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Sri Lanka: Situation Worsening

Your cub reporter arrived in Sri Lanka November 9th. After 34 years in Boonville, to me this is about as far away as it gets. For you world travelers out there, my experiences might not seem strange, but boy howdy, for a long-time Boonter this is wild.

I was supposed to report on the political situation in Sri Lanka, but if you guys think I’m gonna pretend to analyze this scene, forget about it. It is so tortuously convoluted that nobody understands it.

The real reason for this trip was to overcome a vague sense of unease at the comfortableness of my life in Boonville. It was not boredom, I find life in the Valley endlessly interesting, but feeling a bit mentally inbred, it was time to bust out of the box and shatter some illusions. Why Sri Lanka? Well, here we have a beautiful, exotic, tropical island, a civil war, a huge effort to rebuild after a devastating tsunami (I could be useful instead of a tourist) and a woman who happens to be on a mission here for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). What more could a guy want?

In trying to prepare myself for this journey, as much as I read and talked to folks, I knew it would be unimaginable. I was right — it is. It’s a non-stop flood of perceptions, which at first were disjointed and make no sense, but if not judged — just accepted, they begin to form amazing new patterns.

I “touched down” in the capital Colombo eight days before the presidential elections. A nasty German guy I met on the plane decided I was a hopeless basket case, so he helped me through customs by yelling and pushing and being in a big hurry. It worked great, even though I filled the forms out wrong. 

Colombo is a bit down at the heal. A faded colonial capital bustling yet torpid (great cub report sentence there). It’s brimming with life, but somehow seems exhausted. The civil war has sucked the juice out of the place. The occasional veneer glitz always has something a bit off, they don’t get it quite right. The billboard announcing “elegant” something or other with a picture of some westernized babe is mounted on an empty trashed hulk of a building while a beggar with no legs drags himself through the garbage piled in front — classic culture clashes like that are everywhere.

My senses were overloaded from the moment I arrived. The Pettah market district — zillions of tiny “shops,” some nothing more than a pile of whatever was being sold — strange fruits and vegetables, radios, candy, shoes, lots of cheesy plastic gewgaws (Mickey Mouse and Michael Jackson are big around here), tires, TVs, heaps of clothing, guys pissing amidst piles of smoldering trash heaps. I watched this from the back of a tuktuk (three-wheeler) weaving its way through the packed streets — people, trucks, dogs, busses, bullock carts, tractors, cows, the occasional car, vans, guys pulling carts, diesel fumes, continuous horn honking. I’m telling you, it is constant eye, ear and nose candy for this lil’ Boonville boy.

I was in the capital for two days, tuktuking my way to lots of interviews with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) looking for a job in Trincomalee (aka Trinco), a town on the other (east) side of the island from Colombo. There is lots of NGO type work rebuilding after the tsunami that hit almost a year ago now. 30,000 people were killed here and many thousands more lost their homes and possessions. In addition to the tsunami, there has been an ongoing civil war for over 20 years, creating a “backdrop of misery” to this scenario. (More cub reporter jargon).

Some background: Sri Lanka is an island off the South-East coast of India about the size of Tazmania (according to the damn guidebook written by Aussies). The population is close to 20 million. Colombo, the capital, is by far the largest city at 1.2 million. In fact, besides Kandy at 120,000, there are no other cities. The people are “divided” by ethnic, religious and language differences: 74% are Sinhalese — primarily Buddhist and speak Sinhalese. The Tamil people at 18% are Hindus primarily and speak Tamil. The Muslim people — 9% of the population — speak Tamil. I know the math doesn’t add up, but that’s par for the course around here, and hey, it’s straight out of the guidebook.

Historically (we’re talking thousands of years here), Sri Lanka has seen waves of invasions, kingdoms created and overtaken by the next. Beginning with the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and finally the British, Sri Lanka was ruled by outside colonial powers squeezing the wealth from the land and carrying it off, the Brits planting huge coffee and tea plantations.

This is all reminiscent of Anderson Valley (only on a slightly larger scale). First there were the Pomo, then Northern Europeans, followed by Italians, Arkies, Hippies and Mexicans and… Waves of invasions, I tell you. Then, the colonization of the Valley by the grape barons and dot.comers (over 80% of the grape acreage is owned by out of towners).

Getting back to Sri Lanka. The British, shortly after World War II began to divest themselves of their empire and left Ceylon, as it was called then, in the early 50s. One would think that after the colonialists left, everything would be hunky-dory, but this was not to be. It was the beginning of the “backdrop of misery” mentioned before .

Here is where things get a little sticky and I suggest you do not trust my research, but go at it yourselves — and good luck. Take a look at the updated version of A History of Sri Lanka by KM de Silva, published by my new friend Mr. Yapa: Vigitha Yapa Publications. It’s a huge, thick book and I haven’t read a lick of it yet.

In a nutshell, I gather that over a period of years the overwhelming Sinhalese majority took the opportunity of statehood to name Sinhalese the official language, eliminate affirmative action for Tamils at universities and essentially make Buddhism the state religion. In my own travels around the countryside, I noticed a discrepancy in the level of development, which favored Sinhalese over Tamil areas. I may already have this wrong, but at any rate, it pissed most of the Tamil people off and we now have a country divided.

Since the 1970s there has been open conflict, marked by heavy-handed government actions, slaughter of civilians by civilians, assassinations by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), a few actual pitched battles with thousands of troops engaged. 

Currently, the South, Central and West are controlled by the Sinhalese government and the North and East by the LTTE (Tamil Tigers). The people in a given area don’t necessarily support whoever controls that area. There have been tens of thousands of displaced persons, many now living for years in camps. There have been thousands of people killed in the conflict, many of them civilians. There don’t seem to be any good guys in this. A ceasefire in effect since 2002 is in jeopardy. To stay in power, the ruling party had made an alliance with the JVP, a Marxist, nationalist party vehemently anti-Tamil. As a reaction to the hard-line stance of the recently elected government, it appears that the LTTE is working towards forming a separate country.

My head is beginning to hurt because of all the things I haven’t told you. Please allow me to get to Trincomalee before we continue the political stuff.

So, after a couple of days, I was supposed to take a bus from Colombo to Trincomalee and nobody knew the schedule. I showed up at the bus station and of course it was chaos — a muddy lot with people shouting, busses backing, busses pulling out, nobody speaking much English, but finally I got on an bus and prayed it was the right one — seven to eight hours if you’re lucky (which we weren’t). The roads are madness. It’s beyond description — but Bay Area rush hour? Ha! NYC cabbies? Not even close! Italy? Uh-uh! Mexico? Those guys are boy scouts compared to what I have seen here! Bumper car, demolition derby, and don’t forget to throw in trucks, lots of cows, tuktuks, dogs and throngs of people. It’s a balls-on, pedal to the metal honkathon. About an hour out of Colombo our bus ran over a guy. The bus stopped, we all trundled out onto the road. An ambulance came. The guy made it to the hospital, but everybody else was standing around looking worried. One woman spoke some English and explained that they were all Tamils on the bus and this being a Sinhalese are, nobody was looking to help us out. Finally, somebody flagged down a bus that was already packed and we stuffed ourselves on. I got a seat next to a skinny guy, who was next to a fat guy. The fat guy kept spreading the sleeping skinny guy my way. I ended up with Mr. Skinny head on my shoulder snoring away. Apparently, “personal space” doesn’t exist here. Meanwhile, I was gripping the seat in front, terrified, watching the driver careen around big trucks at high speed on blind curves. I should mention that we were on a slender, potholed, major road in Sri Lanka. It’s two lanes that people drive as three lanes, sometimes four if you count motorcycles and dogs.

I arrived in Trinco late in the rainy night at another muddy bus station, hoping my Red Cross angel is somewhere in the darkness. After a few minutes having that “holly-shit-where-am-I-what-if-she-doesn’t-come” feeling, I was blinded like a deer in the headlights. Was it thugs, the army, the LTTE come to spirit me away? Naw, it was the ICRC saving my damp butt, and we spent the rest of the night in a classy (by Trinco standards) hotel. 

I was still reconciling the paradoxes inherent in being the white westerner “here to help” as I tipped the bell-hop 30 rupees (30¢) and got dubbed “Mr. Robert.”

As I said earlier, I arrived shortly before the presidential elections. There were several major issues, but first among these would have to be a solution to the civil war. Unfortunately, neither of the two candidates provided anything resembling a solution to the stalled peace process, which includes a fragile ceasefire. The opposition candidate, Mr. Wickremesinghe, seemed a bit more inclined to reconciliation, as Mr. Rajapakse, the majority candidate and Prime Minister, needed to cut a deal with the JVP, as mentioned before.

The LTTE chose to boycott the elections and were quite successful in this. For example, in a precinct of several thousand voters there was exactly one vote cast (sheesh, I’d hate to be that person). They had their reasons for the boycott. They wanted to be seen as a separate entity, gain international standing in this and affect the outcome by boycotting so the more hard-line, nationalist candidate would win, thus giving more veracity to their cause. They of course were criticized for this and their lack of tact does not bode well for any kind of reconciliation. In the end, Mr. Rajapakse won in a very close election.

In past elections there has been considerable violence. As a result, people were very nervous on election day. We, in Trinco kept our heads down and heard a bit of distant gun fire. It was reported that two people were shot. It’s never clear who is shooting and no one is ever caught. Also, a couple of the army’s sandbag and wooden roof “bunkers” were burnt. All in all this election was fairly peaceful, I am told. The hot-spot seems to be Batticaloa, a town 80 kilomters (about 50 miles) to the South, where a grenade attack at a polling place resulted in the expatriate election monitoring team pulling out. Things have returned to what may be called “normal” with a wait-and-see attitude — with the occasional grenade attack or killing.

Generally, things don’t look that great. The new president, Mr. Rajapakse, is back-peddling on several campaign promises. While speaking of peace, he is installing a government which does not favor conciliation. Meanwhile, the head of the Tamil Tigers, Supremo Prabharakan, gave a speech a day after Hero’s Day on November 27th (to honor Tamils killed in the conflict). He essentially gave an ultimatum with an undetermined amount of time for the government to restart the peace process, or else… Well, that doesn’t look very good to me!

Strategically Trincomalee is extremely important to the government and LTTE. Having a population close to 60,000, it is split between Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese. After only a week in Trinco, I can say that it feels like an occupied town. There are government soldiers everywhere, young Sinhalese and Muslim guys who are not locals, in camo, helmets, carrying automatic weapons. There are many small “bunkers” made of sandbags, dirt, old tires, most with wooden, tin or tarped roofs. These are right in town along the streets. There are checkpoints where at a whim the troops pull over a car, truck or tuktuk, check ID and search the vehicle. Every once in a while the Field Bike Group comes out — bad looking dudes — wearing black face masks, on motorcycles, no plates. It’s really kind of funny. All of this is a bit hokey — like they watched some Hollywood movie and tried to copy it, only they didn’t quite get it right — not enough paint, and they probably all had to make their masks at home.

I find the people here, including the military, very friendly. Almost everyone here smiles a lot, they like to laugh and are very curious about westerners. Everyone says good morning (even in the afternoon) and most ask, “What country you?” I make them guess — German? British? Italian? Aussie? Locals don’t guess American because there are so few. I haven’t met one yet. But I haven’t sensed any ill will towards the US. Mostly they smile and give a thumbs up. This being one of the few spots in the world where this is true. Luckily for me, English is the common language for NGOs and most locals know a few words.

The huge response of aid after the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka two days after Christmas 2004 threw everything out of kilter. In the end, I’m not certain all of this aid will really help. After a couple of years most NGOs will have left. Sure, they will have relocated and rebuilt thousands of homes. Sure, equipment (like fishing boats) will be replaced. Sure, there will be new water supplies and “sanitation systems.” But will they get it right? So far, it appears to me mostly not. It is not for lack of good intentions, however, and most ex-pat NGO workers I’ve spoken with are aware of the issues. This is not simple. It is a complex web of interrelationships that I am just beginning to unravel. And remember, I come into this an idealistic greenhorn, quickly realizing that nothing is as it seems.

At one end, we have the people affected by the tsunami. Many having lost a family member, most losing their homes and possessions. Now these folks live in temporary camps set up in a hurry by NGOs. Because they were planned for a brief stay, they are poorly designed with insufficient water and sanitation. The people were supposed to be in permanent housing by now, but as the monsoon season has arrived, some camps are three feet under water and permanent houses are just being built.

At the other end of things is how the NGOs function. Big time donors put strings on the money they give. They want to see finished projects and this puts a lot of pressure on the NGOs not to do the project right, but just get it done. Hence, I’ve seen poorly ventilated, asbestos roofed (very popular here), badly built houses, some in standing water with hand-dug, open, shallow wells within a few feet of cesspools draining on the surface. There are major obstacles to getting anything done around here. The red tape is excruciating. First is the bureaucracy of the particular NGO. To get a residence visa to be able to work, I must leave the country for two to three weeks while they “process” my visa. There is insurance, there is training.

Then begins the heroic task of clearing one’s proposal through the layers of bureaucracy. Here’s how it works: The NGO gets the MoU from the UDI, the GS submits beneficiary lists to the DS who submits it to the GA who gives it to the NGO. For heavy equipment in LTTE-controlled areas it works like this: The NGOs submit a letter to the GA, who submits it to the GOC who submits it to the Secretary of the Ministry of Defense and the answer must pass backwards through all of these channels, and don’t forget you must submit the same proposals to the LTTE — and all you wanted was to get a damn tractor to the job. Got that?

Once the project is approved, a contractor must be found. However, the local contractors formed a sort of cartel and prices have sky-rocketed. Masons, carpenters and even laborers are in short supply. Everyone has doubled their wages. A laborer used to get 350 rupees a day (about $3.50), now its 750 rupees a day. Materials, too, have at least doubled in price. In addition to reeking havoc with NGO budgets, these price increases really hit the locals hard. Those whose wages haven’t increased (teachers, government workers, for example) must pay the higher prices.

Something similar happened in Anderson Valley in the 80s and 90s during the grape and dot.comer colonization. Land prices sky-rocketed and it has become nearly out of the question for locals to buy property. Will land prices come down in Anderson Valley after the grape boom gets busted? Will prices go down in Trinco once the NGOs pack up and leave? I think not. Traditionally that has not been the case anywhere. It’s unfortunate, and I’m not sure, but it seems like a bit of human nature, encouraged by capitalism, will keep the higher prices.

I tagged along to a meeting an NGO had with their beneficiaries. Westerners are paid much deference in Sri Lanka, in addition to being called “sir” a lot. I got to sit in front of an old computer, which didn’t work, near the fan, which is quite an honor in a very hot room packed with people. Apparently, the beneficiary lists had to be adjusted because for political reasons the buffer zone (the minimum distance houses could be built from the ocean), which had been 200 meters, now was reduced to 50 meters, changing the status of lots of folks. This big Czech fellow named Yarda was the only other westerner there and one by one the people approached our desk to find out if they got a house or a boat or cash. People’s stories kept changing and who knows what was true or not. Naturally folks are looking out for themselves, so everybody needed a new house or two and everybody’s boats were destroyed. This is all being translated by a local who works for this NGO. Who knows what gets lost in translation? How do you verify everybody’s stories? Also, keep in mind that us westerners are creating whole new villages with schools, temples, community areas, clinics, and the arrangement of these things really affects the relationships between the people. Because of the pressure from donors to see results, there has not been enough grassroots involvement of the people. Many NGOs are building exactly the same house for everyone — family of two or twelve, the same. Just so no one can say: “hey, they got a bigger house.”

I am thinking my job will be close to impossible. Most of my day will be spent commuting on some of the worst roads you can imagine for three hours one way. Who will the local contact people be? Does anybody speak English? Can I keep the promises made by NGOs to the people? Can I find willing, honest contractors? Will animal balloons be a hit in Eachchilapattu? 

One Comment

  1. Jeanne Nickless December 2, 2019

    Thank you for a great article. I have shared it with Steve (McKay) and others.

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