Mapping the Affective Spatial Dimensions of Sri Lanka’s Civil War

Preeti Chopra

It appears we can never get enough of war: in their ubiquity, as well as their coverage, and analyses. The genesis, experience and aftermath of war, particularly the world wars, have been explored in countless productions by writers, journalists, photographers, film makers, artists, historians, military strategists, and others. In the world of fiction, for example, Pat Barker’s powerful The Regeneration Trilogy, written in the 1990s, takes up the First World War as its subject. It explores the human cost of war to women and men, soldiers, and civilians. Official dates do not capture the lifetime of a war whose haunting effects linger for years, even affecting future generations. Although born in 1943, Barker was, “a child of the Second World War, but her circumstances made her a survivor of the First World War as well”. She grew up in the home of her grandmother and “second husband, who had served on the battlefields of northern France…. He was the forerunner: the first of all the silenced, traumatized, physically damaged veterans—living spectres”, who stimulated the ‘Regeneration’ trilogy (Kennedy Fraser, Ghost Writer: Pat Barker’s haunted imagination, 17 March 17 2008,, accessed 15 July 2020). 

Like Barker’s work, Hiroshima Mon Amour, the 1959 landmark film directed by Alan Resnais and with a screenplay by Marguerite Duras, serves as a reminder that even as nations are declared victors and losers in war, there is no triumph for their traumatized populations. Instead, those who have suffered from war, whether from one side or the other, can recognize in each other, not the face of the enemy, but of a compatriot ‘haunted’ by shared unspeakable life experiences. This film reminds us of the importance of remembering, and of the necessity of forgetting for human life to flourish.

Sovereignty, Space and Civil War in Sri Lanka: Porous Nation, Anoma Pieris’s ambitious, detailed, interdisciplinary, compelling and sometimes deeply moving book on Sri Lanka’s long civil war brings an analysis of space to bear on these global questions on the experience and haunting effects on civilian populations. Rather than attending to the spatial dynamics of warfare, militant and military infrastructures, and camps, its “concern is with the civilian spaces implicated in the violence of warring groups” (p. 18). In the book’s preface, Pieris observes that the issues raised here are pertinent to her identity as a Lankan and to her education in spatial disciplines. In the book’s final pages, she gives the reader a poignant glimpse into her personal history as entwined with Sri Lanka’s civil war, its prelude, and aftermath. As a school girl at the time of the July 1983 pogroms targeting Tamils, Pieris “learned of painful circumstances and tragic losses unknown to those of us who identified as Sinhala, ensconced as we were in the entitlements of more-privileged citizenship”. A trip to a village in Jaffna district after the war brought her face-to-face with a Hindu kovil (temple) bell punctured by bullets. The bell brought her “to that morning in 1983 when I was cautioned against abdicating my responsibility and by doing so dehumanizing myself and others, a memory that gave me the resolve to write the book” (p. 224).

Pieris makes a significant intervention in Sri Lanka’s 26 years long civil conflict (1983–2009) by starting her temporal analyses in 1977, the year when economic liberalization was initiated under a pro-capitalist but democratic regime. Continuing five years beyond the conflict (2009–14) her account shows the postwar reconstruction of the nation. By taking 1977 as a starting point Pieris persuasively reframes the analysis of the conflict, which has been overwhelmingly characterized as an ethnonationalist dispute with roots in colonial divide-and-rule policies. The policies that followed the economic liberalization of 1977 not only marked the gradual end of the welfare state, but the flows of capital, labor, foreign-media “helped render the nation porous in altogether new ways” (p. 6). This only heightened the inequalities of the previous eras of social welfare policies that benefitted majoritarian communities and increasingly rendered Sinhala-Buddhist representations as signifying the nation.

Opposition to economic stagnation and hardship, particularly amongst rural youth, was led by the Marxist-Maoist youth rebellion through the Sinhala Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, People’s Liberation Front), which was crushed by the military in 1971. This inaugurated the postcolonial army’s use of violent force to quell revolt and its transformation into an active fighting force. By advancing Buddhism and rebuffing Tamil federalism, the 1972 republican constitution sowed the seeds for Tamil separatism. In the 1970s, the Sri Lankan state faced fierce violent opposition on two fronts: dissatisfied rural youth from the Sinhalese in 1987-9 and from Tamils, starting from 1976. Sri Lanka’s civil war was a secessionist effort in which various Tamil militant groups battled against the Government of Sri Lanka’s (GoSL) military forces. For the Tamil population, the July 1983 pogrom was a turning point in the escalation of violence. Ruthlessly suppressing all challengers, from 1986 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) led the Tamil militant opposition. Guided by the larger goal of reconciliation, Pieris is judiciously fair, revealing the impact of the violence unleashed by both the LTTE and the GoSL especially on civilian populations.

Bracketing the civil war between a prelude to and its aftermath allows Pieris to effectively address a range of scales, sites, spaces, and experiences in 10 chapters, that include the nation, home, city, route, camp, ruin, exile, and settlement. These investigations are organized under three broad themes: normative spaces, human mobilities, exilic states. However, her work also shows how different temporalities came into play in the shaping and reshaping of the nation. For example, after 1977, important national development projects – including river valley development projects, rural housing, archaeology and conservation – drew on the idea that the history and identity of the nation was principally Buddhist, marginalizing other minorities in the process.

Architectural History and Spatializing War’s Impact on Civilians
War and violence bring to mind the human displacement, ruins caused by the destruction of homes, monuments, and cities, military infrastructure and the architecture of encampments. These are subjects vital to architectural scholarship, but are largely ignored. Recent architectural scholarship has focused on violence in Bosnia and Israel, such as Eyal Weizman illuminating work on Israeli occupation in Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (Verso Press, 2007), and justifiable violence in a number of locations in The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza (Verso Press, 2012).

Pieris’s book is the first architectural engagement with Sri Lanka’s civil war. The methods used include mapping, site and architectural analysis. Maps are used for varied purposes: for example, to orient us by showing Sri Lanka’s provinces and war zones, to record, reveal, and be a witness to the spatial distribution of violence during the first two days of the 1983 pogrom. Another map reveals the locations of camps within Colombo city limits established during the 1983 pogrom. At the same time, rather than actual maps, methods such as descriptions, architectural and spatial analysis are used to map demographic changes or Lankan Tamil occupation of spaces in Colombo’s Wellawatte neighborhood, or in exile, in La Chapelle in Paris, France and Canada’s Lankan Tamil community in Scarborough in Toronto. Pieris adds layers of complexity to our understanding of Geoffrey Bawa’s iconic Sri Lanka Parliament Building. Her discussion of some of the spaces lost in the conflict is deeply moving. Attending to the accounts of various individual homeowners, which includes plans drawn up by them of the home they had lost, photographs, and narratives of the trajectory of their lives before, during, and after the conflict, brings the reader face-to-face with the lives upturned, destroyed, and rebuilt in this violent history. These individual narratives stood in contrast to the maps that allowed one to maintain a distance and a semblance of control. We hear of the rebuilding of lives after the civil war for Tamils returning from exile and for displaced populations, such as Jaffna’s SOS village for displaced children. Underscoring the centrality of architecture in remaking lives, Pieris observes, “Architecture often becomes the vehicle and the measure of resettlement successes for displaced populations who have experienced acute psychosocial traumas” (p. 215).

Sovereignty, Space and Civil War in Sri Lanka is a compelling work that inaugurates architectural scholarship’s engagement with the violence of Sri Lanka’s civil war. In doing so, it offers valuable lessons to scholars working in varied disciplines and geographical areas of focus on how to conceptualize and spatialize violence and war’s impact on civilian populations.