Sri Lanka’s struggle for hegemony: a new narrative

Interview with Dr Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits on her latest book

The International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) Assistant Professor Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits recently published the book ‘An uneasy hegemony: Politics of State-building and Struggles for Justice in Sri Lanka’ which provides a comprehensive analysis of state-building processes in Sri Lanka. Her book presents social, political, and historical information that helps to explain today’s unrest in the country. In this interview, Jayasundara-Smits talks about her book and the island’s current turmoil. 

Fuel scarcity, protests, a president in exile; the recent upheaval in Sri Lanka has made national and international headlines. To some, these developments may have come as a surprise. Not to Assistant Professor Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits. She has been studying her country of birth for many years and has anticipated the country’s latest turbulence.

According to Jayasundara-Smits, framing today’s unrest as merely economically instigated doesn’t do justice to the real causes of the crisis. Instead, she postulates, that the actual root of the problems lies in a political crisis that has been building up for many years.

Opposing existing frames and narratives is pivotal for Jayasundara-Smits’ perspective as an academic. In her book, she questions discourses on ethnicity and ethnic identity politics that are prevalent in much of the academic literature on Sri Lanka’s past. With her comprehensive study, she deploys a wider lens to grasp the many complexities of Sri Lanka’s political present and history. Thus, she constructs a new and different narrative, as well as in addition to a more expansive academic framework. With her work, she enriches the academic debate about Sri Lanka’s state-building processes.

'Sri Lanka is not one single story.'

Why has it been so important for you as an academic to broaden the analysis of Sri Lanka’s political situation beyond discourses on ethnic conflict?

‘This book builds on the PhD research I started in 2008. Back then, I was startled to find ethnicity as the dominant marker of Sri Lanka’s political situation, both in academia and the media. Sri Lanka has experienced an atrocious civil war and ethnicity has always been used as the main cause explaining the conflict. However, I never felt that this single story was right. Therefore, I wanted to explore other ways of studying the country. The overarching idea was to see all things as interconnected, without specifically privileging ethnicity or ethnic tensions. To me, this appeared to camouflage other intertwined causes and realities that were marginalized, sidelined, and silenced in recent academic debates.’

How did you go about it; what methods did you use to conduct research?

‘I had to dive into history to better understand when ethnicity became a problem in Sri Lanka. I studied discourses on nationalism in the 19th century and went even further back, looking at pre-colonial times. What did the social relations of power between groups look like in those days and how did they evolve and determine later periods?’

‘Not all historical episodes ended up in the book, but I wanted to be thorough and analyze the country on a level deeper. Furthermore, I studied class relations and how they are connected to the land and the material foundation of relationships. I held many interviews with a wide range of people, from rebels to practitioners working for NGOs, and even people from my childhood. In addition to that, I studied academic and grey literature (meaning: publications produced by non-commercial and non-academic actors). For the latter, I had the advantage to be able to read Sinhala, being a Sinhalese myself.’ 

The central claim of your book is that the state-building process of Sri Lanka has been a struggle for establishing the hegemony of the right. Can you explain the concept of hegemony?

‘I found the concept of hegemony, coined by the Italian philosopher Gramsci, apt to help me study a wide range of topics related to Sri Lanka’s political history. Hegemony can simply be described as political leadership or dominance. Or to describe it more elaborately: it entails a complete fusion of economic, intellectual, and moral objectives brought by a fundamental group through the intermediary of ideology. Hegemony is a constant work in progress. It requires that those in power use different strategies to make people consent to their leadership.’

‘You should realize that hegemony is a carefully crafted balancing act. Because people, consciously or unconsciously, must give their consent to a leading group to be ruled by them. If consent fails to generate the expected effect, coercion will be used too. Consent and coercion go hand in hand when it comes to building hegemony; you need them both.’

‘In my book, I try to understand how the right-wing ruling class managed to go in the direction of building hegemony and present it as state building. I do so by unraveling the elements (consensual and coercive) they invented and used to come to, and stay in power.’
 

The civil war has determined the social and political reality of Sri Lanka for over 25 years. How has either making war or efforts to build peace during that period influenced the state’s hegemony?

‘The elite has often taken advantage of the conflict to hold on to their power. At times, it was convenient for them to tap into the public’s sentiment to go to war. Sometimes they even directed the public to go to war. The elite would then use a vocabulary of conflict. At other times, it was more profitable for them to communicate a rhetoric of peace to stay in power. In my book, I analyze how certain individuals belonging to the elite and coalitions of elites pulled different strings during the civil war. They did so in a very opportunistic manner with the aim to stay at the top.’

'People will continue to fight, demanding their right to get an equal share.'

The current crisis heavily affects all groups in society. What’s next for Sri Lanka?

‘This is a crisis that hits everybody in the country, no classes or groups are exempted. During the civil war, this was completely different. Then, the Sinhalese majority lived in relative peace, whereas Tamils in the north and the east of the country had to endure most violence.’

‘Today, people cannot go to work, as there is no fuel. There are no jobs available for those who are unemployed, and children cannot go to school. The state has no proper plan to tackle these issues. The people face a clear and common enemy this time, which is: their rulers. They are less affected by the crisis and even abuse the situation to profit from it. The crisis has exposed the inequalities that exist between the people and those in power.’

‘As for what’s next: I think that people will continue to fight, demanding their right to get an equal share, their basic needs fulfilled and more influence when it comes to governing the country. Again, this situation is not just about the economic resources of the country, but about society’s underlying foundations.’

‘There is a flip side to this deplorable situation as well. People now reclaim their voices and there is more solidarity between different groups in society. This makes it hard for political elites to divide and rule and ignore the demands of the public. Unfortunately, this comes at a huge cost. I remain hopeful, though, because Sri Lanka has shown before that revolt of the people against something can lead to improvement. Time will tell what the long-term outcomes of this all will be.’

Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits received praise and attention for her work. Read the review over at TheWire.In or listen to the podcast The Gateway

Assistant professor
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