Waves of Conversion? The Tsunami, 'Unethical Conversions,' and Political Buddhism in Sri Lanka

March 2015 (VOL. 33, NO. 1)

Download this article

Kleinfeld (2007) argues that humanitarian space should not be thought of as distinct from the political space, and that the repertoire of humanitarian actions always takes place within this pre-existing political space. This article explores this proposition within the context of the public debates on ‘unethical conversions’ in Sri Lanka following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. While, for my Buddhist informants, the tsunami was seen as enabling a sudden influx of numerous foreign NGOs to Sri Lanka, some of whom were suspected of proselytizing intentions, my Christian informants related to the post-tsunami period as involving a “suspension of hostilities”, which opened new opportunities to prove their worth to Sri Lankan society through their tsunami rehabilitation work. Indeed, some Christian relief organizations were able to temporarily negotiate a humanitarian space for themselves in local particularities. Nevertheless, allegations of ‘unethical conversions’ and the general mistrust of NGOs, which came to dominate Sri Lankan political discourse, were vital issues in the creation of a ‘nationalist’ political discourse which has had extensive and long-term effects.