GAYETI SINGH | 28 AUGUST, 2017
Why It's Not Sunny In Sri Lanka
At first glance, there is very little indication that the picturesque island nation of Sri Lanka has fairly recently emerged from a brutal civil war. As we land in Colombo, we can’t help but notice the large number of foreign tourists. The island nation has seen a huge spike in tourism numbers since 2009 -- which is when the war ended with a government victory. In 2016, over 2 million tourists visited the island. In fact, since the end of the war, tourism numbers have consistently gone up, starting with under half a million tourists making it to the island in 2009.
One doesn’t need numbers to prove the increase -- it’s evident as you drive along Sri Lanka’s scenic coast. Recently built five star luxury accommodations are mushrooming everywhere, as are smaller backpacker style bed and breakfasts. There is very little space along Sri Lanka’s idyllic beaches and clear blue waters that hasn’t been grabbed by a developer, with tourist-friendly destinations such as Galle, Unawatuna, Hikkaduwa, Mirissa, Kandy, and the capital city of Colombo seeing very visible changes in the last few years. The locals are aware of the evolution -- so much so that Sri Lanka’s famous stick fishermen will not let you photograph them without charging an attractive sum.
Collective memory is often short lived, and any first-time tourist to Sri Lanka will be forgiven for thinking that the island has always been calm, peaceful and tourist-friendly. The people are lovely -- friendly, accommodating, hospitable. The cities, towns and beaches are clean -- much unlike neighbouring India with its overcrowded and often filthy coastal towns. Old Dutch settlements -- such as the fort city of Galle -- cater to western tourists with their cobbled streets, refurbished Churches, imposing lighthouses, and quaint cafes. The food is fresh and reasonably priced; Sri Lanka is known for its crab and tuna. The clear blue waters and white sand beaches are contrasted by lush green rainforest terrain as well as colonial-style tea plantations.
(The ocean as seen from Galle fort)
No one speaks of the war -- not tourists, many of whom are not even aware of the war’s severity and brutality, nor the locals. It’s almost as if it never happened … Tourists and locals alike have forgotten that for 26 years, government forces battled separatists from the Tamil minority. During the war, both sides committed gross human rights violations -- including war crimes -- for which, no one has been held accountable.
The war ended with a brutal crackdown, and even today, as tourists sunbathe on Mirissa and shop for curios in Galle, hundred remain detained without charge or trial. Enforced disappearances and torture have continued to be reported even after the war ended. In fact, Sri Lanka has the second highest number of disappearances in the world, with thousands of people currently unaccounted for as they have disappeared after being detained by Sri Lankan security forces.
Even after the war, the Sri Lankan government continues to use draconian war-time laws to detain, arrest and torture peaceful critics, holding them without charge or trial. Journalists and human rights activists have been a key target of these legislations, with recent years seeing a large number of attacks, intimidation and harassment. No one has been prosecuted or held liable.
Hundreds of thousands still remain displaced. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre put the figure at 370,000 internally displaced people in Sri Lanka at the end of 2012.
Yet, this reality seems incomprehensible as you travel through tourist-friendly Sri Lanka. While foreigners have little knowledge of the war, locals seems hesitant to discuss it. During an auto-ride from Weligama to Mirissa, we try and engage the driver into a conversation on politics. “I’m not interested in politics,” he says. “Things are good. Tourists are coming. Development is happening. Our lives are better.”
It is worth noting that Sri Lanka’s former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was re-elected in 2010. The military offensive aimed at achieving a complete victory over the The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was initiated by Rajapaksa in 2008, and the strongman’s brother and then-defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is believed to be the “architect of white van abductions” -- a term used to describe the horrific practice of abductions of Tamils living in Jaffna and Colombo, wherein a white van without a number plate would be used.
Although Rajapaksa was defeated by his ex-aide Maithripala Sirisena in 2015, the allegations of authoritarianism, nepotism, poor governance, and corruption that accompanied Rajapaksa’s rule and continuing popularity are indicative of a very real crisis in Sri Lanka…
This crisis seems to be buried under the surface, as tourists throng the coastal towns and beaches. The roots of the problems that led to the LTTE insurgency remain unaddressed; in fact, the brutal manner in which the war ended may have only exacerbated them. Allegations of human rights violations remain unchallenged, with no one held accountable for continuing crimes. Draconian legislations continue to be used to silence and harass peaceful critics. Locals and foreigners alike, however, are content staring out at the choppy blue waters, ignoring the ripples gaining momentum underneath…
(The lighthouse at Galle)
(Photos by GAYETI SINGH)