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Religion, Conflict and Boundary Politics in Sri Lanka


  • Jonathan Goodhand

    (School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London)

  • Bart Klem

    (University of Zurich, Zurich)

  • Benedikt Korf

    (University of Zurich, Zurich)


Boundaries have always been central to the dynamics of armed conflicts. Wars involve the activation and hardening of certain boundaries, thus dividing friend from foe. But despite the efforts of political potentates to carve out clearly delineated impermeable boundaries, people continue to travel across and sometimes challenge these boundaries. In this article, we study the boundary crossing practices of religious actors in eastern Sri Lanka, a multi-ethnic and multi-religious context affected by protracted war and a tsunami. We discuss two case studies, one on local conflict mediation activities and another on post-tsunami humanitarian work, to examine how religious actors engage with boundaries. We find that paradoxically, religious actors derive their ability to intervene in politically controversial issues because of their perceived distance from the ‘dirty’ world of politics. But conversely their religious and institutional identities are threatened when they become too visibly enmeshed in everyday politics.Les frontières ont toujours été centrales à la dynamique des conflits armés. Les guerres impliquent inévitablement l’ouverture et le blocage de certaines frontières, afin d’établir une division claire entre ami et ennemi. En dépit les nombreux efforts des potentats du monde destinés à établir des frontières clairement tracées et imperméables, celles-ci continuent néanmoins à être traversées, et sont même souvent contestées. Cet article se penche sur les pratiques transfrontalières des acteurs religieux au Sri Lanka oriental, un contexte multi-ethnique et multi-religieux affecté par une guerre prolongée et un tsunami. Nous développons deux études de cas, une portant sur des processus de médiation locale et l’autre sur le travail humanitaire post-tsunami, afin d’examiner comment les frontières affectent les acteurs religieux impliqués dans ces activités. Nous trouvons paradoxalement que la capacité d’intervention des acteurs religieux par rapport aux questions politiques controversées découle de leur distance vis-à-vis du monde « sale » de la politique, mais que leurs identités religieuses et institutionnelles sont menacées quand ils sont trop visiblement mêlés à la politique quotidienne.

Suggested Citation

  • Jonathan Goodhand & Bart Klem & Benedikt Korf, 2009. "Religion, Conflict and Boundary Politics in Sri Lanka," The European Journal of Development Research, Palgrave Macmillan;European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI), vol. 21(5), pages 679-698, December.
  • Handle: RePEc:pal:eurjdr:v:21:y:2009:i:5:p:679-698

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