The power of culture. Rethinking transitional justice in Sri Lanka

21.10.2020

Louis Bickford

Hasini Haputhanthri is a museologist and development consultant based in Colombo. She speaks regularly on memory, history education and the need to adopt creative and cultural approaches for sustaining peace.

When Hasini Haputhanthri started working on peace-building initiatives in Sri Lanka for an international organization in 2007, she immediately wanted to integrate her long-standing interest in literature, arts, and culture into her work. Although most peace interventions were focused on policy initiatives, peace agreements, negotiations, and law and institutions, she was drawn to the cultural sphere, which she saw as the domain of the “common man”. Hasini was even more interested in the ways that people’s behaviors were profoundly shaped by everyday norms and habits which feel “normal”, like “common sense”: just the “way we do things”. Changing these kinds of deeply-rooted norms, she believed, was not only possible, but necessary. Designing initiatives that facilitate cultural change even in small measures, she felt, could make a significant contribution to sustainable peace.

But focusing on culture was not, at first, an easy thing to do because “we do not really have space in our transitional justice discourse or peace building discourse for a discussion like this”. Looking back at the emergence of transitional justice in Sri Lanka, she wishes that there had been more cross-disciplinary communication, and that cultural change had been more central to the many discussion and initiatives that have emerged.

The fluid meaning of culture

To begin with, Hasini rejects the idea that culture is static, fixed, or immutable: “people seem to have a very monolithic idea of tradition: we inherited all these things from our ancestors, and this is the way we've been doing things for eons. But that is just a construction, a fabrication, imagination, like an imagined community”. In fact, culture is dynamic and fluid. New norms are constantly being introduced and adopted in any society. Culture is “not a river with closed banks. It's a multitude of streams. A multiplicity of streams that is going through time and space because as we go through time we also interact” with other cultures and with new ideas. And “tradition”, which is often seen as the primary purveyor of culture, is, for Hasini, always also “imagined” and “constructed” and, she feels, “we really need to tackle that, we need to challenge the idea of tradition” by imagining and constructing new and better traditions.

A fundamental question, therefore, is how to change culture in ways that support peace. The answer, for Hasini, is that culture can be changed in many ways: “from within” (such as through local fiction or art) or “from the outside” (such as through exposure to new norms, travel or television). Similarly, culture can be changed “from below”, as indigenous cultural figures push the envelope and challenge old norms; or “from above”, such as by the creation and enforcement of new laws, cultural infrastructure and leadership. All of these must be done at the same time.

Learning from the past and thinking about the future, the field of transitional justice, Hasini argues, could focus more on “cultural production”, including, first, “the arts and exhibitions and Hollywood and Bollywood and all of that that comes through television. Second is national and global media because media usually controls short-term opinions and perspectives. And the third, more long term, is our education structures. Our universities, our schools, our non-formal system of education, like museums”.

Museums' contribution to peace and justice 

Over time, Hasini chose the last of these to focus on — museums as cultural change agents and as educational institutions in the broadest sense — and has emerged as a recognized expert on museums and historical sites, both in Sri Lanka and globally. As of this writing, she has recently produced a definitive inventory and analysis of Sri Lankan museums (‘Museums, Memory and Identity Politics in Sri Lanka’) and contributes in various ways to discussions in Sri Lanka about the potential of museums to contribute to lasting peace. Her approach is not purely academic. She takes people on tours through museums, pointing out implicit narratives and biases. She consults with historical sites. She helped to conceptualize a mobile museum initiative and co-curated the Archive of Memory: Reflections on 70 years independence in Sri Lanka. And she is organizing a global network of digital sites aimed at improving their impact, for example through the World Art and Memory Museum, an initiative that brings together seven countries across Latin America, Africa, Middle East and Asia.

Please send us your feedback and opinions to: tj@frient.de

 

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Interviewee

Hasini Haputhanthri

Issue: Radical Critical

Transitional Justice is a professionalised and internationally accepted policy field. But do its implicit and explicit foundations still hold good? Which of its underlying assumptions, patterns of thinking or practices should be critically reviewed?

Guest moderator

Louis Bickford, CEO, Memria.org

Louis Bickford, PhD, has been working in the transitional Justice field since 1994 with institutions such as the Ford Foundation; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the International Center for Transitional Justice; and the United Nations, as well as various other foundations and international organizations and has published widely on transitional justice, memory, and human rights. He is the founder and CEO of Memria.Org and an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and New York University.

This blog series examines the field of transitional justice through a critical lens, asking challenging questions and exploring ways in which it is relevant today. Through a small number of carefully-selected interviews, the series intends to provoke debate within the field and help lead to innovation and adaptation.

 

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