Often overlooked in South Asia, in large part for the long-lasting ethnic-based conflict in the north, this island nation offers a fascinating lens into a developing country. Warm hospitality and genuineness blend with social conservatism and a gentle reserve in the country of 21 million people.
Visiting the capital Colombo with trips to Kandy, the ancient cities and a national park, it quickly became obvious that this country is underrated. The rich historical archeological sites – especially Sirigiya – offer important insight into how Buddhism extended through Asia and reveal the strong cultural, architectural and artistic traditions. The beautiful frescoes are worth the steep climb up 1002 steps around the Sirigiya rock, as is a visit to the famous Tooth Temple in Kandy. Not inundated with tourists these glimpses of ancient social relations and political power reveal the critical role of family and regional diversity of political power in the island.
Sri Lanka’s importance as a religious center is also overlooked. The role that Buddhism has played both within the country among the majority Sinhalese and globally is a central part of the country’s identity. Pilgrimages from around the world are common, especially to Kandy, as the debates in monasteries feed into contemporary discussions of Theravada Buddhism. I arrived on poya – the full moon – and watched the festivities associated with marking this holy day. Despite Buddhism’s prominence, Hinduism is alive and well among the Tamils and there are a growing number of Muslims. Villages and communities remain ethnically segregated and this becomes increasingly obvious as one moves into the rural areas. A Sri Lankan’s religious identity is perhaps the strongest defining social cleavage, as it reinforces other markers of language and ethnicity. Ethnic differences remain sharp in a polity where ethnicity has been a defining feature.
On my first safari (ever!) I witnessed the strong conservationist tradition in Sri Lanka. Many argue this is the impact of Hinduism and Buddhism, with their respect for the environment. One could see first-hand the respect for nature and living creatures. While visiting one of the national parks I was able to see wild elephants, peacocks and even a crocodile (not the human kind!). To watch the animals free in their domain was inspiring and very much worth the risk of snakes, leeches and bruises from the jeep.
Less so was the obvious legacy of war. Sri Lankans are extremely happy that the conflict has ended,( well at least for now). They are able to travel on the A-9 North-South highway, although the area around Jaffna remains off-limits. There are still an estimated 60,000 people in the IDP camps, and serious concerns about the treatment the Tamil minority. The policies for resettlement and peace-building do not evoke confidence. Racism against the Tamil minority and increasingly against the Muslim community is deeply engrained. The responses of the government in the post-war environment have yet to suggest that peace will be long-lasting, as the causes of the war remain and are arguably being enhanced by policies and practices in the post-war environment. One of the most striking features while traveling were the photographs of the current President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, suggesting a cult of personality amidst rumors of increasing corruption and abuse. This does not bode well for long-lasting peace. Hope lies, however, in the people of Sri Lanka, who deserve and want a better life.