Being in the Know

Bart Klem and Sidharthan Manauguru reflect on the experiences and research that informed the writing of their CSSH essay, “Insurgent Rule as Sovereign Mimicry and Mutation: Governance, Kingship, and Violence in Civil Wars“:

Our article on sovereign articulations of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is not the result of an intentional methodological effort. Quite the contrary: For Sidharthan, who grew up in the society that the LTTE strove to command, witnessing its regime comprised his formative life experiences—some of them memories that only fell into place years later. Bart crisscrossed north and east Sri Lanka for short-term consultancy stints, growing gradually more frustrated with the superficial nature of that work and his inability to gain an insider’s perspective. In our article we write, “Sidharthan found himself on the inside of the LTTE’s sovereign project and worked his way out while Bart started on the outside and tried to work his way in.” In this contribution we reflect on this insider-outsider question in more detail.

Sharika Thiranagama beautifully writes about this experience in her work on Tamil subjectivity during the war. We were particularly inspired by her observation that communities are defined by “being in the know” (2011: 27). I, Sidharthan, experienced this very directly, growing up in Sri Lanka during the war, living with war. Friends and relatives were killed, disappeared, or fled the country. Like the young people around me, I witnessed and felt the brutal war as it unfolded, the fighting between Tamil militants, and the forceful rise of the LTTE as the dominant Tamil militancy. We heard the stories that granted a mythical status to the magical growth of the movement and its leader. We watched the news, witnessed the physical expressions of the LTTE’s power, and we heard the rumors. But more fundamentally than that, being in the know comprised a pervasive sense of fear and the anticipation of violence, which we knew could be unleashed against whoever stood in the LTTE’s way.

The LTTE did not form overnight; it took years, even decades. I heard people around me speaking out against the violence of the Sri Lankan forces, but also whispering about LTTE’s violence against their own people. Those who questioned the cause or the LTTE’s violence were silenced. Conversely, people who were openly sympathetic to the armed struggle were framed as LTTE supporters and targeted by government forces. Self-censoring became an everyday routine. The ideas expressed in our article seek to capture these whispers and the everyday construction and consumption of the myths and realities of the LTTE. They are also shaped by my own memories of violence and my fear of putting my thoughts on paper. The process of accumulating knowledge and developing an academic language to write about it has been long and slow.

As an outsider, I, Bart, a white Dutch academic who does not speak Tamil fluently, witnessed some of the challenges of wartime knowing and being known as a master’s student in 2000. Having affiliated myself with an NGO to do research in LTTE controlled areas, the best I could do to be in situ was to pay nightly visits to the village. Even these overnight stays raised eyebrows among the humanitarian expat community in the district capital. After crossing the army checkpoint, I would find myself in de facto Tamil Eelam. While the LTTE was largely invisible, it was clear that they knew exactly what was going on. On the few occasions that my translator and I paid a visit to the local LTTE commander to secure access, he made sure that we knew that he knew. I remember our first courtesy visit. As we were about to leave the office, the commander casually asked my translator what his name was and where he lived. When this young Tamil man from the district told him, the commander paused and pretended to dig through his memory. Then he said something like, “Ah yes, it’s that house at the end of this alley, with the mango tree in the corner, and you live with so-and-so and so-and-so.” My translator was shocked. He was shaking when we left the house. The commander had not merely listed off all of his family members, but had used their intimate names—not those on the official registry, but the names and forms of address they used in the private space of their home.

After the 2002 ceasefire many things changed. As mentioned in the article, I (Bart), happily joined the “Vanni tour.” We were taken from scene to scene to watch Tamil Eelam being staged in the northern Vanni region. Much of this performance was about normalizing LTTE rule by rolling out a landscape of signposts, offices, paperwork, and activities that foreigners would recognize as state conduct. But if it was meant to be normal, then why was there so much excitement, and why were people taking so many pictures? Many of those pictures captured war in simple, even stereotypical terms. Ruins, bullet holes, bomb craters, and signposted mine fields represented tragedy, suffering, and anger. Brand new houses, road repairs, flags, and inaugural signs all symbolized resilience, hope, and peace. These pictures allowed us to tell a story, the proof of having been there, the expat version of being somewhat in the know. While the visuals of the material landscape conveyed impressions of the war very effectively we also knew that they actually told us very little about the views of the inhabitants of that landscape.

Writing about the LTTE’s state experiment in the Vanni was challenging. It was obvious that the movement was playing to an international audience, vying for a level of legitimacy, creating de facto realities waiting to be normalized. One reason why it was staged as it waswas to appeal to people like me (Bart), namely to imply endorsement by international witnesses. It was tempting to describe these efforts as a process of state formation, and some of our “outsider” colleagues have done so. The Norwegian geographer Kristian Stokke (2006) described Tamil Eelam as a state-building process, albeit an authoritarian state with a democratic deficit and an internal and external security problem. Stokke received a sharp critique from an “insider” of the Tamil community, the Tamil émigré Muttukrishna Sarvananthan (2007), for lacking methodological rigor and using inaccurate data. We felt that there was merit to both of their perspectives. Their debate starkly highlighted the conundrums we grappled with ourselves, namely whether or not to categorize and identify the LTTE as a state. After all, the language of the state can be just as problematic as the language of terrorism. The former apportions legitimacy; the latter takes it away. Both labels often obfuscate the fact that these discursive battles are not just matters of interpretation—they intervene in a battlefield of knowledge, which is itself embedded in the political conflict.

When the two of us started talking about these dilemmas quite a few years ago we realized that, although we came from opposite angles, we had been troubled by the same conceptual handicap throughout our formative academic years: the problematic nature of a statist perspective when analyzing a performance that had the primary, but heavily contested, aim of seeming state-like. We wrote, talked, edited, read, reread, and read more. After two or three years, the prospects of a publishable article began to fade, but we eventually established anchor points in two bodies of scholarly literature that helped us to put the contradictions surrounding the LTTE at the center of our analysis rather than trying to resolve or downplay them. The literature on de facto sovereignty and divine kingship (e.g., Hansen and Stepputat 2006) helped us come to terms with the unsettled nature of LTTE rule. Homi Bhabha’s work on mimicry (1994) helped us turn a fairly obvious point—the fact that the LTTE imitates other states—into a more fruitful analysis. What is interesting about such an imitation is that it never produces an exact duplicate, and this leaves space for slippage and mockery. The review process at CSSH, which was both formidable and incredibly generous, helped us to communicate these ideas in a more thorough and balanced way.

The LTTE was comprehensively defeated in 2009. It has taken us nearly a decade to publish our reflections. We believe, however, that our paper still provides a useful contribution, not just to the literature about the LTTE, but also to its legacies for questions of authority, power, conflict, and peace in Sri Lanka, and in South Asia generally. We also hope it inspires colleagues to contribute to the rapidly developing scholarship on insurgencies and rebel governance around the globe.

Bhabha, Homi. 1994. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.
Hansen, Thomas B. and Finn Stepputat. 2006. Sovereignty Revisited. Annual Review of Anthropology 35: 295–315.
Sarvananthan, Muttukrishna. 2007. In Pursuit of a Mythical State of Tamil Eelam: A Rejoinder to Kristian Stokke. Third World Quarterly 28, 6: 1185–95.
Stokke, Kristian. 2006. Building the Tamil Eelam State: Emerging State Institutions and Forms of Governance in LTTE-Controlled Areas in Sri Lanka. Third World Quarterly 28, 6: 1197–201.
Thiranagama, Sharika. 2011. In My Mother’s House: Civil War in Sri Lanka. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

By ltwstu

Lecturer of Anthropology University of Michigan Associate Managing Editor Comparative Studies in Society and History