Violence in Sri Lanka: Slipshod Scholarship

Michael Roberts

I recently circulated a whole set of articles by some Muslim scholars (located in the Eastern Province and abroad) as well as a few others in Western universities — mostly written in the 2011-19 period. I am beginning to go through them slowly when I can carve out time for this set of tasks. A few have focused on the incidence of crime and communal violence in the post 2009 period.

What strikes me on reading these ventures is the limited degree of reading of past works that has been pursued and the appalling gaps in their background – lapses which also impinge on their comments on the death toll in the last stages of Eelam War IV.

One shortcoming is that which I would call a “presentist focus” … viz., an immersion in the last 10-20 years. Thus, take those that focus on murders, crimes and violence. They seem to know bugger-all about the studies of homicide and violence in the last half of the 20th century – several at village or locality level by anthropologists and/or political scientists.

In my own impressionistic recollections as a Sri Lankan and as a researcher on frequent sojourns in the island between 1977 and 2006, Sri Lanka has always had a high incidence of homicide and affray at the local level. Those interested could begin with a reading of Paul Alexander Sri Lankan Fishermen. Rural Capitalism and Rural Society, (Canberra, 1982). From folklore about the Ambalangoda, Balapitiya,  Ratgama and Gintota localities, I can assure everyone that the incidence of retribution and conflict highlighted by Alexander in the Matara/Tangalla coastal arena is not peculiar. Prabath De Silva’s recent work on the Woolf era court records suggests that these tendencies go way back in the Southern Province.

Again, my intimate interaction with Rohan Bastin during his fieldwork in Katukurunda in the 1990s brought to light a Sinhala Muslim clash in that locality; while I can recall news reports on incidents of localised Sinhala-Muslim ethnic clashes in Gampola in 1974 and others in Mawanella in the 1990s and 2001. Again, when holidaying at one of my favourite seaside haunts at over the last forty years, I have heard of minor affrays with ethnic hues in that area.[1]

The lesson for contemporary political scientists is simple: they should immerse themselves in the field studies of Rohan Bastin, Premkumara de Silva, Bruce Kapferer, Gananath Obeyesekere, Jonathan Spencer, RL Stirrat and Mazakazu  Tanaka.

Such ventures will point them towards the importance of the plethora of religious shrines and specialists where individual and families seek support in moments of difficulty (real and imagined). These are powerful mediators that are regarded as means of overcoming – and in some instances violently overcoming — obstacles in their path. Retribution is a major driver in this ‘game.’

Towards this end Obeyesekere’s 1975 study entitled “Sorcery, premeditated murder and the canalization of aggression in Sri Lanka,” Ethnology, 14: 1-23 (also available as SSC Pamphlet No. 11 (1993) is essential reading. Addressing the homicide studies on Sri Lanka presented in the 1960s by HS Jayawardena & H Ranasinghe (1963) and AL Wood (1961), Obeyesekere set out to test his theory that premeditated murder in the island was much less than in other comparable countries because people could deploy renowned sorcery shrines to effect he removal of an enemy or a tormentor.  His findings are mind-boggling.

It is as mind-blowing that contemporary researchers are totally inattentive to this body of research. They are not only enmeshed and trapped in the present era; they seem to be blinded by the moral fervour that is sweeping the world today in ways that lead them to focus on contemporary bad guys and/or political forces. This may earn them brownie-points and advance their career. But such a course hardly does a service to our body of knowledge and our analytical tools.

Sure, there are many contemporary baddies; but there are other currents with a deeper/longer history which we cannot gloss over. These suggest – repeat “suggest” – profound societal causes.

That I use the term “suggest” is an indication that social science is a dicey field of work in murky arenas. Not many conclusions can be hundred percent definitive.

 ****  ****

victims –the sorrowful at St Sebastian’s Church, Negombo …. visit


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[1] Alas, I did not keep notes, so I cannot provide chapter and verse – but I remember at least three such instances in a vague way.

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