Book Talk

Sasanka Perera, Warzone Tourism in Sri Lanka: Tales from Darker Places in Paradise, 2016, pp. 231 (with illustrations). New Delhi and Thousand Oaks: Sage Publishing. ISBN 978-93-515-0922-6.

~ Nira Wickramasinghe, Leiden University

In May 2009 the secessionist war that had pitted the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against the security forces of the government of Sri Lanka since 1983 came to a brutal end. Prabhakaran, the ruthless leader of the LTTE, and countless other combattants lay dead around the Nandikadal  lagoon, a small coastal area in the Jaffna peninsula in the north of the island. For nearly three decades,  apart from the period of truce (2002-2005) between the LTTE and the government brokered by the Norwegians,  the country had been at war, with devastating social and economic consequences, especially in the northern war zone.  In the predominantly Sinhalese South, however, the end of the war was hailed as a triumphal victory of what the government had dubbed without any irony  a  ‘humanitarian operation’ aimed at rescuing a captive population from the clutches of a ‘terrorist’ group.

War Zone Tourism in Sri Lanka offers the reader a sharp and sensitive ethnography of war zone travels undertaken by Sinhalese tourists at two particular moments in Sri Lanka’s recent past.  Through a foray into this very specific social and cultural practice the author gives insights into what motivates such travel, what politics it reveals, in short what the practice means. The central focus of the book is the gaze of these travellers, a gaze that is clearly not uniform. For some of them it is pleasure and leisure that guides them while for others it is curiosity, religiosity or patriotism or a combination of these.  Sasanka Perera has followed these travellers along their trail, observing them in the various locations from the Buddhist temple in Naga Dipa to the Victory Monument in Puthukkudiyiruppu. The reader discovers, gradually, the way the landscape of Jaffna has been reshaped by the post war government policy of reconciliation through development and through an erasure of the past. LTTE cemeteries  and formal LTTE monuments are no longer there. Sasanka Perera’s eye is sharp but he rarely shows impatience as he points out to the reader what the tourist sees and also what he/she fails to see : the endless rows of blackened palm trees,  bullet damaged houses and large destroyed swaths of land. One of the many strengths of this book is the thick ethnography that comes with a deep understanding of and empathy with those who suffered and the tourists he is writing about. The photographs capture beautifully the sadness of the site. 

The book devotes one chapter to Southern travellers touring Jaffna when the ceasefire was in operation (2002-2005) and another to their travels to a vaster area including Jaffna and former war zones such as Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu in the post-war era after 2009 and the re-opening of the main road in 2010. The book  is composed of an introductory chapter that sets the stage and locates the study within a body of work on places, landscapes, travels. The next two chapters mentioned above form the kernel of the book. A shorter chapter follows, that looks at photography as a practice that authenticates travel and cartography in warzone tourism. The book ends with a conclusion that brings the argument together through a perceptive analysis of the family resemblances of the mobilities of war zone tourism with ancient and modern forms of pilgrimage. 

War Zone Tourism in Sri Lanka is a singular  contribution to the growing field of sociology of tourism which has explored for instance the rescripting of Angkor in the context of post war tourism and heritage making (Leakthina Chau-Pech Ollier ed., Tim Winter ed., Expressions of Cambodia : the Politics of Tradition, Identity and Change, Routledge 2006) . Sri Lanka tourism  has not until now elicited any scholarly interest, it is hence a virgin territory that Sasanka Perera is ploughing. The book also speaks to memory studies as landscapes dotted with monuments and remains which also function as ‘lieux de memoires’.  It ends on a rather pessimistic appraisal of the consolidation of a hegemonic view of history by the state and the armed forces. There is a glimmer of hope however in the book when the author describes a younger generation of tourists more interested in taking pictures of themselves on their mobile phones to post on facebook than in reading the official explanations or talking to the soldiers. The short attention span of today’s consumer driven youth may be a boon rather than an object of despair.  Possibly they will leave the warzone largely untouched by the state’s partial representation of the events that took place during the war years. 

My first point of concern is that the book tends to look at places as the static recipients of visitors that come and go. It might have been helpful to use the language of performance rather than place  to think about the motivations and desires of tourists (Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture : Tourism, Museums and Heritage, University of California Press, 1998) and view the production and consumption of tourist spaces, the shift from location to destination,  as contingent and mutually constitutive processes. The other issue is the author’s choice to focus only on Sinhalese tourists which he explains albeit briefly  by asserting that Tamil travels to the former warzone  constitute ‘an entirely different category of travel and experience which requires a very different approach in analysis’ (p.2). If a separate literature on Tamil visitors is produced, is the creation of a polarized literature of grief and tourism appropriate ?

These quibbles apart this is an excellent book, theoretically informed, clearly written and ethnographically grounded that deserves to be read widely by scholars in many  fields especially in cultural politics and visual anthropology and perhaps also made available in the vernacular languages of Sri Lanka.

(This review was initially published in Pacific Affairs , Vol. 90, No. 4, 2017. It is republished in TAP Book Talk with the reviewer’s consent)

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