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Trading in Difference: Muslim--Sinhala Relations in Sri Lanka’s Gem Trading Networks

Nethra Samarawickrema
Date and Time: 
Monday, June 4, 2018 - 12:30

Department of Anthropology
Main Quad - Building 50
Room 51A (Colloquium Room)


Drawing on ethnographic research with coastal Muslim gem dealers and Sinhalese suppliers in hinterland mining villages, this paper examines how gem traders have maintained their long-standing commercial relations in the context of rising anti-Muslim violence in postwar Sri Lanka, including a riot in March 2018 in Digana, Kandy. Gem dealers work within a wider Indian Ocean trading network, which has long been segmented along ethnic and religious lines and is constituted through commercial ties between geographically distant trading partners. Examining the movement of traders, gems, credit, and capital in a circuit of interconnected markets, this paper poses the following questions: how does movement shape experiences of social proximity across spatial distances? What is the work of difference in facilitating exchange? What role does reputation play in sustaining credit lines? How is trust regulated and managed in the absence of legal recourse in the face of default? Arguing that neither national discourses about ethnic-relations in Sri Lanka, nor theories of cosmopolitanism in the Indian Ocean sufficiently explain these relations, this paper seeks alternative frameworks to understand how trading relations and subjectivities are constituted.


Nethra Samarawickrema is a dissertation writer in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. She works on speculative mining and the transnational trade of Sri Lankan gemstones, examining how commerce is constituted through trust and risk, credit and debt, and moral economies.  By tracing the intergenerational trading ties between Sri Lankan traders and their Indian partners based in South India and Hong Kong, she conceptualizes how trading relations within each segment of the commodity network is shaped by transnational movements across the Indian Ocean.