UA Little Rock professor investigates effects of Sri Lankan civil war

Dr. Eric Wiebelhaus-Brahm

A University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor traveled to Sri Lanka as part of an 18-member international research team investigating how peace can be achieved in a post-conflict region. 

Eric Wiebelhaus-Brahm, assistant professor in the UA Little Rock School of Public Affairs, traveled to Sri Lanka Jan. 5-14 as part of the Justice, Conflict and Development Network.

The goal of the Justice, Conflict, and Development Network is to understand how peace can be achieved in countries affected by conflict through the study of justice initiatives and economic development in four countries: Colombia, Sri Lanka, Syria, and Uganda. The trip to Sri Lanka is the third of four planned visits. The network visited Colombia in April 2017 and Uganda in July 2017.

“In Sri Lanka, there has been a civil war that has been waged from 1983 until 2009,” Wiebelhaus-Brahm said. “Sri Lanka is dealing with the consequences of that war and how that war ended. Many civilians died. It is estimated that 100,000 people died in the civil war, approximately 40,000 in the last few months alone. There are people who still don’t know what happened to their loved ones. Nine years later and there are still lots of consequences remaining.”

Sri Lanka’s civil war pitted the government, dominated by the Sinhalese majority, against the Tamil minority predominantly in the country’s north and northeast. Government forces seized the last area controlled by the Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009. The country has been trying to rebuild and heal from the conflict ever since, but it has been a slow, hard process filled with old and new sources of conflict.

“When we were on the east coast, we visited a town where there is a community of farmers,” he said. “When the military came in those last few months of the war, they took over much of the land. Since the war, the farmers have struggled to secure ownership of their land. The government has taken it over, and they haven’t been able to get a clear answer from the government about securing property rights.”

In addition to disputes in land ownership, other major conflicts stemming from the civil war include an effort by victims and human rights activists to prosecute members of the military for war crimes, as well as providing housing for people displaced by the war and job training for women who are now the sole providers for their families. Moreover, tensions between different religious and ethnic factions have in some ways been exacerbated after the war. 

Members of the Justice, Conflict, and Development Network visit Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress and World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka.
Members of the Justice, Conflict, and Development Network visit Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress and World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka.

“This trip was incredibly rewarding to get to speak with people who have experienced the war and are pushing for justice and equitable development,” Wiebelhaus-Brahm said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. Sri Lanka is an incredibly beautiful country, and it has so much potential. There is a lot of economic growth happening in the country. In some ways on the surface, it is hard to believe the war took place.”

The group also interviewed members of the Sri Lankan military, who paint a different picture of the country.

“In Trincomalee, there are several major naval bases, and we arranged a meeting with some of the officials there who presented a very different view of things,” he said. “The military views itself as being the defender of the country. They said that things are very peaceful in Sri Lanka, and the relationship between different ethnic groups is harmonious. In their view, Sri Lanka has moved past the war and things are fine.”

The project is headed by Kirsten Ainley, director of the Centre for International Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Additional members of the coalition include professors from around the world, government officials, and members of nonprofit and activist organizations.

“We are looking at societies deeply affected by civil war,” Wiebelhaus-Brahm said. “This project is trying to understand what have been the effects of conflict and what are the justice and economic development needs of these societies that, with the exception of Syria, are emerging from conflict.”

One of the biggest research areas emerging from post-conflict Sri Lanka is the promotion of gender equality stemming from women who fought in the civil war.

Eric Wiebelhaus-Brahm visits the Sri Lankan parliament building with colleague Stephen Oola.
Eric Wiebelhaus-Brahm visits the Sri Lankan parliament building with colleague Stephen Oola.

“One of my colleagues has done research investigating female Tamil Tiger fighters,” Wiebelhaus-Brahm said. “She has looked at how women have adapted to the end of the war. Women decided to join the rebellion for lots of different reasons. The rebels did sometimes pressure people to support the rebellion. Some said they volunteered to protect a younger brother from joining, and some women saw it as empowering and gave them more independence. In interviews, a lot of women talked about the equality they experienced as part of the rebellion. After the war, a lot of these women have been shunted back into traditional women’s work.”

The project is funded by the United Kingdom’s Global Challenges Research Fund, which awarded the network a grant in 2016 worth approximately £150,000 British pounds, largely to develop relationships that bridge academics and practitioners from developed and developing countries and to fund travel for members of the network to research the four countries. The network recently submitted a larger grant to continue its research in additional countries.

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