WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

 
 
Paradise Lost
 
From paradise-under-the-palms to one of the world's hellholes--what went wrong? The story of Sri Lanka's first 50 years is complex and depressing in a unique way. The electoral democracy that Britain bequeathed 50 years ago with such exotic pomp remains intact. But it has done little good. Sri Lanka is, in fact, an example of how democracy--so often described as a panacea for poor, struggling countries--can tear a country apart if politicians do the wrong thing, like fanning ethnic animosities.
 
@ TIME: FEBRUARY 9, 1998 VOL. 151 NO. 5
 

Sri Lankans enjoy a party, and Independence Day--Feb. 4, 1948--was one of the grandest. There were fashion shows in the oceanside capital of Colombo, fireworks, ranks of spit-and-polish honor guards and special air tours over the proud, illuminated city. A day earlier the new parliament had opened in an exotic spectacle. Justices wore British horsehair wigs, the Duke of Gloucester gave a fond farewell on behalf of the King of England, and the parliament floor was adorned with massive, bowed elephant tusks and the gilded throne of the final King of Kandy, who was ousted by the British 133 years before. Even a year after the celebrations, the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon (as the country was then called) remained on a rhetorical high. "We have now the priceless possession of freedom," announced D.S. Senanayake on the nation's first birthday, "and the opportunity to make our country one of the happiest spots on earth."
And why not? Sri Lanka had it all-and still does: rubies and sapphires in the ground, orchids dangling from trees, jungle elephants, cinnamon, cardamom and bare-shouldered Buddhist monks with parasols. Its beaches are exquisite; the mountainous interior boasts sublime Buddhist sculpture. The island's strong whiff of paradise has translated into legend. Local Christians say that Adam's Peak, one of the tallest mountains, bears the footprint of Adam when he came to earth--in other words, Sri Lanka was the original Eden.

More temporally, the sultry Indian Ocean island was one of the most manageable of Britain's colonies, a kinder and gentler version of vast, chaotic India immediately to the north. The local freedom struggle was gentlemanly, and independence was sedately achieved. By the time the fireworks began over Colombo, some 500,000 to 1 million people had been killed during the creations of independent India and Pakistan the year before. No such tumult occurred in sleepy, happy-go-lucky Sri Lanka--or, at least, not for a good long time. "We have had it so good in this country in every way. Nature has blessed us so much," says current President Chandrika Kumaratunga, daughter of two former prime ministers. In the years just after independence, she says: "We had the highest per capita income in the entire region ... and one of the highest in Asia."

Fifty years on, Sri Lanka is poor, discouraged and makes just about any other country on the globe appear peaceful. A 14-year civil war in the island's north continues to rage. In the late 1980s, the government itself slaughtered tens of thousands of people in the country's south. The President's verdict on the 50th anniversary: "The nation needs to rebuild itself on a new footing as a national entity with a separate identity--what is commonly labeled the nation-building process. I think Sri Lanka has failed in that." Per capita income, at about $700, is among the lowest in the world, the President points out. "We have failed in that too."

From paradise-under-the-palms to one of the world's hellholes--what went wrong? The story of Sri Lanka's first 50 years is complex and depressing in a unique way. The electoral democracy that Britain bequeathed 50 years ago with such exotic pomp remains intact. But it has done little good. Sri Lanka is, in fact, an example of how democracy--so often described as a panacea for poor, struggling countries--can tear a country apart if politicians do the wrong thing, like fanning ethnic animosities. In Sri Lanka's case, five decades of dutiful elections have had some unpleasant results. An estimated 90,000 people have died in the twin conflicts in the north and south. The country's once-promising financial district is deserted except for rifle-toting soldiers, mangy dogs and persistent pimps. Outside the capital, people live in villages where fear comes with nightfall, and not only in the war-torn north. "Once we lock our door at night," says Soma Jayawardene, a south coast resident who was widowed in the chaos of the late 1980s, "we don't open it for anyone." The 50th anniversary celebrations have been hurriedly relocated to Colombo from Kandy, the old capital, after a terrorist bomb killed 14 civilians, nearly destroying Sri Lanka's holiest Buddhist shrine.

It took a few decades, but paradise was lost in Sri Lanka. A half century after independence, no one knows if any semblance can ever be restored.

Sri Lanka, pop. 18 million, is a small country with many points of pride: its statuary and frescoes, scintillating food, charmers and personalities as thick on the ground as the tropical foliage, not to mention a top-notch cricket team. Like many ancient civilizations, the country is heavy with tales and legends. The most significant are in the Mahavamsa, the Sri Lankan holy book, which contains the local creation myth. That tale goes like this: Vijaya, an unruly prince from north India, is banished from his kingdom and lands with 700 followers on the teardrop-shaped island. Simultaneously, the Buddha is on his deathbed in northern India, from whence he proclaims: "Vijaya, son of King Sinhabahu, is come to Lanka ... In Lanka, O lord of gods, will my religion be established." Vijaya, who has lion's blood in his veins, wipes out the aboriginal population and, through his nephew, starts a new race: the Sinhalese, the People of the Lion. (Singha, in Sanskrit, means lion.) Buddhism comes to the island in the third century B.C. and flourishes as it dies out in India. (The latter is fact, and the Therevada strain of Buddhism spread to Indochina and Southeast Asia via Sri Lanka.)

But the myth ends, and reality intrudes, when the new race had to share the island and its spoils. Today, people speaking Sinhalese account for about 75% of the population, and most are Buddhists. Of the rest, the largest minority (18% of the population) are Tamils, mainly Hindus who came originally from southern India. (There are Christian converts in both groups, as well as other minorities, including Muslim descendants of Arab traders, mixed-blood Europeans, Malays and aboriginal Veddas.) It is the friction between the Sinhalese and Tamils that has nearly destroyed the nation. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or ltte, are fighting for a separate Tamil nation in Sri Lanka's north. Their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is clever and ruthless--victims of his suicide bomb squads include a Sri Lankan President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi--and his argument is stark: the Sinhalese can't live with the Tamils peacefully and therefore a separate state is needed. Thus put, it seems like a hopeless tale of two groups speaking different languages and praying to different gods who haven't gotten along from time immemorial.

The fact is, though, that they did get along for centuries. Independence and its aftermath changed all that.

Sri Lanka won its freedom from the british in 1948 as an offshoot of Indian independence. There was no popular agitation to match the 28-year mass movement in India led by Mohandas Gandhi and the Congress Party. In India, the fight for freedom forged a pan-Indian identity that transcended ethnic divides. That process didn't occur in Sri Lanka. When elections got rolling, therefore, post-independence politicians couldn't rally voters on deeply felt issues of national pride. The next best strategy was to appeal to different ethnic groups. The Sinhalese made up the biggest community, and so politicians pandered to them.

In 1955, Kumaratunga's father, the Oxford-educated S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, proclaimed that if his Sri Lanka Freedom Party won the following year's general elections, he would make Sinhala the official language. (The point was to exclude Tamils from coveted government jobs, for which the British had favored them.) Bandaranaike won by a landslide. He was shot dead in 1959 by a Buddhist monk, partly over a business deal, but his political legacy lived on. Over the next three decades, politicians indulged in an orgy of Sinhalese chauvinism at the expense of the Tamils. They devised the notion that Sinhalese and Tamils didn't "fit" together in Sri Lanka: there weren't enough jobs, university seats, land. They revived old myths, such as the story of Vijaya and the pure, north Indian blood of the Sinhalese race, and fanned old vulnerabilities. Most insistently, they warned that the island's Tamils could subjugate the Sinhalese by linking up with their millions of cousins in southern India, swarming the island and wiping out the Buddha's beloved race. The politicians' standard pitch: the Tamils always had somewhere they could go. (Back to India, though most had lived in Sri Lanka for generations.) The vulnerable Sinhalese, they thundered, had nowhere but their own tiny island.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka