Disaster & Insecurity in Sri Lanka

A Review of After Disasters: The Persistence of Insecurity in Sri Lanka, by Vivian Choi.

Vivian Choi’s dissertation, After Disasters: The Persistence of Insecurity in Sri Lanka, juxtaposes civil war and the 2004 Tsunami in Sri Lanka to argue that the aftermath of the Tsunami can only be understood through the entanglement of environmental disaster management with the simultaneous military campaigns to eliminate the separatist guerillas the Tamil Tigers. Her ethnographic fieldwork is based within Sri Lanka’s embattled east coast, working (uniquely) with the minority ethnic communities living there, from Sri Lankan Muslims from the South Eastern Amparai district, to Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims in the Eastern Batticaloa district. Thus, from the very beginning, Choi’s dissertation stands out, firstly in bringing together experiences (war and tsunami) which have often been separated, and secondly, by rendering them within a larger theoretical frame of nationalist constructions of disaster management, rather than only as a descriptive account of the multiple layers of suffering that east coast Tamils and Muslims have endured over recent decades. Choi takes the civil war and tsunami, so-called “natural” and “man-made” disasters, together as hybrid objects that “bleed into one another, institutionally, technologically, socially and politically” (p. 19).

There are three central themes in Choi’s dissertation. The first two, “disaster preparedness” and “risk,” are imbricated in each other. The third, “national fantasies,” has a broader application in Sri Lankanist scholarship, but is brought cleverly by Choi to reflect upon the first two in distinct fashion. Choi describes two different kinds of disaster preparedness, and thus cultures of anticipation of risk. First, she analyzes the state disaster preparedness schemes for Tsunami alerts and natural disaster management. Second, she considers the prosecution of the war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) as it was presented by the state as a “humanitarian mission” to “save” Tamils. This “humanitarian mission” was styled by the state as a necessary response to a Sri Lanka in the grip of a “manmade” national internal disaster that needed to be healed and made whole again. Military management was thus made into a “care and maintenance” operation for Sri Lanka (p .18). Choi ably weaves together these two state enterprises.

Choi also examines disaster preparedness through ethnographic fieldwork with Tamil and Muslim individuals and families. For ordinary people, disasters come in multiple fronts and layers—the children and family lost in the war, those lost in the tsunami, the houses which were lost or forced to be abandoned, and so on. Disaster management involves adapting and dealing with displacement from war and the tsunami, while negotiating with a state that insisted on trust from its minority citizens in relation to both its disaster management and war strategies, even while implementing said strategies in a way that undermined the very possibility of trust.

The third theme in the dissertation is that of state power and fantasies of national order. Choi shows how fantasies of order, particularly those of the liberated and homogenous whole nation, which she calls “scenes of fantasy,” shape and order state projects (p. 23). The nation that emerges through such fantasies not only has profound consequences for how state projects work on the ground, but in its constant failures and fissures, presents it doubly as an impossible but utterly desirable object. Minorities emerge as both object and subject of such national failures and controls.

The Introduction includes an excellent and sober account of the complexities of ethnic discrimination and ethnic identification, the civil war, and the 2004 Tsunami and its immediate impacts and effects in Sri Lanka. She introduces the National Disaster Management Center and its new programs focused on the management of risk and disaster preparedness. Alongside the more general arguments made in the dissertation (see above), Choi also outlines the very comprehensive ethnographic fieldwork on which the dissertation is based. At the local level, Choi worked with disaster management practitioners, community leaders, local and district level disaster management officers and coordinators, district level planners, humanitarian and aid workers, politicians, and military actors. In addition, she worked with Tamil and Muslims displaced by war and tsunami – some of the finest ethnographic accounts in the dissertation come from the latter stories. At the national level, Choi met with meteorologists, disaster management officials and national coordinators, and systems technicians.

Chapter 1 lays out the framework for Choi’s major arguments around disaster preparedness and its links to the civil war. The chapter concentrates primarily on a more theoretical and comparative discussion of “disaster.” Choi’s major argument here is that natural processes cannot be understood outside of “their social milieus” (p. 42). Taking examples such as Hurricane Katrina, Choi argues that vulnerability to the effects of natural disaster are made of other kinds of vulnerabilities to inequality that predate the disaster in question. She applies this mutual imbrication to illustrate Bruno Latour’s point that the natural and the social/cultural cannot be understood as distinct from each other, that our worlds are created as a co-constitution of nature and culture (Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993). Choi argues that “in the hybridization of nature and culture especially in institutionalized government practices, a simultaneous work of purification occurs” (p. 45). This purification brings together terrorism and natural disaster into simultaneously nebulous and ever-present external threats. The final result of such work is the image of a purified and ordered nation that has expelled threat. Choi also discusses Sri Lanka’s “Disaster Preparedness Scheme” in this context, examining in detail the various schemes proposed by the state for “disaster reduction.” She follows this with an introduction to the “routes of sadness” that ordinary people endure, and in which multiple forms of suffering are lived in ways that weave together those things that are supposed to be kept apart (p. 55).

Chapter 2, “Zones of Safety and Security: The Purification of the Nation,” is the largest and most ethnographic chapter in the dissertation and well worth a careful read. It takes the east coast in some detail, giving a careful account of the history of the region. Most of the chapter examines the aftereffects of the Tsunami and the regulation and reconstruction that took place following. Here, Choi examines the aftermath of the institution of the “no build buffer zones” along the coast lines and the building of new kinds of housing for tsunami-affected population. These discussions of people’s experiences are particularly rich, and I really enjoyed Choi’s sections on families living in temporary shelters and those who were moving into or had already moved into the newly modeled Tsunami flats in Kalmunai. This is sensitive and careful ethnography, and a really wonderful exploration of the hopes and fears of families waiting for many years to move into their potential homes. As such, Choi shows us the thoughts of families waiting for potential new futures in Sri Lanka, though their presents continue to be intertwined with habitual insecurity and immobility. This immobility and insecurity is the other subject of the chapter, detailing the military checkpoints that dot ordinary landscapes and the experiences of constrained mobility across the island. Choi borrows from Bruno Latour’s notion of purification and Jonathan Spencer’s interpretation of the work of purification that has erased Sri Lanka’s complex histories and movements in order to imagine that, “the nation is the same people living in the same place” (Latour, 1993; Jonathan Spencer, “A Nation ‘Living in Different Places’: Notes on the Impossible Work of Purification in Postcolonial Sri Lanka,” Contributions to Indian Sociology Vol. 37, No. 1-2 (2003), pp. 1-23). Choi argues that these practices of purification and elimination of natural disaster and terrorism are fantasies of state power in Sri Lanka. She examines practices such as the Sri Lankan government sending of SMS messages to all mobile users, constantly updating them on the progress of the military campaign. This messaging is an example of how, through the positing of a simultaneous homogenous empty time, a homogenous space of the nation is created.

Chapter 3, “Anticipatory States,” examines the ways in which a culture of anticipation informs and shapes Sri Lanka and particularly the ethnic minority areas in which Choi works. She suggests practices of anticipation here as a restructuring of built and human infrastructures. This chapter in particular plays with the juxtaposition of the two kinds of risk, tsunami and political violence, which inform everyday life. Beginning with an account of practice tsunami evacuation drills (that fail in the one she observes), Choi moves to look at multiple practices of anticipation and prediction that people employ, from astrology onwards. A particularly poignant and beautifully illustrated segment of the chapter is an examination of how people learned to “listen” and interpret particular environmental changes from minute weather changes or animal movements as potential warning signs. I have noted a similar phenomenon in my own work in how people learned to read the sounds of approaching airstrikes, helicopters, and dogs barking in the civil war (Sharika Thiranagama, In My Mother’s House: Civil War in Sri Lanka. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011). However, as Choi argues, these practices are all part and parcel of the anticipatory mode that looms over Sri Lanka, a mode that for minorities weaves together environmental and political worries. The state of emergency is a similar mode, tracing the path of the Special Task Force that represented areas as “vulnerable” and thus prime stages for military surveillance and action. Vulnerability not only carries with it multiple layers but also ghosts and fears that condition the anticipation of one kind of disaster with another.

Chapter 4, “Struggles over the Geo-Body-Politics,” is a fascinating examination of mapping practices, beginning with a quick survey of the multiple maps in which Taprobane/Serendib/Ceylon and finally Sri Lanka have been positioned within, and understood through. Choi takes the map itself as a “fantastic artifact” (p. 152), or in another lovely formulation, as “metasigns of the national geo-body” (p. 153) that articulated particular political fantasies and rendered them unarguable. Her focus is primarily on the maps produced around disaster preparedness and Tsunami relief, as well as those produced during the prosecution of the last military campaigns, which presented an undivided nation being reunified as its space was “reconquered.” In post-Tsunami reconstruction, Choi shows how significant GIS systems and new maps of humanitarian assistance were in presenting a nation in need to the international community. Paradoxically, in the case of the war, with most journalists banned from the battlefield, international agencies, humanitarian organizations, and international journalists increasingly relied on satellite images and digital maps that portrayed casualties and events that the Sri Lankan state officially denied. This resulted in a complex struggle over the maps and the “truths” they encoded or obfuscated. Choi shows how these maps cannot be understood as abstract scientific truth, but were always already embedded in how they are to be understood. This holds as much for the Tsunami maps as for the military campaign maps. Moving from this to consider the multiple lives of images, Choi briefly but tantalizingly examines the circulation of images of the dead LTTE leader, Prabhakaran, by the Sri Lankan army. Prabhakaran’s dead body comes to stand for the geo-body of Tamil Eelam now eliminated, his image substituting for a map of Tamil Eelam. However, such images were immediately contested with digitally altered images of Prabhakaran alive, bolstered by rumors of his escape across the Tamil diaspora. In other words, images do not only circulate in way they are intended.

In her conclusion, Choi refers to this afterlife and the ways in which a postwar—but not post-conflict—Sri Lanka is haunted by national fantasies. These fantasies are meant to generate images of a whole and healed Sri Lanka, but instead give rise to a sense of constant anticipation of violence, ever more securitization, a fear for the well-being of minorities, and most importantly, the refusal to deal with the past and the stubborn persistence of ghosts.

Scholars in Anthropology, Geography, Comparative History, and Crisis/Disaster Studies, will find Choi’s unique blend of ethnography and quantitative analysis enlightening and useful. After Disasters is a compelling dissertation that will one day make a wonderful book.

Sharika Thiranagama
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Stanford University

Primary Sources

February 2008-May 2009 ethnographic fieldwork  in Sri Lanka.

Dissertation Information

University of California, Davis. 2012. Committee Chair: Smriti Srinvas.

Image: Photograph by Vivian Choi.


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