Michael Keller (Sri Lanka)

Michael Keller (Home for Human Rights, Sri Lanka): Michael worked as a summer-school teacher, a research assistant at a counter-terrorism consulting firm, an intern at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in Paris, and a consular intern at the US Consulate General in Naples. At the time of his fellowship, Michal was in the fourth of a five-year program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, pursuing a BS and MS in Foreign Service. He speaks Italian, French and German.

An Ethnic Conflict?

05 Aug

At a restaurant near the impressive rock fortress of Sigiriya – Sri Lanka’s most famous (and most outrageously high-priced) tourist attraction – I met a couple touring the country. They, like me, had just come in from the ancient mountain city of Kandy, where we attended one of Asia’s greatest festivals, including ten nights of parades involving thousands of drummers, flag-bearers, dancers, a few zealous masochists (with hooks through the skin of their backs but best left undescribed), over 50 decorated elephants, and a relic said to hold one of the Buddha’s teeth.

Because of the recent suicide bombing in Colombo, in addition to the fact that the temple housing the tooth was heavily damaged by a truck bomb a few years back, security was very tight, with police officers everywhere. The couple commented on how nice they felt the police officers were. If only they knew the truth, I told them.

The encounter was typical. As an outsider here, it’s incredibly easy to completely overlook the dark side of paradise. Not only do the authorities fear upsetting foreign passport-holders (and rightly so), but tourists actually have to go looking for signs of conflict if they want to see them (which, understandably, they often don’t). This is not just because some areas of the country are off-limits, or because tourism infrastructure is lacking in the Tamil areas.

It is because the supposed “ethnic” conflict in Sri Lanka does not extend far beyond the political world. Every Sri Lankan I’ve spoken to, whether Buddhist (the majority Sinhalese), Hindu (the minority Tamils), Christian (divided evenly between the two ethnic groups), or Muslim (confined to a third ethnic group but Tamil-speaking), has called the war a political affair. Everyone agrees: no more politicians, no more problems.

More tellingly, I have not heard a single bigoted comment directed from a member of one group against the other group. No shouting matches in the street, no whisperings about “them” and their sinister intentions; I’ve listened to worse stereotypes among the Swiss.

Perhaps the most candid statement I’ve heard came from Mrs. Xavier herself when she declared her love for visiting churches and temples but noted that she no longer enters Buddhist temples because she’s “angry with Lord Buddha for what he’s done” (she’s Christian, by the way).

Though Tamils face official discrimination, arbitrary arrest, torture, disappearances and other threats from the all-Sinhalese (except for 50 or so Tamils) police and military forces, day-to-day life does not reflect animosity between the groups.

Yes, Tamils hang out mostly with Tamils and Sinhalese with Sinhalese, while stores and restaurants are frequented primarily by whatever ethnic group owns the establishment, but it’s little different from the de facto ethnic divisions seen in the US, or anywhere really.

The ordinariness of Tamil-Sinhalese interactions are surprising, inspiring, and sometimes even comical. The 3-day staff workshop I mentioned in an earlier blog was led entirely by Sinhalese people, including the Chief of the Asian Human Rights Commission.

Those who could speak English did so while others translated back and forth as though it were no big deal. No one seemed to notice the irony of having a small group of Sinhalese explain to a human rights NGO made up of Tamils (though there is one dedicated Sinhalese lawyer here too) how to improve upon their mission to protect their people from the state.

But even HHR doesn’t focus exclusively on Tamils; at one point it defended a Sinhalese soldier in court, proving the sincerity of Mr. Xavier’s professed belief that “Human rights are for human beings.” HHR also regularly uses Sinhalese police officers as facilitators in its workshops.

At the workshop I attended in Jaffna (a city populated almost exclusively by Tamils), two officers spoke in Sinhala about children’s rights while the Tamil audience listened respectfully through a jumbled translation, though I quietly wondered how the police officers go about their job of fighting crime. The truth is, that’s not why they’re there.

The unfortunate side of this deceptive calm is that foreigners – and not just tourists – are led to believe that Sri Lanka is doing relatively well, especially after the cease-fire, and that human rights violations here are committed by unavoidable bad apples rather than by a unitary Buddhist state trying to impose its will upon a sizeable minority.

Thus, the relief NGOs are heading out, USAID’s OTI (Office of Transition Initiatives) has set up shop, and the development agencies are buying real estate. I’m learning the hard way that the Dutch government (a former colonial power and future recipient of a harsh letter from me) has stopped funding NGOs while most of the West European countries are beginning to refoule Sri Lankan asylees, claiming that the persecution they faced in the past has somehow dwindled along with the sound of gunfire, making it safe for them to return “home”.

Even if that were justified (and it’s not), the peace has by no means been won. Talk of a looming outbreak of war is on even high-ranking officials’ lips, while the so-called “peace talks” have been stalled for over a year and the so-called “cease-fire” is violated with every grisly assassination (the latest one was down the street on Saturday).

But maybe another war is what it will take to make the world pay attention to this tiny island.

Posted By Michael Keller (Sri Lanka)

Posted Aug 5th, 2004

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