A Reflection on Sri Lanka

This piece comes from my time as a Rotary Peace Fellow.  After 2 months of study, we traveled to Sri Lanka to examine the post-war–yet still tense–situation.  This is my reflection on the week spent both in Jaffna up north, and Colombo, the capitol.

An island is a dangerous thing—there is nowhere to go, no escape, no exit, no relief.  Sri Lanka has run up against the symbolic boundaries of recovery from war as much as the physical boundaries.  Images of the end of the war are intrinsically related to geography—the LTTE on the beachhead, trapped, under fire, dying in the sand and water; a government intent on claiming its territory, pariah to the world—if war is a beast that eats humans, what relief can be found when surrounded by water?

In Sri Lanka, this monster is only sleeping lightly.  The early morning light absorbed in the black steel of a Kalashnikov, wielded by the victorious Sri Lankan Armed Forces, standing guard on the Colombo seawall, inspires little confidence that peace has come at last.  The cranes in the capitol moving cement and glass contrast with the empty fields and overgrown lots of Jaffna.  Promises made in the south to cage the beast, to rectify its devastation, have proven slow and untrustworthy at best.  Where is the money?  Where is the justice?  Where is the room for inclusion?  Will Sri Lanka run out of time?

An island must weave a delicate balance of ecosystem to stay alive—too much water leads to flooding, not enough leads to drought—so too must Sri Lanka’s politicians.  They survive as an unlikely coalition that sees its support slipping away each day.  They must balance the interests of all sides, and they are wobbling.  I think of the Missing Persons Unit—they need to decide whether the institution exists for closure or justice.  A toothless, confidential organ may allow families on both sides of the war to know where the bodies are buried; an empowered and righteous body may find itself without support, and mothers may go yet another day without knowing.  Even the general question of responsibility in Sri Lanka is murky—we met with an architect of the last stages of the war, and he greeted us with smiles; we met with government officials responsible for a manner of reconciliation programs, and they shift blame to prior governments—who is to blame, those who gave the orders?  Those who acted out those orders?  The majority?  The terrorists?  Religion?  Ethnicity?  These questions haunted our field study.

At an IDP camp in Jaffna, we met Anthony Quinn—the surrealistic nature of his naming simply another layer of strangeness.  He stated that his children can finally sleep in their beds, knowing they will wake up in the morning.  But to what dawn will they wake?  Into what adults will his children grow in a broken north?  Will they move into ordered military housing, easily arrayed for patrolling, command, domination?  What jobs will they find?  Will they be denied work as the military spreads into the civilian realm?  Will they become accustomed to the presence of soldiers—smiling, yes, but with the skull and crossbones emblazoned on their shoulders?  Is this a military occupation of these children’s own nation?  Will they accept this?

We met the religious leaders and they preached the gospel of peace—yet where was the Buddhist?  What does inclusivity mean without all parties?  The argument is floated that there are no Sinhala in the north—how can reconciliation happen when the only Tamil knowledge of Sinhalese is at the barrel of a gun?  We met fishermen and academics, ex-combatants and priests:  Land, they say; Livelihoods; Human Rights; Justice.  Is the government listening, and—more importantly—does it care?

In Colombo, the war seems both distant and uncomfortably close.  “Never before has a government been asked to do so much in so little time,” quotes the United Nations, but what happens if the government doesn’t get it right?  This in the elegant surroundings of monied privilege along the Indian Ocean, an indelicate reminder of the nation’s “post-colonial hangover.”  Civil society and the current administration both warn of the specter of Rajapaksa’s return, but is this the only threat?  Are the next two years enough time to heal the claw marks of war?  There will always be Rajapaksas.  There will always be Bodu Bala Senas.  Dark forces are easily summoned, yet they cannot always be the boogeyman that keeps us from confronting the past.  Old wounds are not so old if they continue bleeding.

In the end, we leave uncertain about Sri Lanka’s future.  Dr. Paikiasothy stated, “Leadership is about taking risks,” but Sri Lanka seems unable to do so.  They are trapped on their island, unable to address the war, unwilling to stare the beast in the eyes, and—most worrisome—unprepared for what comes next.


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