Societal Resilience: Recent Sri Lankan Experiences

 Gamini Keerawella an essay serialised in the Island, but derived directly from the author

Each and every human collective possesses its own element of societal resilience.  However, one can realize the vitality of the societal resilience that is inherent in the community and the way in which it is articulated in concrete forms only when the collective existence of the very polity is threatened. What is intended here is to bring to focus some aspects of societal resilience vis-avis natural and man-made disasters that Sri Lanka confronted in the recent past from a broader historical perspective.


At the time of independence, Sri Lanka was considered one of the most stable countries in the whole of Asia which was illustrated by many socio-economic indicators. It was a shining example for a plural non-western society where western parliamentary democracy had taken firm root.  However, this picture of complacence did not survive more than two decades.  The political and social stability of the country has been threatened repeatedly by challenges.  In the last forty years, Sri Lanka had to overcome three major insurgencies:  two youth uprisings, one in 1971, another in 1987-89 and a prolonged armed struggle for a separate state of Tamil Eelam (1984-2009).  It must be noted, however, that the history of Sri Lanka reveals that the Sri Lankan people have an enormous capacity and inner resilience to bounce back after natural and man-made disasters.  It is replete with such examples of bouncing back after dire calamities under the direction of sound leadership with a clear vision and commitment.

As a tropical country located strategically in the center of the monsoon zone in the Indian Ocean, droughts, floods and landslides are not novel to Sri Lanka.  However, the 2004 tsunami disaster was different in terms of the intensity and the extent of the human, infrastructure and capital damage it caused.  In the context of the current theoretical discourse on societal resilience vis-a-vis socially constructed man-made disasters, the objective study of the military defeat of the LTTE is important as it provides new insights into the community dimension in meeting the challenge to the state. The presentation is divided into three parts. In the first part, some elements of societal resilience will be traced in connection with the Sri Lankan experience in the 2004-tsunami.  In the second part, the attention will be on the Eelam War-IV (2006-09).   With the help of the insights drawn from practical experience relating to the above two episodes, in the third part, the paper will develop a broad analytical frame to understand the main aspects of societal resilience in the face of ‘grave’ challenges.

I. The 2004 Tsunami Disaster     

Until 2004, Sri Lankan experiences with natural disasters were limited only to cyclones, floods, landslides and draughts as there had been no earthquakes and tsunamis in the recent past. The last tsunami in recorded history was in the pre-Christian era. Hence, the country was totally unprepared when the tsunami hit Sri Lanka in December 2004. It was only after 2004 that the word tsunami came into common parlance in Sri Lanka. When the tsunami hit the coastal belt of Sri Lanka on December 26, the administrative machinery was not in normal working order due to the fact that the political and administrative leadership were either already on vacation or about to take Chrismes and New Year holidays.  

The first tsunami waves hit the eastern coast of Sri Lanka at approximately 6.40 a.m. about one hour and forty minutes after the earthquake.  A secondary wave struck approximately 20 minutes later. The western coastal area was hit by the tsunami waves much later. The tsunami hit the southern coastal city of Hambantota at about 9.10 a.m. and Peraliya on the south-western coast where the train tragedy took place, at 10.10 a.m., three and a half hours after the first tsunami wave hit the eastern coast of Sri Lanka.

It was the most devastating natural disaster that the Sri Lankans experienced in recent memory in view of its suddenness and gravity.  In a matter of minutes at least over 30, 000 people died.  The tsunami affected two thirds of the coastline of the country over 1000 kilometers in total.  Nearly one million people (234,000 families) were affected. Nearly 1000,000 houses were destroyed.  Over two-thirds of country’s fishing boats were wrecked. At a conservative estimate, over 30,000 people died. Later it was found that number was over 40,000. According to the Sarvodaya estimates it was approximately 58,000.

The first, spontaneous response came from the community. The people in the areas not affected by the tsunami stood up to the occasion.  The outpouring of the public sympathy and the massive community response, often unorganized and chaotic, were remarkable. People in cities and villages organized themselves to provide immediate food and other requirements. This community response and the immediate government intervention averted a grave humanitarian crisis. According to one report “in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami Sri Lankans responded not only with shock, grief and horror but also with a massive outpouring of courage and humanity that transcended barriers of race and creed.  In the days that followed, with support arriving from international organizations, they were able to successfully ensure that survivors were fed, clothed and sheltered, the injured provided with medical attention, and thousands of bodies cremated or buried”

Despite the usual year-end hibernation, the Government also responded swiftly by declaring an emergency in the affected districts. National emergency and security services were deployed. However, the mobilization of the instruments of the state, other than the forces was chronically slow. In this context, before the agencies of the state intervened, the people had entered the scene to attend on the urgent requirements of the survivors. According to one observer “in the Western and Southern provinces, where the state should have responded directly and immediately to the needs of the affected people, the state machinery took, in most instances, five to seven days to reach the stricken communities. Local officials, when interviewed, revealed that they were extremely reluctant to take any initiative on their own, because of the fear of making mistakes that would bring rebuke from the central government”.  The President moved quickly to set up a Center for National Operations (CNO) at the Presidential Secretariat and appointed three Presidential Task Forces: Task Force for Rescue and Relief (TAFRER); Task Force for Law and Order and Logistics (TAFLOL); Task Force to Rebuild the Nation (TAFREN).

Nearly two-thirds of the tsunami hit area was in the war-torn Northeast. The LTTE had control over a large track of this coastline and in certain areas the cooperation between the LTTE cadres and the Sri Lankan forces in rescuing their cadres was also reported.  However, the role of the state in areas under the control of the LTTE (Jaffna Peninsula, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Parts of Ampara) was limited. In this context, the President and the LTTE exchanged letters on how to proceed with rescue and relief operations in the LTTE-controlled areas. There was a hope that the tsunami could re-start the peace process. The Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat opened up a line of communication with the LTTE once again and started negotiations for the establishment of a Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS) which provided a three tier structure to oversee the distribution of assistance and proposed to create a Regional Fund to finance recovery and reconstruction projects in the Northeast.  Despite the virulent opposition of the JVP, a constituent party of the ruling coalition (who subsequently left the Government over this issue) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (HHU), the Government signed the MOU for P-TOMS with the LTTE in June 2005.  Ultimately the JHU was able to obtain a stay order from the Supreme Court against the implementation of the P-TOMS.

The initial shock generated by the deaths of family members/relatives and friends, the destruction of houses and property, the loss of livelihood and displacement was somewhat absorbed by the massive outpouring of sympathy and the assistance of the community at different levels. The immediate humanitarian needs of the victims, such as emergency shelter, food, health care, water and sanitation, non-food relief items were met by the government and the NGOs acting with international assistance. The daunting challenge of rebuilding the livelihood could not be met only with community involvement. After the initial dust has settled the extent of the damage was becoming clear.

According to Government estimates about one million people were affected. The massive damage to infrastructure and capital assets was estimated at around US$ 1 billion which was 4.5 of the GDP. The total estimated cost required for the relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction effort was approximately US$ 2.2 billion. Promised external assistance met the entire cost of reconstruction. 

The initial success in meeting immediate challenges could not be maintained in the task of medium and long-term rehabilitation and reconstruction. On the one hand unlike the meeting of immediate relief and humanitarian needs, the task of rehabilitation and reconstruction was a broader phenomenon which needed proper coordination of a number of related agencies.  Moving from emergency shelter to permanent housing, restoring livelihood and construction of infrastructure facilities required proper planning, mobilization of various institutions/agencies and the conversion of international pledges into concrete commitments. On the other hand, government intervention was indeed imperative and the involvement of government institutions in the process of rehabilitation and reconstruction become excessively politicized and bureaucratized. As a result, after the initial success of attending to immediate relief and humanitarian needs, the more systematic rehabilitation and reconstruction processes got hampered due to structural and coordination problems. To cite an example of the delay in attending to reconstruction issues, the laying of the foundation stone for the permanent bus stand for the city of Galle which had been completely damaged by the tsunami was ceremonially laid only on October 3rd 2010. 

The Sri Lankan track record in meeting the tsunami disaster is a mixed one.  In five years after the tsunami, Sri Lanka has almost recovered from the trauma. The communities that were badly affected have emerged once again as live entities laying aside the traumatic experience they underwent. In view of the gravity of the disaster it was a remarkable achievement. Why could Sri Lanka not maintain the vigour and progress when it came to hard issues of post-tsunami rehabilitation and rebuilding?  It was proved that community action and societal resilience would be sufficient only to get out of the debris. The state is the actor that could play a key role in moving forward in the direction of rehabilitation and rebuilding, but it is plagued with many weaknesses. The Sri Lankan state is not a failed state, but it is still a weak state in many respects- over politicization, over-centralization and corruption. Lack of coordination and lack of consistent planning was visible in every aspect. It is observed that poor coordination among domestic and external agencies have emerged as serious problems, together with the sensitive issue of balancing political considerations and humanitarian assistance to the needy. Some international NGOs reluctant to cooperate with government institutions and their competitive behavour towards other agencies have hampered coordination and implementation. The buffer zone controversy also contributed to the delay of the housing construction scheme moving the displaced from transitional to permanent dwelling.

The issues and challenges relating to post-tsunami recovery and reconstruction point to both the strength and weakness of the Sri Lankan state.  The first tsunami wave hit the eastern coast of Sri Lanka at 6.40 a.m. It took three and half hours to reach the western coast. Why did the SLN Eastern Headquarters not communicate the tsunami to the Southern Naval Command and alert the people?  If the ill-fated train had been stopped at the Ambalangoda railway station, would it not have been possible to avoid the Peraliya train tragedy? In addition to these issues, the problems of rehabilitation and reconstruction relating to tsunami recovery highlight the structural weakness of the state. At the same time, the 2004 tsunami and its sequel clearly revealed the inner resilience of the Sri Lankan people in the face of a calamity. In addition to the extended family bonds, the general feeling of empathy, outpouring of sympathy, the shared grief and the collective will to stand up to the tragedy solidify the societal resilience. The society-state link plays a crucial role in this context. Societal resilience is strengthened or hampered by the attitudes of the people towards the state, especially in a Sri Lankan political, cultural context where the demarcation of public and private spheres is not neat and clear. In mobilizing and realizing inner societal resilience more effectively in order to meet the challenge on a sustainable basis, the role that the state can play is crucial.  For the state to play that role, it should be viewed as a legitimate entity. The legitimacy could be achieved only through strengthening participatory democracy and transparency not by force and intimidation.

II. The Eelam War Four

In the last four years Sri Lanka was able to overcome the armed challenge of the LTTE which was long considered the most ruthless and well organized terrorist group in the world. When Eelam War-IV commenced after the transient truce in 2006, Sri Lankan Government forces embarked on a decisive military offensive totally defeating the LTTE in May 2009.  This marked the dramatic end of nearly three decades of armed struggle for Tamil Eelam.  How was the politico-military challenge of the LTTE defeated?    To answer these questions from a broader political perspective it is necessary to answer a fundamental question—what really was the LTTE?  

It is not possible to give a simple answer to this question because of its complex nature and multi-faceted elements. 

a)      Primarily, the LTTE was a terrorist organization. The terror and violence that the LTTE relentlessly employed to attain its objectives made it eminently suited for this primary categorization.The nihilistic type of well-planned assassinations remained a key tool and also the hallmark of LTTE political behavour. The terrorism that the LTTE mastered had a definite political content and it used terror as a political tool. Hence, without reading the politics of the LTTE, it is not possible to analyze its character.  The ultimate objective of the use of terror was to achieve a separate state for Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

 Arantalawa massacre from Sunday Observer, 24 May 1999

b)      The political driving force of the LTTE was Tamil nationalism.  Its every move was justified in terms of ‘Tamil national aspirations’. Indeed, the LTTE represented the militant and extremist manifestation of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka. In order to understand this militant phase of Tamil nationalism it is necessary to project it in the trajectories of Tamil nationalism since independence. At the same time, there was a symbiotic relationship between Tamil and Sinhala nationalism in post-independence Sri Lanka.

c)      The structural crisis of the post-colonial state and the use of naked state violence to suppress Tamil dissents bestowed a certain degree of legitimacy on their struggle. The LTTE alternative was a more overt, mono-ethnic state within multi-ethnic Sri Lanka. The relentless killing of Tamil political opponents and an over-reliance on arms and military strategy rather than social forces and political strategy and the ruthless suppression of ‘other’ voices in Tamil society watered down the moral justification of their struggle.  As a result, the terrorist face of the LTTE rather than the liberation fighters came to the fore more and more with the passage of time.

d)     Another key feature of the organization was the personality cult of Prabakaran. He was the supreme leader of the organization throughout. At a later phase, the ‘Sun God phenomenon’ solidified the personality cult and the authoritarian character of the organization. It was a tightly knit organization and all dissenting views in the organization were severely suppressed. Leadership decisions and authority prevailed from top to bottom.Ruthless assassination of fellow militant group leaders and the use of coercion to cow the surviving leadership wiped out the already contracted space for democratic discourse in the Tamil community.

Photo shows 50 pongal pots to wish Pirapaharan on his birthday 26 November 2004, and to regenerate his shakti  [Michael Roberts]

e)      In the behavior of the LTTE, the military strategy always took precedence over the political strategy. Their political strategy was really an appendage of the military agenda. The Tamil mass did not have a central role to play in their strategy other than for providing funds and fighters.

The symbiotic relationship between the ethnic crisis and the separatist political project of the LTTE should be traced in order to view the LTTE from a broader politico-historical perspective. An ethnic conflict is not simply a conflict between two or more ethnic identities. It is mainly a crisis of the hegemony of the state emanating from its inability to resolve the link between the state and nation satisfactorily to all nationalities/collective identities and its failure in winning over the consent of all ethnic identities by constitutional, political and other non-coercive means. In an ethnic conflict, the ideology of the state, its institutional apparatus and physical and human bases are challenged on ethnic grounds. The Sri Lankan ethnic conflict is a manifestation of the structural crisis of the Sri Lankan state that evolved in stages since Independence.

In its military campaign against the state the LTTE integrated conventional battleground military strategy and command structure with the insurgent terrorist programme.

a)         The LTTE held a territorial command of its own, and was prepared for trench/bunker warfare. The LTTE ground fighters were equipped with AK 47 and T-56 assault rifles. It tried to match the fire power of GOSL forces with similar type of military hardware: mortar launchers (60mm 81mm,) artillery fire power, cannons (120/130 mm.), Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs) etc.  

b)         A nihilistic type of well-planned assassinations which included a long list of Sinhala and Tamil political leaders and high ranking security personnel remained a key tool and also the hallmark of LTTE military strategy, symbolized by the cyanide capsule. It had a sizable suicide squad and its members were patiently waiting for months to get the most vulnerable moment of its victim to carry out the assigned task.

  Neelan Tiruchelvam assassinated, Photo by S. Walpola

c)         Another key aspect of LTTE war strategy was the land mine.  

d)        As far as the general public in the south is concerned, bomb attacks in public places and commuter trains and buses remained the greatest hazard. Vehicle-mounted bombs were used for larger targets in the South such as the Central Bank building and the World Trade center,

e)         Sea Tigers took the frontier of the war to the sea. At the last stage, the LTTE was able to have a rudimentary air arm too.

Within a period of three years after the formal beginning of the Eelam War IV in August 2006, the GOSL forces were able to overcome the military challenge of the LTTE decisively with the total annihilation of its leadership in May 2009.  How did it happen?  Before answering this question it is useful to bring into focus the fact that every armed struggle or military resistance has its own life cycle with five successive phases — emergence (birth), growth (development), peak (pinnacle), decline (crisis) and collapse (disintegration). In the peak phase it is necessary from the point of view of the rebels to transform military gains into concrete political accomplishments to change the political paradigm. The definite outcome of the failure to shift the political paradigm by transforming military gains into concrete political gains would entail internal crises, decline and ultimate collapse. The periodicity of each phase would vary depending on the forces involved with the conflict dynamics and architecture and other related variables.  The policies and strategies in meeting the challenge of military resistance need to take these stages into due consideration. The trajectory of the LTTE insurgency in this framework can be identified as follows:  the emergence – from the early 1970s to 1984; the growth – from 1984 to 1995; the peak – from 1995-2000; the decline from 2000 to 2006; the final collapse from 2006 to 2009.      

The final phase of the life cycle of LTTE, i.e. the collapse phase, coincided with the first leg of the Mahinda Rajapksa regime. The strong political leadership provided by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the war against the LTTE must be noted. He was able to marshal social forces in the south strongly behind him in the war efforts and successfully weathered outside pressure to halt the military offensive in its crucial phase. The Secretary of Defence Gotabhaya Rajapkasa worked as a link between political leadership and the military hierarchy – he coordinated the triad of Armed forces and the police effectively.

The effective military command, proper coordination of the Army, the Air Force and the Navy and the changed ground strategy also contributed heavily to change the climate in the battle ground decisively in favour of the GOSL forces and to hasten the military collapse of the LTTE. In Commander Sarath Fonseka the GOSL forces found a well seasoned military leader with sheer dedication and commitment to the cause. He found no barrier in achieving his military targets as he received the necessary political backing from President Mahinda Rajapaksa.  He changed the strategies of the ground offensive and mobilized small groups of ten to fifteen soldiers with clear instructions, with the help of new communication tools, instead of advancing large scale regiments. The dedication and commitment of the GOSL forces was exemplary.  Under the leadership of Divisional Commanders, the soldiers carried out the mission with a missionary zeal with sheer dedication and commitment.  The continuous victory instilled in them the necessary confidence that the LTTE can be militarily defeated this time. Another crucial factor that contributed to the changed climate was the very effective coordination of the Army, Navy and Air Force and the STF.  The role played by the Air force is very important and the air superiority of the Sri Lankan Air Force could not be challenged. Before the GOSL ground forces entered LTTE held territory, Air Force fighter planes pounded the LTTE artillery positions making ground advancement easy. The Navy effectively cut off supply lines and blocked reinforcements. All these became possible due to the acquisition of military hardware to enhance the fire power and capability of the GOSL forces. After the military setbacks in the late 1990s, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga initiated the programme to enhance the air power of the Air Force in the year 2000.

  Photo from Sunday Times

  As a result of the military hardware procurement initiatives, the technological superiority of the Sri Lankan forces was clearly visible in Eelam War IV. The modern communication, satellite images and computer-guided planning played a key role. For the first time some elements of RMA (Revolution in Military Affairs) were effectively utilized by the Sri Lankan forces.  

In meeting the military challenge of the LTTE, public surveillance constituted a very crucial dimension. The integration of members of the general public in security functions took place in the very early stage of the war. When Lalith Athulathmudali was the National Security Minister in 1986 the Home Guard Service as a voluntary village defense corps was established in villages bordering the conflict zones in the North and East, with strength of about 5000 personal.  At first they were equipped with shotguns. Their main responsibility was to provide security to the citizens of the threatened villages near the war zone.  Female home guardswomen were recruited to the force in 1988. Since 1993 they have been issued with automatic rifles. The role of Home Guards in providing security in the face of LTTE attacks on villages reflected societal resilience in a particular way. In the context of the Fourth Eelam War the Home Guard was renamed as the Civil Defence Force in April 2006 followed by the establishment of the Department of Civil Defence on 1 January 2007.  The alertness of the people in the south avoided many assassination attempts and prevented much destruction that the LTTE wanted to carry out in Colombo and other parts of the country. During this period the police were able to prevent major catastrophes as a result of co-operation received from members of the civil defence committees.

The modus operandi of the LTTE and its final collapse has highlighted the limitations of terrorism as a political tool. The LTTE was not able to change the terrorist disposition symbolized by the cyanide capsule. The structural crisis of the Sri Lankan state, the broken promises and the use of coercion on the part of the state to suppress democratic Tamil political demands bestowed a certain degree of legitimacy to the armed struggle of the LTTE at the beginning. However, the relentless killing of Tamil political opponents and an over-reliance on arms and military strategy rather than broader social forces and the ruthless suppression of ‘other’ voices in Tamil society watered down the moral justification of their struggle.  As a result, the terrorist face of the LTTE rather than that of the liberation fighters came to the fore more and more with the passage of time.

Due to the over reliance on armed power and on its military machinery based on trained cadres who were ready to kill the enemy or get killed by the enemy, rather than on social forces, the LTTE chronically failed to move from the military sphere to the civil political sphere at the proper time. As a result they could not transform military gains into political gains.  In the period 1996-2000, the PA regime presented a set of far reaching constitutional proposals.  The LTTE did not want to consider them. There were many forces in the South who were sympathetic to the Tamil cause and wanted to restructure the state by peaceful means. The LTTE did not pay any attention to have a political dialogue with these forces in the South about the Sri Lankan national question. A good opportunity for political and social transformation was thus lost. Furthermore its adamancy and failure to utilize the space opened up by the ceasefire to change its image politically hastened its decline.

As a result of its inability to transform itself from the terrorist form to a democratic political force, it was compelled to suffer from serious structural and organizational weaknesses. The entire organization heavily relied on the leadership. The authoritarian character of the organization and the personality cult (Sun God phenomenon) of its leader in the tightly knit organization left no room for internal democracy. Ruthless assassination of fellow militant group leaders and the use of coercion to cow the surviving leadership wiped out the already contracted space for democratic discourse in the Tamil community. The authoritarian character of the organization and its leadership cult deprived it of the means of feeling the pulse of the Tamil people living under its control.  The LTTE was of the wrong perception that the Tamil people would be behind them in any situation because it was fighting for the Tamil cause. The misperception of the LTTE about the allegiance of the Tamil people paved the way for its final debacle. After the collapse of all the LTTE military strongholds, the LTTE wanted to create a situation of a ‘grave humanitarian crisis’ that the LTTE believed would warrant international intervention. The LTTE hoped that such an eventuality would subsequently be followed by a transitional authority under UN supervision and a plebiscite after a certain time frame. It was too late then. The LTTE systematically planned this scenario by taking over two hundred and fifty thousand ordinary people with them and hoped to keep them till such an eventuality took place.  The LTTE firmly believed till the last minute that these Tamil people would remain loyal and stay with them. But, as soon as the GOSL forces broke the siege, the people deserted the LTTE leaving them vulnerable to attack.

The phenomenon of the LTTE cannot be accurately understood without tracing its ethno-political element. Tamil nationalism was and is the political driving force of the LTTE. Its every move was justified in terns of the national aspirations of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. The practicability and validity of the alternative political project of the LTTE to the structural crisis of the Sri Lankan state has been questioned more and more in the light of global socio-political trends and geo-political realities in South Asia. The protracted war that caused enormous pain, destruction and economic strains to the people in the North and East resulted in greater disillusionment with the LTTE goal of a separate sovereign state among the Tamils.  The extortions and other forms of intimidation of the people in the North and the East by the LTTE became more intolerable during the ceasefire. Ordinary people in the North demonstrated against the LTTE in front of their political offices on several occasions. That this was very unlikely prior to the year 2000 was reflective of the gradual erosion of its earlier support base. Accordingly, with the passage of time the LTTE not only lost its moral justification, but also the support base it had enjoyed earlier.

III: Review

Tracing the way in which Sri Lanka grappled with the 2004 tsunami and the threat posed by the LTTE is useful to understand the historically conditioned elements of societal resilience in a non-western society, which possesses a weak state along with strong socio-cultural traditions.  The experiences relating to the two episodes have underscored the importance of the role of the state as well as the state–civil society relationship.  The political will played a crucial role in meeting the challenge by mobilizing the strengths of societal resilience. Furthermore, it highlighted the need for organic articulation between the agents in both the civil and political domains. The civil domain is an ensemble of social organisms commonly identified as ‘non-state’ and the political domain is the totality of the public domain directly or indirectly associated with the state.  In order to transform the political will into the national will, an organic articulation between the civil and political domains is essential, and this forges a community of interest vis-a-vis the threat. 

 When the totality of the process is considered, the societal resilience encompassed three main components: (1) preparedness, (2) meeting the challenge, (3) mitigation of effects. In all the three components, the role that the state can play is crucial. However, the sine qua non for this role is the organic link between the political and civil domains.

The swift detection of threat and immediate communication of it to the relevant authority and the effective relaying of it to the general public constituted a key element in community involvement in meeting the challenge.  However, the societal element of preparedness requires different sets of modus operandi in relation to natural and man-made disasters.  In the case of the Elam War, it was a protracted ‘disaster’ situation.  The constant vigilance against a possible threat at any time and in any place became a part of life, with different degree of intensity depending on the location.  The setting up of early-warning mechanisms and the communication of threat to relevant sections remained a part of preparedness.  Community involvement remains a crucial factor in this regard and during the period of Eelam War IV, many attempts of the LTTE to create disasters in Colombo and other areas were foiled due to public alertness and community surveillance.  The working of the early-warning system and the preparedness in relation to natural disasters differ somewhat.  In the case of natural disasters because the frequency of natural disasters cannot be predicted and further the constant state of emergency and alertness on the part of the general public is not practicable.   In relation to cyclones, floods and tsunamis early warming signals could be transmitted only a few days or few hours before them and not ahead of weeks and months. The collective social determination to face the challenge and not to withdraw is a key aspect of societal resilience in meeting the challenge,.  It should be noted that the modus operandi in facing the challenge in relation to man-made and natural disasters is also different.  It goes without saying that  m eeting the LTTE challenge became more complex because of its ethno-political context.  It became necessary to establish the fact that it was not a war against the Tamils in Sri Lanka while at the same time highlighting the determination not to yield to the military pressure of the LTTE.  The LTTE failure to realize the limitations of the use terrorism as a political tool and also to utilize the openings given to them to come to a democratic political plane helped the government to make this distinction in convincing manner. 

Some socio-cultural characteristics ingrained in the behavior in Sri Lankan society should be brought into focus in analyzing societal resilience in relations to the three main components discussed above. The extended family and community networks on the one hand and the readiness to extend help to others in a situation of crisis on the other should be noted in this context.  Extended family networks and community self-help contribute to absorb shocks both psychologically and materially.  It was clearly illustrated in the South in the aftermath of the tsunami. When the Muslims (over 45,000) were chased out from their ancestral villages (Karisal, Tarapuram, Erukulampiddy) in Mannar District in the North by the LTTE giving only a 24 hour ultimatum,  many of them were initially accommodated by relatives, friends and fellow Muslims mainly in Kalpitiya, Anuradhapura and other parts of the island. Furthermore, the remittance of the Tamil diaspora in the West to their relatives in Sri Lanka ensured their existence in the midst of economic devastation in the war-torn North and East.  It contributed to a larger extent to maintain a more or less stable GDP growth rate, except in 2001, in the country.  The second characteristic ingrained in the cultural behavior is the readiness to forget the past sufferings very easily and to look to the future.  The short collective memory of the Sri Lankan people is always referred to in a negative sense. As far as societal resilience in the face of disasters is concerned it has some positive aspects too.  The third feature is the belief that Sri Lanka cannot be subjugated for long and it would bounce back once again. This belief is especially prevalent among the majority Sinhala people.      

Accordingly, in understanding societal resilience in Sri Lanka, apart from political and societal factors, some deep-rooted perceptions and beliefs that make people unshattered in the face of natural and man-made disasters need to be brought to the fore. There is a perception that Sri Lanka is destined to face misfortunes/disasters from time to time but that the country will be able to come out of such predicaments ultimately. The belief that the country and its rulers, especially the Sinhala people, descendents of King Vijaya, are destined to face misfortunes which have been attributed to the ‘curse made by demon princes Kuveni’ is relevant in this context. The belief further asserts that Sri Lanka and Sinhala people can not be subdued due to the fact that the God Uppalavanna had been mandated to give protection to the Island and the Sinhala people by the King of Gods (Sakka). 

According to the Mahawamsa (Great Chronicle) the Uppalavanna had been entrusted with guardianship of Lanka by Sakka who had been instructed by the Buddha, shortly before his parinibbana.Uppalavanna ensured this protection by the binding of the sacred thread and the sprinkling of holy water on Vijaya and his band. Kuveni is the Yakka (demon) princess who lured prince Vijaya, the mythical founder of the Sinhala race, into marriage upon his arrival and promised him to obtain a kingdom.  She helped Vijaya to kill all the Yakkha who were assembled in their capital for a wedding feast. Kuveni bore him a son and a daughter. Later, on the insistence of his Ministers, Vijaya cast out Kuveni and her two children in order to marry a royal princess from Madurapura, South India. Being disheartened by the broken promise, Kuveni cursed Vijaya and used her magical weapon to kill him. According to the legend, the Kuveni’s curse haunted Vijaya’s descendents for generations. According to the story of Kohomba Kankariya (ritual healing), Vijaya’s successor, King Panduvasadeva also became ill because of Kuveni’s revenge. It is on the advice of the god that the ritual healing of Kohomba Kankariya was performed to cure the king, dispelling the curse.  Kuveni Asna (Message of Kuveni), written during the Dambadeniya period after the Kalinga Magha’s invasion in 1215 gives a vivid picture of Kuveni’s lamentation.  For centuries Kohomba Kankariya was the most important ritual in Kandyan villages. These historical myths and rituals had deep cultural significance in the face of calamities and linger in the contemporary social psyche through songs and such other expressions. It may have generated a feeling of confidence that the country cannot be subjugated and that it will soon be rejuvenated as destined.

However, societal resilience cannot be understood only in socio-cultural terms. In the present context, technological backing and institutional networks play a crucial role in ensuring societal resilience. The true social potential can be mobilized only through institutional structures, both formal and informal. Technology at all levels plays a crucial role in enhancing societal resilience.  From early detection of threats and preparing the people for the impending threat, and for a wider cross-section of people to meet the threat, the role that as advanced and people-friendly communication technology can play is crucial.  Accordingly, societal resilience in any historical situation could be understood in relation to three elements: socio-cultural milieu (social ecology), technological backing and institutional arrangement.

 The variations of vitality of societal resilience are conditional to the activation and effective use of its main elements in a given situation.  In other words, societal resilience can be significantly enhanced by effective use of technological advances backed by efficient use of institutional and social networks. Rohan Samarajiva, who studied the lessons of the 2004 tsunami for mobilizing communication technologies for effective disaster warning states “One clear lesson is that effective disaster warning requires greater access to ITCs in general as a necessary condition.  In the absence of proper institutional structures, it is unlikely that a significant number of lives could have been saved; however, all the institutional structures in the world cannot help unless the basic instruments exist for linking the physical world in which hazards occur and the symbolic worlds where action originates.” Societal resilience can be enhanced by proper utilization of the three factors. The role of social cultural factors could be understood in the social ecology encompassing the dynamics of human-‘environment’ interaction which included the historical, social, cultural and institutional setup in which people live.

When we take a broader historical perspective, a key factor in societal resilience is the ability of a society to adapt to changed environments. This is particularly important in gaining long-term resilience in the face of socially constructed man-made disasters such as civil wars and rebellions. A key aspect of adaptability is accommodation. Sri Lanka as a small island located centrally at the southern tip of South Asia linking practically the eastern and western planks in the Indian Ocean had been exposed to many social, cultural and political forces and learnt by experience how to ensure existence and maintain identity while accommodating diverse forces. Buddhism, the faith of the majority, which professed tolerance, granted a sufficient flexibility to accommodate diversity. In the post-colonial context, the historically conditioned societal resilience is not reflected in the post-independent state. In order to achieve resilience in this arena it is imperative to accommodate diversity in the political domain by restructuring the state. The resilience of the post-colonial state vis-a-vis the political challenges emanating from ethno-political mobilization could be ensured with the concrete steps in that direction. 


The writer can be contacted by He is a Senior Professor of History, University of Peradeniya.

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