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In My Mother's House (Civil War in Sri Lanka)

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Item Code: NAS274
Author: Sharika Thiranagama
Publisher: Zubaan Publications
Language: English
Edition: 2011
ISBN: 9789381017999
Pages: 312
Other Details 9.50 X 6.50 inch
Weight 510 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

In May 2009, the Sri Lankan army overwhelmed the last stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - better known as the Tamil Tigers - officially bringing to an end nearly three decades of civil war. The conflict resulted in massive displacement of people from their homes. The figures are shocking: around 80.000 Muslims were expelled from the LITE-controlled North, and nearly half of all Sri Lankan Tamils were displaced during the civil wares Sharika Thiranagama’s book focuses on two groups of displaced peoples: Sri Lankan Tamils from the North and Sri Lankan Muslims. Through detailed engagement with ordinary people struggling to find a home in the world, Thiranagama explores the dynamics with and between these two minority communities, describing how these relations were reshaped by violence, displacement and authoritarianism. She tackles three major themes: ideas of home; transformations within the family: and the impact of political violence on ordinary lives and public speech. Only by taking stock of these new Tamil and Muslim identities forged by the civil war can one envisage and work towards a peaceful future for this troubled land.

About the Author

Sharika Thiranagama is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. She is co-editor of Traitors, Suspicion, Intimacy, and the Ethics of State – Builiding.


It is a pleasure to write a foreword to this elegantly written, jargon free work on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. For me In My Mother’ House is the most significant contribution written to date for understanding that conflict, mostly from the perspective of Tamils and the Muslims of the north, the latter brutally evicted from their homes by the Tamil Tigers (the LTTE). I hope this work will be read not only by Sri Lankans and South Asians but also by those interested in political violence, the disrupted lives that result from it, and the resilience of those living under the shadow of terror and war, so poignantly described by Thiranagama. Thiranagama herself suffered from the war; her mother, a human rights activist and university professor, was killed by the LTTE in its "liberation struggle,’ which like many other liberation struggles ended up in mass violence and the targeted "rational killing" of those who refused to accept violence as an antidote to the political ills of the nation. At the time of producing her book the war was drawing to a close, but it is hard to believe that such a close will result in a closure of the issues that, from the Tamil perspective, provoked forms of resistance, including violent resistance.

Few outside Sri Lanka know that alongside the ethnic conflict there was another internal conflict in which Sinhala youths took up arms against the government, initially in 1971 and, when this failed, in yet another three-year conflict in the late 1980s. This too was a liberation struggle, and this too led to enormous violence and brutality. The JVP (National Liberation Front) practiced enormous brutalities, and equally brutal was the government reaction when paramilitary groups retaliated with scant regard to the Geneva Convention (that few I am sure had heard of) or any other decent convention. This conflict resulted in the loss of 60,000 lives according to current estimates. Statistics on violence are unreliable, but even if one reduces this figure by half, the human suffering and loss cannot be estimated through numbers. Unlike the ethnic conflict, virtually nothing of significance has been written on the short span of pain and fear erupting during the JVP youth-based insurrection. Once insurrectional violence has been unleashed, it produces its counterpart in state violence and repression, and a whole nation is thereby caught in a vortex of spiraling violence. And worse: violence can become an addiction for some participants, just like drugs and alcohol, all of which are now endemic in the nation. Liberation movements, unhappily, tend to lose the spirit of whatever idealism sparked the movements’ inception. It is easy for a liberation movement to lose its soul. There is no gainsaying the fact that over the last thirty years or so, this beautiful land of ours had become a blood- besotted place. I do not know how a restoration, in the broadest sense of that term, might take place.

Thiranagama’s book was completed when the long war was nearing its close and the government forces were closing in on the LTTE, and on 19 May 2009 the war was over. None among those I knew lamented the demise of the LTTE; that included my Tamil friends, although many were concerned, as was the international community, about the fate of Tamil civilians once held as hostages or human shields by the Tamil Tigers. But such concerns were overcome by the sheer relief felt by the overwhelming majority of the people. One can now board a bus without fear of a bomb; one can send children to school without being afraid of erratic suicide bomb attacks. The enshrouding fears that wars produced seem to have been dispelled. It is this sense of relief, especially among the Sinhala majority, that led to the feeling that any attempt to institute an investigation into possible violations of human rights in effect would diminish the sense of having at last overcome the LTTE terror. It is a only a very few who feel that the UN has a right and a duty to investigate violation of the rights of prisoners and civilians anywhere, whether in "just wars" or in any kind of war, as stated in the Geneva Convention, assuming of course that such an investigation is by persons of unimpeachable integrity. However, many Sri Lankan intellectuals as well as others living in this region have it seems to me a legitimate concern that is the Geneva convention is not a sacred document but ought to be revised in relation to the times in which we live. At least there should be a similar international instrument that inquires into the violation of human rights in different parts of the world, for example, the tortures and cruel punishments inflicted on women who work as low paid servants, often in effect virtual slaves, in some Middle East nations. These and even some forms of legal punishment such stoning a person to death surely must be classified as crimes against humanity, and there should be international organizations and a new set of conventions to inquire into and bring about just retribution and justice. Many would say that U.S. and NATO forces have been accused of causing civilian deaths and bombing civilian villages, but these activities somehow or other manage to elude just inquiry and condemnation.

More immediate for those of us living in Sri Lanka, whether intellectuals or ordinary folk or those in the international community, it is the spectre of majoritarianism in a government that rules with an overwhelming parliamentary majority. This means among other things a fear of enveloping authoritarianism, erosion of civil rights within the nation, and impunity with which critics of the government can be muzzled. Journalists have been especially vulnerable and have been attacked or gone missing, and in one instance a TV station has been vandalized. Unlike in Thailand, here in Sri Lanka critics and intellectuals have in general been cowed into silence. Unfortunately, the criticism of the Euro-American community on these and similar issues have only resulted in an unbelievable jingoism among the majority community, the belief that the nation can go on its own, with help perhaps from India or more especially China, forgetting that altruism is hardly the motive behind international aid. No Island, unfortunately, is an island unto itself, and each is a piece of a global continent and a part of the main. One can only hope that the "we can go it alone" kind of rhetoric will give way to the reality principle of living in a globalized and interdependent world.

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