Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

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SAI sets off exchange of views on research opportunities in Sri Lanka
From 29 February to 01 March the South Asia Institute (SAI), University of Heidelberg, Germany, in association with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) Colombo, sponsored an exchange of views among German and Sri Lankan academics at Galbangalawa, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. The theme of the meeting was “The future of social research in Sri Lanka,” and it was intended to identify priority areas for social science research, along with possible areas of research collaboration between Sri Lankan academics and the South Asia Institute.

At the beginning of the meeting, Professor Kalinga Tudor Silva from Peradeniya University pointed out that with the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, it was important for social scientists from throughout the country to set new research priorities and to use their skills to address them.  Professor William Sax from Heidelberg recounted the history of the SAI’s involvement in Sri Lanka and reiterated its intention to strengthen its presence there.  Mrs. Bettina Meier recounted the history of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Sri Lanka, with its focus on adult education and workers’ rights.

After a short tea break, Panel 1 discussed the issue of reconciliation.  Speakers were Prof Siri Hettige (University of Colombo), Dr. Dhammika Herath (ICES), Prof. H.M.D.R. Herath (University of Peradeniya), Dr. S. Sivathas (Psychiatrist, Vavuniya), and Radu Carciumaru, M.A. (University of Heidelberg)
After lunch, the issues were discussed intensively, and the participants then separated into three groups to discuss the following themes which had emerged from the discussions, viz.,

1) Multiculturalism
2) Healing, Resilience, and Rituals; and
3) Cultures of Memory

At 7 p.m., the keynote address was given by Gananath Obeyesekere, the distinguished anthropologist and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University.  In his address, entitled Models from the past and their relevance to present Muddles, Prof. Obeyesekere elaborated on the historical dynamics of immigrations, invasion, settlements, and intermarriages among various ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. He especially noted extensive cultural exchanges and population movements between Sri Lanka and India.  

On Thursday, 01 March, the sessions commenced after breakfast.  The three groups that had met the previous day presented their results as follows:

Group 1:  The “multiculturalism” group emphasized the importance of demystifying current ideologies, and making way for alternative discourses.  It was important to emphasize ‘hybrid ethnicities’ and ‘multi-layered ethnic identities,’ and to look at similarities rather than differences between ethnic groups.  The political participation of all groups was necessary, and the allocation of resources and public administrative authority (possibly through a reservation system in recruitment) was seen to be important.  Language policy implementation was crucial to promote multiculturalism, and the state had a crucial role to play.

Group 2:  Healing, resilience and rituals.  This group concluded that any future rituals of reconciliation had to take place in a space where all people could participate.  The Rhetoric of ‘victory’ and ‘defeat’ should be transformed, and used so as to suggest that true “victory” for Sri Lanka equals successful reconciliation.  The group suggested a possible multi-lateral research project focusing on the new social relationships created by the war.  Specifically, private sector-based investment activities are taking place in the Jaffna peninsula; ordinary citizens are once again traveling between northern and southern regions which were hitherto inaccessible, on pilgrimage and business; new relationships are emerging between diverse ethnic groups (e.g. the recent and highly publicized marriage between a soldier and a former LTTE female cadre); and new (charismatic) religious movements are gathering momentum.  The group also noted that integration of Muslims seems still to be a problem.

Group 3: The “Cultures of Memory” group concluded that both private and public spheres of memory should be shaped in a complimentary manner; that memory representations in the media (TV, Print, Cinema) should be unbiased; that the importance of the grieving of minorities should not be ignored; that we should look at collective as well as individual memories; that the physical representations associated with memory should be modeled with sensitivity toward all groups; and that policies aiming at the creation of positive memories should be formulated.  In addition to memories, there were other phenomena associated with the war that should be studied; e.g. an oral history of the malaria epidemic, which added to the collective trauma in Northeastern regions. Such themes could pave the way for other forms of research among the same groups.

This was immediately followed by Panel 2, “Culture and Heritage,” with presentations by Dr. Premakumara De Silva (University of Colombo), Ms. Nilu Abeyaratne (ICES Colombo), and Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva (University of Peradeniya).

After lunch, the third and final panel on the topic “Health” was convened.  The speakers were Dr. Abaya Ratnayake (University of Peradeniya), Dr. Indika Bulankulame (Open University), Eva Ambos, M.A. (University of Heidelberg) and Prof. William Sax (University of Heidelberg). After a tea break, there was a final discussion in which participants acknowledged the need for this group to remain loosely knit together so as to further the agenda of this conference, in the future. Possible follow up action includes joint research, sharing of publications and future academic exchanges.  Prof. Sax thanked all participants for their contributions and made his parting remarks.  The participants had their final dinner at 7:30 p.m. that evening, and departed next morning for Colombo.

On the same day, a Press Conference was organized by Prof. Siri Hettige at Department of Sociology, University of Colombo, where the joint activities of the South Asia Institute and the University of Colombo over the years were highlighted.  Brief talks were given by Prof. Hettige, by the German Ambasador to Sri Lanka, His Excellency Mr. Jens Ploetner, by Prof. Sax, and by Prof. Athula Ranasinghe, Dean of Social Sciences at Colombo University.  This event was also attended by Mr. Dennis Schroeder, Representative of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in Colombo, and by Mrs. Bettina Meier, Director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Sri Lanka. Participants met later that evening for an informal reception in Colombo.
04 Apr 2012
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