Conflict Politics Violence

Transition Development Territory

The state Policy Research

Identity Sovereignty

Bart Klem

Work in progress

Book project: “Performing Sovereign Aspirations: Tamil insurgency and postwar transition in Sri Lanka” (in print with Cambridge University Press)

Garlanding of the statue of SJV Chelvanayakam, the father of Tamil nationalism, in Jaffna (c) Bart Klem

This book (coming out in March 2024) provides a detailed account of the complex ground realities of the Tamil separatist conflict in Sri Lanka, both during and after the civil war. It adopts the analytical perspective of performative politics to understand the convoluted and contested nature of a conflict-ridden institutional landscape. In a society that experiences secessionist conflict, many departments, courts, elections, bureaucracies, and borders are not what they seem – and they are not recognised for what they claim to be.

My book explores how political institutions are enacted and witnessed, rather than cataloguing them in the formal legal framework of the state concerned (which often stands at the heart of the conflict). This provides a fertile vantage point to address the to-be-or-not-to-be dilemmas around the interpretation of legitimacy, legality, and validity, and it provides food for thought for broader conceptual debates concerning armed conflict and insurgency.

Empirically, this book draws on three bodies of data gathered over the period 2000 to 2019: field work across towns and villages in northern and eastern Sri Lankaö ethnography within Sri Lanka’s civil serviceö and insights gained from privileged access to the internationalized echelons of the Norwegian-facilitated peace process.

A symbolic impression of governance in heavy weather (in this case the Colombo town hall in the monsoon) (c) Bart Klem

To name some examples, the reader encounters the intimidating intimacy of visiting a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) office in de facto Tamil Eelam; the improvised diplomatic overtures of an LTTE delegation in the margins of an internationalised peace process; and not previously disclosed email exchanges between LTTE negotiators and Norwegian peace mediators. The postwar chapters feature the disorienting return of a displaced Tamil village to a landscape erased by government bombing; the everyday survival strategies of provincial bureaucrats who work in the leftovers of power-sharing institutions; and the electoral spectacle of Tamil nationalists running for an office that they firmly believe should not exist. The book brings these diverse encounters together into one conceptual narrative.

Legal identity under insurgencies and unrecognised states

This project studies political entities that are not (yet) or no more recognised as a sovereign state but nonetheless issue legal identity documents (e.g. birth and death certificates, passports) to the people under their control. We explore what shape legal identity takes in two contexts, what implications it has for the people affected, and how these people navigate major political shifts:

1) The Syrian Interim Government (which used to issue legal identity documents but now faces defeat). This part of the project is conducted by Marika Sosnowski.

2) The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (which has become an established but widely unrecognized state that issues legal identity documents in its own name). This part of the project is conducted by me.

One major output of this project is a special issue in the journal Citizenship Studies. This collection of 11 contributions covers a wide range of cases.



Other outputs so far include:

For more detail, including an introductory video, see the project website.

Frontier and borderlands (Kalimantan case study)

This larger project on frontiers and borderland is a collaborative effort of the University of Melbourne, the School of Oriental and African Studies (London) and the Universitas Gadjah Mada (Yogyakarta), which is funded by the Melbourne School of Government. While it has technically been completed, I still hope to publish and revisit the work conducted, though my article in TAPJA is out (see thumbnail).

I am responsible for the work on North Kalimantan, one of the three case studies (the others being the Malacca Strait and the Myanmar-China borderland). My field work is situated in Krayan in the Borneo Highlands, right on the Indonesian border with Malaysia, and home to the Lun Dayeh. Krayan can be seen as an economic exclave. It is part of Indonesia, and its inhabitants cherish their Indonesian identity with some fervour, but the remote highland is largely cut-off from the rest of the country. It does have a road connection across the very permeable border to Malaysia.

Krayan has become a de facto special economic zone, where infringements of the law are connived and many cross-border flows are not taxed. Krayan’s export (mountain rice, buffaloes, forest products) goes to or through Malaysia, and virtually any commodity in Krayan has come across from the coast of Serawak (Malaysia). Krayan is an Indonesian region with Malaysian standards, prices and number plates, but the constellation of its political economy is rapidly changing. This research seeks to trace and conceptualise those changes. A related part of this research effort is Nathan Bond’s PhD research on the same border interface in the lowlands (mainly Nunukan, Sebatik, Tawau) and the cross-border community known as the Tidung.

Krayan’s life line to the world: pick-ups driving in from Malaysia (c) Bart Klem