“Who told you the war was over?” asked Fawzi. Following the Sri Lankan government’s formal declaration ending the decades-long civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on May 19, 2009, I thought it an innocent enough question to ask: “How do you feel now that the war is over?” I heard this response again, from others. Sitammah, an elderly women who told me that she had lived a full life—having lived through a cyclone, a tsunami, and now a war—told me, “Look around. What has changed?”
And it was true. Along the main road, checkpoints were still being manned by armed guards. The Special Task Force (STF) (a police unit with special powers during the state of emergency that was lifted in April 2011, two years after the war ended) were still monitoring villages and conducting house checks, making sure that LTTE “terrorists” were not taking refuge in the area. In an interview, the Commanding Officer of the Special Task Force revealed to me, “The war is over, but terror is there.” He informed me that the division in which I was researching was deemed a “vulnerable” area, and it made sense to increase troops to counter terrorism and “secure the situation.”
Military and paramilitary presence was nothing new to many living in the Eastern Province, particularly the Tamil- and Muslim-concentrated coastal regions. The East, once included in the LTTE’s geographically imagined ethnic homeland, was the stage for war atrocities, conducted by both the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers for nearly three decades. Muslims have been caught in the middle of this polarizing conflict, especially in the northeastern parts of the island. Despite being “liberated” by the Sri Lankan government in 2007, until the end of the war, and in the months following it, the Eastern Province was still highly militarized.
The bulk of my field research was conducted during the Sri Lankan government’s aggressive militaristic campaign launched in 2008, which was also designated “the Year for War” in Sri Lanka. I was living in the east coast of Sri Lanka when the war ended. For Tamils and Muslims alike, the possibility of state-sanctioned violence remained present, despite this so-called end.
Mubeen, a fisherman, believed that the two-hundred-meter buffer zone declared after the 2004 tsunami was now all government property, and that it indicated the possibility of Sinhala housing construction schemes “disturbing” Muslims and eventually pushing them out of the area. He relayed an earlier experience when Sinhala fishermen came to the area and used dynamite to fish—a dangerous practice that would eventually destroy all the fish. The STF and the police did nothing, he claimed, beating the local fishermen who protested. “What of our future, then?” he asked. He tied his lament to the war as well: “I do not feel like the war is over. The president says the war is finished, and that the country is now under ‘my’ control, and that there are people who support the party [Sri Lanka Freedom Party] everywhere. If this really happens, Tamils cannot live in this country.” For him Muslims, because they were also Tamil speakers, could share this fate. Over time, he claimed, Muslims got caught in the middle of the conflict, and, “if Sri Lanka is one nation, one country, they mean a Buddhist country, which affects Muslims very much."
Sitammah further pointed out, “The government says the war has stopped, but there is no full freedom for people to roam and move about freely. When that happens, we can say that the war is finished.” After hearing about my research, Ravi, a young Tamil man, remarked, “If you release a fact about what is happening here that makes the government unhappy, the next day you can’t come back here. If there’s no safety for foreigners, how can there be safety for locals?” Fawzi challenged again, “Have the food prices gone down? Are there new jobs? If they [the government and the LTTE] want to start up the war again whenever they want, they can.”
In Society Must Be Defended (2003), Michel Foucault asks, “What is the exercise of power?” Answering the question, he suggests we should analyze relations of power in terms of conflict, confrontation, and war. Power is not repression, but rather “is war, the continuation of war by other means” (15). He goes on to invert Clausewitz’s proposition and suggests, “politics is the continuation of war by other means.” And even though it is political power that can put an end to war and establish peace in civil society, “it certainly does not do so in order to suspend the effects of power or to neutralize the disequilibrium revealed by the last battle of the war” (ibid.). Politics in fact sanctions and reproduces the “disequilibrium of forces.” Foucault outlines these political powers through a “sort of silent war” that he locates in institutions, language, economics, and bodies. In Sri Lanka, however, political force is not silent at all, but quite overt and visible, as exemplified by checkpoints, house checks, and the enduring possibility of security threats.
These brief anecdotes address the immediate experiences following the end of the war in 2009. Unfortunately, social and political strife continue to beleaguer the now “peaceful” nation. New discriminatory practices and violent mob attacks have now shifted towards Muslims in the country. They have come to bear the brunt of a form of dogmatic and virulent Buddhist nationalism that continues to plague Sri Lanka’s social and political landscape with little to no response or support from the government. Mubeen’s words are haunting indeed. The post, then, is a time and space in which to think about the types of violences that “war both channels from earlier times and generates anew” (McAllister and Nelson 2013, 10); it is to understand how so-called peace can be the continuation of war by other means.
Foucault, Michel. 2003. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France 1975–1976. Translated by David Macey. New York: Picador.
Hall, Stuart. 1996. “When was the Postcolonial? Thinking at the Limit.” In The Postcolonial Question: Common Skies, Divide Horizons, edited by Iain Chambers and Lidia Curti. 242–60. New York: Routledge.
McAllister, Carlota and Diane Nelson. 2013. War by Other Means: Aftermath in Post-genocide Guatemala. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.