‘Even fish have an ethnicity’: livelihoods and identities of men and women in war-affected coastal Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

Gayathri Hiroshani Hallinne Lokuge

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU

Abstract

Located within the nexus between identity and livelihoods, this thesis explores how the economic activities of fisher livelihoods are shaped by socio-cultural, political and identity dynamics, and how fisher livelihoods, in turn, shape and reproduce these dynamics in post-war Sri Lanka’s coastal district of Trincomalee. The analysis focuses on the economic sociology of fisheries, the inequalities and marginalities in livelihood spaces that are created through intersecting identities such as gender and ethnicity, and the way fisheries are governed—both formally and informally—in politically volatile contexts. This thesis argues that ethnic identity is mediated by other social identity categories, such as gender, location and type of livelihood activity, in the creation of unequal access to livelihood spaces. However, men and women often attempt to subvert structural discriminatory patterns, with differing degrees of success.

Since the country became independent in 1948, Sri Lanka’s history has been dominated by conflict centred on competing ethno-political interests, particularly in terms of access to state power. The perceived privileging of the ethnic minority Tamils by the British colonial powers led to a series of political moves by successive governments in post-independence Sri Lanka. This included making Sinhalese the official language of the country and awarding special status to Buddhism in the constitution. Subsequently, unfavourable perceptions about the privileging of the majority ethnic group and their cultural, social and political symbols led to the formation of Tamil militant groups including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Most discourses on conflict in Sri Lanka have strong ethnic dimensions. However, arguably, ethnic lines are used mainly for mobilising the masses for conflict. The killing of 13 Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) Army soldiers in 1983 in an ambush by the LTTE resulted in widespread anti-Tamil riots in the capital city of Colombo. This event is commonly identified as the trigger point for the protracted war between the Tamil militants and the GoSL. The war continued for three decades, with fluctuating degrees of intensity, until the LTTE faced a military defeat at the hands of the GoSL in 2009. However, the ending of the war does not translate linearly into a post-war condition in Sri Lanka, given the continued presence of the military in the directly war-affected North and East and the social and economic inequalities and tensions that create divisions within the country, undermining meaningful and sustained rebuilding efforts in Sri Lanka.

The thesis begins with an introductory first chapter that presents the aims of the study, locates the research within the context of post-war Sri Lanka, describes the study areas and presents an overview of the methodological approach and theoretical frameworks used. Located in fish landing sites, markets and religious places, Chapter 2 focuses mostly on the livelihoods aspect of the thesis. It analyses how economic activities, such as fishing livelihoods, are deeply and intricately embedded in the cultural and social fabric of the daily lives of individuals, families, communities and institutions. This chapter provides a detailed analysis of how fishing livelihoods are more than an income-generating activity for men and women, considering the different inter- and intra-group value systems that apply to fisher-folk in their day-to-day practices. At the individual level, given the high risk involved in braving the seas every day, religion takes a central place in a fisher’s life, irrespective of their specific faith. This phenomenon is heightened by war-related insecurities and threats. However, individual and communal struggles over contradictory economic and religious values are an ever-present aspect of the fishermen’s religiosity. We found this process to be marked by rationalising and meaning making, embodied through the daily experiences of these fishermen and women.

The findings show that people take advantage of the malleable nature of religious doctrine to mix, match and choose from different religions to suit the current need and the occasion. Religious beliefs and ideologies also create and sustain socio-political differences, which are further constructed by macro-level political discourses. At the community level, although there are complex, historical tensions between all of the religious groups in Trincomalee, with heightened tension and violence during the war years, Hindus and Buddhists share considerable religious complementarity. Muslims are increasingly marked as separate—in spaces of religious ritual, such as the Hindu temples, and also in terms of types of fishing livelihoods. Most Muslims also see themselves as separate. Through an analysis of how discourses on religious identity play out in everyday life, Chapter 2 argues that economic rivalries over fishing resources may spill over into—or be reinforced by—religious and ethnic tensions in the post-war context.

Chapter 3 focuses more on the identity aspect of the thesis, with research based in the lagoons and shallow seas of Trincomalee. Using intersectionality theory, this chapter examines how the intersection of the social categories of gender, race, ethnicity and location creates structural inequality. Drawing upon narratives of Muslim, Tamil, Sinhalese and indigenous/Veder women catching and marketing fish in coastal Trincomalee, this chapter analyses how historical factors, such as population movements and war, have shaped the current realities and positions of women. Further, the chapter illustrates that, although a clear case can be made that certain groups of women are particularly disadvantaged at the intersection of ethnicity, caste and livelihood location, similarities in cultural gender norms across ethnic lines mean that the inequalities facing women may overshadow other identities.

Although multiple inequalities affect these women’s daily lives and participation in activities, they are not passive victims; they use their own agency to negotiate for access to livelihoods. Nevertheless, the women engaged in various fishing-related activities who participated in this study appear to be completely invisible to the government fisheries management bodies. The resulting lack of institutional representation disadvantages these women in negotiations for space to engage in their livelihood activities. Registration of these women in coastal livelihoods would provide them with a first measure of recognition and empowerment, strengthening their chances of negotiating access to livelihood resources.

With the ending of the three-decade-long civil war, changes have taken place in the main wholesale fish market in the conflict-affected coastal district of Trincomalee. These changes are reflected in the market structure and governance, as well as in the number and kinds of people inside the market. A marketplace that was formerly multi-ethnic and mixed gender has become dominated by male traders from the Sinhalese Buddhist ethnic majority group, excluding women and ethnic minority men. By focusing on the multiple masculinities of male wholesale dealers and their interactions with fishermen suppliers, Chapter 4 a) provides a nuanced analysis of the historical and contextual factors that shaped the political and economic hegemonising processes of the wholesale fish market; b) attempts to understand how, within this hegemonising process, the dealers embody and negotiate between overlapping ethno-nationalist, enterprising and patron–provider masculinities; and c) analyses how these diverse masculinities ultimately may contribute to the collapse of the gendered ethnic dominance at the market. This chapter adds nuance to the ethnicised discourse on war and livelihoods in Sri Lanka and globally. Further, the chapter also brings a masculinities approach to the study of contemporary maritime anthropology.

Chapter 4 thus continues the focus on identities and attempts to understand ethnicity as socially constructed and as mediated by other forms of identity, such as gender, or, more specifically, through masculinities. Focusing on masculinities and the different subject positionalities of men at the wholesale market—a dimension that has been largely missing in Sri Lankan discourses on post-war livelihoods and identity—this chapter provides a nuanced analysis of how a unidimensional focus on ethnicity or gender is insufficient to explain the post-war power dynamics. It analyses how the embodiment and practice of masculinities, such as risk-taking entrepreneurs and dare-devil border guards, show both complicity with and resistance to political and economic domination or hegemony at a given point, and how this changes over time.

The findings indicate that hierarchies of social and political power are dynamic. More specifically, the understanding of masculinity as plural, dynamic and negotiated, combined with the display of agentive power by subordinated or marginalised groups, results in hegemonies or structures of dominance that are continually shaped and reshaped at the everyday level. There are masculinities, rather than one way of doing masculinity. These different ways of doing masculinity challenge the dominant power structures and hierarchies.

Chapter 5 focuses on a particular illegal fishing practice (disco net fishing) and examines how governance processes mitigate or exacerbate social tensions. The chapter centres on the interaction between formal and informal fisheries stakeholders and fishers, arguing that perceptions about the legitimacy of formal state actors in regulating fisheries strongly influence compliance behaviour. This chapter demonstrates that the perceived lack of legitimacy of the state in fisheries regulation was profoundly influenced by context and timing. The active interest taken by the state, aided by the military, in tightening fisheries regulation and enforcement measures after the end of the war violence was seen by the disco net fishermen as a strongly negative factor in their daily lives and livelihoods. When shared war-related violence forms the backdrop for state, non-state and citizen interactions and normative frameworks, negotiations regarding access to resources and regulatory efforts become not just a livelihood and resource management effort, but a broader and more sensitive political issue.

Faced with the perceived failure of the state as a legitimate actor to regulate fisheries, Chapter 5 found that the disco net fishermen turn towards other forms of everyday politics, power dynamics and local legitimacies. However, these local legitimacies vary in how they manifest and draw power. Therefore, the contestations reported in this chapter are not simply about forum shopping between the formal state and informal community institutions and norms; rather, they are also about navigating within the formal and the informal rules of the game. The case of illegal fishing in this chapter clearly illustrates the need to understand fisheries governance issues as a manifestation of a larger problem at the level of state–society interaction, specifically regarding the legitimacy of the actors involved in governing fisheries in Trincomalee. Therefore, this chapter concludes that there is a need to understand and address fisheries governance issues as ‘wicked problems’ and as processes that need to go beyond conventional planning approaches.

The concluding chapter of the thesis highlights five specific conclusions based on the findings presented in the previous chapters. First, the embedded nature of economic activities, such as those in fisheries, means that they are dynamic, time- and space-bound, and mediated by how men and women chose to embody and disembody morality, religiosity and competing or complementary value systems. These dynamisms in morality contribute to the social re/construction of fisheries as work. Second, in contexts such as Sri Lanka, where society is violently divided along different identity lines, especially that of ethnicity, inclusive and sustainable post-war rebuilding and meaningful community cohesion will require understanding that a) ethnic identity is socially constructed and mediated by the enactment of other identity categories; b) men and women use agentive power in accessing livelihoods, shaping and reshaping identity discourses through their livelihood activities; and c) hierarchies of power are dynamic in nature. Third, local-level legitimacies are as important as the electorally won, constitutionally accorded legitimacy of the state in resource governance. Consequently, discourses on state-building in post-war contexts need to pay careful attention to these legitimising processes, to how local-level legitimacies are shaped and reshaped, and to the influence of local-level legitimacies in strengthening or weakening state legitimacy. Fourth, continued legacies of war shape the lives of men and women. Fifth, the findings of this thesis add a granularity to the ongoing debate within post-war Sri Lanka on the different ways that social identities of men and women are (re)shaped through their access to livelihood opportunities and resources. Expanding the argument that economic institutions reshape gender at the individual, interactional and institutional levels, this thesis shows that economic institutions and activities shape the intersecting identities of men and women in complex ways, both in terms of how they see themselves and in the way they organise their social and political lives in the wider society.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
Supervisors/Advisors
  • Hilhorst, D.J.M., Promotor
  • de Alwis, M., Co-promotor, External person
  • Frerks, G., Co-promotor
Award date3 Jul 2017
Place of PublicationWageningen
Publisher
Print ISBNs9789463436182
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Keywords

  • livelihoods
  • livelihood strategies
  • fishing communities
  • fishing
  • women
  • gender
  • conflict
  • war
  • sri lanka
  • south asia

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of '‘Even fish have an ethnicity’: livelihoods and identities of men and women in war-affected coastal Trincomalee, Sri Lanka'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

  • Projects

    Intersectionality and Contested Spaces of Fishers: Case of Trincomalee District-Sri Lanka

    Halinne Lokuge, G., Frerks, G. & Hilhorst, T.

    1/09/123/07/17

    Project: PhD

    Cite this