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For Some Sri Lankan Women, Military is the Saviour: Book

by Press Trust of India, February 7, 2008

De Mel says that whether seen as victims, survivors or aggressors in war, the lives of Sri Lankan women have in one way or the other been integrated into the structures of militarisation that support war.

Militarizing Sri LankaNEW DELHI, Feb 7: Wives and mothers in militancy-infested Sri Lanka have come to accept the military as the sole avenue of employment for their husbands and children, however anguished they are about losing them in the war, a new book says.

"Given the absence of non-military public sector expansion and lack of employment opportunities even for the urban youth, agrarian devastation, closure of garment factories and breakdown of rural economies, wives and mothers have come to accept the military as the sole avenue of employment for their husbands and children," writes Neloufer de Mel in "Militarizing Sri Lanka: Popular Culture, Memory and Narrative in the Armed Conflict". [Sage Publications, December 2007]

According to de Mel, women also have to constantly negotiate with paramilitary and para-legal entities in going about their daily business and are vulnerable to gendered abuse as these groups stand accountable neither to the Government nor the law.

"Militarizing Sri Lanka" is about the work of militarism and militarisation in relation to the Sri Lankan armed conflict, and covers a period spanning the late 1980s to 2005.

The writer says women have also taken advantage of the military economy in various ways.

"During the war, a thriving sex industry operated in the north-central city of Anuradhapura, the site of a major transit camp for Sri Lankan Army soldiers either going to or returning from the battlefields of the north," de Mel, an English professor at University of Colombo, says.

From about 10 sex workers in the city in 1986, the figure shot up to 1,000 by 1996, she claims.

However, the increase in such work opportunities for women was accompanied by high levels of sexual and gender-based violence against them trafficking of women and an estimated 800 reported teen pregnancies annually, which was attributed to the proliferation of military camps and increasingly visible militarisation in the area.

De Mel says that the militaries, whether belonging to the Sri Lankan state or the LTTE, play a key role in the system of patronage that distributes welfare and privileges, making women in subordinate positions keen not to alienate them.

"Their powerful local presence as a source of employment, security and administrative responsibility on the one hand, and the source of insecurity, extortion and gendered violence on the other, mark them as having an ambiguous but forceful impact on Sri Lankan women’s lives," she writes.

While the ethnographic, feminist and figurative work on the armed conflict have paid heed to militarism and militarisation because of their cognizance of the work of ideology and culture, this book seeks to contribute to an impressive corpus of scholarship on the war and its context by offering a full-length study of the pivotal role and processuality of militarisation in the conflict, its structures and widespread presence in institutional apparatuses that shape factors both on and off the battlefield.

"The female suicide bomber is not an autonomous subject before power, but one constituted by and through it. In the complexity she inhabits, the female suicide bomber points to paradoxes inherent in censorship itself," the book, brought out by Sage Publications says.

"Her subjectivity unavailable to the public before her death, she becomes the object of literary and visual portrayal, public speculation and fascination."

Creative writers and filmmakers have not only attempted to "give" the figure of the female suicide bombers a "prior" voice, but also contour the war itself in alternative ways that go against the grain of official narratives.

The authors says the martial model has become central to both individual and collective survival and development, while the violence it legitimises becomes part of routine social relations.

"It has been noted that in LTTE-controlled areas, everyone from about 14 years above in age is compelled to undergo training in military drill, use of arms and mock battles, and undertake military tasks such as digging bunkers and manning sentry posts.

Sri Lanka Government rations, welfare benefits and travel are permitted only to those who have undergone this training."

De Mel says that whether seen as victims, survivors or aggressors in war, the lives of Sri Lankan women have in one way or the other been integrated into the structures of militarisation that support war. (PTI)


Public Memory and Cultural Politics in Sri Lanka

Review by Pramod K.Nayar, Department. of English, University of Hyderabad   

Militarizing Sri Lanka: Popular Culture, Memory and Narrative in the Armed Conflict

by Neloufer de Mel;

Sage, New Delhi, 2007;

pp. 329, Rs. 475.

Public culture is a space where conflicts, contests, negotiations and uneasy truces are played out in the form of theatre, literary narratives, cinema and cultural artifacts. Often the best place to see how meanings of ‘political’ events are produced, managed and consumed, public culture can be seen as a site of constant flows of forces – cultural, economic, political. Neloufer de Mel’s book explores the terrain of Sri Lankan public culture through one particular lens: the ethnic conflict.

De Mel opens with a two-pronged introductory chapter. She elaborates her theoretical framework (essentially cultural studies and discourse studies) and then provides a short account of the conflict’s history.

In chapter 2, De Mel looks at the advertising rhetoric that capitalized – both ideologically and commercially – upon the conflict. Looking at militarizing advertising that mediated (and profited from) an intersection of global capital and the discourse of national security in the late 1980s to the 2002 period, De Mel shows how global representations – including Hollywood films about the military or war – influenced local docudrama and promotional rhetoric.  A whole new aesthetic, where military training or life in the barracks are presented as ‘seductive’ (De Mel’s term, 68) and as a means of individual self-development, emerges in this period. Conscription adverts in the post-2000 period embody, argues De Mel, discourses of heterosexual masculinity, camaraderie, challenges and strength. In short the process of militarization naturalizes the militarist ideology through effective packaging. In what De Mel sees as a related move, discursive constructions of peace work with the seductively packaged face of humanitarianism, but which masks the neo-liberal shrinkage and privatization of state services. 

De Mel now turns to a specific military ‘effect’ – disabled soldiers – in chapter 3. Building on the groundbreaking work of Elaine Scarry and other theorists of the body-in-pain, De Mel examines the discourse of disability and the military in the Butterflies Theatre in the country. The Theatre itself was the creation of disabled soldiers. The work of this group, notes De Mel, seriously interrogates the construction of the young, able, masculine body of military discourse. War now becomes a code for ‘wilful injury’ – an apposite conceptual term from De Mel (107). Sexual anxiety and psychosis are linked via a recursive loop to militarism and economic necessity (the latter being the reason the soldiers joined the army). Thus, De Mel shows how a political economy of war (and peace) directs the discourses of disability. That is, Butterflies Theatre succeeded in turning the attention away from the disabled body as ‘freakish’ to the institutions of society, politics and culture that rendered it deviant. The interviews at the conclusion of this chapter – and interesting narrative move by De Mel, incidentally – generate powerful autobiographical discourses that align themselves well the analysis.

Chapter 4 turns to children caught in the conflict, but focuses specifically on the cultural activities of children in Batticoloa’s Butterfly Peace Garden. The children create tales where mourning and melancholia are negotiated in ways that the past, loss and memory are deeply intertwined. De Mel argues that the fairy tale format in the work of the children enable a ‘dissociated memory to be (re)integrated with the body, childhood and the world’ through the anthropomorphizing of animals (176). This also helps, suggests De Mel, to authenticate the specific history of the Batticoloa children as ‘timeless’ by the insertion into a universal world of children’s literature and to ensure that neither myths (as in the fairy tales) nor the contemporary violence are privileged. This might indicate a move toward alternative forms of intimacy and belonging itself when ethnic identities and ‘fixed’ stereotypes of community are ignored in the ‘play’.

In her powerful fifth chapter, on censorship and the female suicide bomber, De Mel argues that the subjectivity of the female bomber is constructed out of discourses of sexuality that relegate her to what Girogio Agamben described as ‘bare life’. These discourses, De Mel argues, construct particular models of ‘enemy women’ and combatants. What is crucial is that the women have left behind no self-representations, and therefore are open to being ‘appropriated’ by both the state and the LTTE’s discourses in what is surely a powerful apparatus of controlling women’s subjectivity. Turning to cinema, De Mel shows how the representation of the sexual economies of Sinhala village communities in films like This is My Moon attracted censorship and opprobrium because it went against the dominant discourse of nationalism and militarism.

In her final chapter De Mel turns to audiovisual archives of women narrating their experiences of the conflict and the 2004 tsunami. De Mel notes the significance of this archive to larger contexts and discourses of national identity, sovereignty, globalization and the human rights movement. De Mel here aligns her work – and that of the archive she was instrumental in setting up (not unlike the Holocaust archive at Yale, with Dori Laub and Geoffrey Hartman’s directorial management) – with the reconfigured discourses of modernity that nation states in South Asia seem to put out (and debate). More significantly, De Mel is concerned with the ways in which the archive of atrocity and suffering can be appropriated for political ends. 

Militarizing Sri Lanka deals with three ‘subjects’ in a militarized public culture: disabled men, women and children. Focusing on three clearly affected subjects enables De Mel to demonstrate the worst consequences of the conflict. However, what is interesting is that De Mel is careful to situate these subjects and subjectivities within adjacent and therefore framing discourses and subjects: masculinity, sexuality and youth/adulthood. This enables her (and the readers) to see how discourse actually works – through discrimination, classification and ‘identification’. Her attention to the body as the central category in much of the analysis is particularly welcome because it reminds us (in the age of digitized bodies and ‘avatars’) that subjectivity, politics and suffering are embodied.

De Mel’s work, situated within a large framework of archive/ memory, the law and narrative, is a dense yet remarkably lucid exposition of a particular, painful context. The analysis of rhetoric and political discourses are broad-based enough to be useful for other scholars working on similar areas (in the social sciences, media studies and humanities), and specific enough to highlight the contexts of these identities and subjectivities. The book would have – I say this at the risk of sounding churlish, for it’s a fine book! – benefited from a more nuanced engagement with trauma studies and theory (Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub), even though De Mel does work some of this through. But De Mel’s Militarizing Sri Lanka will remain a groundbreaking work on Sri Lankan public memory and cultural politics for some years to come.


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