaks?

All of us Sri Lankans are traumatized. I am, too. Even if I chose not to be involved, I'd still be affected. Paradoxically, by getting deeply involved with other Sri Lankans who are suffering, it helps me to deal with the conflict—more than if I shut myself away from it. It's been gratifying to see people negotiating these conditions—a person who's been displaced 17 times yet still carries on, a person who's fighting great odds yet still smiles. The work has to be meaningful -—that's what gets me from one day to the next. Of course I do take breaks from time to time. I go off in jungle, look at the animals, and enjoy just being within beauty of nature. Nature is of course a casualty of the war, but the central areas of Sri Lanka are still wild.

Do you ever despair at the lack of change?

I've lived through successive governments — and yes, it's worn me down and made me feel very pessimistic. But I try not to think about it too much. I just carry on, finding inspiration in small things—like the sight of a woman fishing because she's lost her two brothers. Fishing is not a woman's job in Sri Lanka, as it can be quite dangerous, but this woman is somehow managing.

What's next for you?

The Guggenheim Foundation has given me a research grant to pursue a project entitled "Saturated with Loss: The Bereaved Sexualities of Sri Lanka's Prolonged Wars." Even the sexuality of Sri Lankans is imbued with a sense of loss and denial, and I plan to explore this. For instance, young widows in their early twenties must deny their sexuality—in a society where sati took place not so long ago, widows tend to be viewed as vegetables, as asexual beings. Slowly, however, that custom is breaking down: many young widows are starting to remarry. They're becoming alive to their sexuality. In addition, I plan to look at the use of rape as a military weapon—what I call Sri Lanka's "macho culture of violence." Some of these "sex and violence" issues are so taboo that even psychologists refuse to discuss. But sexuality, too, deserves a place in the study of conflict, crisis, and social change. Once again, the methodology for my study will be to go and video Sri Lankans talking about their lives, after which I'll produce a report. In addition, I'll be doing some work on community peace-building with United States Institute of Peace. I had a fellowship there last year, but this is a separate project, looking into ways of taking peace-building away from the elites and putting in the hands of local communities—particularly, ethnically-mixed border communities, whose very existence challenges the prevailing orthodoxy. It's a myth to say Sri Lanka is made up of Singhalese and Tamils. We need to empower those who are ethnically-mixed to make this point.

With so many fellowships coming your way, do you think you'll ever be tempted to leave Sri Lanka for the United States?

I'll always go back to Sri Lanka—and complain about being there. The trouble is, I can't eat food unless it's spicy hot... I had a bagel with cream cheese for breakfast the other day—I added huge amounts of hot peppers, which I carry with me on trips to New York. I'd put hot peppers on ice cream, too, if I could get away with it!

Interview conducted by Mary-Lea Cox, Director of Communications, Carnegie Council

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