Talking Policy: Bina D’Costa on Conflict in Sri Lanka

In 2009, Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war came to an end with the national government’s declaration of victory over the Tamil Tigers. On the surface, the conflict appears to have been neatly divided along ethnic lines: the Sinhalese, the country’s largest ethnic group, versus the Tamils, who live mostly in the northern and eastern regions. World Policy Journal spoke with Bina D’Costa, an associate professor of international relations at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, about the deeper complexity of the conflict and the future direction of Sri Lanka. Her recently published book, Cascades of Violence: War, Crime, and Peacebuilding Across South Asia with co-author John Braithwaite, explores the dynamics of war and crime in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Your book centers on the phenomenon of cascading violence. How does that process work and how did we see it play out in Sri Lanka?

BINA D’COSTA: The cascade of violence matters in making sense of contemporary conflicts. The insights are developed from criminological theory and international relations, particularly looking at how states deal with various kinds of violence within and beyond their borders. What we do is try to merge the discussion of war with the study of crime, the deepening of conflicts, and the aftermath of conflict so that we can better understand the dynamics of crime and war.

The literature on war has recently begun to emphasize the criminalization of the state and the criminalization of encounters through various kinds of crony capitalism, like shadow states and deep states. So in our book we first provide a broad layout of the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans. We then talk about how empires break down through colonization processes, massive wars, financial crisis, and economic inequality, and how violence cascades. The data reveals that cascades of violence are driven by complex interactions between macro divisions, such as World War I and World War II, to very micro and local cleavages, such as the current Syrian conflict. The latter is particularly important when we look at the case of Sri Lanka.

We offer 10 propositions in the book, but the ones that are most relevant for Sri Lanka relate to how crime cascades to war. Chapter Eight examines three armed conflicts in Sri Lanka since independence. Then it focuses on one of our propositions, about how crime often sparks cascades to war, and war to crime. As crime and war cascade from hotspot to hotspot, violence also becomes less shameful and easier to excuse, and when rape and violence become less shameful, this cascades to further rape and violence. A lot of contemporary works about Sri Lanka primarily look at LTTE [an insurgent group also known as the Tamil Tigers], but we consider the People’s Liberation Front (JVP), a Marxist revolutionary party, to explore the insurgencies that took place in the 1970s and 1980s and how they have overlapped with the most deadly Tamil insurgency. We also talk about popular grievances, such as class and caste resentments. We argue that we can see three different kinds of cascade dynamics in this conflict: how crime cascades to war, how war cascades to more war and to crime, and how crime and war both cascade to state violence such as torture, forced disappearances, and extrajudicial executions.

WPJ: It’s interesting that you brought up this particular proposition; in the book you use the word normalization. Is that what we see happen in Sri Lanka and other countries around the world, that there’s so much rape and violence and murder that it becomes normalized?

BD: Susanne Karstedt, who introduced the Violence Society Index, uses a lot of data related to the known causes of violence, such as juvenile justice data, homicide data, and incarceration data. Sri Lanka has always been articulated as an extremely violent society. So in this context, when Sri Lanka was confronted with existential threat, it responded with a lot of security-sector crime. This included, for example, summary executions, disappearances, torture, bombing of Tamil hospitals, and rape. Strategic rape and sexual torture was used against the Tamil population to intimidate them and push them off their land. Because this was related to security-sector crime, there was a normalization of violence that took place in a very protracted period. During the 70s and 80s, through the Tamil and class radicalization, the elections, the interaction with the left, and the armed conflict, we can see the vicious way the conflict sucked the energy of the state in the LTTE-controlled area. We can observe, too, how the LTTE was itself a violent force, and so violence became normalized throughout the country.

WPJ: How does the caste system play a role in the cascades of violence?

BD: That’s a very good question, and it’s one of the most important things we have seen in our research. One of our informants mentioned that caste was a critical factor in the rise of the JVP, but we also saw that the left had risen at that time, alongside a fundamental crisis of the system of the agrarian production. So then we have the huge issue of the caste conflict, but it became more complex when the LTTE started its resistance movement. There were economic interests as well, playing a major role in this ethnic rivalry. Class theories of ethnic conflict talk about different kinds of classes in a society: traders versus traders, clients versus traders, and other such ways of thinking. But as we discussed in the book, caste was another layer of complexity in the cleavage that pushed this conflict. Class-caste dynamics obviously contributed to some of the radicalization that happened.

WPJ: Do ethnic divisions play a role in this conflict as well?

BD: Yes. In terms of Sri Lanka, we talk about this dynamic of crime-war and war-crime. Ethnic conflicts certainly had played a major role. While other recent works have made ethnic conflict the center of some of these complex conflict dynamics in Sri Lanka, we instead frame ethnic conflict and ethnic rivalry as one of the biggest issues, but not the only issue. And, going forward, reconciliation along ethnic lines is not what we need to focus on—it’s just not going to work very well. There were four major combatants in the conflict: the Sri Lankan military, the Indian military, the JVP, and the LTTE. It’s not only an ethnic conflict, where you have enemy lines drawn along ethnic lines. There are also ethnic divisions within the Sinhala group and within the Tamil group. And let’s not forget the Sri Lankan Muslims, who continue to play an important role.

WPJ: In the book you also talk about crime and violence cascading to a shift toward authoritarian capitalism. You note this is not an anomaly following a conflict; there are examples around the world where a country at war or a country that’s been attacked has shifted toward authoritarian capitalism. And we saw that in Sri Lanka. So how does this process play out?

BD: In Sri Lanka, the shift toward authoritarian capitalism is one of the major results of the country trying to reconcile with its violent past. After the war ended in 2009, the larger narrative was that now that the fighting was over and the LTTE has been defeated, the community should come together and rebuild. Sri Lanka suffered a lot from the war, and attention needed to be turned to development, education, the health sector, rehabilitation of poor communities, and economic inequality. All of that was at the forefront of Sri Lanka’s state-building, peace-building story. But behind that narrative, we also see the story of the businesses tied to the Rajapaksa government. [Mahinda Rajapaksa was president of Sri Lanka from 2005 to 2015.] Both then and now, the Rajapaksa family has been closely involved in the big businesses of Sri Lanka, and some of that has contributed to the growth of the criminal economy after the war. There was also legitimate economy and state building, but as a whole the choices regarding the country’s economic future were left in the hand of the few.

WPJ: What is next for Sri Lanka—have we broken away from the cascade of violence, or is there a chance of falling back into it?

BD: Sri Lanka is really moving forward with questions of justice and reconciliation. There’s a land commission, a truth and reconciliation commission, and a war crimes tribunal. Some of our respondents talked about transitional justice, while others talked about community justice and informal justice. This work is ongoing, and it will be interesting to see what happens with the land commission work or the corruption commission—how they are able to unsettle the existing power dynamics, or use the existing power dynamics in different ways. But there is a lot of interest and there has been a positive response to some of these moves toward reconciliation.

But you also have this question of refugee rehabilitation, and in this area Sri Lanka has not done so well. Refugees or internally displaced persons who came back have found that there is nowhere for them to go. There’s a lot of work to do with bringing not just the government but also the local communities into the decision-making processes of rehabilitation programs. There are marginalized groups, like tea plantation workers, who have been completely shut out of any discussions. Then you see the Muslim Sri Lankans—a smaller group than the Tamils—who have been very much disadvantaged by the war and the 2004 tsunami, but have been completely ignored in the rehabilitation processes. If some of these grievances are not addressed, then you will probably see different manifestations of unrest, if not a war.

Recently, there has also been a resurgence of Buddhist nationalism. We see a lot of tension and anxiety, as well as targeted attacks on mosques and Muslim schools. These are issues that need to be tackled at both the regional and national levels.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

[Interview conducted by John Kiehl] [Photo courtesy of Bina D’Costa]

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