The 21st of September marks the International Day of Peace 2023. To commemorate this day, we spoke with Dr Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits, Assistant Professor of Conflict and Peace Studies.
In this interview, part of our Assistant Professor Portraits series, we introduce you to her work and delve into the conflict and peace studies environment at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).
In her words, Dr Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits’ academic path feels aligned with her life experiences. Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Jayasundara-Smits was born at the epicentre of a tumultuous era, witnessing the atrocities of the island’s civil war and youth uprising as a young child. Her childhood was spent moving to several locations within the island due to her father’s occupation as a civil servant. These constant relocations gave her a unique vantage point of the ongoing war and subsequent conflicts rippling through her homeland. It led her to grapple with questions about the surrounding circumstances of ethnic-identity politics and class dynamics which lead to extreme bouts of violence.
Academia was a vehicle for her to define these answers and initiate dialogue. Jayasundara-Smits completed a bachelor’s degree in International Relations at Colombo University. With the support of her mentors, who saw her potential, she set out to study abroad. Jayasundara-Smits was selected for a graduate certificate programme for Peace Research at Oslo University in Norway and then, as a Fulbright Scholar, for the graduate programme in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University in the US. After completing her studies, she returned to her roots, working as a lecturer and practitioner in Sri Lanka. Yet Jayasundara-Smits knew it was time to pivot, leading her to the ISS PhD programme.
Throughout her career, Jayasundara-Smits has extensively studied conflict in Sri Lanka. Last year, she published a book entitled ‘An uneasy hegemony: Politics of State-building and Struggles for Justice in Sri Lanka’ on the country's historical and recent trajectories of state building. The book presents social, political and historical information that helps to explain today’s unrest in the country. In this interview, she gives us a peek into her journey as Assistant Professor of Conflict and Peace Studies at ISS.
Social justice was always in our mission at ISS and this is fitting for conflict and peace studies because it is about the struggles of social justice.
What inspired you to further your academic career at ISS as one of our PhD alums?
‘It was never the plan! While I was a PhD student, there were semesters when I would substitute as a lecturer. I was lucky to be supported by some of the senior faculty members at ISS who trusted me and gave me work and I think I took the challenge and somehow managed to eventually secure a permanent position.
ISS for me is a very vibrant and intellectually stimulating place where you can be creative and imaginative in your teaching as well as your research. I thought that if I'm going to be a full-time academic, I should pursue a career at ISS. I also like the umbrella of Development Studies. Because I come from conflict and peace studies, I also need to know other parts of the puzzle that my colleagues are working on and how to put things into perspective from different angles.’
You focus on the region of South Asia, specifically Sri Lanka, in your research. Why does your research stay close to home?
‘Sri Lanka is a place that animates me, makes me curious and makes me to want to contribute to change. I always think that if I can figure out Sri Lanka, I can figure out other places [laughs]. Why I still work on Sri Lanka comes from different directions. I can embrace Sri Lanka’s complexity because I was born and raised there. I have embodied experiences, what it means to be somebody in that place.
There was a lot of interest in researching Sri Lanka. Of course, the place is naturally attractive because it's an island with nice beaches. However, in the middle of that, a war was going on which, fortunately and unfortunately, excited people. At some point, there was a lot of money for research projects, but Sri Lankans themselves weren’t involved in ways they should have been. We couldn’t speak and shape research agendas. Once the war ended, the grants and many of these researchers disappeared.
As a Sri Lankan, I have this emotional, political attachment. I have colleagues and people from the country who do fantastic work. Not everybody can speak during different regimes, so there's self-imposed censorship among my colleagues. Sometimes, people just disappear. This happens to the circles that we work with. I feel like that now that I’m in the Netherlands, perhaps I have less legitimacy to talk about Sri Lanka. However, I want to show solidarity with my colleagues who are unable to speak with a critical voice.’
You need varying perspectives to draw from to see things in a new light and to challenge established notions about conflict, peace and human behaviour.
You also take an interest in narratives and media representation within your work. Can you talk about methods that inform your research?
‘I'm primarily a qualitative researcher. I was mentored in a critical stream of social sciences, so I try to take nothing for granted, even narratives that have long been established. Conflict and peace studies is very transdisciplinary. You need varying perspectives to draw from to see things in a new light and to challenge established notions about conflict, peace and human behaviour. I mostly look at narratives. I try to understand how and why people narrate events and issues in such ways. Working in Sri Lanka particularly taught me how narratives change due to prevailing political conditions. So, for instance, if there was no longer ethnic conflict pushed from the top-down, the societal narrative would change accordingly.
Since the last few years, I have also taken an interest in visual methods in my work. I look at how conflicts can be constructed visually, auditorily and orally. I was trained in photography for restorative justice and how images inform and create certain ideas about people and how they lend themselves to constructing certain power relations. You see so many visuals out there concerning conflicts happening around the world. People only look at photos and sometimes don't read the captions. We don't think that photos inform much, but they do. They are part of knowledge production: how they are produced, what kind of knowledge they try to communicate and what agendas they try to set. I teach this in one of my courses on the politics of representation in conflict and peace in media.’
From your perspective, what is ISS concerned about when it comes to conflict and peace studies?
‘I think social justice was always in our mission at ISS and this is fitting for conflict and peace studies because it is about the struggles of social justice. Amongst other things, we encourage aspects of social justice, equality and equity within the Human Rights, Gender and Conflict Studies: Social Justice Perspectives curricula and in the classroom. Students come from very different backgrounds and situations, so we have had to cultivate that sense of social justice very strongly into pedagogical conversations and interactions within and outside of the classroom.’
Do you find yourself learning from your students?
‘Yeah, certainly! Now I experience a generational gap. When I first started at Colombo University as a lecturer, my students were only one to two years younger than me. Currently, at ISS, I teach more and more students in their early twenties.
Students bring their lived experiences to the classroom, some of which are quite different to what I grew up with. Sometimes you feel gutted because you realize some things have not changed. However, new situations and conditions, unfolding politics, populism, the challenges of economic conditions and different layers of politics always bring something new to the classroom. My students and I are learning and teaching each other.’
What values should be passed on to the next generation of practitioners?
‘I think values of peace and nonviolence. You can resolve conflicts in violent ways. You can have different types of peace; say, victor's peace, militarized peace or stability peace. But inculcating values of nonviolence are one of the best gifts to give students.
Also, it is crucial for early practitioners to be imaginative because you cannot give up on the fight and you must have an image for the future. You have to creatively imagine ways of living with our differences, cultivating even further on them for the better. But I understand that the situation today is so complex, especially for young people to have even the possibility to imagine a better future because they're caught up in everyday realities of survival and violence.’
I think we have a responsibility to do things collectively for the future.
Before we go, what does a day like the International Day of Peace make you think about?
‘Look around. There is a climate crisis, wars in Ukraine, Yemen and Mali — that is what you see in the news. Still, there are a lot of good things happening around the world. We should keep working towards our ideal vision of peace because — as we can see now — we haven't achieved half of it, but many of us are still alive and breathing. I think we have a responsibility to do things collectively for the future. If we have the capacity to imagine what we want to create and come together, I think we should defend it and pursue it, fearlessly. It's a lot of work, but I wouldn't get discouraged by these incidents, events and episodes. We can’t give up.’
Thank you very much for this interview!