News - June 10, 2010

Changing identities in Sri Lankan civil war

Joris Tielens

Anthropologist visits teahouses to listen in. Secret contacts make daily life manageable.

Ambulance on fire in Sri Lanka, May 2009.
In the midst of the civil war between the Tamils and the Sinhalese government army, the different ethnic groups were still maintaining covert contacts. That was what anthropologist Timmo Gaasbeek discovered. He was awarded a doctorate with distinction from Wageningen University on 26 May.
The war wreaked havoc in northeast Sri Lanka in the period between 1983 and 2009. Tamil villages were completely destroyed as many as three times and there were many fatalities on all sides. Open contact between ethnic groups could jeopardize their lives. Despite this, an irrigation system in which water was distributed among different ethnic groups largely continued to function.
Gaasbeek was in the area working for ZOA Refugee Care. He was surprised by what he saw and began an anthropological study of interethnic contacts in the midst of the ethnic war. Dedicated interviews were impossible, so the research approach consisted of drinking tea in teahouses and patiently listening to the villagers there.
It turned out that there were far more interethnic contacts under the surface than seemed possible. The irrigation system kept going thanks to informal plot swaps. Tamil farmers swapped land with Muslim farmers or let the land to them. In this way, land the Tamils themselves could no longer get to because they feared for their lives could still be cultivated. Also, the managers of the irrigation system could not even greet each other in the street because of ethnic differences. So closed meetings were set up to enable them to collaborate and still reach agreement on the allocation of water.
Gaasbeek gradually discovered far more secret contacts between the groups. For instance, about one per cent of the marriages turned out to be mixed. That doesn't seem much but it does mean that everyone in a village would know at least one person who is married to the enemy bombarding the village.

Both farmers
Gaasbeek concludes that while the big story in the region is one of ethnic conflict and war, people would often apply an 'identity switch' for pragmatic reasons. If the water or the land has to be allocated, people talk to each other because they are both farmers and not because they are Tamil, Muslim or Sinhalese. Water managers do not attend the closed meetings as Tamils or Muslims but as water managers. Other identities are also called upon if needed. Mixed marriages are tolerated because the couple have children and the identity of 'good parents' is emphasized instead of their ethnicity.
Gaasbeek discovered that the use of violence is often more rational than we think. Thousands of Tamils and Muslims attacked each other during fierce riots in Mutur in April 2003. Yet shortly afterwards, the anthropologist saw superior forces of eight hundred Muslims walk peacefully past forty Tamil families. It turned out that these Tamils were street sweepers and the Muslims realized that if they were no longer around, the town would become a mess.
Gaasbeek advises emergency aid and development organizations to take far more time to get to know the local situation. 'Aid workers and diplomats are often unfamiliar with the local area and so neglect to do the things that are most important.' So should every development worker or peace builder also be an anthropologist? Gaasbeek: 'No, but you do need to be able to drink tea.'