By Sheela Lal On March 27 the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) screened Asoka Handagama’s Ini Avan, with a follow up discussion regarding issues of post-war rehabilitation, reintegration, and livelihoods in the North and East. The discussion was attended by a cross section of participants whose work is related to post-war development at policy, programming [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Re-reading Ini Avan in the context of post-war realities


By Sheela Lal

On March 27 the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) screened Asoka Handagama’s Ini Avan, with a follow up discussion regarding issues of post-war rehabilitation, reintegration, and livelihoods in the North and East. The discussion was attended by a cross section of participants whose work is related to post-war development at policy, programming and research levels, and was moderated by CEPA. Three discussants were invited to lead the conversation, with the audience actively participating in dissecting the film’s themes, and reflecting on their relevance to current post-war policy and practice.

A still from the movie

Ini Avan, meaning “Him, hereafter” was shot in 2009 and released in December 2012. It is set in the aftermath of government sponsored rehabilitation for an ex-combatant, and the plot delves into the ex-combatant’s return to his village near Jaffna, where he negotiates abandoned relationships and his future in this changing space.

Echoing one of the main criticisms of the film, several audience members asked Handagama about how realistic the film was, pointing to the absence of army presence in the movie and the relatively simple plot that does not leave room to extensively probe post-war Jaffna. Handagama responded to these concerns with brevity and insight, referring to the practical constraints and restrictions of making a film on these issues in Sri Lanka. He also stated that though the film doesn’t overtly refer to particular themes, he tried to incorporate symbolism and subtle undertones which are open to interpretation by the viewer; the State, in particular, is very much present, though military uniforms are not. A participant supported his claim, stating that it was a feature film portraying one particular story, not a documentary, and it provides the audience a space to reflect on the content through their own experiences.

The rest of the conversation transitioned between field discoveries, post war realities and development theory. One participant reflected on her first hand experiences of the challenges faced by partially trained ex-combatants when inserted into a still volatile post-war context. She also commented on the role played by the private sector in the arena of employment, and the challenges therein.

“Reality is very different, especially in a sense that there are security issues for young people. Many young people need reference checks for new jobs. Where are they supposed to get these references? These economic barriers continue to disenfranchise Tamil youth. It is important to recognise that one cannot divorce economic challenges from their socio-political context.”

She also emphasised the particular difficulties of ex-combatants, who also needed legal forms of identification, which put them in a precarious position; they risk exposing their past, thereby jeopardising their future.

Another participant commented on the role of women in the film, saying that even though the title referred to the male protagonist, the film was really about the three women surrounding him; the mother, the young paramour and the security guard’s wife. This comment shifted the focus of the discussion to gender in a post-war context, particularly the issue of livelihood and economic opportunities. Issues such as employment skills training, microfinance and societal pressures were discussed.

“Unorthodox training was never implemented and encouraging women to start non-traditional careers was ‘too much work’, but this, unfortunately, was the only way women could have gainful employment. There is political support for domestic occupations like home agriculture or sewing. This is what most women are encouraged to do. The viability of these forms of livelihood strategies is questionable” said one participant, while also indicating that microfinance has become a huge problem for the women in the North and East. For many women, access to different social networks is needed to obtain these loans. Many also used the loans for education rather than immediate economic independence. Consequently, repayment was also a very difficult task

“If you delve in to these economic, political and social issues, they become more complicated. There has to be normality and stability in order to start talking about livelihood policy.”

Safety and security was another issue that was discussed in relation to people’s agency in development policy. An example was given of a rehabilitated LTTE cadre who had his identification taken away due to campaigning by a collective of non-governmental organisations about issues of labelling and typecasting. This resulted in that particular rehabilitated LTTE cadre feeling unsafe in his home because of his lack of proof of rehabilitation. This miscommunication highlights the problems that could emerge when enforcing institutional decisions without listening to the people.

Several people introduced unresolved problems that need to be dealt with before the government or non-governmental organisations implement other economic development policies. These include land rights, political dependency, the omnipresent soldier and its effect on rebuilding daily life, and the constant changes in public space in a post-war era. One of the panelists interjected to reinforce a very important and pertinent reminder that, “often people won’t say what they really think or feel, unless they evaluate the person talking to them as ‘trustworthy’.” This statement shifts the ideology behind research and survey collection and requires the analyst to understand and account for under-reporting.

The last conversation point focused on the relationship between the LTTE, former combatants and civilians. One panelist brought up the idea of “reality” in Ini Avan when it came to interactions between former combatants and civilians, while another reiterated the role of the LTTE in livelihood access and development.

“The relationship between victims and the LTTE is one of the main issues focused on in Sri Lanka. The problem is that the LTTE did not allow a mass movement but instead made decisions on behalf of the people, reducing their agency to community based organising. The film focuses on a small story as an example, not as the norm.” However, another panelist challenged this idea, explaining that, “there was a mass movement of sorts because many people were behind the LTTE, and that at one level, the tension between the combatant and community [in the film] made the viewers from Jaffna uneasy”.

The film sufficiently triggers the necessity to reflect on social and political issues around post-war Sri Lanka. It underlines the importance for citizens to create a safe space to discuss the ramifications and move forward with the conversation to affect action or change.

The writer is a Fulbright Fellow

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