Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
Unravelling the economic factors in Sri Lanka’s 30-year conflict
Assembling Ethnicities in Neoliberal Times: Ethnographic Fictions and Sri Lanka’s War by Nimanthi Perera-Rajasingham, published by Northwestern University Press, USA, in October 2019, is an important contribution to the discussion of what forces were at work during the 30-year conflict between the Sinhala and Tamil ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. Like the recent work of Rajesh Venugopal, Perera-Rajasingham too locates economic powers at work – namely neoliberalism or the free market economy introduced to Sri Lanka in 1977 by the UNP government - that can control and even decide the outcome of particular conflicts.
Since the economic factor is not discussed much when ethnic formations are arrayed against each other, be it by the government forces or the guerrilla army fighting against it, it seems all the more important that this factor be looked at, especially since Sri Lankan ethnic communities do not seem to have moved much forward in the path of understanding each other. She discusses this intertwining through her analysis of some works of art and literature – what she calls ‘ethnographic fictions’ – and her book is a fascinating laying bare of intertwined factors easily overlooked in the heat of passionate ethnic loyalties.
Nimanthi Perera-Rajasingham is an Assistant Professor of English at Colgate University.
■ What made you look at the part that economic factors – neoliberalism – plays in ethnic conflict?
My book is an exploration of how racism or ethno-nationalism,on the one hand,and capitalism, or neoliberalism are intertwined. This is what scholars in different contexts refer to as racial capitalism. In mapping their entanglements in one another, I move away from any understanding that one sphere is more important or more real than the other, but rather focus on how each channels the pathways of the other’s development in Sri Lanka.
I think what my book also adds to existing scholarship is an understanding of how cultural forms and texts can deepen our understandings of how racial capitalism works. I do so by thinking of neoliberalism as more than simply a set of economic tools, but also a technology for governing and managing populations, even as I think of racism too as a way of organizing society according to hierarchies. To get people to agree to new forms of hegemony, culture and aesthetics are crucial, and so studying different kinds of fictions can nuance our understandings of power.
■ Your criticism of neoliberal desires applies towards the successive
Sri Lankan governments
– and as seen through the writings of Shobashakthi and the film he acted in, Dheepan – to the LTTE as well. Through Dheepan, the economic undercurrents of being an illegal migrant is also discussed, as the context of that film is mainly Paris, France – a European metropolis. So this is something global?
Well, the dominant way of understanding neoliberalism is as a set of economic principles that were designed in the West, consolidated through the Washington Consensus, and rolled out to the rest of the world. I think this way of understanding neoliberalism can be misleading, and too modular. This is why I use the term assemblage to signal that neoliberalism is also a kind of mobile technology. This is a term that I borrow from Aihwa Ong to discuss how neoliberalism functions in different arrangements.
A modular understanding of neoliberalism has led scholars to claim that neoliberalism only enters the north and east after 2009, once the LTTE was defeated. I think what Shobasakthi’s writing and the film allowed me to explore was the way that neoliberalism functioned in relation to Tamil nationalism and other forms of extra-legal and extra-state forces. I call this neoliberalism in the shadows. So, in his novel Gorilla, for example, he discusses how the Tamil Tigers were involved in gun-running, illegal sand-hauling etc. and functioned as a corporation. This highlights how authoritarian regimes and neoliberalism can co-exist quite comfortably. In terms of the film Dheepan, I think of how undocumented immigrants are pushed to suburban housing projects (Le Pre in the film), where because both they and second or third generation French citizens are disarticulated from society, they are compelled to use extra-legal forms of income earning such as drug selling etc. When Dheepan, played by Shobasakthi, and his family enter Le Pre, they are not leaving the conflict zone of Sri Lanka toward a comfort zone, but rather enter another conflict zone, where like in the case of the north and east of Sri Lanka, neoliberalism functions in the shadows.
■ You discuss the role that literature plays in drawing out to public view things that are not normally discussed in less imaginative documents – like traditional ethnography. Would I be right in saying that you seem to place more value on a literary document to reveal particular truths than on any other form? If so, why?
I think what the book does is trouble the easy boundary or difference between ethnography and fiction. Ethnography is seen as a science of accurately recording social life, while fiction is seen as made-up or stories that are not founded on documenting. I wanted to highlight how writers, artists, festivals and other fictional forms often are committed to documenting social realities, even as they narrate these events using creative modes of story-telling. An excellent example of this is theatre from the Free Trade Zones. This is mimetic art, or theatre that represents the realities of the workers’ everyday experiences of exploitation and sexual violence. What my chapter on workers’ theatre asks is why this theatre and the bodies on stage have disappeared Tamils from the stage and as a topic of critical engagement.
I argue that this is because a state at war needed to produce or assemble not just clothes on the factory line, but also workers who were nationalist and empathetic to the war. Hence, the bodies that matter on stage and in these labour zones remain Sinhalese because in the early 1980s Tamils were expelled from these zones. Corporations in the zones never objected to these expulsions because for them profit was the main objective. Similarly, I follow how the Gam Udawa Housing Project and its massive cultural festivals performed a kind of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism for rural populations, while allowing the state, at that time the UNP, to perform itself as bolstering village self-sufficiency by performing a return to a golden past, when in reality it was deepening the relationship between village life and global markets. In both instances, the cultural forms I use deploy both the ethnographic impulse of representation or mimesis, but also creative telling/invention of truths.
The book is available for sale at amazon.com and at http://www.nupress.northwestern. edu/content/assembling-ethnicitiesneoliberal-times