Life in the Open-Air Panopticon: Surveillance and the Social Isolation of Ex-LTTE Combatants in Sri Lanka

Image from SL Online News

“You have to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.” – George Orwell, 1984

Talking to former members of the LTTE in Sri Lanka reveals much about their lives and their post-war challenges. Their stories are not only reflected in our conversations, but can also be read through their body language and mannerisms. The way they walk into a room, suspiciously saying hello and smiling reservedly, the way they stay silent for several minutes, feigning small-talk while judging whether you are someone they can trust, as well as the visible shrapnel wounds or missing limbs all speak volumes. Their struggles are multi-faceted – emotional, social, and economic – and signal to anyone willing to pay attention that even five years after the end of the war, and several years of “rehabilitation”, many of them have largely been left isolated, separated, and marginalized not only from the broader Sri Lankan society, but also from certain segments of the Tamil community.

This paper argues that one of the primary reasons for this social isolation is the sophisticated culture of surveillance that now pervades the former war zones of Sri Lanka. While this surveillance structure has indeed become part and parcel of the post-war Sri Lankan state in general, I argue that it is most acutely felt and experienced in the predominantly Tamil areas of the North and East, and that this culture is deeply destructive to the communal bonds of the Tamil community as it continues to corrode any semblance of social cohesion and inter-personal trust. While this argument indeed applies to the broader spectrum of the Tamil community in the former war zones, and likely to other communities in the country as well (see Thiranagama 2011 for examples from during the war), I focus particularly on former combatants because, firstly, there is very little written about them to date, and secondly, I wish to problematize the government’s narrative about their “successful” rehabilitation and reintegration into Sri Lankan society.

The Individual and Social Impacts of Surveillance

In the late 18th century, the philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham designed a prison building that he argued was “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind” (Bentham 1995). He called this structure the panopticon, and its architecture allowed for the surveillance of people who, while they knew they were being watched, did not know when they were being watched at any given moment. Since then, as Michael Dahan (2013, 44) notes, the panopticon has “served as a model for the construction of prisons, and has become a metaphor for surveillance and ‘big brother’” (see also Wood 2003). French philosopher Michel Foucault further examined the panopticon in the context of his broader theories on the way power interacts with individuals in society. An important aspect of disciplinary power, as Foucault sees it, is that it is invisible – it does not have to be visible because it is the individual who steps forward to be judged and examined, to “prove” that they are not engaged in any wrongdoing. In the process of stepping forward, they inevitably acknowledge and reinforce the disciplinary system itself.

For Foucault, the ideal and most effective example of a disciplinary system is Bentham’s panopticon. The major effect of the panopticon, Foucault (1977, 201) states provocatively, is “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary.” Much of what makes the panopticon function, then, is the agency of the individual being watched. The individual who believes that he or she could be watched at any time, consciously alters or disciplines their behaviour and acts as if they are being watched all the time. They become, in other words, a self-policing subject, and “the principle of [their] own subjection” (Foucault 1977, 203).

Foucault was very conscious of the sheer horror that is visited upon an individual who is trapped in a panoptic environment. To be seen without being able to see places the individual in a perpetual state of anxiety, fear, and discomfort. While many scholars have noted that there are important limitations to extending the panopticon beyond Bentham’s fictional prison to society as a whole (Lyon 1992), ‘panopticism’, as Foucault called it, is not about fixed or bounded structures. Rather, Foucault’s argument is that “panopticism is itself mobile, able to produce the effects of enclosure wherever people might be found” and that “enclosure is more a property of the psyche than a concrete spatial arrangement” (Simon 2005, 9). The way in which panopticism functions for ex-LTTE combatants in post-war Sri Lanka is precisely by instilling in them an awareness of perpetual visibility and, in effect, creating self-policing subjects. While from a national security point of view this kind of policing may be seen as a welcome development, I argue that the emotional and social consequences of panopticism are dire, and are tearing at the social and communal fabric of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka.

Panopticism and the Social Isolation of Ex-LTTE Combatants

As the war came to an end, about 12,000 LTTE combatants surrendered/were captured near Pokkanai or after they crossed Mullivaikkal. Here they melded with the civilian population as they walked across the Vadduvakkal causeway into the army’s hands. Once they surrendered to government forces, the mass of humanity numbering over 100,000 were taken to a fenced-in enclosure immediately next to the Vadduvakkal causeway. There they were given food and water, which many had not seen for weeks. This perilous situation was compounded by the fact that the government incorrectly assumed that only a few thousand people remained in the area and had brought insufficient supplies. Many people I spoke with recalled stories of individuals getting stampeded and crushed in the commotion and rush for food that occurred once people had crossed the causeway. “Imagine surviving the war and then dying while waiting for food and water”, one Tamil man told me last year. Subsequently, ex-combatants and civilians alike were put on buses and taken to various camps nearby. At these camps, an announcement went out: “even if you were given a minute of training in the LTTE, you must come forward.” And it seems that most did. Once they came forward, they were usually separated from their families and taken to special rehabilitation centres, mostly located in the North.

According to the government, 24 Protective Accommodation and Rehabilitation Centers (PARCs) were established, and psycho-social and socio-economic profiling was conducted to understand their professional skills and educational levels, their past experiences, and their “levels of radicalization” (Hettiarrachchi 2013, 11). These rehabilitation centers are the pride and joy of the Sri Lankan government, an important capstone for many of their arguments with respect to post-war development and reconciliation (Hettiarachchi M. 2013, 106). At the recent United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in March 2014, for instance, government representatives pointed to their treatment of ex-LTTE combatants and compared it to the “treatment of terrorists” by the Americans and the British, who simply execute them. In fact, by mid-2013, the majority of ex-combatants, men and women, had been released. But what I argue here is that even as they have walked out of the prison/rehabilitation structure, they live their “free” lives in a broader panoptic culture that continues to be felt and experienced on a variety of levels.

The culture of surveillance that pervades the North and East of the country is a major impediment to the reintegration of ex-LTTE combatants. Many of these ex-fighters are constantly watched, followed, and called in for hours of questioning during which they are asked the same questions they have answered many times before. One former combatant, who I will call Seelan, recalled that he had become so distressed and exhausted by the weekly questioning by the military that he left Jaffna and moved to another part of the country, leaving his family behind. As he pointed out:

Being away from my mother and family is difficult, but I just couldn’t take the questions anymore. How many times can I tell my life story to these people? They stand over you and shoot questions at you very quickly. A week later, again. They want to make sure that my story remains the same week after week. If there is a discrepancy, then I would be in big trouble. It’s very stressful. So, I left. They don’t know where I am. I don’t visit my family anymore. My mother sometimes comes to see me, when she can afford the bus fair, but I don’t meet her at the place I am staying now. I’m afraid that the military may follow her one day and discover where I am staying. So, we meet in a third location. Talk for a while. Then she goes back to Jaffna. It’s sad, but I couldn’t take the stress of their questions anymore. They talk about rehabilitation and getting us to leave behind our [militant] past, but they are the ones that ask us to tell them about it week after week. They are not letting me forget.

The military and intelligence officials in Sri Lanka are, according to many ex-combatants like Seelan, committed to instilling in them a sense of fear and a sense that they are under constant surveillance. As such, they have difficulty talking with friends and neighbours, congregating in groups, talking about their experiences during the war with family members – all activities that could raise suspicion. More than a few expressed a deep sense of loneliness following the end of the war, and a continued sense of isolation from those around them. Much of this social isolation stems from an especially twisted element of the surveillance system, namely the use of former combatants as informants. When there are informants within the Tamil community, many ex-cadres point out, the ability to trust one another disappears. Another former combatant, who I will call Suresh, tells me:

Some of the combatants who were forcibly recruiting people in the final stages started to betray the rest of us also. They told the army who we were, how long we were with the LTTE, and so on. The army would come to me and say, “You joined here, in this month and year, you fought under this commander, and you did such and such.” They knew everything. Boys who had been with us quickly switched sides. They did that for their own protection. The army even comes now and asks me to betray people. They’ll throw their arms around your shoulders and talk very friendly. They say they’ll buy us beer, that if we join the army, the salary is good. All that. We just smile and move on. You can’t refuse openly, because then they’ll ask, “Why not, are you still committed to the Tigers?”

A question I often wondered about was their day to day lives following the end of the war: Who did they talk to? How did they interact with friends? Were they having a difficult time developing intimate or close bonds with members of their community? It became obvious that even these questions were intimately tied to the culture of surveillance that was prevalent in the former war zones. As Suresh told me, “Even with friends and fellow Tamils, we don’t talk about the past or the LTTE. Sometimes you meet someone and they talk very negatively about the Tigers. They would say: ‘were they even human? When they were here, we didn’t even have mobile phones’ and so on. But, you don’t respond. You never know if he is working for the military, and was sent to test you, to see if you would openly defend the Tigers. To get a rise out of you.” What is astounding is not only that the culture of surveillance is infused into the very structure of interpersonal interaction, but also that everyone seems to be aware of the dangers, and self-regulates and disciplines themselves accordingly.

Conclusion

In mid-2013, the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation released a glossy booklet entitled, Rehabilitation of Ex-Combatants, detailing how the government treated ex-combatants following their surrender or capture as well as the many programs that they underwent (see Hettiarrachchi 2013). The book is required reading for anyone who follows politics on the island, as it is an unabashed look at how the government not only interprets the history of the conflict, but also how it sees itself in the mirror. “The conflict with the LTTE was comparable to a tip of an iceberg,” the booklet states, “Although we could physically witness only an armed conflict, there were many other complicated issues behind the conflict, such as the distorted history of the country, social grievances arising from the strict caste system that prevailed in the North and the East, psychological brain washing and remnants of unsolved issues from colonization, etc.” (Hettiarrachchi 2013, 12-13).

In attempting to decipher why these combatants joined the LTTE in the first place, the booklet looks to issues of colonialism, caste, and brainwashing – but, perhaps unsurprisingly, not a word is mentioned about the discrimination that the Tamil community faced, about political grievances that may need to be addressed, and so on. The booklet portrays an idealistic multicultural society, which just happened to experience a terrorism problem – a problem, they add, that Sri Lanka was able to solve better and more compassionately than anyone else. As discussed, however, much of this thrust towards the reintegration of ex-combatants (assuming, of course, that it is indeed genuine) is impeded by the continued security apparatus that exists in the North and East of the country. Not only are former combatants finding it difficult to “reintegrate”, but they are also actively isolating themselves from family and fellow Tamils, to protect themselves and to protect others. Whatever social bonds of trust and normalcy which may have existed in the former war zones continue to be stretched thin, as the culture of surveillance – making full use of the military as well as informants – colors and affects almost every social interaction. The long-term repercussions of this for both an individual’s sense of belonging and a community’s sense of cohesion have yet to be fully realized.

References

Bentham, Jeremy. 1995. The Panopticon Writings. Ed. Miran Bozovic. London: Verso Books.

Dahan, Michael. 2013. “The Gaza Strip as Panopticon and Panspectron: The Disciplining and Punishing of a Society.” International Journal of E-Politics 4(3): 44-56.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish. Alan Sheridan (Trans). New York: Vintage Press.

Hettiarrachchi, Brigadier Dharshana. 2013. Rehabilitation of Ex-Combatants. Colombo: Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation

Hettiarrchchi, Malkanthi. 2013. “Sri Lanka’s Rehabilitation Program: A New Frontier in Counter Terrorism and Counter Insurgency.” Prism 4(2): 105-122.

Lyon, David. 1992. “The New Surveillance: Electronic technologies and the Maximum Security Society.” Crime, Law and Social Change 18: 159-175.

Simon, Bart. 2005. “The Return of Panopticism: Supervision, Subjection, and the New Surveillance.” Surveillance & Society 3(1): 1-20.

Thiranagama, Sharika. 2011. In My Mother’s House. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Wood, David. 2003. “Foucault and Panopticism Revisited.” Surveillance & Society 1(3): 234-239.

###

###

IMG_3291

This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.

  • srivanamoth

    There is far more than what meets the eye! That has always been the plight in the so-called Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka. Mere words don’t mean a thing!