Report on the Conference on Body, Mind and Healing: Reflections on Post-disaster Responses in Sri Lanka
Date 21- 23 August 2015
Venue South Eastern University of Sri Lanka
Colombo Branch Office of the South Asia Institute (SAI), Heidelberg University, Germany in collaboration with Social Policy Analysis and Research Centre (SPARC), University of Colombo, Sri Lanka organized the above conference and a photographic exhibition of Pattini-Kannaki in the Ashraff Memorial Library of the South Eastern University (SEU) of Sri Lanka in the aim of initiating a dialogue on post-disaster responses in Sri Lanka and assess their comparative and relative effectiveness on healing the body, mind and affected communities. Seven research papers were presented under the following themes.
- Body, mind and healing in global responses to disasters
- The role of western medicine in relation to healing of body, mind and fractured communities
- Religious ritual and community responses in relation to healing of body, mind and fractured communities
- Prof. Daya Somasunderam (Prof. of Psychiatry, University of Adelaide and Jaffna) – Guest Speaker
- Prof. William Bo Sax (Deputy Director, South Asia Institute (SAI) Heidelberg University)
- Prof. Tudor Silva (Prof. of Sociology, University of Peradeniya)
- Ms. A.W.N. Naleefa (Lecturer, Dept. of Sociology, South Eastern University of SL)
- Dr. Malathi de Alwis (Socio-Cultural Anthropologist)
- Mr. Thanges Paramsothy (PhD Candidate, University of London)
- Dr. Sivathas (Psychiatrist, Vavuniya)
- Prof. Ven. Deegalle Mahinda (Reader, Bath Spa University)
Day 1 (21 August 2015)
Even though the conference was scheduled to start at 1600hrs on the 21 August 2015, due to unforeseen delay in transport arrangement, conference started at 1900hrs. Prof. William Sax and Prof. Tudor Silva welcome the participants and opened the floor for the guest speaker Prof. Somasunderam. In his presentation titled ‘Traditional calming techniques and other calming practices in post-war healing’ he emphasized the importance of traditional healing practices in dealing with psychological wounds of post conflict societies. In order to show the Sri Lankans’ affiliation to their village and birth place, he introduced the ‘Ur’ concept. Ur means village in Tamil. Through anecdotal evidence he showed how people place, name and identify strangers in their first encounter. Somasunderam saw this as an attempt by the people to find roots (histories). He related cultural practices stemming out of these roots as a very important healing mechanism for psychological wounds in post conflict societies.
Prof. Sax’s paper on ‘healing the person, healing the nation: some thoughts on the relationship between individual and collective healing’ instigated a discussion on formulating a national policy encompassing western medical concepts and cultural, ritual and communal practices. Even though it looks impossible from the outset, conference participants seemed to believe in it very strongly.
Due to the delay in starting the conference, it was decided to have the discussion (on the two papers presented) on the following day. After a brief introduction of the photographic exhibition of Pattini-Kannaki by Dr. Malathi de Alwis the exhibition was officially opened for the public. Prior arrangements were made to publicize the exhibition within the university as well as outside the university as some photographs of the exhibition were captured from rituals performed in kovils in Oluvil.
Fellowship dinner was served around 2130hrs at a nearby holiday resort named Thompukandam Village Resort.
Day 2 (22 August 2015)
Started the day with the discussion of yesterday’s papers. In agreement with Prof. Somasunderam’s argument and admiring his commitment towards healing the people as a physiatrist, Dr. de Alwis brought up a discussion about dealing with collective memory in post war Sri Lanka. Even though civil society organizations are quite active and committed about erecting a public monument in memory of victims of the war, the participants expressed their concern about the location and form of the monument.
Prof. Tudor presented an overview of their research (team of researchers consists of Dr. Sivathas and Mr. Wickramasinghe) on suicide trends in post-war Sri Lanka. Out of the initial findings they question whether the increasing suicide rate is a manifestation of social anomie.
Ms. Naleefa presented her observations on health care seeking behavior in Kalmunai Divisional Secretariat Area. Issues of people’s trust on public health sector, health insurance schemes and the concept of class came up during the discussion of this paper.
After the morning tea break Dr. Malthi de Alwis presented her paper on ‘religiosity as last resort’. Paper discusses the power of religious rituals in overcoming the grief of the disappeared in post-war Sri Lanka. She brought the gender dimension into the discussion as women play a leading role in these rituals.
Mr. Thanges’s paper discussed about the possibilities that have opened to injured/mutilated bodies of the war in post war society. His experience and field work with diaspora opened the floor to a different engagement with bodies. Mutilated bodies do not necessarily speak about hurt, trauma and the past, it could also talk about opportunities and futures in a post war society.
After the lunch break Dr. Sivathas agreed to share his work experience with rehabilitation camps in Vavuniya in the absence of Dr. Jeayaranjinee Gnanadas. Dr. Sivathas’s paper was titled ‘Healing the Hurt’. Emphasizing the importance of traditional healing practices and the strenuous process of healing, he appealed from the Sinhalese (majority) not to hurt the Tamils (minority) anymore.
Prof. Ven Deegalle Mahinda’s paper discussed about the Buddha’s approach towards vengeance. He emphasized that the feeling of vengeance can only be tackled/conquered is through practicing forgiveness.
Selected number of participants met at 0800hrs to think and discuss about future possibilities of collaborative research. After some deliberations the group decided to work on the broad theme of indigenous knowledge systems encompassing all forms of indigenous knowledge from technology to healing/medicine to agricultural practices to early warning systems. Also it was decided not to limit this research and discussion to university academics but to open it for interested professionals in government institutions.
Visit to a Religious Site
Dr. de Alwis accompanied 10 sociology students from SEU and some participants to 3 religious sites situated nearby. In order to gain access to these sites Ms. Naleefa (lecturer from SEU) did lot of ground work as the mosques are not very cooperative towards accommodating women in their sites.
- Beach Mosque in Kalmunai
- Kannaki Amman Kovil in Karativu
Dr. Malathi discussed about the dynamic nature of these religious sites. And the ways in which these sites were influenced by different religious rituals throughout the history. Even though the students were residents of Ampara District, they have not visited any ‘other’ site than their own religious sites. This experience was indeed not only a lesson on sociology of religion but an eye opener for the students in a post war society, which was a timely thing to do by academics with a socially conscious mindset.
After lunch participants set off to Colombo.
Darshi Thoradeniya welcoming the guests
Prof. William Sax and Prof. Tudor Silva from University of Peradeniya officially welcoming the guests
Prof. Daya Somasunderam - guest speaker's talk/presentation
William Sax lighting campfere with Darshi Thoradeniya, Malathi and Ms. Naleefa (lecturer from South Eastern University - our coordinator from that end)
everybody enjoying the exhibition.
group photo - conference participants
Presenter - Dr. Malathi de Alwis
Prof. Ven. Deegalle Mahinda
Beach Mosque in Kalmunai - this is one of the sites we paid a site visit to with South Eastern University students.