Sizing up the Sri Lankan strife

Published: December 1, 2014
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I came out of the airport wondering if the tales of a fractured coexistence were as deeply entrenched as I had been told before I landed to pursue a month-long journalist exchange programme in Sri Lanka.

In many ways, islands defy the socio-political belligerence of geographical proximity to other lands. Sri Lanka distinctly holds its own, even with the world’s largest democracy staring down intently at its past and present. It is either because of this, or perhaps despite it, that the seemingly small spec of land divided by a narrow sea from the southern tip of India has endured decades of a bloody civil war with such sound determination.

Not long before I landed at Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport, I realised this was a land of two tongues. Tamil and Singhalese are both percussive, rotund languages. The words swell, gather themselves and scatter their syllables in a way that only a foreign speak can appear to do. The man at the counter where I bought a local SIM card was Tamil, the customs official who asked me what I came to Sri Lanka for was Singhalese. I came out of the airport wondering if the tales of a fractured coexistence were as deeply entrenched as I had been told before I landed to pursue a month-long journalist exchange programme in Sri Lanka. It was a cautious curiosity that would delicately prick my mind during my stay in this lush island that would also, incidentally, deliver my first encounter with a monitor lizard―an extremely intimidating prospect for a city boy like me.

A monitor lizard a few metres away from the beach front of Unawatuna. Photo: Ali Haider Habib

My own country is no stranger to violent insurgency. We are given to understand the power of systematic thought control. But the hostility we face comes from an armed opposition that believes in a certain interpretation of religion. So it takes one more than a moment or two to figure out how and why a country as secular as Sri Lanka has fought and subsequently crushed a guerrilla force whose fighters were willing to blow themselves up, that too with no guarantees of a recompensing hereafter.

Sheikh Usman Waliyullah Shrine and Mosque in Colombo. The city is host to a number of mosques, monasteries and temples which coexist with seamless harmony. Photo: Ali Haider Habib

Yet, my first and most obvious observation was that the people that inhabit this land are extremely friendly and warm. They are not disposed to the idea of violence. In fact, they appear to be a product of the weather and topography that besieges it – a symphony of sun and storm, hills and plains. They wear smiles that do not exhibit abandoned serenity; their politeness is abundant yet measured. The people of Sri Lanka, ethnically and religiously diverse as they may be, are immune to the ravages of time. Either that or it is a very convincing illusion.

View from a vantage point at the Galle Fort. Also known as the Dutch Fort, it was first built by the Portuguese in 1588 and later fortified by the Dutch. Photo: Ali Haider Habib

View from a vantage point at the Galle Fort. Also known as the Dutch Fort, it was first built by the Portuguese in 1588 and later fortified by the Dutch. Photo: Ali Haider Habib

Allow me to elaborate this lingering effect of colonialism. In Colombo, the ethnic and religious lines blur, the divide that languages create is mitigated by the surprisingly widespread fluency of English. Here, the west lends more than the eccentricity of the east. Skirts outnumber saaris, foreigners from European lands feel more at ease, gregarious American and British pop music fills clubs and concerts.

An all-girl band performing at TNL On Stage competition at Colombo’s Vihara Mahadevi Park. Photo: Ali Haider Habib

An all-girl band performing at TNL On Stage competition at Colombo’s Vihara Mahadevi Park. Photo: Ali Haider Habib

Beach front of Unawatuna in Galle. Photo: Ali Haider Habib

Beach front of Unawatuna in Galle. Photo: Ali Haider Habib

It was only when I ventured to other parts of the Island that the nature of this land’s diversity really revealed itself to me. Muslims in the central province of Uva were of Tamil origin but also spoke Singhalese. The Singhalese in the south romanticised nationalism as a relatively recent discovery. Although I did not get a chance to venture to the north, my friends from Jaffna told me enough to imagine what life is, and must be, for those who will never forget the ‘war that was’. Imagination, of course, is no substitute for reality.

Manoj works at a restaurant on the beach in Unawatuna. He speaks Singhalese, English and Hindi fluently and loves to listen to Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing. Photo: Ali Haider Habib

One of my first assignments was to do a story on Pakistanis seeking asylum in Sri Lanka. The marginalised Ahmadi community was the obvious first subject. And in underestimating their plight, I learnt of the fear that binds them. Their representatives in Negombo, which is home to the largest number of Pakistani asylum seekers, were extremely wary. More than a few refused to talk, pleading to leave them alone for fear of being deported.

“You can’t save us from being sent back,” the representative told me over the phone when I asked if we could meet.

He said they had many reporters come to them in the past; all were full of empathy, but empathy alone could not change their fate. Fleeing from a country that prosecutes them for their faith to seek asylum in a country that uses mistrust as its first line of defence, Ahmadis mirror the state of these two security states. Tread carefully, or the thread will snap.

A statue of the country’s first Prime Minister, Don Stephen Senanayake, at the head of Independence Square in Colombo. Photo: Ali Haider Habib

Slowly, Sri Lanka has moved towards an authoritative regime. Defeating the Tamil Tigers, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has not been magnanimous in victory. It has rubbed its success in the face of its rivals. As a result, the face of Sri Lanka, with all its natural beauty and jovial people, seems like the face of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa – half-smiling, half-troubled.

Ali Haider Habib

Ali Haider Habib

A senior sub-editor on the National desk at The Express Tribune who tweets @haiderhabib (twitter.com/haiderhabib)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Parvez

    That was a nice read…….the one aspect that stands out in Sri Lanka is the very high percentage of educated people. I have had the pleasure of visiting Sri Lanka many times and have never been disappointed.Recommend

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    Well written blog. I liked the way you have mentioned almost all the aspects of your trip in a short blog. I’d like to point out that there are many Christians and Hazaras who are going to Sri Lanka for safety along with the Ahmadis , and on the dark side many who were deported to Pakistan have received death threats.Recommend

  • Guest

    The author presents a romantic view of Sri Lanka. I lived there for many years and have a different recollection. The author claims that it is a secular nation, but this is grossly incorrect and very wide off the mark. Virtually every problem that Sri Lanka has faced since the 1960s is a result of Sinhala (read Buddhist) chauvanism. They first went after the Tamils (including tea plantation workers who were ethnic Indian) and now they are going after the Muslims. In between, they successfully managed to get rid of almost all the Burghers (mixed-race Europeans) who simply fled to Australia and other Western countries. There are hardly any Burghers left in Sri Lanka today. There is a good reason why the Tamils took to terrorism. They repaid Sinhala brutality with even worse brutality. The two together tore that country apart. So much for secularism, and so much for Buddhist pacifist ideology.

    The Sinhalese will not rest until every minority group has been brought under the Sinhala heel. You only have to read up on the historical, political, and religious forces that have shaped this small island since its independence to understand what has happened. You would think that it should not be that hard to govern a tiny island nation that is a tourist paradise. But the Sri Lankans have successfully managed to mismanage their country. Now they are pretending that everything is just fine. Back to paradise.Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    ##Pakistan happened for two reasons – 1. Cold war between Angloes & Soviets 2. Islam. First reason is no more there and India has cold-start response to wake up Pakistan who indulge in dreams of 26/11 type Mumbai attacks. Cold Start will make sure that Pakistan lose lot of territory and armament before Angloes can intervene like 65 & 71. Second reason ie Islam is under threat every where and not so much in India. Islam will slowly vanish starting from China where it will cease to exist in this decade, then in Russia and as Gulf oil disappears then even in India and rest of Asia. Thus kashmir problem will be automatically be solved. At present it is Cash Mere for rulers of Pakistan & few families in Kashmir.Recommend