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Anticipatory States: Tsunami, War, and Insecurity in Sri Lanka

By Vivian Y. Choi

Cite As:
Choi, Vivian Y. 2015. “Anticipatory States: Tsunami, War, and Insecurity in Sri Lanka.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 2: 286–309.


In 2004, a tsunami caused unprecedented damage and destruction in the Indian Ocean region. For Sri Lanka, the second-most affected country, with over thirty-thousand deaths and five-hundred-thousand displaced, the tsunami resulted in the introduction of new disaster management institutions, logics, and technologies. The formation and implementation of these new institutions, logics, and technologies must be understood alongside a human-made disaster: the decades-long civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the militant insurgent group of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). I outline the ways that the tsunami opened the door for national and social restructuring in Sri Lanka: the devastation of the tsunami and the logics of disaster risk management that followed it offered a political opening for new techniques of state power and projects of nation-building—a process I call disaster nationalism. This governmentality of disaster risk management plays out through an anticipation of disasters, in which disasters, both natural and human-made, are ever-possible future threats that justify ongoing practices and technologies of securitization. Yet state attempts to control the future remain in constant tension with the attitudes and opinions of people who have been affected by both the tsunami and war. These collective relations, practices, and structures of feelings are what I refer to as anticipatory states. From the calculative risk management projects of the Sri Lankan state to the everyday state of being ready and aware in the spaces of disaster, anticipation weaves into and out of experiences and encounters, its different forms and possibilities shaped by complexly layered histories and landscapes of disaster and violence, and, even, forces beyond the control of the anticipatory state.


disaster; disaster nationalism; state power; 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami; war; anticipation; preparedness; security; risk; Sri Lanka