February 10, 2003

Activist Lectures on Sri Lankan Problems

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Recent violence in the nation of Sri Lanka was the subject of a lecture entitled “Accounting for Peace as Violence by Another Name? Heretical Thoughts From the Margins of the Sri Lankan Conflict” by Dr. Arjuna Parakrama of the University of Peradeniya last Friday in Sibley Hall.

Prof. Barbara Lynch, city and regional planning, introduced Parakrama, calling him a “scholar-activist par excellence.” She also praised his propensity to move back and forth “between academia and activism.”

In his lecture, part of the International Studies in Planning Seminar Series, “Crossing Boundaries,” Parakrama spoke on the still-prevalent child abduction, government corruption and problems with the current peace process in Sri Lanka. He also offered critiques of anthropological work being done.

“I offer you today some of the most frustrating and rewarding parts of my work,” he said.

Pakarama described the problem of child abduction in great detail, explaining that they are being taken and forced to fight in the country’s ongoing civil war.

“One doesn’t have to know the exact numbers to know that this problem is of horrifying proportion,” Parakrama said.

According to Parakrama, the parents of the abducted will not speak for fear of reprisals; compounding this effect is a “lack of public faith in police” in Sri Lanka.

Concerning the peace talks, Parakrama said that he has seen a “marked increase in violence against civilians as talks have progressed, or should I say regressed.” He felt that the peace talks, which involve only a small group of elites, were accomplishing little or nothing for the civilians experiencing the violence.

Parakrama focused much of his lecture on critical analysis of the anthropological work that has been done in Sri Lanka, saying that studies of violence in the south “have hardly progressed beyond the colonial paradigm.” He described the present state of anthropological work on the region as fraught with irresponsible generalizations, numerous contradictions and a lack of regard for Sri Lankan scholarship.

Parakrama also said that anthropologists tended to portray Sri Lankans as “transparent and accessible.” He also described incidents in which Sri Lankans admitted “exaggerating themselves” to anthropologists, “wanting to make the foreigner happy.”

The lecture concluded with a poem that Parakrama had written about the peace talks, entitled “Running Away from Peace.”

“I say this is not peace, but war by another name what else but war can legitimize violence against civilians at such an awful scale?” Parakrama asked in his poem.

In the question-and-answer period that followed, audience members questioned Parakrama’s simultaneous rejection of the current peace process and condemnation of the war, asking him to propose a satisfactory solution to the ongoing conflict.

Parakrama responded that successful negotiations must take place “on the ground,” involving ordinary Sri Lankans, unlike the current talks proceeding exclusively among the nation’s elites.

Sara Shneiderman, grad, expressed the audience’s general reaction to Parakrama’s speech.

“I think it was very useful, very thought-provoking,” she said.

Archived article by Mike Holloway