Next To Last Thoughts

Politics, The War, Economics and Malfeasance: A Personal Perspective

Sri Lanka is a land that has occupied a place of connection and interest for most of my life.It has been a place that holds a nexus of various information sources both personal and official with which I can measure media reportage/spins, political, religious, cultural and economic context, and community action of various sorts: all within the context of a life in Canada and the west.This particular visit is noteworthy because of the absence of the filters/chaperonage of a loving and well to do family…it was my first real trip to Sri Lanka after over 5 actual journeys.

Some of the information that follows is anecdotal and therefore cannot be independently verified.I have trust in the individuals who have related particular events to me.I talked to people from a wide variety of backrounds in this process.

Part of my trip had to do with connecting with Sri Lanka and it’s artists after the end of armed conflict in 2009 that saw the government forces defeating the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam.The war and it’s horrors are well documented and commented on, so I won’t go into the tactical or historical aspect of it in detail.

Suffice to say that it was a 30 year conflict that visited misery, death and terror on a largely undeserving populace and was characterised by corruption, brutality and terror on both sides. It also produced a culture of impunity and crime that still infects the land.

The ethnic divide was well in evidence before the ‘start’ of the armed conflict with a British colonial administration largely seeded with a Tamil minority which after independence produced various versions of Sinhala chauvinism alternating with Marxist ideology and periods of multi ethnic harmony.

In 1983 the LTTE blew up a military convoy which so incensed the Singhalese that a pogrom ensued in the south where about 3000 Tamils were killed and a lot of their homes were destroyed.

A black few days, yet a period which never duplicated itself in spite of LTTE attacks on holy sites and the various massacres they visited on civilians, clergy and military alike.

Accounts related to me also pointed out the heroism of many Singhalese families who faced down the mobs and thugs and saved hundreds of their Tamil neighbours’ lives in the process.

One particular account, however detailed some extremely disturbing situations. In the process of turning back some thugs from burning and killing Tamils in their neighbourhood, an individual involved in this defence relayed to me the fact that these thugs worked with electoral lists in identifying the homes of Tamils and in an even more startling revelation, this individual recognised Tamil men who were part of the gang he and his friends encountered and faced down.

The conclusion can only be that a lot of these actions were well organised and paid for by powers within the country itself who employed individuals regardless of ethnic origin.My contact conjectured govt. complicity but also speculated on the involvement of various political gangs.

The attempt to cast this event and the conflict itself as an exclusively ethnic conflict is simplistic in the extreme. Tamils have killed Tamils and Singhalese have killed Singhalese, with equal impunity and for many reasons that are far removed from any principled stand.

The various failings both politically and militarily that held back a resolution to this unofficial war (which saw the Sri Lankan govt. continuing to send aid into LTTE held areas) ended in the election of Mahinda Rajpakse to the presidency after the LTTE commanded Tamils in the north and south to boycott the elections. After thirty years of basic incompetence in the defence dept and corruption that saw faulty arms and insufficient supplies sent to the troops, the Rajpakse govt. cleaned house, bought effective weapons, trained elements of their armed forces in counterinsurgency warfare and proceeded to roll over the LTTE until the last battle on a tiny strip of beach in the north east.

While the Tamil people’s aspirations and grievances have been legitimate; the massive support given to an organisation which was essentially a Marxist cult of personality that had more to do with the Khmer Rouge than the ANC, guaranteed the result that ended with the disaster on the beaches of NE Sri Lanka.
And how anyone can think that after 30 years of victories over the Sri Lankan Armed Forces, and virtual control over almost a third of the island, that the LTTE could continue the same way is unfathomable. Luck eventually runs out and, more importantly, the lack of political will by Prabhakaran and his LTTE govt. to compromise for the good of the Tamil people essentially assured the outcome of this troubling story . This lack of will, in a large part, can be attributed to the fact that Prabhakaran himself was wanted in India for the suicide bomb assassination of Rajiv Ghandi: an extradictable offence if Eelam (the proposed Tamil state in Sri Lanka) had been only given limited autonomy as opposed to the status of a nation state.

The devastation that followed and the claims and counterclaims in this conflict are, again, well documented (even though they cannot be independently verified) and won’t be dealt with in this blog.

What I saw and heard in returning to Sri Lanka three years after this conflict ended, is what I can speak to with some confidence.

Everyone I talked to, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers and Singhalese alike, expressed relief that the armed struggle was over. It’s something to say that one can walk and travel without the constant fear of an IED going off near you on a bus or roadway. It was also something that one could travel the A9 highway to Jaffna and visit Jaffna at all.

But the cost has been terrible, not only in the loss of life and property, but the resultant corruption and graft that has infected the peace.

Govt. corruption, by all accounts related to me, reaches to the highest levels with kickbacks and bribes affecting public and private project tenders e.g. regular blackouts emanating from a coal burning power plant that is in constant disrepair as a result of substandard engineering/equipment being used because of the contractors having to pay graft to govt. official(s).

There is also suspicion and mistrust directed at a govt., virtually run by one family who are themselves are in control of about 75% of the national budget.

Sri Lanka is also rapidly following the global trend of a rapidly shrinking middle class at the expense of a growing community of poor people and a tiny segment of incredibly wealthy people. During our travels we witnessed inflation galloping along at a disturbing rate. The guidebook we used had just published it’s latest edition on Sri Lanka before we left in late July and prices for accommodation had already gone up 10% when we landed. Now this may be an astute reaction to the devaluing of the Sri Lankan rupee, but the change was fast and across the board.

The people themselves, including quite wealthy ones, were anxious about the rate of inflation and the attendant societal stresses that places on the population.

Corruption also extends to the electoral process which is rife with violence, vote rigging, bribery and extortion to the extent that the term ‘democracy’ is one that is almost purely theoretical.

Sri Lanka also continues to be an extremely dangerous place to practice investigative journalism and public dissent is often met with suppression.

In spite of this grim situation, the fact remains that the armed conflict is over and the Sri Lankan people, govt., Buddhist clergy and armed forces in particular can focus on the domestic situation without using the war as an excuse.

There is no one left to blame.

Buddhist…really?

Sri Lanka is one of , if not the oldest seats of Theravedan Buddhism in the world. It is a place where the veneration of the Buddha is displayed everywhere in shrines, statues, pictures, posters and monasteries.

It is also a place where some Buddhist clergy (bhikkus) have formed political parties (the Buddhist party is Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and have advocated violent nationalist agendas with vigour.

One account, related to me years ago presented the rather odd conjunction of a Buddhist priest being the head of an all woman nurses union!

Patriarchy and chauvinism have no national or religious boundaries as it were.

The political weight of these bhikkus has been used to further govt. agendas that have promoted nationalism and Singhala exceptionalism in the ‘defence’ of Buddhism and Sri Lanka as a ‘Buddhist country’.

This curious behavior runs counter to pretty much everything my Buddhist practice has taught me and the machinations of these bhikkus in govt. has made me recoil in alarm.

To be clear, I have not talked to any bhikkus on this subject and have only read accounts of this phenomena or had anecdotes and opinions related to me by people that I talked to, including some pretty commited Sinhala Buddhists.

However in witnessing the veneration accorded to bhikkus as somehow ‘representatives’ of Buddha and the transformation of the Buddha from a self confessed human being (who, by hard work, achieved a transcendent level of evolution and provided the world with a harmonious, compassionate and practical system of beliefs), to a god to be worshipped, I stand dismayed.

Dismayed and mystified at the propensity of cultures to routinely externalise their spirituality and subsequently warp its intrinsic humanity into some sort of bureaucratic excercise in power dynamics.

This is not to say there is not a significant community of learned bhikkus who strive for the betterment of their sanghas (communities) and with that, their country but their influence and example seems disproportionate to the political machinations of those who wear the robe but do not walk in the dharma.

However…

My time there traveling on the buses and trains interacting with ordinary Sri Lankans ( I have discovered that communication relies mostly on will rather than knowledge)  as well as meeting and talking to artists, business people and professionals not only affirmed but enhanced my memory of the land and it’s people as being warm, welcoming and compassionate.

We were helped at every turn with patience and grace, encountered little or no hesitation in discussing the political or economic situation and were impressed by the passion and love people have for their country. Mind you there are competing visions, but as in most places, people want to be secure , well fed and comfortable and wish to live their lives in relative freedom and safety.

I know from experience that change is constant and ongoing and regardless of the desire to change things in one’s lifetime, things take their own time.

The Sri Lankan people must and will get the country and government that reflects their own true nature: the one that reflects so much joy, warmth and optimism.

And I hope this can be said for all of us everywhere.

Peace.

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The Dark

The Dark (night in Sri Lanka)

I know this happens in a lot of places

The sun goes down

and brings the cloudy blackness closer

and closer

to the ground

fended off feebly by lights that

sometimes

I can actually reach with my hand

the dark that holds secret places

and bright stars to mark a ceiling

not held at bay by lamposts

Towers

and tall building lit for what?

night that has a face and a name

faceless and nameless

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Deniyaya and the Sinharaja Rainforest

Our leaving Nuwara Eliya found us on an 11 hour bus ride to the Unesco designated rainforest preserve of Sinharaja. This area is one of the very few places in Sri Lanka that has within it’s borders some of the original rainforest that carpeted vast areas of southern Sri Lanka.

We went on a guided trek on a trail that bordered the forest and that followed a river.

The photos detail the trip to Deniyaya, which is the closest town, and the trek itself. The pictures speak for themselves but there are notes about some of the animals. The spotted snake is a green pit viper (male) and the green one a female. Both are some of the most poisonous in Sri Lanka. The mammal is a giant squirrel that was about a meter and a half long including the tail and the disappearing lizard is a monitor lizard which was about 2 meters long.

We also had encounters with leeches which had overtones of bad sci fi movies of bloodsuckers rising out of the leaf cover when they smelled prey and inchworming their way to feet and bodies. I as the only victim with one attaching itself to my belly(!) and one to my feet…lots of blood, itching and generally no fun. Salt is key as it’s touch is somewhat akin to acid on their skin.

We wound up at a beautiful waterfall where we swam and paddled and fed swarms of fishes.

Your archetypal tropical paradise.

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Nuwara Eliya

 

The town of Nuwara Eliya sits high in the hills. It is the air conditioned room of Sri Lanka’s generally tropically heated house. The most scenic way to approach is by a train that snakes up through hill country traversing topographically terraced crops (the small bushes in the photos are tea, but there were many crops along the way as well….including carrots, kohlrabi, leeks, garlic…not your typical tropical fare) and beautiful forest vistas.

Tea as a cash crop, is grown, plucked and harvested here.

We are on a 6 hour ride and there are no seats in this crammed car filled with families. Jammed near the back of one carriage, we try and resign ourselves to more of a trial than a journey. This, however, did not happen. As the hours sped by, the initial isolation every group started with began to melt through close contact, smiles and comiseration over train events (swaying cars, more passengers at the next stop et.), and especially the antics and tribulations of the children. Eventually the kids in a small way became everyone’s concern whether trying to distract them during bouts of protest or playing peekaboo with the shy ones. My particular moment was having one baby deciding that she would share her cracker with me and subsequently (and persistently) trying to cram it into my mouth. All these events were shared and enjoyed with other passengers who smiled, laughed and nodded at the ongoing play. Somewhere along the way a Sri Lankan Muslim family boarded the train….cousins, aunts, uncles fathers and mothers, hijabs and baseball caps.

The Muslim population is a small one and is descended from Arab traders who were some of the original travellers to Sri Lanka.

As they all spoke english ,we made friends with them (aided by an extroverted eldest son who introduced himself and the others and acted as a jovial MC). It was a lovely time, sprinkled with songs, discussions on Sharia ( the aforementioned son, Yasim, was on vacation from studying Sharia in South Africa) and sharing stories of our lives. Smiles and laughter all around with some frank exchanges between T and Yasim about women and Sharia…agreement to disagree, I think but in a congenial and friendly way. T, herself made friends with Yasim’s younger sister Fatima. East met west and there was a sisterly connection made there.

As with minorities everywhere the Muslims have had to strive to make their way in compromises of various sorts and this is no better exemplified than the multilingual skills they displayed. The family spoke and sang in Tamil, English and Singhalese and Yasim added Urdu to his repertoire as well.

We did not stay long in Nuwara Eliya once arriving in near darkness and we left early the next morning. But it is worth noting that the climate attracted the British and Scots tea planters and the architecture reflects that with some amusing Swiss and Tudor overtones. That and the rather jarring sight of toques, sweaters and jackets after the cotton sarongs and saris of the the south made this area unique in Sri Lanka.

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Mt. Lavinia

Mt. Lavinia is a beach town south of Colombo that holds a special place in my memory. I played in the surf here with family during vacations years ago. This time, however we broke our journey in order to renew our visas in Colombo and take a days break from the rigours of travel. The photos are from our bus journey there. I had decided to opt for the landscape of faces.

 

 

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Jaffna and the A9

The A9 is the highway that connects the south of Sri Lanka to Jaffna. It has been pretty much closed to secure traffic for the past 30 years as the civil conflict raged here.

It is open now and we are travelling on it from Anuradhapura to Jaffna. It is alternately blacktop smooth and mountain track bumpy as construction crews work repairing the damage caused by the taking and retaking of land. The land itself is flat and sandy punctuated by palmyrah and scrub and we are passing small dwellings , military encampments and a frenzy of construction ranging from the commercial to a rail line running parallel to the road. We also passing evidence of housing reconstruction sponsored by the governments of Germany, Australia and India and the ominous signs pointing to de-mining operations by various organisations. There are also other houses with various NGO acronyms painted on the roofs which acted as modern day talismans to ward off aerial bombing attacks during the war.

While there are buildings that are in use ,we see several that have been heavily damaged by the conflict and scarred with the telltale irregular pockmarks of small arms fire. We pass through Kilinochchi, the town claimed as the capital of the separate Tamil state of Eelam by the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam who were subsequently defeated by the armed forces of Sri Lanka in 2009. I watch carefully from the speeding bus at buildings new and in repair and note that while the facades are either refurbished or new, that a glance down adjoining alleyways reveal the back ends of some houses in rubble that can only be caused by exploding ordnance. The more subtle signs are the occasional bullet holes that grow in frequency that has a peak in Chavakachcheri which is on the approach to Jaffna itself.

Jaffna itself is a bustling town, concerned with rebuilding it’s vibrant economy and infrastructure but under the watchful eye of the Sri Lankan military. It is evident all through the north and east that the govt. Of Sri Lanka is sparing no effort to ensure that another military insurrection does not occur here again…lots of uniforms and lots of guns.

We wander through Jaffna town meeting a massive Hindu festival replete with dancers, musicians and devotees hung with steel hooks from the skin of their backs, bobbing 10 to 15 feet in the air like strange and terrible birds. The faithful number in the thousands and follow these moving platforms. The streets lead to a massive kovil (temple) whose grounds have been paved with sand. Most people are in bare feet. It is full sensory overload that completely commands one’s attention.

There is less English spoken here than in the south and that leads to a bit more confusion. But while the people themselves seem more taciturn they respond with interest and are smiling and amused at T’s learning how to count to 10 in Tamil aided by a phrasebook and the jovial coaching of an older gentleman we share a lunch table with.

We are helped at every turn and are met with warmth as we attempt manners in Tamil.

There is time spent at a massive Dutch fort whose walls include bricks cut from coral and we spend an hour talking with artist architect T. Shanaathaan who has completed a beautiful and poignant book of visuals called ‘The Incomplete Thombu’.

I will post the interview soon.

 

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Anuradhapura

This a whole city rising from the earth and still held bondage by trees, but not so many as in my memory. It seems to be rising from the depths like some ancient stone and brick whale. Huge 20 storey semisphere dagobas, water tanks of stone that used no mortar, columns that supported many storied palaces and monasteries.

Many images of the Buddha, in weathered stone, missing limbs and heads.

Many stone carved friezes depicting elephants, monkeys, protectors and dragons all making sure that the spiritual balance is being maintained here.

One can feel the soft padding of many bare feet as monks, tradesmen, families, soldiers and kings walked this city with no more occasion than we walk ours.

Diaphanous.

The temple sites are still in use and are kept busy with monks and devotees offering flowers and lighting lamps. This is no sterile showpiece and the people still give it life beyond a bygone spectacle

Monkeys live here, tolerating the tourists: who are mostly Sri Lankans visiting their heritage. Busloads of schoolchildren but mostly ordinary Sri Lankan people coming in vans, buses and the occasional car or truck.

 

Here and There

 

This place is laden with the weight of years and culture and it is something that does not exist in North America.

In my own work I have dimly understood the youth and rawness of my home but never more than now walking where others walked and made art and music thousands of years ago. We are in the process of making culture in North America. We are not swimming in a vast tradition that informs our authenticity. We compare to immigrant import except for African American music…that is what identifies us to the rest of the world. So when our artists (of all disciplines) go out and create out of what is happening around us rather than a classical form…we are creating our culture. It is an amazing and terrible thing being done. Especially when the majority of the population of Canada barely know we exist much less know what we do and the weight of media seeks to tell us who we are.

If we have a culture it is the culture of change….pure and all consuming at an exhausting and frightening speed. And so we must be like warriors, not letting our guard down for the insidious onslaught of the specious and taking the TIME it takes to make things intelligently and with consideration.

Managing attrition is the challenge for creative artists in this fevered time

 

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