August 25-27, 2000
The New England Center
University of New Hampshire
Durham, New Hampshire
We invite paper proposals for an American Institute for Sri Lanka Studies workshop conference on Economy and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. Scholars of all disciplines are invited to submit proposals. The workshop format means that all sessions will be plenary, with ample time for presentation and discussion. Although the number of papers selected will necessarily be limited, the conference will be open to non-presenters, as well.
Deadline for proposal submissions: February 1, 2000.
Length: 250-500 words. Proposals should describe the paper's focus and the information that will be used to support the argument. They should include the author's name, e-mail address, and affiliation. Paper proposals should be sent to either Mike Woost or Deborah Winslow at the address below.
Description of Topic
The conflict in Sri Lanka is now poised to spill over into the 21st century after nearly two decades of violence. Indeed, this past July marked the 16th anniversary of the riots of 1983, often cited as the signal event leading to a larger war.
Since the violence of July 1983, the reasons for the conflict have been the subject of widespread and often intense intellectual and popular (as well as party political) debate. One argument often heard in the aftermath of the 1983 riots, and one that still seems to hold popular currency, is that the conflict is due to age-old animosities between the Tamil and Sinhala people, going back as far as a thousand years or more. The implication of this reasoning is that the violence needs no further explanation. Violence occurred because the two parties to the conflict, Sinhala and Tamil, could not get along and had not gotten along since time immemorial. In the mid-1980s more reasoned scholars and commentators published rather formidable intellectual challenges to this ahistorical argument. The main question they asked was: How does one then explain, the emergence of communal violence in a specific time and space? And how does one explain the escalation of violence after 1977?
A particularly provocative explanation was formulated by the late Newton Gunasinghe. He suggested that the explanation lies in the shifts in economic processes and relations brought about by the official shift from an import substitution economy to an open economy in 1977. In brief, he claimed that the open economy created serious problems for business classes in the Sinhala majority. He noted that many successful Sinhala businesses were no longer able to compete in a world without state protection. Furthermore, as these businesses went under, minority Tamil run businesses that had always worked outside the margins of state protection in import and export, were doing quite well. This, according to Gunasinghe, created a block of resentment among Sinhala business classes that could easily be manipulated for political gain and economic vengeance. This is not to say that all this happened in an ideological vacuum. Much ideological work had laid the groundwork for this to occur. However, he argued that the economic changes after 1977 were the sparks that set the violence into motion.
One shortcoming of Gunasinghe’s argument is that there is little discussion of the actual economic situation that provided this spark. Hence the workshop we are proposing aims to open a rather more grounded discussion of the "Economics" of the Sri Lankan conflict, both over its history and in the present. The discussion must have a strong historical component since the economic factors influencing the course of the conflict will surely shift over time. We are not suggesting that ideological factors related to ethnicity, nationalism, history and so on are not important. We argue instead that the role of the economy, past and present, needs more attention than it has been receiving.
We invite participants to submit papers on any aspect of the economics of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka or in comparative perspective. We include the following possibilities only as suggestions. We do hope that papers will be specific and focused, however, not just suggestive.
1. The economic role of the state
Does the conflict impede economic development in Sri Lanka (as has been widely claimed) or has development been undertaken in such a way as to produce and shape the conflict? What has the been role of the open economy -- a program fostered by the state for over 20 years -- in the way the conflict has developed?
2. The profitability of the conflict
Are the economic processes set in motion by the conflict self-sustaining, perhaps in ways that work against political settlement? The increasingly heard comment that, "The war will never end because it is too profitable" appears, on the face of it, to be supported by the everyday experience of Sri Lankans who now pass through military checkpoints that are "brought to you by" businesses that use the checkpoints for commercial advertisements. Is there a more substantial basis for this growing ideological common sense?
3. Class interests and the conflict
If Gunasinghe was right about the origins of the conflict, how do class interests and animosities relate to the conflict's maintenance? Can we more adequately identify and document these causes and effects?
Papers that compare economic aspects of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict with other ongoing civil conflicts, such as that in Northern Ireland or Palestine, are also encouraged.
Department of Anthropology
Oneonta, New York 13820
c/o Department of Sociology
Horton Social Science Center
University of New Hampshire
Durham, NH 03824-3586
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