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.
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.
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.